Complaints Filed Against Grant Institute

June 15, 2008       Michele Donohue      

More than 40 complaints have been made to various Better Business Bureau (BBB) affiliates against The Grant Institute, with some instructors alleging the organization hasn’t paid them and participants still waiting for refunds for courses that were canceled.

The Grant Institute, a Los Angeles-based entity of the Institute for Communication Improvement (ICI), hosts workshops across the country to teach nonprofits and medical researchers grant writing skills. Some instructors and attendees are upset with their experiences and are questioning the company’s business and financial practices.

The Grant Institute Director Anthony Jones said that he understands some of the complaints. “I’ll be the first to say that the administrative and business element is something I’m learning. It’s been a learning experience,” said Jones. “I have a lot of faith in our program. I’m still committed to its improvement.”

At least 44 complaints were lodged with the BBB against the Institute during the past 36 months. The organization has received an “F” rating – the lowest rating possible. Jones said, “I don’t think it’s an appropriate assessment of who we are.”

Jones said since the company opened in late 2003 some 20,000 attendees have attended workshops, some currently listed on the Web site from Dover, Del. to Anchorage, Ala. BBB complaints range from changing workshop venues, instructors failing to show up and unauthorized credit card charges. Attendees who requested refunds claim that they were passed from staff-to-staff with refund promises. Attempts to reach higher management were denied, according to the complaints.

The Institute promises that for $997 it will provide an advanced five-day workshop, including materials, a certificate, and an informational CD. On its Web site, the organization announces that each student will receive 3.5 Continuing Education Units (CEU) from the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), based in Arlington, Va. Ð even though AFP hasn’t offered CEU credits since its program merged with the Falls Church, Va.-based Association for Healthcare Philanthropy to create the Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) Professional Certification Board, now known as CFRE International based in Alexandria, Va., in 1997. That’s six years before the Institute opened.

John Griffin, recertification manager at CFRE International, said the organization currently has no affiliation with the Institute. Griffin said that if a person included the Institute’s credits in their CFRE continuing education application that there is a “good chance that we would accept it.” But, he said the Institute is not listed as a CFRE-approved continuing education provider. Michael Nilsen, public affairs director at AFP, said that he could find “no evidence of a relationship” between AFP and the Institute and restated that AFP no longer manages the CEU program.

The Institute charges $597 for a beginner grant writing class and includes a certificate and Institute materials.

Jones said he also faced internal business problems … such as disgruntled employees sabotaging operations by emailing the customer database and former instructors cloning the program for their own ventures. And Jones alleges that since 2003 the company has paid $5 million in payroll and instructor fees.

Independent contractors are hired as grant writing workshop trainers and sign ICI contracts that promise $4,000 per conference and related trip expenses. The company is supposed to provide teaching materials. Instructors fill out invoices and approved invoices should be paid in net 30 days, according to the contract.

Some instructors say that serious payment problems surfaced as early as mid-2007 and that they refused to teach until they were paid in full – with some back payments ranging from $5,000 to $24,000, according to former instructors.

Jeffrey Glebocki, founder of Strategy + Action Consulting, LLC in Tucson, Ariz., started working for the Institute in spring 2006, but he taught his last conference in October due to payment issues. “They tended to be slow in payment but they always paid. It went from slow to very slow to nonpayment. I think that’s when all the red flags went up for people,” said Glebocki, who said he has contacted the Institute repeatedly since October to have his name removed from the faculty list. “It’s been frustrating because I’m no longer doing any work for them and would prefer not to have my name affiliated with them.”

Patchree Patchrint, senior program coordinator at the Institute, admitted that reimbursement sometimes took longer than the 30-day contract period, but the Institute was flooded with requests for full back pay when a “bank error” resulted in a returned check to an instructor. Patchrint said that the Institute just couldn’t handle all the requests at once. “When you have a large demand like that, it became very difficult to fulfill all of them. People were coming in saying “I want everything and I’m not going to teach,'” said Patchrint.

At that point, Patchrint said that the company thought it would be “easier to hire new instructors and move people in while we were working on paying outstanding invoices.” Some instructors hired after fall 2007 also alleged that they didn’t receive payments for workshops they instructed and or responses from the Institute.

Dr. Ronald A. Stewart said that he told the Institute he wouldn’t do any workshops until he was paid the nearly $15,000 allegedly owed to him last fall. He received a check for some money – but he said it bounced for insufficient funds. He said he has filed a claim with the Riverside County District Attorney Bad Check Restitution Program in Calif., and started filing in the small claims court process. Stewart, who consults in the nonprofit and public sector and is based in Los Angeles, also sympathizes with the nonprofit attendees.

“The people who ended up coming to those workshops really had to sacrifice to pay for that enrollment fee,” said Stewart. “There is a huge disgruntled group of people out there that have committed really precious resources.”

Jones said problems lurked in administrative and business aspects of the company but don’t reflect the program itself. He plans to outsource some duties to an accounts payable firm, coordinate a policy to follow up with BBB complaints, update materials and a plan to pay all instructors by June 30. He said he wants to develop relationships with new instructors to minimize recent complaints Ð such as ill-prepared workshops and cancellations.

Marga Fripp signed up for The Grant Institute’s advanced five-day workshop “to learn from the best” and enhance her grant writing for Empowered Women International, a nonprofit she founded in Alexandria, Va. But the Baltimore conference in January was cut two days short without warning and Fripp said that she never received materials that were promised — leaving her little to show for $997 spent on the workshop from her nonprofit’s $50,000 budget.

“For a small organization with a tiny budget to pay a thousand dollars and not even get what you were promised, and not only that, but to be so irresponsible without clear communication or refunding — it’s unbelievable,” said Fripp, who called the experience “extremely discouraging.” NPT