The Ten Great (Funding) Commandments

by Rory O'Connor

Those in search of charitable funds have their own bible-which, donors may find, is somewhat lacking in reverence for the philanthropic project. What follows are the so-called Ten Grant Commandments -- it's offered here as a rare glimpse into the angst-ridden mind of the grant applicant -- whose wiles you may find unsettling but whose pluck you will have to admire.

1. Ask for What You Need

A little more than a decade ago, a phone rang in the cramped two-room Soho "loft-hovel" (as one scribe accurately termed it) then serving as executive-offices-and-production-facility for Globalvision, the independent film and television company my partner and I had just set up. Peter Goldmark, then president of the Rockefeller Foundation, was calling.

We had written to Goldmark, along with numerous other major foundation heads, to appeal for support for our fledgling television series South Africa Now. Created in response to the major broadcast networks' acquiescence to the media restrictions imposed by South Africa's racist regime, the nonprofit weekly newsmagazine brought stories about life under apartheid past the censors to an international audience. Despite the enthusiasm of viewers and critics, it was proving difficult to keep the program, begun with seed money from the United Nations, on the air. When Goldmark called, we were amazed and delighted-at least until we began to listen to what he was saying. "I have a letter here asking for twenty-five thousand dollars," he told us. "Well, I just called to tell you I'm not going to give you twenty-five thousand dollars."

We were crestfallen. This was too cruel. Why had the president of the Rockefeller Foundation called personally to turn down our modest grant application?

"You can't possibly do what you propose for just twenty-five thousand dollars," Goldmark continued. "So I'm going to give you a hundred thousand dollars instead. Moreover, I'm going to call a few of my colleagues and urge them to do the same. And next time you request financial support, ask for what you really need."

2. Have Friends in High Places

Goldmark's offer to call his colleagues was our first glimpse inside a private club-one composed of members who had lots of OPM (other people's money) to give away. Needless to say, this group of people-like people with any sort of money-tend to know each other, hang out with each other, drink at the same cocktail parties and in general move and spend in concert. With no invitation to the party, we were sorely in need of friends in such lofty places.

Thus, Goldmark's offer to help find "matching funds" (which soon became our mantra) served as a sort of secret handshake, an entree into the upper echelons of the foundation world. With Rockefeller on board, other establishment institutions like Carnegie and MacArthur apparently felt comfortable enough to follow suit, and shortly thereafter, lesser-known but equally well-heeled newcomers such as Aaron Diamond joined in. Soon we were able to expand our coverage of the liberation struggle in South Africa. When we were subsequently thanked by President Nelson Mandela and others for our small part in that successful struggle, we were pleased to share the credit with our funders. After all, what's a little credit among friends?

3. Have Friends in Low Places

Of course, when navigating from the streets to the suites and back again, friends in high places sometimes do not suffice. Here's a case in point, which also suggests a corollary to the Third Commandment: Keep in mind that grantors are frequently incapable of the most basic organizational acts, like not losing the (filled out in triplicate) grant application forms and sending the check to the correct address. It was a cold, wet and dismal December 1989. As usual, our operation was running entirely hand-to-mouth. To make payroll, we were depending on a forthcoming large grant from a large foundation-and the money was nowhere in sight. Nearly broke, we finally called in desperation to see what the hang-up was, only to be told that the check was in the mail. In fact, it should have arrived long before.

Already past the neophyte stage and expecting the worst, we inquired, "What address did you send it to?" "Three sixty-one Broadway," came the response. "But we're at three sixty-one West Broadway," we explained. "The same address we've always been at! Broadway and West Broadway are two different streets...

Another check could be issued-but that could take weeks, if not months. We resolved instead to find the missing one, and set out for 361 Broadway, which turned out to be a towering office building with numerous floors. As we stood in the lobby pondering our fate, we were approached by the building's superintendent-suspicious, and intent on our removal.

When we explained our mission, however, the super, an African immigrant, lit up with pleasure. "South Africa Now-that is the best show on television!" he exclaimed. "The only one that tells the story of my continent. Come-we must find your money!"

So we proceeded office by office, floor by floor, accompanied by our new friend. Countless floors later, just when we were ready to admit defeat, he took us to a company where a secretary remembered the envelope having arrived-more than a month earlier. "We kept it for a while, hoping someone would turn up," she explained ruefully. "Finally, I gave it back to the letter carrier." An hour later, after talking my way into the Dead Letter Department of the Canal Street Station, I had $75,000 in my hand, and we could cover payroll.

4. Friends in High Places Are Better

Another time, we employed a novel fundraising technique in a futile attempt to get support from the Ford Foundation, still a holdout despite all our efforts. A woman who interned for our program-for no pay, of course-supported herself by cleaning apartments for those in high places. Among her clients was Franklin Thomas, then head of the Ford Foundation. At our instigation, while cleaning the Thomas abode, she left a videotape promoting South Africa Now cued up inside the Thomas VCR.

Unlike Peter Goldmark, however, Franklin Thomas never called us-and he never supported our program. It was only years later, long after Thomas had moved on, that the Ford Foundation gave our company any grants at all. We never found out whether Thomas saw the tape, or what he thought about it.

5. Money Is Fungible

After a couple of years, getting money to support South Africa Now got a little easier. After all, the program was clearly on the side of the angels, and we had enough mastery of the modern art of hype that most foundation heads had heard of it. Oh, we still had money problems-but they were different money problems. To wit, we had enough overall money (for once) but not for the right things. In fact, we had received grants for everything but producing a television program-grants for promotion, grants for distribution, grants for outreach and grants for planning. Just no grants for actually making it.

After a bit of head-scratching, we realized that having money just wasn't a problem in the way that not having money had been. Soon I was being paid as director of promotion, my partner was in charge of distribution, and other editorial and production workers were officially tasked to outreach, planning, whatever we had been given money to do. The actual production of the program, you see, somehow fell to unpaid volunteers-who also happened to be the directors of promotion, distribution, outreach and planning.

6. Never Appear Too Good

Our unending dialing for dollars required an equally unending search for new and untapped sources of funds, so when we learned that the rock group Grateful Dead was sponsoring the Rex Foundation, we immediately wrote a letter and sent what we hoped was an impressive packet of programming, reviews and testimonials. Since the average grant by Rex was relatively small-as was the request-we were fairly confident that our bid would be successful.

But at first, it wasn't. The reason, at least as stated by the Rex Foundation's rejection letter, was that we seemed to be too big, too established and too good at what we did, to qualify for support. The Rex Foundation, we were told, liked to focus on smaller, riskier and less-established projects.

Exasperated by such logic, I sent another letter to Rex-this time filled with misspellings, grammatical mistakes, and loopy, confusing, run-on sentences. My associates thought I had flipped, but I wanted to make a point to the deadhead administrators at Rex. "Don't worry," my letter concluded. "We don't have it together at all, and any grant you may give us stands a good chance of being misspent." Two months later, another envelope came in the mail from the Rex Foundation. It contained just one small slip of paper-a check for $10,000.

7. Never Appear Too Bad

When we first set up shop, we took pride in the fact that an incredibly high percentage of the money we raised actually went to making television programming and very little to administration, salaries or-as could be readily ascertained by a site visit-our loft/hovel. We thought this dedicated inelegance would impress benefactors and lead to more funding.

We learned better in due course, however. The lesson was driven home the day a high-net-worth individual with control of a mid-sized foundation came to visit, along with his foundation director, an old friend of my partner's from his days as a community organizer. They arrived in a chauffeured stretch limousine that stayed in front of our pathetic office with its motor running throughout the visit.

We showed off our poverty-stricken operation with pride, repeatedly making the point that most of the money we raised could be "seen on the screen." But somehow, the chemistry was off. No matter what we said or did, it was obvious that our potential patron was uncomfortable. In fact, he couldn't wait to get back to the limo.

We never got any money from him. But his director-our friend-was kind enough to explain why. "He just doesn't think anything of quality can be produced in such a slum- like setting," she told us. "Maybe you guys should consider moving to midtown."

8. Take the Devil's Money

We often joke that we would take money from anyone, anywhere-but it's not true. In fact, like most grant seekers, we've spent hours arguing over whether we should even apply to some sources of funds, such as tobacco companies.

By the time we made any corporate funding contacts, South Africa Now was off the air and we were focused on our new nonprofit newsmagazine, Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television.

Perhaps naively, we assumed that finding corporate support for a television show about human rights would be far easier. Generally speaking, we were wrong. But a few companies, including the death-merchant Philip Morris, were amenable. Barred from many forms of advertising, the cigarette manufacturer had begun funding nonprofit groups involved in First Amendment activities, and Rights & Wrongs certainly qualified. In fact, the corporation even agreed to pay for an entire half-hour program dedicated to exploring "tolerance." We would have complete control over the program's content.

But as much as we needed the money, we were deeply divided about accepting it. On the one hand, Rights & Wrongs, although critically acclaimed, was constantly in danger of going off the air due to lack of funds. PBS had never given us a dime for the program, and without their support, we were perpetually cash starved. On the other hand, the Philip Morris money was ... blood money, to put it bluntly.

In the end, we decided to take it. We made an award-winning program on a vital topic-and no one (besides ourselves) ever challenged, or even asked about, the source of funds. Sometimes you have to take the devil's money to do the Lord's work, especially if the Lord is broke.

9. The Rich Are Different

After more than a decade's toil in the grant seekers' vineyard, I've been around enough people with money-both their own and others'-to know what F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were talking about in their famous exchange ("The rich are different from you and me," said Fitzgerald, to which Hemingway allegedly replied, "Yes, they have more money"). Perhaps they were both right.

Take, for example, Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, and billionaire speculator George Soros-two exceedingly rich people who have supported our work.

Roddick, whose cause-related marketing moxie and money have put the Body Shop stamp on such worthy movements as saving the rain forests, helping the homeless and promoting human rights, granted us $300,000 when we launched Rights & Wrongs, and then turned her attention elsewhere. I later told her it would have been better for both parties if she had either stuck with the project or never funded it at all. Her aides were aghast. Few speak truth to power, fewer still to money. But that's why the rich (as opposed to their assistants) sometimes like to hear it straight. To her credit, when I ran into Roddick at a conference years later, she committed $50,000 on the spot in further support of human-rights programming.

Soros, who gives away more money annually than God, wasn't funding projects inside the United States when we first asked his Open Society Institute to support Rights & Wrongs. We assured him that we weren't American-we were global, thus squeezing within his guidelines. We soon received a "one-time only" grant of $333,000-with instructions not to come back and try to perpetuate the ruse.

Needless to say, we went back the next year (and got $250,000 and a strongly worded letter not to come back) and the next year ($125,000 and an even stronger letter). Along the way, Soros, whose love-hate affair with the media fluctuates wildly and unpredictably (my partner once told him he needed a "media psychiatrist"), briefly considered hiring our company as consultants.

When we showed up for the meeting to close the proposed deal, however, Soros promptly dismissed us. "I know why you're here," he began rudely. "You smell money!" Hey! Hadn't this guy ever heard of Willie Sutton?

10. Do It Now

It's as true in the nonprofit as in the for-profit world (if not infinitely more so) that a buck in the hand is worth two checks in the mail. In other words, if-as George Soros so elegantly phrased it-you "smell" money, do not rest until it is in your hands.

This became abundantly clear to us after an encounter with "Big Mac," the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (one of the largest supporters of media in the foundation world) and the late William Kirby, a well-connected attorney who had helped set up the foundation and had great influence over its policies and spending.

For years, Kirby had been the patron saint of independent media. By the time we hooked up with him, however, he was elderly and infirm, slowed down by a triple bypass. A tough, streetwise power broker, he seemed to like our spirit, and after a liquid lunch at Chicago's Union Club, he promised us a $100,000 grant.

At my colleague's insistence, we compiled and then overnighted a voluminous proposal to Kirby's office. "This guy could die at any minute!" my partner screamed, a bit hysterically. "We have to get this package to him tomorrow." And so we did-amid much grumbling about having to stay late once again to make the FedEx delivery.

A week later, the New York Times ran Kirby's obituary. We were stunned and saddened... But had he completed the paperwork on the grant? We waited a few days before calling-after all, we weren't that callous. His longtime secretary was still mourning and in shock, but she promised to look into the matter soon.A week later, she did call-and yes, she had the grant papers. They were lying on Kirby's desk, signed and ready for processing. Signing them was apparently one of his last acts.

A little more than a year ago, a phone rang in the midtown Manhattan (see how we've learned!) executive-offices-and-production-facility of Globalvision. Peter Goldmark was calling.

This time it was because of a letter we had written, "officially rejecting" a rejection letter the Rockefeller Foundation had sent us in response to yet another request for funds. The foundation's rejection letter, we pointed out, failed to meet our rejection criteria. "Please do not take this as a reflection on your rejection," we noted, mimicking the many rejection letters we had wallpapered our office with over the years. "Simply put, your rejection does not fit within our guidelines at the present time."

"You guys deserve some kind of reward for chutzpah and persistence," Goldmark told us over the phone. "As our letter already told you, I'm probably not going to be able to support your project, as the Foundation is going in a different direction these days, and we're not really doing any media funding. But come see me anyway."

We had a pleasant chat, and Goldmark was quite complimentary about our work. A few weeks later we got a formal note from the Foundation, rejecting our request once again. So yes, sometimes "no" means "no."

Thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation, Rory O'Connor is now researching the 'reversioning' of four years of weekly Right & Wrongs programs into educational media-and needless to say, he continues his endless quest for funds.

Reprinted from The American Benefactor