Grant, not grunt

24 Aug

Vu’s post in Nonprofit with Balls this Monday, “Funders, your grant application process may be perpetuating inequity,” couldn’t have been more well-timed. (Link to the post at the end of this one.)

Over the past few weeks, we have been working with community-based and led organisations working with men who have sex with men and transgender people. Most of these organisations have just been registered or are in the process of doing so. Most are in desperate need of resources to meet the immediate challenges of the community. The annual amounts to be raised are comparable to the monthly spend on biscuits in the nutritional programme of a large non-profit. The organisations are staffed by well-meaning and committed community members who are – and rightly so – focused on getting their programme off the ground. They have some way to go before they move from the road of “we’ll do what we get funds for” to “how do we get the money to do what the community’s needs.”

The story of these CBOs is no different from those we’ve seen hundreds of times in the past 15 years that we’ve been doing this.

Small organisations aim for the mirage-like oasis of self-sustainability, which is an intrinsically noble goal. But the quest often means that such small CBOs have to somehow transform into expert grant writers and makers of spiffy presentations that wow high net worth and corporate audiences. The other option is to raise resources by building avenues for generating income, in other words, by setting up business ventures. But this too requires business development skills if returns are to justify investment. And that’s something that again, most CBOs don’t have.

Grant-makers could make this quest just a bit easier – and infinitely more meaningful, especially for small community-led CBOs – by doing these four things.

  1. Go for function, not form. Typically, at the workshops we conduct, we drill into participants the basics of good communication – often running the risk of oversimplification. We’re happy if participants leave having understood just one thing well – how to tell a good story or how to talk about your achievements, rather than activities. But come Monday morning, as they fill out the next 14-page format to please the grant-maker, all the understanding comes undone.

Grant-makers, review your reporting requirements and ask for stories or for achievements – things that the CBO can actually use in their next presentation or elevator speech. The skills they develop in writing and sending you a good story of change are skills they can use with other donors, including individuals and corporates. This would be a much better way to build the capacity of the CBO for real.

  1. Help them through the language barrier. We find that once they learn the basic elements of good communication, most CBOs can write strong concept notes in their local language. But the ordeal of expressing themselves in English wrings out any poetry or power that the story might hold.

Grant-makers, either evaluate concept notes in the local language (you can afford to hire someone to do the job) – or fund the cost of a skilled communicator who can recast it into English BEFORE you make the grant. Including the cost of these skills in the grant budget, if it’s offered at all, doesn’t help.

  1. Don’t bury them with bureaucracy. It looks like monitoring and evaluation will soon be elevated to the status of a legit science (just kidding; fingers crossed). While the principle of monitoring indicators of success is fine, it makes drudgery of work. Recording attendance sheets in triplicate, before and after psych evaluations, auto-rickshaw bills and Instagram photos of every meal consumed (okay, I’m exaggerating now, maybe not the Instagram food shots) turns up the heat on an already wilting-under-the-pressure CBO.

Grant-makers, dump the excessive paperwork. If your donor asks for it, then please educate your donor.

  1. Pay for staff, not elves. The task of raising resources involves submitting proposals, concept notes, presentations, budgets and sundry attachments, all to be done by the already overworked and extremely underpaid CBO staff who are not qualified to do all of this in the first place. The desire of grant-makers to keep management budgets low means that very soon, all non-profits will be staffed by elves who creep in at night and do the work of men and women.

Grant-makers, provide core funding to hire skilled staff or paid volunteers who will actually show up. And this might sound like an unabashed plug – but pay for consultants who will actually implement, and not just give advice.

And here’s the inspiration for this post – Vu’s post: Funders, your grant application process may be perpetuating inequity

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