6 signs your funding initiative is in trouble

I have helped dozens of foundations explore, develop and launch new grantmaking programs and initiatives. In my experience there are six red flags indicating trouble ahead. If you are experiencing any of these, now is the time to intervene. Investments made now will be easier and less costly than trying to resurrect a failing initiative later. Here are 6 signs to watch out for:


1) You aren’t evaluating your impact – There is an initial period of time when key stakeholders buy into your strategy out of good will and belief that because you are trying to, you will make a difference. But that good will has a shelf life. Stories are important, but quantitative and qualitative evidence must demonstrate success over time. Your funding partners and coalition members will start to fall off if they do not feel that they are investing time and resources in something that demonstrates value. Even if you are several years into your project, it’s not too late to conduct a retrospective evaluation and get back on track.

2) Your evaluation results show little or no impact– While it takes awhile to show results, especially when trying to tackle complex problems such as ending homelessness, developing communities, and reducing chronic absenteeism in schools, if your results demonstrate you aren’t making a difference, it’s time to regroup. It might be that your assumptions and strategies should change, you aren’t investing enough resources, or you aren’t investing resources in the right things. It could even mean that your evaluation design is simply not capturing the early and intermediate wins. Whatever the case, you need to fix it.

3) You have no communications plan. I’ve said before and I will say it again: Communication is critical for the success of grantmaking initiatives. This includes internal communication (your team, funders, and close stakeholders) and external communication (everyone else who can influence or who has a stake in what you are doing).If you don’t prioritize communications planning now – and I do mean right now – you’re going to pay the price a year, or five or ten years, from now when your grantees and partners aren’t coordinated and are unable to stay on the same page, and stakeholders and other funders are confused by what you’re trying to do.

4) Key stakeholders don’t understand what you are doing. When you hear your partners and funders saying things like “Yes we are involved but we really don’t know what they are trying to do” or “I’ve read the Theory of Change three times and I still don’t get it” you need some help. You might need to improve communications (you have a clear plan but you aren’t articulating it well), find better ways to engage key funders and partners, or revisit your strategies. Maybe you are trying to accomplish too much too quickly, and need to scale back. Whatever the solution, you need to act soon or these partners will start dropping off.

5) Initiative leadership is “off topic” or worse, has another agenda.

Chances are you have brought on someone else to lead this initiative – an intermediary, a consultant, a grantee, or a national program office. Without micro-managing, you need to make sure they are clearly advancing your mission and your goals for this initiative. I once advised a funding collaborative that had recently awarded a grant to a nonprofit to serve as the intermediary. At her first meeting with the funders, she made disparaging remarks about one of the key funders – the one who had given her the grant! I can’t make this stuff up.

6) You aren’t trusting your instinct.If your gut feeling is that something is off, the person you hired isn’t the right fit, or that key leaders have concerns but aren’t expressing them – you need to follow your instinct. Chances are you are right. If not, you can put your worries to rest. If you notice that you are talking yourself out of your concerns (“But she is so qualified and everyone liked her in the interview”, “We don’t have time to make changes right now”, “There must be a reason he won’t return my calls, I’m sure he’s busy” etc.) act quickly. Identify a few trusted colleagues and talk to them individually and confidentially to gain perspective.

If one of these applies to you, you need to make some course corrections quickly. If 2-3 are relevant, your initiative is heading for trouble. If you are experiencing 5-6 you need an immediate intervention. The people and communities you seek to help are too important to let your great ideas and efforts go down the drain. Yes you have a lot on your plate today, but the time you spend immediately to confirm and tackle these problems will pay off exponentially.

© 2015 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.