Why We Accept Proposals Written for Other Funders - Exponent Philanthropy
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Why We Accept Proposals Written for Other Funders

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

A few years ago, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation painfully let go of important issues and organizations, believing we could do more for New York City by focusing our giving. Our board of directors decided to invest in city leaders, their networks, and the organizations that develop them. After that, we started to rethink how we approached grantmaking.

Simplifying and Streamlining Paperwork

The foundation’s president, Phil Li, and I are former nonprofit executive directors, program managers, and board members. We’ve both spent many years wrestling with funders from the other side of the table. And we were familiar with the wide range of specialized RFPs, individualized budget formats, and the many various attachments that funders request. In fact, I often felt like the smaller the grant size, the more paperwork it required!

The Whitman Institute’s Pillars of Trust Based Philanthropy also influenced me and Phil, and we adopted them for the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. One of their pillars is simplifying and streamlining paperwork.

I want to note, this is not a good deed we’re doing for grantseekers. It makes our jobs better, and it gets us closer to our mission. As funders, we want to be out in the field, meeting with potential grantees, observing programs, talking to leaders, and learning about state of the art of leadership development. When we spend too much time at our desks, poring over proposals, attachments, and reports, we feel restless and detached.

Having the consent of our adventurous board, we shifted our grantmaking process to ask for proposals that potential grantees had already written for other funders.

Our Application Process

We have an open submission policy. After reading about our foundation, organizations can apply at any time. We ask for documentation describing their leadership development work. But we needn’t see Robert Sterling Clark where foundation X used to be. In fact, the apply section on our website says:

“Please submit a recent grant application that represents your organization well and reflects our funding interests. Feel free to share one that you’ve used to apply to another funder.”

Some applicants are skeptical. Building trust and a good reputation in the field takes time. But we insisted on this approach, and many organizations are more than happy to comply.

Proposals written for other funders work well for us. The proposals offer the information we need to start. Then, we can google the applicants 990s, talk to colleagues in the field, and most importantly, meet them and observe their programs.

It’s a better use of both of our times to talk with potential grantees, and it’s more fun.

All that said, we’re still figuring things out. For example, we initially asked the organizations we fund to submit the grant reports they’d written for other funders. But they didn’t speak to what the grantees were learning. So, we moved to an oral reporting process. At the end of each funding period, we interview grantees and do whatever writing we need coming out of that conversation.

Streamlining paperwork, especially to engage in trust-based philanthropy, has many payoffs. Most importantly, it gives grantees more time to do their important work. It also increases trust, and strengthens our relationships with grantee partners, so that we can work together in ways beyond the check. Finally, it makes our jobs richer and more rewarding.

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About the Author

Lisa Pilar Cowan is the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation‘s Vice President of Programs, and in this capacity she helps with strategy, development, and oversight of foundation programs and grantmaking. Lisa has been working with community-based organizations for the past 25 years.


  1. Ted Hoffman

    One of the most laser focused, intelligent and strategically impactful strategies I’ve heard about in a long while. Congrats!

  2. Mr. Robert DiLeonardi

    This is an unusual model, and I applaud your trying something different because foundation philanthropy often needs some innovation. In picturing how these practices might be implemented at other foundations, however, I have some questions that I’m hoping you might be willing to answer.

    Your practice of doing due diligence on proposals by having conversations with grantees is intriguing, and I can see the intended benefits for funder and grantee. At my own foundation we have, and encourage, dialogue with applicants—but we do not initiate it with every applicant or rely on it exclusively. To converse over the course of the application process with every applicant seems like it could be daunting, and I wonder how many small foundations would have the time to have these conversations. How do you make time for this level of conversation with potential partners? Is part of the answer that you focus your philanthropy very tightly, and consider a limited number of proposals each cycle or year? How many times each year are grants awarded?

    Likewise, your practice of having in-person meetings with grantees instead of asking for written grant reports is intriguing but question-provoking. What are your observations about how these conversations go? Are all grantees comfortable meeting with you in person? Do they feel that in this setting they can effectively convey their experiences, learning, feedback, and outcomes? When I was applying for grants I might’ve viewed an in-person report more like a dissertation defense or job interview than a friendly conversation, or worried that the fate of any future funding for my agency was resting a little too much on my verbal skills that day. If some grantees would prefer to submit a written report instead, or complement a conversation with something in writing, how do you approach these requests?

    Again, I think that the goals of your new approach are admirable, and I appreciate the spirit of innovation that inspired them. I would love to hear your thoughts on the questions above.

    • Lisa P Cowan

      Mr. DiLeonardi –
      Thanks for your thoughtful questions. A few thoughts: we do have a tightly bounded area of funding, but we also have an open application process – we offer a self-assessment on our website so applicants can figure out whether they match our guidelines. We have a rolling application process, and make grant decisions three times a year.

      We read applications before meeting with potential grantees, and if it does not seem like a possible match, we do not meet with them. So that, as well as the specific guidelines help limit how many meetings we have.

      In response to your questions about the reporting process – it is all brand new, so I don’t have good answers yet. We have talked to colleagues in the field who use this practice already, often having the conversation by phone rather than in person. On balance, the advantages seem to outweigh drawbacks, but I will be glad to keep you posted on our experience.

      If you want to discuss any of this off-line, please feel free to get in touch: lcowan@rsclark.org.

  3. Megan Fenkell

    I love this idea. I wonder if you could share the interview questions that you use for oral reporting. Thanks!

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