"Too Strong for Our Support" -- How Does That Logic Work?

08/26/2014 05:22 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2014

Imagine you're a foundation program officer funding in the area of youth development and education. You're approached for renewal support by a nonprofit that provides mentors to high school students. It has a great reputation, is strong, well led and has achieved impressive results. Nearly 100 percent of their students graduate high school and 80 percent enroll in college.

Thankfully for many students around the country, effective nonprofits like this one aren't hypotheticals. That's why I was dismayed when a nonprofit CEO who serves on GEO's Nonprofit Taskforce shared with me the reason that three separate program officers from three different foundations gave her recently for no longer supporting her organization: You're too strong.

These program officers argued that since her organization is considered "one of the best," they have a better shot of attracting new sources of funding than other organizations. The program officers felt they should fund more fragile organizations to help them survive.

How demoralizing must that have been for a nonprofit leader who had worked tirelessly to make her organization so strong? Of course nonprofits have to be prepared to lose longtime funders, but the rationale of losing funding because of the organization's success flies in the face of the expectations we as funders set for our grantees.

Nonprofit leaders are urged to cultivate internal leadership, to develop strong systems and processes and to do their level best to understand and improve their results over time. The theory goes that if you do this, the money will follow. Yet clearly that notion too frequently breaks down. In writing this article, I learned that this isn't an isolated example but a logic that is all too common.

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations is committed to understanding, in real time, the challenges that nonprofits face. That is why we convene a Nonprofit Taskforce a few times a year to hear firsthand from proven and admired nonprofit leaders who are introduced to us by GEO members.

To me, the logic behind the statements from these funders is the most ineffable part. Of course it sometimes makes sense to salvage a struggling organization or to give newer organizations a shot, but strength and success are never a reason that justifies denying funding. Isn't it our duty as grantmakers to strive to do our work smarter so that those we support can grow stronger and ultimately achieve better results? So why would we pass on the opportunity to continue to support a strong nonprofit that is achieving great things on the issues we care about?

I had a few conversations to better understand where this thinking might originate. The consensus was that it's likely connected to the widely held myth about nonprofit sustainability. The myth goes that strong nonprofits will one day reach the exalted state of "sustainability," which means they will no longer need our funds and we can move on.

Securing reliable financial support over the long term is never easy for nonprofits. The reality is that most nonprofits in our country will always need significant private support to achieve their missions. When one funder exits it merely means that they have to find a different funder to fill that gap. Yet it's when their base of support becomes reliable that nonprofit leaders are freed up to focus more time on the actual work and less on the fundraising scramble. Though I'm sure the organization referenced here will find a way to fill the funding gaps left when these funders said no, it will come at the cost of time its CEO otherwise could have spent directly advancing the mission, possibly eroding that strength they are so well known for.

The program officers providing such feedback are likely well intentioned and trying their best. It's hard to have to say no to worthy people and worthwhile institutions on a regular basis. They may even think that they are being affirming by talking about how strong and respected the organization is. Yet to a nonprofit leader it means that the logic they had been operating under about how to win the confidence and support of funders has backfired.

Maybe it's time for an empathy tune-up to make sure that everyone on your team has a clear understanding of the impact that all you do and say has on those you support. For more on how to make sure you're practicing empathy in your organization, check out the resources here.