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May 13, 2019

Restoring Trust with Grant Funders

If a grant funder has trust in an organization and its leaders, they are more likely to give a grant—and later to give again. But sometimes things happen that can shake a funder’s trust. In these situations, it’s important to take proactive steps to recognize and remedy the issue. Following are tips for managing difficult scenarios to rebuild trust and confidence with funders.

Scenario #1: Project isn’t meeting major milestones

Are program participant numbers falling short as compared to what was promised in a grant application? Is an unforeseen obstacle challenging the most desired results? Has a key partnership changed? Has the project slowed significantly or even gone dormant?  

Solution: Communicate early

If your staff detects a major challenge to your grant deliverables, don’t wait until the grant report is due to inform (or surprise!) your funder. Treat them as a true partner by reaching out in real time to discuss perceived issues and significant changes. Seek input, if appropriate, on how the hurdle might be overcome. In doing so, you can demonstrate to the funder that your organization benefits from keen management, proactive leadership, and the nimbleness to course correct. You also may be doing the funder a service by signaling to them what could be field-wide trends or challenges relevant to their other grantees.

Scenario #2: Grant budget strays off target

Costs per project participant have changed considerably since a grant request. An important donor has left or emerged on the scene. A program expense has skyrocketed, making original budget projections impossible. A project detail changed, leading your team to consider applying the grantor’s funds in a different manner than originally agreed upon.  

Solution: Be proactive to seek agreement

A grant award is essentially a contract. If project expenses or income change drastically from what was originally proposed, do not assume you can redirect a foundation’s funds toward another program or line item. Reach out to your funder to discuss the change. Come with a proposed solution but also express openness to the funder’s requirements or recommendations. You might be surprised by how flexible the funder is willing to be and how much they appreciate your proactive problem solving.

Scenario #3: Leadership is changing

Did a key leadership position change—either at the top of the organization or within the granted funded program? The old adage of “people give to people” often applies to grant making relationships. 

Solution: Seize the chance to introduce new leadership 

Leverage a change in leadership as an opportunity to strengthen bonds! If a key staff person is leaving, notify the foundation with a call or email. Assure the funder of the plan to manage the organization or program in the interim and offer to introduce the new leader once engaged. Communicating a leadership transition will reinforce that the foundation’s investment in your organization’s leadership and programs matters. 

Scenario #4: Funder is not properly acknowledged

Did your organization flub and forget to honor a foundation in a donor listing or annual report? Was a major blunder made when acknowledging them in print? Did your institution acknowledge a grantor who wishes to be anonymous? 

Solution: Recover + repair 

When a grant award is made, marketing staff should immediately be informed about the foundation’s recognition preferences. If this got overlooked, and a major error or omission was made, act fast! Depending on the situation, it might be possible to make an online update or print correction. If the mistake already caught the attention of the funder, apologize swiftly and find the next opportunity to wrap back to them with a correction.

Scenario #5: Organization faces a public relations crisis

It is wonderful news when an institution makes headlines. Unless it’s not!  Organizations big and small have faced crises that bring unwanted public attention, from financial blunders like campaign delays and major staffing cuts, to unfortunate personal or institutional tumult and tragedies.

Solution: Have a communication plan

Some contingencies might be expected (for example, a major acquisition or staff layoffs) and some crises might evolve without prediction. Either way, savvy leaders should be prepared for bumps in the road. Senior staff and board members should strategize periodically about what to do during a perceived or real emergency. This should include identifying who will serve as the organization’s official responder to the press and other public audiences. This plan should also consider how to manage more personalized messaging to major donors and funders. If a crisis has gone public, assume your funders will have heard about it too. Rather than be passive, be proactive to communicate with funders in challenging times. Address their concerns and questions and provide assurance that appropriate steps are underway.

Even the healthiest, most successful organizations experience change and challenge. Funders know this. The key to maintaining strong trust with funders isn’t pretending our organizations are perfect, but demonstrating our flaws with grace, honesty, and resilience. “To err is human,” but to prepare for the eventual blunder is divine. 

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