When Projects Flounder: Coming to the Rescue When Good Grants Go Astray

by William Ryan

Apr 24, 2002

What warning signs might alert you that a project is floundering? In this guide, grant makers recount their experiences with troubled projects and tell how they responded - or how they wish they'd responded. With the benefit of hindsight, veterans describe what they learned and offer advice on the most effective and timely way to handle distress signals.


  • Recognizing the warning signs
  • Deciding whether to intervene
  • Shaping your response to the situation

What's in the Guide?

  • Introduction: Every floundering grant flounders in its own way, and each one calls more for judgment than for technique alone.
  • Varieties of Floundering: Some grants flounder just because the program design or implementation plan had some flaws. Those tend to be the easier ones to fix. The other two types of troubled grants are usually harder: those where the grantee has organizational or management problems, and those where the grantee and grantmaker have different (or even conflicting) values. In this guide, a group of grantmakers share personal experiences with each type of floundering grant.
  • Looking for Warning Signs: A few warning signs can help grantmakers distinguish between fleeting or momentary problems and those that point to greater trouble ahead. When grantees turn up with chronic cash flow problems time after time, or when they start to engage in a desperate chase for dollars, or seize on dubious funding breakthroughs (poorly linked to their core mission), something deeper is likely to be wrong. When you sense that the grantee's board of directors is inattentive, or its founder suffers from major blind spots, you may be seeing signs of trouble. Most of all, trust your own inner feelings when they start to nag at you -- even if the nagging isn't yet specific or clear. Several veterans recall the moment when they saw the "trouble" signals begin to flash. We include a miniCase on page 6 of the guide.
  • Deciding to Intervene: When a grant starts to flounder, grantmakers must choose whether to treat it as a failure or to stick with it and correct the problems. When grants are large or strategically important, when the funder feels a special obligation to the grantee, or when the grantmaker represents a foundation that doesn't mind intervening in grantees' affairs, it may be particularly important -- even necessary -- to rescue a troubled grant, rather than writing it off. This section describes how some funders make that decision. We include a miniCase on page 9 of the guide.
  • Tactics for Intervening: If you decide to try to rescue a floundering project, grantmakers argue that it helps to get help from your colleagues and superiors, from other funders, and from consultants -- but also to stay involved yourself. They also advise that you make the issues institutional, not personal, to avoid provoking a defensive or evasive response from the grantee and from yourself. In some Cases, it helps to engage the grantee's board. But above all, be sure to be aware of the power imbalance, and use your power judiciously. While you're at it, you can try to create opportunities for learning so the next troubled organization or grantmaker might benefit from your experience. We include a miniCase on page 13 of the guide.
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