Why Funder Education Is Not a Quick Fix

Many advocacy or nonprofit employees will recognize this scenario. Several staff are sitting around a table discussing future strategy. Inevitably, someone comes up with a great idea for policy campaign. It’s strategic, would make real change, and aligned with the organization’s mission. The only issue, a Development Director, or Executive Director cautions is, “we’ve had multiple conversations with our funders in this area and there isn’t much interest at this moment.” 

Another supporter of the idea or perhaps the original staff member retorts “well why don’t we just educate funders on the importance of this issue.” Nodding heads follow throughout the room. 

In one sense, this is exactly the right attitude: you should always be educating funders about your work. Great fundraisers explain the organization’s mission, goals, and strategy in a compelling and accessible ways. After they secure resources, they are constantly sharing information about accomplishments, setbacks, and broader developments in landscape. Education is always part of the process. 

However, assuming that over a meeting or series of meetings that you can convince a foundation funder to change their priorities is often a recipe for fewer resources. 

The internal dynamics inside a foundation helps explain why. While program officers typically have a lot of autonomy day-to-day there are various internal processes they must go through to develop and justify a strategy to internal actors. This could be to the foundation board, executive team, or family members in the case of a family foundation that approves grants. 

To develop the current set of foundation priorities, the program officer has either spent significant political capital convincing other actors to support their recommended priorities, or tried to do that, lost the argument, and must align their external funding with the agreed on priorities of other, more senior actors inside the organization, sometimes including the original donors. Usually, a foundation’s priorities are some combination of those two approaches. 

It should be clear at this point why educating a foundation about next year’s funding priorities is not likely to work. Either the program officer is convinced of something else, and spent a lot of energy convincing other people, or she doesn’t have the flexibility to fund the thing you want, even though she might like it. In both cases you are on stronger footing spending your time understanding what the foundation hopes to accomplish, identifying areas where you overlap, and articulating for the program officer how you can achieve shared goals. If you have an inkling that a program officer is sympathetic to some of the other things you want to accomplish that are not directly within her strategy, there may be creative ways where you can experiment with new projects. 

Funder education can and should be a big part of the process, but you should plan to do it over the long term. Good program officers will pay attention to new ideas in the field, and can be convinced over time to move the machinery of a foundation toward your preferred direction. While most of your conversation should focus on current and nearer-term projects, it’s totally appropriate and advisable to keep your program officer and other foundation staff apprised of other adjacent work or new opportunities in the space. Framing these opportunities as natural next steps or growth out of previous work can be an effective way to help funders see the new ideas as a natural part of the existing relationship. 

There’s also a broader role for organizational leaders through media, policy papers, blogs, conferences and other avenues to make the case for where policy and advocacy campaigns need to go. One of the audiences of these products can be funders to start to generate a sense among these audiences that the things you want to do are a good idea. Eventually, you can bring along the field towards seeing the opportunity that your organization envisions. 

There are implications for everyone in the staff brainstorm above. If you’re at a foundation funded organization, and have an idea for a great campaign, funder education probably won’t work in the short term if the project is not aligned. Better to look for areas of current mutual interest. Fundraisers should not jump to shut down great ideas either. Over time you can sometimes help funders come around to your priorities through providing information and framing problems that helps people see the solutions and potential impact that you offer.