Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Saying no: how we’re working to be more responsive

Jan. 10, 2013, 9:22 a.m., Posted by John Bracken

Photo credit: Flickr user Visionello

Last week I wrote about one of the highlights of my job - working with social entrepreneurs. This week, I want to talk about one of its lowlights: saying no.

Before the holidays, Felix Salmon wrote a column about giving. He focused on encouraging individual donors, but some of his observations apply to foundations, too - particularly this: "If you’re going to give money, give money. If you’re not, then say so, clearly."

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The fact that my tweet of Salmon’s quote was noticed almost exclusively by people who work for nonprofits validated something I’ve thought for awhile: donors need to do a better job of saying no - and doing so more quickly.

Few, if anyone, who works in philanthropy wakes up in the morning thinking “Yay, I get to reject a bunch of people’s ideas and dreams today.” The joy of this field is enabling people to fulfill their visions, helping them to actualize their ideas. But most of the time we say no.

In 2012, we received more than 2,500 applications for the News Challenge and funded just 12 in the first two rounds. (We’ll announce the third set of winners, from the mobile round, next Thursday, Jan. 17 at Arizona State University. You can watch the winners give lightening talks about their projects at 12:30 p.m. ET on Friday, Jan. 18th.)

At Knight, we’re making an effort to more clearly articulate why we do and do not fund things, and to let people know more quickly. So we’ve looked to other organizations as examples. A couple of years ago some friends pitched Y Combinator in the morning and by lunch they had a brief, but polite and detailed, email declining their application.

I’ve tried to hew our work more closely to that venture-style rapidity. Last year, we launched our Prototype Fund, designed to test ideas and share learnings quickly. My colleague Chris Barr began managing the fund shortly after joining us. He started off running the fund like Y Combinator: proposals sent to him in the morning that didn’t fit might receive a decline in the afternoon - sometimes even that same morning. We quickly learned that didn’t work. It seems that when people submit an idea to a foundation, they expect that the diligence we do should take some time. Once we delayed the time he takes to send out the decline from hours to days, the number of complaints decreased (of course, people never like to be told no).

At the risk of getting too inside baseball, here are some of the techniques and behaviors our team’s adopted to more quickly, and clearly, decline proposals.

Communications: We’re trying to describe more clearly what we fund and why. Michael Maness gave several talks last year about our strategy, which we’ve shared. I point to them in my email signature under the banner of  “What we fund.”

Process We hold a monthly team meeting where we discuss proposals and ideas sent to us that month. This meeting helps in three ways:

  1. It allows me to tell an applicant “thanks for your idea - I’ll share it with my team on January 21 and get back to you with a response the following week.”
  2. It enables me to explain that a decline comes from a group discussion and not my own personal vagaries.  
  3. We say yes more often through the Prototype Fund. Although we declined over 99 percent of last year’s News Challenge applications, we have made a dozen prototype grants to projects or teams that came to us through the challenge. We anticipate expanding that this year.

If you apply for journalism and media innovation funding and don’t hear back from me in a timely manner, please let me know. This year you’re going to hear “no” from us more often than yes, but we’ll try to be better at it.

By John Bracken, director/journalism and media innovation at Knight Foundation