A number of years ago, early in my fundraising career, I wrote a grant proposal asking for support for a nonprofit radio station. The station came into being through a few dedicated enthusiasts, who loved radio, thought that a radio station would be a great asset to the organization, and would provide a media training opportunity for college students.
These radio enthusiasts cobbled together the equipment, technical expertise, and made a herculean effort to get the station on the air and through the hoops it took to get an FCC license. Great job! They asked me to see if there were any foundations or organizations that would be willing to fund this endeavor.
And, I found one! At that time, my colleagues nicknamed me “The Golden Pen” because of my persuasive writing skills. And, I (humbly) admit, I was pretty good at getting funding. So, I wrote a killer grant proposal to this foundation highlighting what a great boon the radio station would be and how they should consider funding it.
The foundation liked what they read and agreed that funding the radio station was very much in line with the type of projects they like to support. They sent us a check for a significant amount of money, with the provision that the radio station had to send quarterly progress reports. I patted myself on the back, and moved on with my other responsibilities.
When it was time to write the first progress report, guess what? Absolutely NO progress had been made. None. In fact, if anything, the project had regressed. The person under whose oversight the radio station fell had a lot of excuses and no real plan.
Yet, the check had already been cashed and the money spent on equipment.
Believe me, you don’t ever want to have to write a progress report and say that there has been no progress! That’s exactly what I did, after trying to cobble together some kind of plan (which was not in my job description at all!) as to how things will improve in the next quarter. And, let’s just say that the “progress” report for the next quarter wasn’t that much better.
What was wrong in all this? While the radio station project certainly needed funding, what it needed even more was commitment by the sponsoring organization, leadership, and a plan for bringing it to its full potential. It had none of these. They ONLY things this radio station had were equipment, an FCC license, and some technical expertise to get it on the air.
The radio station was founded by a group of enthusiastic people who loved radio as a hobby, but had no idea how to run a station, and had no plan for gaining that expertise. The sponsoring organization had some kind of a vague idea that a radio station would be a good thing, but had never taken the time or committed the leadership resources to flesh out how it would contribute to the mission or operate on a day-to-day basis. Throwing all the money in the world at that station would not have improved things.
SO early in my career, I learned this lesson: If the only thing a project needs is money, it is in pretty good shape. If a project has a good mission, accountable leadership, and goals, it can be successful. Money can’t buy those things.
Fortunately, I did learn this lesson well, and over the next few years, when anybody came to me and asked for my help in securing funding for other projects, I “put them through their paces” before I would work with them. I turned down a number of “good” projects that were not led by competent people with a vision who could get things done.
Okay—now for the end of the story. After writing two quarterly reports that essentially apologized for the lack of progress, a new person was added to the staff who not only loved radio and had a lot of technical expertise, but was able to make enough progress that the conditions of the grant were fulfilled. Several years later, another radio station proposed sharing a studio with this one and helped to take over the day-to-day operations and training in a mutually beneficial cooperative environment.
And, if you like irony, I was able to help this other station with a grant proposal to improve their operations by securing some equipment. The last I’ve heard, both stations are doing well.
In summary, I really DO believe that lack of vision and leadership are much more detrimental to a charitable endeavor than lack of money.