Exploring the Restrictions on Unrestricted Funding: Part II

July 24, 2015 //

As I pondered where to start my series of reflections on barriers to multi-year, unrestricted funding, a scene from two years ago came to mind: I was at The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s national conference in Detroit. It was the “Q&A” portion of a plenary session on the meeting’s last day and someone stood up and asked in an exasperated voice: “We keep having these same conversations at conferences about long-term, general operating support and nothing really changes. Why?”

A pregnant pause followed before one of the panelists took a stab at answering. Acknowledging there is probably a range of reasons, he focused on one that leads to short-term timeframes: funders’ attraction to the “new and shiny.”

Why the attraction?

Sometimes it’s because we connote new with innovative. Sometimes it’s because changes in leadership or strategy dictate a new direction. And often times it’s because there’s a certain spark that comes from starting a new relationship.

I think the very real buzz that can come from the latter is more at play than we officially acknowledge.

That point was reinforced for me when I read The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s recent cover story on the neuroscience of giving. The headline was that emerging brain research shows that donors give based on their emotions and the “warm glow” feeling that comes from their donation. Logic, facts, and statistics prove much less a factor. The thread that links all of the research studies is that fundraisers should prioritize donors’ feelings and appeal to their emotions.

Though the following quotes refer to individual donors, I couldn’t help think how they might apply to foundations’ reluctance to commit to multi-year, unrestricted funding:

  • “Donors sit really close to the exit. They often want a one-night stand, not a relationship.”
  • “The sad truth is you don’t get the same boost from giving or volunteering if you do it in the same way every time.”
  • “Donors prefer to support a charity’s mission, not pay salaries.”
  • “If the warm-glow theory has a corollary, it is that donors should be made to feel that their gift is central to a campaign’s success…..People need to believe their donation is pivotal, that it makes a real difference.”

Considering the way our brains appear to be wired, maybe we should entertain the prospect that strong emotional needs may underlie not only donor behavior but foundation behavior as well – needs that might well be worth explicitly exploring if we hope to shift philanthropic practice.

So, here are a few beginning questions funders might ponder:

  • What comes up for you when funding is framed within a dynamic of one-night stands or dating versus making a long-term commitment?
  • Does multi-year, unrestricted funding feel like “doing the same thing every time?”
  • How does it feel to make a grant that supports projects with defined costs versus paying for salaries or keeping the lights on?
  • How important is it that your support (and perhaps your relationship) is perceived as pivotal to grantees?

To ask these kinds of questions invites us to look at our grantmaking through a more subjective lens than we usually do – at least publicly.

I think that was the invitation the questioner was making at the CEP conference in Detroit two years ago. Yet the time constraints of the session (always an issue it seems) prevented anyone from really taking her invitation up. What hung in the air then were more unspoken issues of ego and power and control — topics I will get into in future posts.