A Louis Vuitton purse. An inflated salary and over-the-top office decor. Triple payment for the same work. What do these things have in common? If you guessed “lists of things no grant will fund”, you’d be correct. You’ll find all these “what not to dos” and more in Fundraising HayDay’s latest installment of Ripped from the Headlines: Ripped from the Headlines: Grant Fraud Ain’t No April Fools’ Prank (podbean.com). Even though the episode dropped on April Fool’s Day, the stories we share are not jokes, unfortunately.
My cohost, Kimberly Hays de Muga, and I share these stories not to revel in the misfortune of others, but to learn from the mistakes of those who made poor choices with grant funding that are clearly outside the limits of any grant agreement. But what about the ethical quandary between following the rules and ensuring a respected, effective nonprofit carries on its work?
Recently I was working on a grant proposal for a nonprofit that provides primary care to low-income adults without insurance. A local foundation whose mission aligned with the nonprofit had a noon deadline. The executive director approved the final version, and by 9:30am I had everything uploaded into the system, so I hit the submit button. The next screen asked me to “please confirm that the following individuals are aware of this application and in support of its submission,” with a check box for the executive director and the board president.
I felt confident checking the box for the executive director because she had reviewed the application and told me what changes she wanted, which I had made. But I had not spoken to the board president about this particular application, so I did not feel comfortably checking that box. I texted the board president with the details, seeking his permission. He is a doctor, and I had no idea his availability during the day. With approximately two hours to deadline, I was in a bit of a pickle. What if I didn’t hear from him? I felt confident he would say yes, but would I be lying if I checked that box without his express permission? If the application had required his signature, there is no way I would have forged that. Was a checkmark in a box any different?
Fortunately, he texted back and gave me the go-ahead. But the situation gave me pause. What if I hadn’t heard from him, and it was two minutes until the portal closed? Would the ethical choice be to miss out on potential funding, or check a box that was not officially mine to check? Clearly, the underling lesson here is not to wait until the last minute. But we all know that last minute happens, and when there is a surprise page at the end of the application not mentioned anywhere in their guidelines it makes for a close call.
Where do we turn when we do not know the ethical call? The good news is you have help. The Grant Professionals Association (GPA) has a code of ethics, as do many fundraising and nonprofit organizations. You can read the GPA code here: Grant Professionals Association. They also provide a section of Frequently Asked Questions here: Ethics FAQs – Grant Professionals Association. If you cannot find the answer to your dilemma on either page, the GPA Ethics Committee accepts inquires from its members. The process is spelled out here: Ethics Inquiries and Complaint Procedures – Grant Professionals Association.
I highly recommend you surround yourself with fellow grant professionals who adhere to the code of ethics. Chances are, whatever you are facing, an experienced grant professional has already found the right way to handle it.
What ethical quandary is keeping you up at night? Feel free to email Kimberly and me at email@example.com. We are more than happy to weigh in on the situation, or at least point you to a helpful resource. Because really, no one wants to mess up so badly and end up in next season’s installment of Ripped from The Headlines on the Fundraising HayDay Podcast.
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Thanks for writing about this. I’m curious whether anyone thinks to question the ethics of the funding organization, who have put something on the last page of an online system that isn’t mentioned anywhere else in their guidelines – a situation I’ve faced multiple times. Some online systems are difficult if not impossible to “explore” ahead of time and get to the last page, without having all the info for the application, so it’s hard to know what we’re going to face when we get there. What about the ethics on the other side of the equation? I feel like funders need to be more transparent about all requirements in their guidelines, and/or make it easier to click through the online applications to view everything ahead of time.
Jennifer – An important and deep question that I agree, has not been highlighted enough in our field yet. Vu Le’s work around equity in the process addresses other issues related to applications/forms/portal, but yours takes the question in a different direction. I would push a step further and say that while the funding organization should be aware of all the features in the tech platforms they use, the question/issues needs to be escalated to the major tech vendors in the field that are powering online portals. I know some are actively working to prevent such issues in their platforms. No specific solution, but I agree with your point!
I’ve never thought about it as an ethical question for the funder, but now that you mention it, the wheels are turning in my head. Yes, it’s beyond frustrating when funders don’t share all details needed from the outset so grant professionals can properly prepare. In my experience, federal RFPs do a good job of this. Private funders, not so much. It’s one of the things Kimberly and I talk about on the Fundraising HayDay podcast because we want to get the conversation to spark the change. We are all ears for other means to reach funders and help them see things from the perspective of the fund seeker. Ultimately, the more information they provide and the more upfront they are, the better the project and ends result of all projects submitted through their application process.
I’ve been in this situation more than once. Because we all know despite the best of plans we can end up with our backs against the wall on a deadline.
If I can’t get the Board President in time I 1) check with my boss, and/or 2) check with our CEO. If either of them says hit and submit, I do.
I’ve felt so much more comfortable when I’m an employ of an organization than I do as a consultant. But yes, knowing your chain of command certainly helps in situations like this.