Dr. Susan Lloyd is the executive director of the Zilber Family Foundation in Milwaukee, which was started by Joseph Zilber, a life-long resident and businessman of Milwaukee who wanted to improve the quality of life for all its citizens. Previously, Susan directed grant programs at The MacArthur Foundation for 13 years, conducted academic research on the causes and consequences of violence for six years, and worked in human services agencies for 10 years.
I met Susan Lloyd in the early 2000s when I co-produced a video for the MacArthur Foundation. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, and I asked her to talk about grantmaking from the foundation perspective. What’s great about Susan is that she started out working for non-profits, so she knows both sides of the equation.
Susan and I had a long conversation, much of which I will mine for future articles, but I wanted to quickly share her list of DON’TS when applying to foundations for grants. Here are 5 mistakes that you don’t want to make (plus a bonus “DO”):
1. Trash talking other non-profits. No matter what you may think about those organizations that are competing with you for grant dollars, NEVER talk negatively about them. “I am stunned by it. I honestly do not get it,” Susan says. “There’s no need to say negative things about someone else. Sometimes funders will ask who else is working in this space and it’s very simple to say, ‘There are 12 organizations that work in this area, and what makes us distinctive is…’ without ever saying anything negative about others.”
2. Not following directions when applying. Foundations have processes in place for a reason. For Zilber, they want you to submit your Letter of Inquiry online because that triggers a distribution to all relevant program people. If you bypass that step, your LOI can get lost because it’s not in the system. You will be asked to submit online, even if you have a personal relationship with a program officer or executive director or board member. “It doesn’t mean that an organization can’t send us information in the mail …or make a phone call to the foundation and talk to a program officer,” says Susan. “All of those things I think are in addition to but not instead of [applying online].”
3. Writing an unclear or overly verbose grant application. “Foundations are reading hundreds of applications … so those that are clearly written are going to stand out. I am much more inclined …to think favorably of those organizations than if I have to sort through the text to figure out what it is they do,” Susan says. “Sometimes people know something so well, they leave out a fundamental piece of information, like a scholarship program that doesn’t include how they’re going to identify the scholars, which has actually happened. I encourage people to hand their applications to someone who’s not in their organization or not in their field and say, ‘Read this for me and tell me what questions come up for you.’”
4. Going above the program officer’s head. Susan advises, “Don’t disrespect the program officers by going around them either to the executive director or to the board of directors. Nobody likes to be surprised. You really don’t want an executive director to go to a program officer and say, ‘well, how come blah, blah, blah?’ if they know nothing about it. So it’s not good for anybody. I can’t tell you how many times people insist on meeting with me, even though I will say, ‘The person who handles this kind of grant for us is so and so, let me suggest that you get in touch with her.’ I am not going to disrespect my staff. I can’t do it all, I don’t want to do it all, and they’re more talented, in a lot of respects.”
5. Trying to hide weak spots. Foundations understand the vagaries of keeping a non-profit solvent. Although it’s tempting to hide the fact that you aren’t being reimbursed by the state, or that your director of development is about to jump ship, you may be surprised at how helpful a foundation can be when they know there is a problem. And they don’t like to be bamboozled. Susan says, “We just want people to share that knowledge and information and have an openness or even a plan for how they’re going to remedy that. We, actually at the Zilber Family Foundation, and this was true at MacArthur as well, put a fair amount of resources into organizational development and leadership development, and so if the organization doesn’t quite have the capacity to achieve its dreams or its mission, that’s not something that will stop us, so long as it isn’t something that the organization is unaware of or tries to hide.”
6. A bonus DO: Arm the program officers with some collateral to use when they approach their board. The program officers are your advocates, so provide them with anything you can, especially visuals. ‘Before and after’ photos, short videos from your constituents, anything that tells the story of your organization is good. Susan advises, “Think about what you would need if you were in the position of needing to influence someone else to make the case.”
As I mentioned, there is more to come from my conversation with Susan, but for now I hope these tips help you with your upcoming grant applications.