Above All Else, You Must Be Honest By Maryam Gilmore, JD

Do you remember the first time you wrote a report for a funder and had to explain away an undesirable outcome (or more)? I do. Picture it: coffee on drip. Report questions pulled, outcomes and program-related questions sent to program staff. Me, a rookie grant professional at the time, ready to tackle the report…or so I thought.

And then I got the email: one of the program’s stated outcomes fell significantly short of the goal. As in, the targeted outcome was 80%, but the actual outcome was 40%. *Insert appropriate amounts of rookie-level panic here, then breathe.*

Ethics dictate that a grant professional should distinguish between truthful and untruthful representations as well as accurate versus inaccurate ones. If your agency is like most, you will likely be met with some internal pressure from your program staff (and maybe even leadership) within the organization to tread lightly around the less desirable outcome. However, it’s up to you as a grant professional to help steer your organization on the path to ethically presenting its outcomes in a way that maintains integrity and is respectful of the organization’s reputation. Because let’s face it, your future funding decisions are on the line. Although the organization’s staff may balk at first, it’s important to get them reined in, to accurately discuss what happened, and if spacing allows, what you learned from the experience and how you will do things differently next time.

Your funder knows that things happen. The expectation is to be forthcoming, detailed, and truthful. So, let’s see what this could look like in practice.

Let’s take Wakanda Forever, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to providing enhanced educational science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) opportunities to school-aged girls of color. Let’s say the outcome stated was: “80% of participants will identify three STEM-related careers they learned about by the end of the grant period, as measured by post-workshop surveys.” From the time that Wakanda Forever was awarded this two-year grant (August 2019) through July 2020, the agency has measured that 40% of participants were able to identify three STEM-related careers. After a brief call or meeting with your agency’s program staff, you have learned that like many other agencies, Wakanda Forever experienced difficulties during the global pandemic, which greatly impacted its outcomes. (Remember, our outcomes are meant to illustrate the impact of our program.) You also learned the following:

  • In addition to disrupting their usual hands-on, in-person workshop schedule, Wakanda Forever found that many children participating did not have adequate internet access and/or computers at home to attend the new virtual workshop format.
  • Some children who started the program were unable to complete it because of the transition from in-person to virtual workshops.
  • Since only participants who complete the workshop series receive the post-workshop survey, the results are not reflective of the entire interim reporting period.
  • Before the pandemic hit the agency’s community, two out of three of the agency’s transportation vehicles broke down. These vehicles are primarily used to transport about one-third of the children participating. Without this transportation, those children’s caregivers were unable to get their children to/from the in-person program activities. As a result, many of the children had to discontinue the program.

Being able to articulate as much of this as possible will put you in the best position to provide an accurate report to your funder. From this fact pattern, Wakanda Forever likely is or should be pursuing any COVID-related emergency funding, having discussions with existing funders to possibly divert some of the remaining/unspent funding toward purchasing sanitation equipment and/or technology (so students can have loaner equipment to utilize for the new virtual workshop format), and attempting to secure funding to repair the vehicles (in preparation for in-person workshops once they resume). The agency may also be exploring their in-person reopening plans and how they will ensure social distancing recommendations are followed, along with other plans and lessons learned by the agency.

No matter where you are in your grant professional career, you can and will encounter an undesirable outcome (or more) again. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will, and you’ll get through it, too. Remember: how you handle the reporting and explanation of that less desirable outcome is imperative.

GPCI Competency #6: Knowledge of nationally recognized standards of ethical practice by grant developers. Skill #3: Distinguish between truthful and untruthful, and accurate and inaccurate representations in grant development, including research and writing. Skill #8: Distinguish between ethical and unethical commitment, performance, and reporting of activities funded by a grant.


Additional blogs in our Ethics series:
What if You Have Too Much of a Good Thing? by Jennifer Murphy, MPA, GPC
Let’s Go Shopping! Ethics in Procurement, Part 1 by Whitney Gray, MA, GPC
Let’s Go Shopping! Ethics in Procurement, Part II by Whitney Gray, MA, GPC
Don’t Just Write It, Cite It: Ethical Research in Grant Writing by Leah Hyman
Building an Ethical Foundation for Your Funder Relationship by Emily Hampton, MPA, GPC