Nonprofit Board Members Should Be Partners in Forming Relationships With Grantmakers
Q: Our nonprofit’s executive “hides” us board members from foundation, corporate and government program officers. Shouldn’t board members and me, as board chair, be front-and-center or at least be part of the team that makes the “pitch” and is involved in a relationship?
A. Say what? What kind of partnership is this between the board (aka nonprofit “owners”) and the executive? Or in other words: Who’s the boss in your nonprofit?
This situation is just plain wrong in my opinion. However, this situation does provide me the opportunity to, first, review what is the relationship between the board and the executive, and, second, explore the relationship between the executive and board and a grantmaker/program officer.
Let us begin with a review of the executive/board relationship. In the ideal world, nonprofit boards recruit an individual to carry-out the board’s strategic vision and lead the day-to-day work. Executives are also expected to provide guidance and support to the board to ensure it can fulfill its fiduciary duties and address the risk management and prevention responsibilities that could affect mission pursuit.
Meanwhile, the board establishes the strategic direction and vision; monitors progress (program and financial performance and risk); and makes corrections where needed both in terms of policy and plans. The board may also be involved in seeking resources to support the pursuit of mission. And it is here that expectations tend to get fuzzy and may help explain the issue for the board chair who introduced the question that started this column.
The Alliance for Nonprofit Management Governance Affinity Group learned from over 600 surveys in its 2016 report, “Voices of Board Chairs,” that only a little over half the respondents “sometimes” meet with current and potential donors. It’s possible that the term “donors” references individuals more so than institutions, but the challenge to me remains the same: Why does a nonprofit owner not see it part of their core job to represent the organization in the relationship?
If you have watched the ABC show Shark Tank, there are some pretty savvy, if not egotistic, small business-investor types. Who presents to make the case for a shark’s investment?
The individual owners, that’s who. And, why? While the sharks are investing in a wealth-increasing concept and company, they are also investing in the individual who owns the concept—the individual(s) who have put their blood, sweat and tears in bringing their own concept to market.
In the nonprofit grant-seeking world, an executive most often does the “homework” and likely even creates the opportunity for engaging with a grantmaker (aka program officer, foundation director or corporate giving officer). Of course, the work to both write a proposal and execute an awarded grant, the day-to-day work, falls squarely on the shoulders of the executive.
A nonprofit’s board may not have poured all the requisite blood and sweat into a nonprofit’s existence, nor done the specific homework to identify an appropriate grantmaker (although it often approves grant submissions or awards as part of its financial oversight), but I pose that there is still very much a role for the board in this process.
I believe this role to be twofold: participate in the meeting(s) that introduce the organization and/or proposal to the grantmaking program officer and in the meeting when the report is formally
Should the board member, likely the board chair or another officer, be prepped for the event? Absolutely! Meeting participants should be conversant with the program goals, the proposed methodology and the financial request, both for the proposal and what if any impact the proposal plays on the organization’s overall programs and finances.
One area in particular to that requires awareness: how much if any indirect costs will be supported from a grant (although I’m of the school of thought that believes there is no such “thing” as overhead—all costs contribute to the implementation of a grant).
Now, should the board member show up at every grant seeking and reporting meeting? I think this question should be answered by the partners—the executive and board. But when it’s time to make the case for a grantmaker’s investment and when it’s time to talk about results are two important occasions for the board to show their commitment and knowledge.
Grantmakers, like the sharks, give grants to individuals, not institutions. Inherent in this concept is the experience that, aside from the evidence that a nonprofit has done good work, gets good things done and has a clear plan to solve a problem that is commonly recognized by the grant institution, there remains a need by the grant officer to have a trust and confidence that what is proposed for funding will be pursued and possibly even make the promised difference. The paid nonprofit staff person makes the perfect candidate for this task. They are present, involved and able to report in the language the grant officer understands.
So, in answer to the starting point of this column, yes, a board member should be a partner in forming the relationship with a grantmaker, it’s just good common sense!