Understanding Foundations

There are a lot of misconceptions about foundations’ guidelines and procedures. It can be hard to figure out what they really mean. To help you navigate these turbulent waters, we asked an anonymous program officer at a major foundation for a few pointers to understand what they’re really looking for. Here are a few she’d like to share with the readers of pJM.

Soliciting? My foundation’s website says “unsolicited proposals are not considered.” What we mean is, “We get too much mail and we want to cut it down.” We’re only human! You’d be surprised at the unsolicited proposals we actually give grants to. Don’t believe everything people tell you.

Small is Beautiful. One website says, “We encourage high-visibility, creative ideas with the potential to impact Jews everywhere.” Get real! What foundation wants the kind of attention they’d get from a really big project? If it’s huge someone will complain about it, write letters to the editor, whatever. “High visibility” means a few hundred people somewhere. Any bigger and we wouldn’t touch it. Trust me.

Play It Safe. Our guidelines say, “We support committed, motivated risk- takers.” Translation: “risk-taking” means “doing something that’s a proven success.” Success is what we like. What sane person would take a risk when they don’t need to? Don’t be so literal!

Play Dumb. Program officers will be helpful and tell you about the major trends and important people in your field. When they do, pretend you’re hearing it for the first time. OK, you know a lot more about your field than they do! But it means so much to them to feel knowledgeable.

Leave God Out of It. You know how we say, “We support the modeling of Jewish values on the communal and national level”? If you think that means we’re going to put our name on anything that mentions religion, guess again. Holiday tie-ins are great, as long as they’re about “celebrating our shared traditions.” Education is terrific, as long as it’s “our heritage of learning” and not studying laws and rules. Just no God, OK? And don’t even think about writing the word Orthodox! Not even with a small “o.”

Must-Haves. There are some things you’ve got to put in your proposal, like saying your project is transparent, sustainable, and scalable. We don’t know what those things actually mean, but the lay leaders love them. Same for “Web 3.0” and “the power of social networking” and “the revolutionary potential of Twitter and Facebook.” Panels eat this up.

The Letter. You’ll probably get a letter from the foundation that says, “We receive many excellent proposals. While we found many strong points in yours, we regret to inform you that it did not fully align with our current priorities.” Translation: we’re just not into you. Hey, we’re not Santa Claus.

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