Lately, I noticed more donors are asking for referees or references. Either as part of the project application format or during the selection process itself. When asked to act as referee, I always decline if I feel I cannot be a good referee. So that begs the question: what is a good referee?

The function of a referee

Why do donors ask for a referee? Donors ask for a referee to provide them with a personal insight into the organization. Gained through an experience of funding the organization. Or by working in partnership with the organization. Or based on the professional opinion of an expert, who has worked with the organization in some capacity. In short, a referee is someone who has close personal knowledge of the organization but is not a part of it.

Why a referee?

Donors are seeking this kind of personal feedback to help them better assess the capacity of the nonprofit. So they can know whether this nonprofit is capable of successfully implementing the proposed project or not. And so they will know where the nonprofit might require additional capacity building to improve their performance.

What does a referee do?

Often, a donor will have a standard questionnaire for referees to fill out. Mostly, they are asked to fill this out pretty fast, in one day or two. The questions on the list will ask for personal experiences, analyses and viewpoints, illustrated by examples. Sometimes, the referee is invited for a call.

What is the role of the referee in the process?

By the time a donor invests time in reaching out to referees, you are way into the selection process of your proposal. Mostly, a donor seeks confirmation of their impressions of your organization from the referee. The referee does not have any decision-making role in the process, as this is the donor’s process. But the donor may ask the referee for advice and recommendations. And then they may act upon these.



So who to ask?

If you are asked to provide one or more referees, think hard about who is well-placed to provide objective inside insights into your organization. Is there a donor who can speak to your reliability in meeting deadlines and your successful implementation? Is there an expert you worked with who can provide an analysis of your operations and management? Do you have a fiscal sponsor or other partner organization who has insights into how you work and manage your resources?

Look for one or two people who really know your organization and how it functions from personal experience who are willing to speak about you. Those people are good referees.

Check with your referee

Once you have identified one or two good referees, ask them whether you can mention their name and contact information to a donor. Share everything you have submitted to the donor with the referee, too. So they know the context of the questions of the donor, and can make sure to answer to the point with relevant input.

A referee can say no, too

As any of you who have asked me to be their referee will know: a referee can also decline. Maybe the referee does not have much time for this task in this moment. Or they feel they are not best placed because they feel they do not have inside insights. Or perhaps they are not convinced that you can actually implement the project well and would prefer not to have to say this to the donor. Whatever the reason, and regardless of whether they give you a reason, be graceful and respect their decision. It’s part of being a professional to accept a no as an answer, too, after all.

And three more tips

  • Keep your eye out for potential referees when you don’t have a concrete need. Keep a list to consult when asked to provide a referee.
  • Never ever submit someone’s name as referee without prior approval by them.
  • If you are asked to act as referee, think carefully whether you can indeed endorse the organization or person asking. Accept only when you are sure you can, and when you know you can provide examples of how the organizations operates.

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