by Don Matteson, Chief Program Officer
I was in a meeting last week that got me thinking about an issue that's always bothered me about grant funding: partial awards. I'm involved with a project that the Tower Foundation is co-funding with a few other foundations, and we're in the process of negotiating final work plans, evaluation, and reporting. The various funders contributed significant amounts of money to support the project but, in the end, the total contributions fell short of the total requested budget. As we went over the revised work plan, one of the co-funders questioned the fact that the number of people to be served was lower than in the original work plan. I wasn't sure what else we would have expected -- we didn't provide enough funding to serve the originally proposed number of people!
Working on the grantmaking side of the desk, I completely understand that resources are limited and there's a pressure to make sure that we distribute our funds broadly to maximize our impact. With that said, isn't there also a pressure to make sure that when we fund an organization, we provide enough money to ensure that they can do the work well? To accomplish what they said they planned to when they submitted the proposal? (By now, it should be pretty obvious that I'm referring primarily to restricted, project-focused funding. Operating support is a topic for another blog post....)
Coming from the grant seeking side of the desk, however, I understand that it's common practice to drop non-project expenses into the grant budget. Can we fit the Executive Director into the budget at .05 FTE? Surely she'll spend a couple of hours a week overseeing the project, right? How about some occupancy costs? Postage? This is the stuff that sometimes drives funders' concerns that a project budget is "padded." (Again, indirect costs are a topic for another blog post.)
I think the "padded budget" concern often drives foundations to award partial grants. In some cases, it's the belief that the work can genuinely be accomplished for less money than the applicant is requesting. Other times, the partial award is a somewhat arbitrary decision based not on the project, but the desire to "spread the wealth around" or "maximize resources."
No matter the reason, however, we need to recognize that if we scale back the support we provide, we can't expect outcomes on the originally proposed scale. We can't reasonably ask for a Cadillac, provide the funds for a Chevy, then be shocked when we don't see Cadillac results. Where we provide partial funding, it's essential to have honest conversations with our grantees to determine what outcomes are manageable based on the funding provided.
Even better, however, is having that dialog before the final grant award is made. That's typically our practice at the Tower Foundation; we bake those conversations directly into our proposal review process. One advantage to this is that expectations are well-managed for both parties. By the time we put a proposal in front of our Trustees, applicants have a very good idea of what will be offered, and the Foundation has a very good sense of what can be done with those funds.
The greatest benefit of all, however, is that this open and honest dialog creates the conditions necessary to build trust among partners. It's this trust that is so essential to creating the changes in society that will benefit the people we serve.