Donor grants have been likened to the sweet-savoury porridge that can boost your work from the very beginning but It can also be the treat that costs your birthright. While this may not seem like a fair thing to say, I beg for a chance to explain. Please walk with me.
Many nonprofits begin with great dreams and promises of changing the world despite knowing that they lack the resources to make the change they seek happen. Because there are disparities in the availability and distribution of resources in the world, creating a large gap between the rich and the poor, it is even harder for the poor to achieve their goals. You see, circumstances are often skewed to disadvantage the poor. So if you must go fast and achieve the results you desire, you will need some help. In all honesty, all founders will not start from anything because there will be those who come from advantaged backgrounds. However, it is fact that no matter how much an individual has, it will never be enough. So we can choose to work within our means and risk not achieving all we hoped for or getting help. That’s where donors come in and become nearly indispensable.
But Why do Donors exist?
There is a global appreciation of the inequalities that exist between communities. These have influenced some of the best international policies ever made such as the Alma Atta Declaration and others such as the Sustainable Development Goals. International cooperation is recognised as a sure means to bridge the inequalities and create a fairer world for everyone. Therefore richer countries have an ‘obligation’ to support the poorer ones. That’s where grants come from. Most donors have links to governments and support the development agenda of those governments. As they say, he who pays the Piper dictates the tunes. Also, there’s this other thing about problems spilling over. For instance, humanitarian crises that are not checked in one territory quickly expand. Think Syria and Iraq. Technically donor funding often says, “contain this damn thing within your territory”.
Here comes the problem with donor grants.
If donors fund you, you dance to their music. Let us for a minute pretend that the call for proposals by donors gives you a free choice. Most times, they don’t. They are restrictive and are already tied to predetermined results. Strangely enough, they seem to encourage unhealthy competition between prospective grantees for who can better beat their profiles and proposals into the right shape. Grants are made and results reported but do the communities truly change? What about the implementing organisations, are they better off? Project documentation would answer these questions in the affirmative but in reality, not so much. That’s how the rat race begins. You keep getting grants to stay afloat or you pack up and close shop. The further problem is that the more grants, the more likely organizations are to keep adjusting and beating their programs into donor-acceptable shape. Many years down the road and many organisations are out of focus and no longer doing what they ought to do.
Is shunning Donors the Answer?
In the long run, well-meaning nonprofits should shun donor funding and become sustainable. It is possible to build up to become fully sustainable with minimal funding from donors. For many organisations, this may not be very easy to achieve. This I can discuss in detail in another piece.
Anyways, the fact that donors and grantees do not necessarily partner enough via negotiations that can have donors listen to grantees and not try to change them is an issue to be wary of. Will grantees be willing to walk away from donor funding that would edge them out of their focal areas rather than support them in their areas of strength? I highly recommend that and if you can see the picture as I have seen it, you might even agree with me too. And if you say that shunning donor grants should not be complete, I also agree. However, that thin golden line must be drawn from the very beginning. Nonprofits need enough grants to get operational but must be willing to work for their own sustainability.