Walters Family Foundation

What Did We Do Wrong?

by Cliff Walters President

Is It Really Rejection?

The most common question we get from a non-profit organization that receives a letter indicating that their grant request was not funded is, “What Did We Do Wrong?”  Clearly, receiving any letter that didn’t fulfill their hopes can be a cause for self-reflection about the process of asking for money.  But is rejection really a bad thing?  Did the executive director or director of development do something wrong?  When they thought they did everything right, why weren’t they funded?

What Is the Process?

At this past meeting in February, the Board of the Walters Family Foundation reviewed a record number of grant applications totaling 64!  We are pleased to help wherever we can, and are happy that so many organizations have become aware of the Foundation.  While the processing of any application can be tedious, the Board takes their evaluation very seriously.

Some of the grant application guidelines that the Walters Family Foundation requires include:

  • All grant requests must be submitted via email in PDF format to:
  • All grant requests must limit their application to two pages.
  • All grant requests must include a copy of their IRS letter documenting their EIN number.
  • All grant requests must include a copy of their annual budget (not just the budget of a smaller internal project).
  • Some digitized brochures and other supporting documents may be included.

Simple as this may seem, over 50% of the applicants failed to follow these five requirements with the most common mistakes being to forget to include their EIN number documentation or financial data.

How Do We Help?

We care about those who are requesting financial help, and we do want their request to be reviewed by the Board.  So, we either call or more commonly email the organizations with incomplete grant requests to let them know about the needed documentation.  After all, what is philanthropic work if we're unable to ensure if a grant request meets the federal guidelines so that we are able to give? 

The applicants usually respond quickly and provide the necessary information.  Proceeding in this manner we are usually able to ensure that nearly all the grant applications are eventually complete to take to the Board. However, our grant application requirements really do mean something.  As the number of applications increase, we may need to consider taking only the properly completed grant requests to the board for review and consideration.

But What If I Don't Get Funded?

Not getting funded can feel like a big disappointment and grant writers in particular can feel defeated.  Often we get questions of inquiry such as:

  • “What can we do to position ourselves better with your organization?”
  • “I thought our two missions were a natural match. What happened?
  • “Can I call you to discuss what we can do to help you understand more about us?”
  • “We understand that you get a lot of applications and can’t fund anyone, but what can we do to get funded?”

First and foremost, non-funded organizations are NOT failures, nor are the grant writers.  No funding organization, not even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation can fund every request, even those that are extremely needy.  The Walters Family Foundation is no exception.  Available funds for grants are limited, so the most common reason that funding of an organization doesn’t occur is due to fund limitation. But, as President, I take every request to the Board for review and consideration and all decisions regarding funding are board actions.  Fortunately, we have a diverse board, so all aspects of an asking organization are heard, debated, and voted upon.

What Else Happens?

Being introduced to an organization by a letter, a budget, and a brochure has its limitations.  So, the Board of the Walters Family Foundation has taken seriously its obligation to engage in site visits. This affords the Board to become more familiar with the work of a non-profit organization.  Also, the national organization of small foundations, Exponent Philanthropy, encourages such visits.  They have noted that the outcome of such visits goes both ways – that is the requesting organization can learn how to function even better, and the visiting Foundation is learning how things are done and how help is being provided.

Some organizations are incredible in their management, distribution of help, fundraising, and understanding what they really do.  Others are still struggling to find their identity and not sure of which “road” on which they would like to travel.  We have coined a term for some, “Grow it, or Close it!”  This is not to be harsh.  But some organization needs to refocus possibly by raising the clarity of their mission, getting consultation on fundraising, or how to get better known in their own community.  Often the shortage of money is not the real issue in these organizations.

Outcomes of What Is Done

While it is clear that every non-profit organization is doing its best, what remains important to a giving Foundation is the receiving organization’s outcomes.  Are they achieving what they set out to do?  Are they organized and mission focused?  Does their staff know what the organization does, and how they fit in?  If they are funded for a video production to tell their story, did they use it correctly at a gala or on a website? Was an improved difference found in the monies raised? 

Those of us at the Walters Family Foundation like to call those who receive funds as our “partners.”  The designation of partner is serious business, as we can still learn from our partners – even if they weren’t funded, and hopefully, they can learn from us.

So are you a failure, if you weren’t funded?  We think not.  What do you think?