Swimming with Sharks: Grant Lessons Learned

Note from Diane: You may remember, but I had the opportunity to swim with nurse sharks and rays this winter. I shared my reflections on what it means to lead a creative life and how challenging ourselves in new experiences can improve our work. Little did I know that colleague and today’s guest blogger, Dr. Judy Riffle, had a fascination with sharks! So we’re sharing a different spin with you today about “swimming with sharks” lessons.


Swimming with sharksShark week on the Discovery channel is one of my favorite times of the year. Sharks fascinate me, and I will continue to go into the water. There is much we can learn from sharks when it comes to serving on a nonprofit governing board and how this service can improve our grant skills and professionalism. I have served on several boards, and I’m not suggesting that board members are like sharks (although at times I have felt the bite). After all, sharks are really not our enemies. They simply want to survive and thrive.

Swimming with Sharks: Grant Lessons Learned from Serving on a Nonprofit Board

The Shallows. In this recent movie with Blake Lively as the actress posing as a surfer in Mexico, the mechanical shark pursuing her is made out to be a vengeful, one-sided predator. Sharks simply need to eat like all of us; they do not seek revenge on people although we have done many harmful things to them. I have felt stung by words from fellow board members, but lately have been trying harder to understand why they say the things they do. Perhaps they just don’t understand the grant world. By putting ourselves in their shoes, we can learn to be better team players, which is always helpful in grant planning, preparation, and management. Take a deep breath before making that immediate, sarcastic comeback.

Some sharks have a gestation period of 24 months. Can you imagine? Thinking back to my own pregnancy so many years ago, nine months was definitely long enough. Sharks can teach us the value of patience and dedication. Sitting through some nonprofit board meetings, I feel like we go in circles despite an agenda and I just want to get to the meat part of fundraising. But with boards and the grant process, we must move slow and steady to reach our goals.

Sharks are endothermic, which means they have a warm core or internal temperature of 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. To maintain this warm temperature, they need to eat a lot. Board members and grant professionals must always be willing to learn more. I have not only served as a board member, but also helped a nonprofit with healthy board development. This is an ongoing process, including helping board members understand mission/vision, Robert’s Rules of Order, grant readiness, officer responsibilities/roles, and the many facets of fundraising. When I am helping a client with board development, I don’t also serve as a board member since this would be a conflict of interest. All these nuances are important to understand in board service and grant writing. Serving or working with a board helps you practice skillful responses to statements such as “I don’t fundraise” or “Why don’t we just get a federal grant?” from board members unfamiliar with the nonprofit world and grants.     

Sharknado. Sharknado is a 2013 TV movie depicting man-eating sharks dropped in Los Angeles from a waterspout. These sharks proceed towards attacking many humans. Although imaginative, this is a highly unlikely scenario. Scientists are studying intelligent hunting behavior of sharks, and discovering they adapt to their environment in order to survive. Some sharks have jumped into boats, wait for high tide to swim onto docks to eat scraps left by fishermen, swim onto beaches chasing seagulls, and ride waves onto rocks in order to catch seals. Serving on a nonprofit board forces you to form realistic expectations. While you should expect passion for the organization’s mission from all involved, it takes time and education for board members to understand what they can bring to the table and how they can further the goals of the nonprofit besides just showing up at meetings. In addition, it makes you realize why funders want information about a governing board, including whether it is a functioning body focused on accountability.

Most sharks must move constantly in the water in order to breathe. Perpetual motion is important on nonprofit governing boards and for grant professionals. Sometimes, it is vital that a board member is replaced if they are actually hurting the survival of the organization. Stagnant water is not good, and grant professionals must realize this. New ideas and fresh perspectives are needed. Using the same narrative template for every grant proposal is not the best way to win funding. Asking people to just be a board member on paper without meetings is also not a successful nor ethical technique for fundraising and winning grants. Use governing boards to make things better and thrive in the nonprofit world!

Are you a fan of shark week? Have you served on a nonprofit Governing Board? What lessons have you learned that have made you a better grant professional? We’d love to hear – share your lessons with us in the comments section on the website, via email (info@dhleonardconsulting.com) or on our social media.

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