Three strikes and then what?

Strategic Philanthropy
Monday, June 6, 2011

“While we do not want to place undue burdens on the organizations we support, we do feel it is essential that we know the people to whom we give grants and have assurances of their management capabilities.”  Those are words I just drafted, on behalf of one of our clients, notifying a New York City non-profit that, after three years, the foundation has decided to discontinue its support. 

The dilemma in making this decision was that the foundation cares about the young people on whose behalf the organization works and believes in sticking with its grantees over the long term.   It is a foundation that appreciates the numerous demands on non-profit organizations and so does not ask for lengthy reports or studies; rather it generally provides core operating support, trusting the people directly involved in the work to know how best to use available resources.

So when the organization underwent a change in management we felt it essential to meet the new director before renewing the grant.  We first reached out through e-mail but our messages bounced back.  “We’re having problems with our server,” we were told when we called.  We next set a date for a site visit - an opportunity for me, a member of the foundation, and the new director to get to know one another and for us to hear about his plans for the organization.  A few hours before the meeting was to take place, I received an email message: “He is not in today and we need to re-schedule for next week.”  They provided no excuse for his absence.

How does a supportive and respectful funder react at this point?  On the one hand, we did not want special treatment, but we did want decent treatment.  As a colleague said, “They don’t seem that interested in you.”  I gave it another try and reached out to the director to make sure he was aware of the cancelled appointment and wondered if there had been some unforeseen emergency. “I’m so sorry.  I take full responsibility,” he responded, and asked if we could talk on the phone.  We set a date and time and I made the call.  No answer.  Four hours later he called with apologies.

It was a difficult decision, but the grant was not renewed.  It was not about the funder's ego, but rather about basic management questions.  If they are not responsible enough to follow through with meetings, what does that say about their overall management ability?  Is the new leadership's poor responsiveness to a funder reflective of broader organizational issues with responsiveness?   

While we are clear that it doesn’t make sense for this funder to continue supporting the organization given our experiences, we also wonder if we have additional obligations.  Do we share our concerns with other funders who are involved with the organization, some of whom we know well?  Do we reach out to the executive director for a candid conversation about our concerns? Do we relay our concerns to the Board of Directors, who are ultimately responsible for the organization?   If our ultimate concern is with the youth of this community, are there other avenues that we can take that will help them get needed support?