I have a love/ hate relationship with grant proposals. Here’s the love part:
FORM: If I give you $100,000, what would you do with it?
ME: Here’s a beautiful story about how you and I are going to change the world for the better.
Grants are like window-shopping for nonprofit dorks. We stroll along, imaging what we can and would do if we had all the resources, time, and talent we needed. And it feels so good.
Then you turn down this dark alley:
FORM: Five minutes after your last penny of grant money is spent, what impact will you be able to show? Please list in the attached Lotus 123 template.
ME: *Puts imagination away*
When we tackle issues that are complex - poverty, racism, pollution - we can't know if a project "worked" right away. Some issues are so complex that it may take an entire generation before you can collect the data you need.
In the short-term, you can only rely on proxy metrics. These are, at very best, educated guesses at which indicators show you’re on the right track.
At worst, the need to show immediate impact encourages nonprofits to think short-term, to emphasize tangible, quantifiable outcomes over messy, long-term shifts. It stifles innovation and makes it less likely big problems will ever be solved.
Of course you need to have a hypothesis heading into a project: if we do activity X, then we can expect result Y. But we also need to be open to the possibility that we won’t achieve result Y. That it will take way more resources than anyone imagined to achieve result Y. That result Y isn’t the result we want after all. And that learning this along the way is proof of success, not failure.
When we lock in to “Y” too early, we usually think too small. We only try to do what we know can be done. Which, by definition, means that we are never ever solving problems for the first time. We are never devising answers no one has thought of before. We are never accomplishing anything new.
I totally get that grantmakers want and should know what impact their funds are having in the world. Return on investment is important. Accountability is important. But finding a better way to identify and support truly innovative work ultimately improve ROI and accountability.