A Step to Take to Prevent Harm from a Big Grant

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Mind your step

April 18, 2014; Washington Post

A number of years ago, NPQ published an article entitled “Gift Horse or Trojan Horse? A Thorough Physical is Critical” on the problem of big grants that do more harm than good, at least organizationally. This story reinforces the danger that can be posed by a large grant not fully vetted, using the example of NeighborWorks America.

Eileen M. Fitzgerald, NeighborWorks America’s chief executive, tells of a donor who wanted to support a broad-based community housing program through NeighborWorks. Program staff decided that although the grant was large, it was not sufficient to do what was being asked. But before the analysis was complete, the fundraising staff had closed the deal. Execution of the activities under the grant ran into resource problems, the hoped-for outcomes never happened, and eventually the donor cut his or her losses and walked away.

Tracy Savage, a fundraising consultant and principal at Marts & Lundy, says there is an art to being welcoming to donors without overcommitting. NeighborWorks, however, also has a system to support that effort. In 2008, NeighborWorks started weekly “preconcurrence meetings” designed to review prospective grants, with all departments in attendance. Everyone must agree on the terms of the grant before they move forward to concur with the donor, and it is not unusual to turn down an opportunity.

Carmen Miller, director of stewardship for NeighborWorks, says the process “has increased transparency, collaboration, efficiency—and, in the end, it’s mission-centric.”—Ruth McCambridge