Three Easy Questions to Get Past the ‘Reflexive No’

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Three Easy Questions to Get Past the ‘Reflexive No’

By Susan Olivo, Executive Director, Reader’s Digest Partners for Sight Foundation

Funders, large and small, often seek ways to stretch grant dollars by increasing the effectiveness and reach of their resources – wanting to make a bigger impact within mission-related funding areas.  One way to make grant making more effective is by increasing access for people who would not otherwise be able to take advantage of a program. What we can strive for, in essence, is more inclusive philanthropy. 

Many foundations exhibit reluctance to consider grant making initiatives that may seem, at first, to be only peripherally related to the mission statement.  We need to look at grant making through a wider lens, and be willing to step outside our comfort zones. Establishing a more inclusive approach to grant making gives underserved populations, particularly the disabled, equal access to beneficial programs. It can be a most surprisingly effective form of philanthropy.

We sometimes get “trapped inside the box” when considering new proposals, looking through the narrow lens of strict interpretation of mission statements. There is a tendency, when approached with something not fitting into that narrow definition, to respond with what David Dotson calls the "reflex no.”

Dotson, President of the Dollywood Foundation, gave a presentation a few years ago about the Foundation’s initiative to make the Imagination Library project (supporting early literacy by providing books for preschoolers) accessible to blind children.  When initially approached about providing books in Braille, the response by the Foundation was the "reflex no.” Lack of economies of scale, it felt, prohibited service to a unique population. Yet the more he reflected on the request, the more Dotson came to realize that providing books in accessible formats was just “the right thing to do.” In retracing his thinking, he posits that funders can become accustomed to saying no, particularly when saying yes might mean working outside of our comfort zones. Dotson decided that the issue had to be “re-framed”-- and so began the journey from the "reflex no” to “how do we get to yes?”

The Foundation identified a willing partner in the American Printing House for the Blind; the idea was conceptualized; the (relatively small) hurdles were worked out; and the Imagination Library’s books became available in accessible formats. Surprisingly, Dotson says, from a money perspective, “it wasn’t a big ticket item.”

When approached by a school for intellectually disabled persons for funding to open an on-campus Vision Clinic, our own foundation’s initial reaction was the "reflex no” -- our established funding priority being the blind and visually impaired population.

However, we agreed to a site visit and took the time to gain understanding of the unique needs of this population and the inherent challenges of providing vision services. We decided to offer funding, and were rewarded with a program delivering benefits beyond initial expectations. A well-known eye institute provided the developmental optometrist for the clinic, and the clinic itself was then used as a training venue for optometry students.  One of those student interns ended up eventually running the clinic.  Additionally, the clinic has publicized results of mini research projects which showed remarkable improvement in visual function and school performance, thereby exposing others to the benefits of providing specialized vision therapy services to this population.

To practice more inclusive philanthropy ask yourself these questions when evaluating proposals: 

  • How do we get to yes?
  • What are the barriers in the program that prohibit more people from being served?
  • What is something we can easily do to make our grant making more inclusive?

It doesn’t take much to slightly reframe one’s thinking and open grantmaking up to potentially vast gains toward inclusive philanthropy.  The first step toward being a more inclusive grantmaker can be as easy as pausing before saying “no” and considering the possibilities.