Ethical Grant Seeking: Beyond Following the Rules

Some people are drawn to true crime shows and podcasts. Others find solace in Animal Crossing or Candy Crush. Believe me, I am not judging. I self-medicate by watching reruns of the Great British Baking Show, and PBS’s Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries.


There’s something else that always catches my attention and that of my Fundraising HayDay co-host Amanda Day. Stories of grant fraud.  They’re oddly soothing.  Not because of the unethical practices themselves, but that someone uncovered those practices and the wrongdoers were punished. Federal grant dollars spent in “gentlemen’s clubs,” state funds diverted to vacation homes or show horses (seriously), university student support funds used instead for plastic surgery for program directors.  You can’t make this stuff up.


These missteps and downright illegal actions that come to light create valuable teaching tools—good “bad” examples.  But lately I have been searching for the good “good” examples of grant seeking in ideas and actions that go far beyond following the rules. It’s where ethics meets morals, and I find it incredibly inspiring.


The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic followed by a severe economic downturn, and the hurt of a nation grappling with racism has serious repercussions for the nonprofit and local government sectors.  Lost revenues from fundraisers, taxes, individual gifts, and grants have fostered an environment of scarcity thinking, what Vu Le calls the Hunger Games mentality. Agency leaders stuck in this mindset can pit themselves against other organizations in what may feel like a life or death competition for limited funds.


But here comes the inspirational part.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  On June 2, the Minnesota Freedom Fund announced a pause on accepting donations and advised that donors seek other agencies supporting the work of protesters through a list of recommendations.  They began accepting donations again on June 5, but explained how the gifts would be used for related purposes to their mission. They also listed several other nonprofits on their home page that would benefit from donations.


In this grant seeking/fundraising ethical situation, the freedom fund is totally correct in continuing to accept donations and grants as long as they spent those funds on expenses associated with their programs and the community they serve.  Their response to encourage donations to other worthy agencies went beyond the rules, into the morality of funding.


An Atlanta-area clinic, one of my co-host’s clients, recently turned down an opportunity to apply for a COVID-19 relief grant because the executive director stated that they were okay for now with funding, and that she knew other agencies needed it more.  A large private foundation contacted this small clinic, and ethically speaking, the executive director would have been well within the bounds of acceptable practice to respond to this invitation by applying for the grant.  But she knew her agency’s capacity and made a decision to opt-out of this particular grant cycle.


Actions like these will help change the philanthropic landscape that has helped perpetuate some of the inequities that it also tries to address.  And nonprofits and local governments that are able to share and promote the good works and needs of others besides their own are creating positive change.


During these turbulent times, I will still de-stress through the chivalric competitors that offer to help decorate each other’s desserts, and by rooting for fastidious Belgian detectives and clever elderly ladies to save the day in fictional countrysides. And my Google alerts for grant fraud will provide fodder for training and consulting.  If you’re looking for an entertaining discussion about ethics in grants and grants management, consider Episode 2 of Season 3 of the Fundraising HayDay podcast.

Full disclosure: we sing.


Do what you need to do to come back strong. Yes, follow the rules.  But look beyond them to do the right thing in supporting your community.


DH Leonard Consulting & Grant Writing Services, LLC is so excited to be season 3 sponsors for Fundraising HayDay, a podcast about grants and such. Catch up on season 1 & 2 and stay up to date on the new season here.

Don’t let grants stress you out, check out the helpful grant writing services our team has to offer here.

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