Dear Santa: Here's What Nonprofits Want From Funders

Dear Santa Claus,

It's hardly a secret that your operation is bankrolled by nearly every foundation in the world. And because we can't think of anyone better connected to funders than you, we here at IP are hoping you can pass along a message from our friends in the nonprofit world. 

These nonprofits work hard all year, Santa, and when it comes to who's "naughty or nice," they're definitely among the latter. But here's the thing: Nonprofits are often not getting what they need from funders. And with Christmas coming up, they've put together a wish list. Here it is. 

1. General Operating Support

You, of all people, understand that gifts should come with few strings attached, Santa. You know that the ideal giver comes down the chimney once a year, leaves a bunch of goodies, and then disappears.  

If only more funders were like you. We can't imagine you giving a kid a train set, but without the tracks. Or a chess board without the pieces. But too many funders do exactly that, nickel-and-diming grantees with pesky program grants. A recent study by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations found that while the percentage of funds devoted to general operating support has increased lately, it's still only 25 percent. Santa: Please tell your funder friends to change their ways. 

2. Multi-Year Funding

You would never give a little boy presents one year and then cross him off the list. Of course not. Everyone can count on you to be back next year: same night, same chimney. Not so with many funders who make one-year grants, leaving nonprofits to fret about renewal, then often making them jump through hoops for another grant. It'd be like asking all the little boys and girls to write you letters every year explaining how, exactly, they played with the toys from last Christmas and why they should keep getting new presents.

Now, to be sure, there are some nonprofits that are naughty and don't deserve renewal. Or maybe funders want to change strategies. But the norm should be multi-year grants. And while things have been moving in that direction, many funders still don't provide such support. That's just mean, Santa. 

3. Better Listening

Everyone knows that Santa Claus is a great listener. Heck, we can't believe how much time you spend in malls letting kid after germy kid sit on your lap and make their ask. So we're hoping you can teach funders a thing or two about listening in a candid fashion to what nonprofits really need. 

We know that some funders already do a great job at this, like Wendy Garen of the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, who told us that making grantees comfortable “is an essential part of our work" and that “listening is the most important skill set." But too many other funders act like they're the big experts and make nonprofits feel like supplicants. While more funders are seeking feedback from grantees according to GEO's report, many nonprofit leaders still report being afraid to be candid about the key challenges they face. Santa, please ask funders to be nicer, like Wendy is. 

4. Improved Access and Responsiveness

Everybody knows where to send Santa a letter: The North Pole, and we can only imagine how many requests you get every year. But your elves don't just toss those inquiries into the trash because you don't accept "unsolicited proposals." You read every one. If only all funders were the same way. A huge number don't want to hear from grantseekers and a shocking number don't even have websites with basic information. Their attitude is "don't call us, we'll call you." 

That's not right, Santa. The tax-subsidized resources of philanthropy should be accesssible to all, not to just to those with the right connections. Also, funders who are more open will hear from nonprofits outside their usual networks, which is a good thing. And while a deluge of LOIs will create more work, funders can afford their own elves.

Oh, and it'd be swell if program officers actually answered their telephones. Ones who don't should be on your "naughty" list.

5. Support for Advocacy and Civic Engagement

Santa, aren't you moved by those stories in the Arctic News about people who've had a tough year? And when you get a petition to help somebody, doesn't that often lead you to put an extra gift or two on the sleigh? We bet so. And it'd be good if you could stress the importance of advocacy to your funder friends, who are so often loathe to make grants in this area.

It's hard to solve today's biggest problems, no matter how many reindeer one has, but it's harder still when those problems are being compounded by government cuts or public apathy. That's why it's so important to look upstream, to sway policy and also public opinion. But many funders shy away from supporting nonprofits engaged in such activity in favor of direct service organizations. They'd rather give poor kids college scholarships than defend Pell Grants. Or bankroll soup kitchens instead of stopping cuts to SNAP. That doesn't make sense in terms of maximizing impact, Santa. And even though you're in the direct service business yourself, our nonprofit friends want you to carry this message to funders. 

6. More Transparency About Grantmaking

It's hard for nonprofits to know whom to approach for money when it can be impossible to learn where a funder has been giving lately. We love how some foundations have up-to-date grants databases. And how the Foundation Center has been sharing real-time grants information through their Reporting Commitment. But many funders don't participate in such information sharing or release their 990s in a timely fashion.

For example, it's the end of 2014, and we still don't know who the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, one of the largest funders in the U.S., supported in 2013, much less how it gave away funds this year. That's not OK, Santa. Tell the foundations to be more forthcoming. 

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OK, that's the list of what our friends in the nonprofit sector want you to pass along to all those funders you work with. Thanks for helping out, Santa. 

Also, while we have your attention, there's one thing that we at Inside Philanthropy want this Christmas: more paid subscribers. Digging into foundations and major donors is expensive. The more subscribers we have, the deeper we can dig.

So, Santa, when you pop down the chimneys of NGOs tonight, you might consider leaving them a little note with your gifts telling them to sign up for Inside Philanthropy. We're in their corner, after all. 

Drive your sleigh carefully, and Merry Christmas!

Best,

The IP Team