What Grantees Wish Grantmakers Knew about Providing Funding to Individuals

A microbiologist expressed concern that "many of our students are turning away from research because they see their professors spending so much time on grant applications." An accomplished artist described her life as "deadline-driven" and wished aloud that she could "build an organization around myself" to manage the administrative aspects of art-making. A nonprofit executive said, "In the nonprofit world, you're always trying to catch up." These are some of the conditions that foundations are responding to when they create programs that make grants to individuals. They are also the conditions under which those same individuals seek grants and work with foundations. Grantees by turns expressed appreciation for and frustration with funders' requests and requirements. Often, they keenly understood the grantmaker's perspective and needs.

  • The application. Grantees said that applications should be concise, have a reasonable time frame, and not involve too much busy work. One artist said, "There's complicated in a busy work way, and then there's complicated in that you have to think deeply about your work." Another commented, "You can get very far along in that process and still not get that grant." For the sake of the many rejected applicants, he suggested that funders try to make their applications relatively short.
  • Recommendation letters. For individuals who routinely apply for grants of a certain kind — scholarships, research grants — securing letters of recommendation from the same people over and over again can be trying. One artist suggested that funders keep letters of recommendation on file for future applications from the same person, ask for letters of recommendation only if an applicant gets far enough in the process, or accept "to whom it may concern" letters.
  • Selection panels. Grantees suggested that selection panels consider possible "translation" problems and take stock of the political nature of the selection process. One artist noted, for example, that it can be tough for performers to represent themselves in a "flat" medium such as television, which doesn’t capture the feeling of live performance. "Translation" problems in other areas include the difficulty of representing leadership skills on paper, or the dynamism of an organization without a site visit. Grantmakers should consider such difficulties in reviewing applications, especially when it may bias panelists toward one applicant over another. The same artist added that panels should have good-quality audio or video equipment for reviewing artists' work.
  • Networking opportunities. Grantees gave mixed reviews to networking support — some of it required as part of the grant. One social entrepreneur said, "Some of the individual grants connect you to a world of people who think like you, and therefore expand your capacity to do whatever work you're doing." Another social entrepreneur felt that the networking required or expected of grantees should be limited: "It's fine to convene all your people once, for two days or so. But if you give people a little bit of money, and you do 4-5 days and make them play games, and there are conference calls and a listserv, there's only so much you can put up with. Some [funders] try to make their grant into a mass movement. Instead, have a short meeting, let people shine, and say their names."
  • Grant amounts and benefits. Grantees say it's not just organizations that need to become sustainable, but individuals, too. One social entrepreneur advised, "You want to say, 'Here's the grant, here are the benefits, here's an extra $2,000 or $3,000 in special discretionary support if you need it.' The point is to recognize that whatever the person is doing, it takes money." Discretionary funding for individual grantees can help further the goals of the grant program. One artist got funding for a large-scale performance piece, which had a successful run at a local theater. The grantmaker provided additional funds to fly an agent in to see the show; the agent agreed to represent the artist and book tour dates, thereby expanding the show's reach.
  • Grant periods and restrictions. One grantee, a science researcher, spoke for many others in wishing that grant periods were generally longer. "When you get a three year grant, you have to right away start thinking about your next grant. Longer-term awards would help." Grantees tended to prefer unrestricted or less restricted grants. One artist said that many foundations prohibit the purchase of equipment — even if it benefits the artist more over the long term, or is less expensive than renting equipment. A science researcher also wished for fewer restrictions on the use of funds. "If we were allowed without too much problem to spend it on, say, salaries for an assistant grant administrator to write proposals or keep books, that would help a lot. Most of those functions are performed by the principal investigator. Foundations may think it's done by the university, but it's not."
  • Grant reporting and evaluation. Grantees understood the need for reporting, and often found it beneficial to reflect on their work in a structured way. They also expressed mixed feelings about certain reporting requirements. One researcher estimated that he spends 40-50 percent of his time applying for and reporting on grants. He does not complain about this and calls it a "fact of life," but it's a proportion that he believes turns many students away from research. "They're going into industry. I fear what the academic environment will be like in 30-40 years." Reporting can be especially difficult for individuals who lack an organizational base. One grantee suggests "guidance and brevity — perhaps a web-based form with, say, five questions."

Grantees were united in their wish that foundations incorporate prospective applicants' ideas into their programs. A social entrepreneur said, "If you invest in people, then you ought to ask them what would help them and not make assumptions about what would benefit them. If you're giving money to people because you respect what they've done, respect the fact that they know best what they need."

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Grants to Individuals.