Fundraising’s shifting sands

by Jini Stolk

The Ontario Nonprofit Network’s Nonprofit Driven 2016 conference revealed an unexpectedly forceful consensus. It’s time for both government and non-government funders to move to trust-based grantmaking. Vu Le’s description  of a gradual shift to “a default starting relationship between funders and nonprofits (that) is one of suspicion” is as recognizable here as below the border. We see it in funder practices like restricted funding and application forms that are rigid and prescriptive – all designed, it seems, to make nonprofits more “accountable.”

It appears, from a range of presentations and discussions at the conference – including one I participated in called Shifting Sands: Trends in Nonprofit Funding – that we are collectively both puzzled and fed up. The arts and other nonprofit communities want to spend more time improving our programs and changing people’s lives, and less time calculating which of our line item expenses is eligible for funding and what percentage of each we want the funder to cover.

The Conference also revealed a strong move towards meaningful evaluation: strategies that help us do our work better, tied to learnings that are useful to grantee, grantor and our colleagues in the field. Often and increasingly, nonprofits are told what to evaluate and how to evaluate it, and then are left to their own devices to get it done. ONN has been building an evaluation agenda that asks “What are we trying to learn? Will it lead to action? and How can we help each other?” – and has produced an evaluation discussion guide to help nonprofits develop useful evaluation criteria and processes.

The ONN blog also contains a forceful argument by Andrew Taylor for accountability to the communities where our work happens, as a first priority.

No one should mistake these discussions and initiatives for resistance to accountability – or to learning (which should be aimed at continuously improving our programs and practices) – or to keen observation and analysis of results (to help us understand what really works and how best to make a real difference) – or to sharing results (not only with funders but also with colleagues, to move our collective efforts forward.)

Why are some funders defining “accountability” as how closely our projects fit into a detailed theory of change whose impact, process and results are pre-set by the funder? It may help to remember that the 2015 survey of What Canadian Donors Want shows that public trust in Canadian charities has increased six percent since 2011 to 73%, and that more Canadians than ever believe that the nation’s nonprofits are well-managed and act responsibly with the donations they receive. We must be doing something right.

The arts community is uniquely blessed in having dedicated arts funding agencies that act at arm’s length from government; provide operating funding; where assessment is by peer juries; where staff and jury members understand the comparative impact of applicants on the arts and larger community, and know from experience what’s involved in building the organizations and productions being funded; where program changes are aligned to the stated goals of community; and where communications are open and continual. The latter is an essential requirement of good grantmaking, and all the rest are the basics of best funding practice.

The arts have a special difficulty in measuring the intrinsic impact of participating in our programs, and the expanding impact this may have on other aspects of a person’s life or of a community. But I do think we know how to measure joy, and that’s a good starting point for whether our work is meaningful and successful.

Some excellent funders are leading the way in new thinking about trust-based granting and evaluation. The Metcalf Foundation’s Creative Strategies Incubator is based on creating communities of shared learning to accelerate organizational change; the Lawson Foundation focuses on collaboration and continuous learning ; and The Maytree Foundation has beautifully described its move from donor-focused philanthropy to community-centred giving based on mutual benefit and trust. And the Department of Canadian Heritage has moved way out in front of other government funders by recent changes to speed up and depoliticize the grants process – eliminating those stomach churning “it’s on the Minister’s desk” weeks, allowing more multi-year agreements for ongoing clients, and scaling risk assessment to the size and type of grant. So very logical and so very rare.

Noticeably missing from this list, and the elephant in the room at the conference, is our province’s largest non-profit funder, the Ontario Trillium Foundation. I was going to list all the OTF’s changes that have confounded and angered the nonprofit community, but that would be long and depressing. I will quote only one colleague as example: “It was already a crapshoot ‘cause none of us know how they’re making those decisions – but now they’re telling us we can only roll the dice once a year?!” Okay, two: “Writing these grants has become like The Hunger Games: a fight for survival where you don’t need to be the strongest to win, just the smartest.”

We would all be happy, even delighted, to help the OTF rediscover its chops as a trusted and excellent grantor. But not by way of filling in an online survey directed to its “customers”…

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