Q: I was hired to write grants for an organization, but the leadership is being very secretive about basic information I need to include in the applications. For instance, I was told there is no budget, that I can’t get the executive director’s salary because she doesn’t want anyone to know how much she’s making, and that I should just make up figures for the application. I checked Guidestar, but it appears that the organization hasn’t filed a 990 in the last couple of years.
Please, how can I approach this? I need the job.
A: There’s no budget? No 990 – for several years?Nobody should know how much the executive director makes? You should make figures up?This sounds very fishy to me. Do you need the job so badly that you’re willing to put your reputation on the line? If you’ve tried to get the necessary information and are getting these kinds of responses, I’d leave immediately and not look back.
Since I appreciate that you need this job, I’ll put on my usually ever-present rose-colored glasses and assume this is nothing more than a case of ignorance of the grantwriting process and 990 requirements on the part of the organization’s leadership. Assuming that mindset I’ll offer a couple of ideas for approaching this one more time. But if these suggestions don’t produce the necessary results, run – don’t walk – to the nearest exit. There are a lot of organizations out there looking for grantwriters that understand and respect the process.
You might begin by requesting a sit-down at which you can ascertain the leadership’s experience with grantwriting and its typical requirements. I suggest you start by asking if any of the group has written a grant or looked at this or other proposals. You could have copies of relevant pages that are highlighted, so the leadership can see you aren’t just asking these questions to be nosey, but that this is required information. You might explain why proposals typically ask for the information they do, for instance to determine the organization’s track record, its ability to wisely use contributed funds and its experience with pulling off programs such as the one(s) for which this funding is being sought. You could even ask that if the shoe were on the other foot – that is, they were the ones being asked for money – wouldn’t they want to know if they were making a wise investment? Even more basic – would they give their money to someone who wouldn’t honestly answer any of their questions?
You could also say that you went to Guidestar to find this information, explaining that it is a site on which organizations’ 990s are made available to the public – as they must be by law – and that you didn’t see theirs listed. You might remind them that all organizations are now required to file a version of the 990 depending on their size (there are a very few exceptions, such as churches). You can also share that more than 275,000 organizations lost their nonprofit status just this year for failure to file 990s for three years in a row, and that you are concerned about their ability to stay in business and continue their important work.
If they balk at providing things like the executive director’s salary, remind them that as a nonprofit corporation this information is public by law. Community members, especially donors and funders, are like the shareholders of a for-profit corporation who are entitled to know how the business is being run. Perhaps the leadership didn’t know this when they decided to go the nonprofit route?
Regarding the budget, you can ask how they determine their estimated revenues and expenses without this important tool. Remind them that funders are going to want something in writing that shows how much the proposed program or service will cost to offer and what other sources of income might offset those costs. And, this “something” has to be based in reality. As the grantwriter you can’t make up figures. If the organization is fortunate enough to get the funding, the actual figures will be matched against the estimated figures in the required reporting documents.
Whether or not you are a member of one of the professional organizations for grantwriters, such as the American Association of Grant Professionals, you can still go to their sites. Check out their ethical practices and come into your meeting armed with language that defines ethical grantwriting. Sharing this might just help where other tactics fail.
You are the consultant. Part of your job is to educate the client and have these difficult conversations as required. But again, if you don’t see an immediate turnaround, I’d get out.
A good challenge and very good answers. I would suggest also this:
1) Write the grants, completing the assignment, leave the budget page blank: TO BE PROVIDED/COMPLETED BY THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR.
2) Do the same for every page where she NEEDS INFORMATION THAT IS NOT PROVIDED
3) Complete assignment and report CONFIDENTIALLY the organization to the IRS.
Good one! Is the writer the first grant writer for the organization? If not, can the grant writer see prior proposals? If yes, then the sit-down with the people who hired the grant writer.