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Posted - 09/19/2013
Both Sides of the Table by Kelly McVicker, ITP Grants Administrator
balancekm.jpgThis year I've been working with Invoking the Pause (ITP) in the role of Grants Administrator, helping Maggie Kaplan and her Advisory Committee manage the grant-making process.  As a fundraising professional who has worked on the "other side of the table" for more than ten years it's been an interesting flip of the switch to be receiving the proposals instead of sending them.

Soon after ITP opened up the 2013 grant-making cycle, the applications started rolling in.  I found reading all the proposals to be fascinating (and the grant writer in me couldn't help but keep an eye out for solid bits of wording to inspire my own writing). Through the review process, I felt like I was getting bird's eye view of ideas and strategies trending in the climate change field. And, even though I wasn't the ultimate decision maker of which groups to fund, I felt a sense of power just being on that side of the table. You don't have to be the one holding the checkbook to feel the power dynamic inherent in grant-making relationships.

When I'm wearing my grant writer's hat, it's my job to focus on the pitch. Through my words, I want to convince the funder that this program is the solution to whatever problem we're seeking to address. Essentially, I want to make them believe that investing their resources will definitely lead to real and tangible change.  After writing proposals day in and day out, it can be easy to get lulled into that seeker mentality…the illusionary thinking that money is the answer, and if you could just get enough of it you could make everything happen.

Yet sitting on the other side of the table next to the checkbook, that illusion quickly evaporates.  In its place is a sense of responsibility.  The money is there, but how do you leverage it for the most impact?  How do you sort through the words on the page and make a prediction on what will actually succeed?  Suddenly the equation of "Money=Change" doesn't look so simple.

When I worked as a development officer at the Global Fund for Women, I had the opportunity to participate in funders' networks and attend annual conferences of various affinity groups. I remember right before I went to my first funders' conference, a colleague on the program team advised me to avoid revealing that I was a development officer, unless I absolutely had to.

"Some people won't take you as seriously if they know you're on the fundraising side. That, or they'll assume you're there to spy on them and find out what they're looking to fund," she told me.

I was a bit confused…after all, weren't we all working toward the same goals?  If they were looking to fund something specific, why wouldn't they want people to know about it?  And also, how quickly could I get my hands on some good spy gear?

Having spent more time now on the other side of the table with ITP, I understand better how the power dynamics make for these strange interactions. Just as grant applicants want to portray their work in the most positive light and tailor their proposals to align to the perceived donor interests, funders have to approach words on paper with a bit more skepticism.

This is where the process leaves the paper.  It's no secret in the world of philanthropy that most grants made are not based solely on the words in the proposal.  Funders, especially smaller foundations that tend to be closer to the ground and therefore more connected to the groups they support, rely on their networks, conversations with peers, and general first-hand knowledge of the group to help them assess applications. These conversations help round out what's on the paper, while also reinforcing connections among funders and groups committed to the cause.

Throughout this cycle, I see opportunities for funders to leverage the grant-making process itself as a tool for achieving impact beyond their own grant-making. The process brings a steady feed of information about new initiatives, collaborations and strategies, and funders can proactively pay attention to these trends and share this information with their own networks. Follow-up conversations with applicants to ask more questions about their  proposals can be an opportunity to listen to what organizations  really want and need, in a way that's less formal and feels less risky for them than putting it in a formal  proposal. These conversations can also help funders identify places where connections could be made, or well-aligned efforts could be combined to maximize the impact of limited resources. It's invigorating to be able to connect people together with the solid sense that they really should meet each other, that they have something special to offer one another, and that perhaps even a new collaboration will be sparked.

At the same time, it's important to keep in mind that this bird's eye view is already filtered through the loop of our own networks, connections and even the platforms where we choose to announce RFPs. So it's a snapshot, but not a survey.

What both sides of the funding table share is the power of possibility: the belief that steps toward creating social change happen when the right combination of leaders, bold ideas, and the resources to support them come together. When you look at it from this angle, it seems less important which side of the table you're on. What matters is that we're all sitting at the same table.