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One of the greatest parts of membership in the Grants Professionals Association (GPA) is learning from colleagues around the nation. Recently our GPA LinkedIn group debated a question I get asked all of the time: “How does my new organization get its first grant?”
What’s most important about this question isn’t so much the answer as it is the misconception it implies: the grant funding should be a new organization’s first priority in fundraising.
The response by my fellow fundraiser Brandy Moriah Wicker, Chief Development Officer at
Cancer Care Services, underscores why counting on grants at the beginning of an organization’s life cycle is risky business at best:
“Grants are not generally a good source for startups,” she explains. “A handful of foundations provide seed money, but for the most part, you need a track record before you can get grant funding. A more fruitful early strategy for new organizations is hosting intimate fundraising events that will grow your individual supporters. Think of fun, creative themes and formats that will raise awareness and dollars.”
As Brandy advises, individuals are key to getting new organizations off the ground. By building a base of core supporters, your organization can begin to establish a fundraising track record, demonstrate success, and create a reputation in the community you serve.
From there, you can move on to these fundraising strategies recommended by Jeffrey Prottas, CFRE, founder and managing partner of Nonprofit-360 Consulting, LLC:
“Grant seeking is a smart strategy once an organization shows it can recruit support for its general mission. Foundations can provide the funding to launch great ideas and new programs. Of course,” he points out, “it takes a lot to be ready to put together a strong proposal.”
Jeffrey is right. In fact the first critical step in creating a stand-out proposal happens well before you put pen to paper. Competition for grants is fierce. Typically, no matter how persuasive your writing, foundations will not fund a request if there is no prior relationship and they have zero awareness of your organization.
Begin by making contact. Introduce yourself and your organization. Go meet the program officers, ask questions, and build rapport. This way, your proposal to the foundation won’t be cold—and you may glean terrific insights that will give you an edge in the process.
Then once you’ve established these relationships with the usual suspect funders in your area, start to broaden your net with some research. Visit the Foundation Center or bring in some outside funding research expertise.
I like the suggestion made by Kimberley Lee, Vice President of Advancement at Square One, to mix “typical” research with less conventional methods: “Try a ‘windshield survey’ of the Wal-Marts, K-marts, Home Depots, Petcos, and other major stores in your area,” she says. “Many of these corporations have foundation arms that make grants at local and national levels. Introduce yourself and the important work you are doing in the community.” The manager of your local CVS might be a helpful contact for leveraging grant support.
Bottom line is that grant fundraising for new organizations is not as straightforward as many people think. It is best to trust the experts on this one—I couldn’t have said it better myself!
For more information about how to find a grant expert near you, contact the
Foundation Center or Grants Professionals Association, which both maintain lists of consultants with a range of expertise in fundraising and grant seeking.
It was hardly how I thought I’d arrive at one of the highest profile companies in Silicon Valley.
But there I was, on the edge of the road in San Bruno, California, desperately waving down whatever vehicle might stop for a stranger. It was ten—maybe five—minutes to the hour, moments away from being late to meet the CEO of YouTube.
My boss Abdi, Executive Director of the ACLU of Northern California and former Stanford biology major turned humanitarian ethicist, had persuaded me it was not only efficient but perfectly rational to take the train rather than drive to a meeting with one of the most major prospects on our donor wish list. We’d already missed our stop while distracted in our pre-solicitation meeting strategy conversation. Now, we were panicked to discover that the YouTube office is not just off the BART line, and that no cabs were lined up outside the station to whisk us to our destination.
That’s when I sprinted to the curb, thumb literally out, just like the resourceful (and thrifty) West Side Clevelander I was raised to be.
There’s no underestimating the value of a determined and inventive mindset when it comes to landing a date with the elusive major donor. It’s a rare blessing from the fundraising universe when an initial meeting request yields a meeting. The development officer who gets meetings with top prospects is the one willing to think—and go—outside the box.
On the eve of the 2014 Career Success Institute hosted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals North Central Ohio Chapter (where Grants Plus will be a featured presenter on the topic of landing donor appointments), we offer these five fearless tips for persevering in your meeting pitch:
We did make it to our meeting at YouTube. A kindly man and his son soon stopped in their massive pick-up truck, and I hoisted up my skirt a little and hopped in. We were a few minutes late, but all the better—like anyone else, the CEO couldn’t resist a good hitchhiking story.
At a recent meeting of young professionals (hosted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Cleveland Chapter), the group was eager to discuss donor relations. They felt familiar with the development ideals of creating authentic relationships and establishing donors’ trust, but wanted the real nuts and bolts of how to apply these values in the development shop.
I offered them my take, based on years of fundraising management and grant seeking: that the best advice on donor relationship building could have come straight from the “Self Help” section of the local bookstore. When it comes down to it, donor relations are just people relations, plain and simple, and the most successful development officer is the one who sees—and treats—donors as people.
How do you stack up in your people skills? Following are my five tips for authentic donor (people!) relations:
1. Look inward. You’ve heard the buzz about “emotional intelligence.” It’s more than just hype. Emotional intelligence—or EI—is a measure of your ability to identify, assess, and respond to your emotions and those of others. How well do you understand what you’re feeling? How do you communicate those feelings in subtle and non-subtle ways—and pick up on the feelings of others? Do you make friends easily or take a while to warm up? Are you open to conflict or do you avoid it? Take the time to determine your own EI level. You can take a Myers Briggs personality scan or similar tests offered online. I recommend the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, which includes pre- and post-tests to measure your EI score and exercises to increase it. Once you know your own personality perspective, you can gauge how best to approach and interact with the styles of others, including those of your donors.
2. Identify a relationship model. As the liaison between your organization and your donor, you could say you’re in the service business. Try looking at a parallel service relationship in your own life: perhaps with your hairdresser, babysitter, or lawn care provider. Examine the functions of that relationship. What is the tone of the relationship and who sets it? How much do you seek and trust his or her opinion? How close do you feel—and how was that closeness (or distance) established? I would guess it took a bit of time and repeated conversations (including about that bang disaster) to develop familiarity and trust. In my experience, I tend to open up to people who first show willingness to share personal details with me. If all you talk about with your donor is your organization and their giving, they won’t have a chance to know you. Without that sense of relationship, they may feel unready or uncomfortable sharing personal information or discussing their giving decisions. Think about how you can show your own unique personality. What are ways to convey (and draw out) appropriate levels of personal detail? Consider how you can put your donors at ease and encourage them to open up.
3. Build on your success. Even if you’ve only been at your organization for a short while, there is likely to be one donor with whom you have built a successful rapport. It might be a board member, volunteer, or foundation representative. Think about how your relationship with that person was formed. How much time have you spent together? What was the best conversation you had? Is one of you taking the lead in defining the relationship and if so, how? Now think about trying to expand that pool of positive relationships by adding another person in a similar role. Invite a board or committee member for lunch or offer to meet a foundation program officer for coffee. Your charge is to establish a rapport. There are a multitude of reasons you might request a meeting: to thank them for their last gift, to collect their giving story for your newsletter, or to share an update on a program they care about. Voila! You are now practicing your interpersonal donor relations skills!
4. Speak from experience. Many donors give to organizations that address issues close to their heart. Perhaps a donor’s family member suffered greatly with memory loss and so she supports the Alzheimer’s Association. Or a donor might support art museums because he always wanted to be an artist. Do you know your own story? Why are you moved by your organization’s mission? When was the last time you saw that mission in action? Get as close as possible to your organization’s front line—spend a day onsite or interact with clients. The experience will provide you with first-hand details, and perhaps a revived sense of passion, to share with your donors. Most donors remember first-hand stories—not statistics. Give them something to care about.
5. Face your fears. The fear of rejection is real and shared by everyone to some degree. The personal give-and-take inherent to donor relationship building requires some risk of rejection. Come to terms with your own fears and examine how they impact your donor relations practice. A donor may say no to a meeting request or decline to make a gift, but that does not change your own value of the value of your organization. To practice stretching your comfort zone, try something else that scares you, like riding a roller coaster or singing karaoke. I guarantee when you get back to the office on Monday, picking up the phone to finally call that big donor will not feel so hard!
Following are additional ideas for reading on the topic. What are your suggestions for effective donor relationship building?
Donor Bill of Rights from the Association of Fundraising Professionals
Veritus Group’s blog posts on donor relations
Myers Briggs Foundation website
Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves
Creating A Culture Of Courage; The Courage Challenge Workbook by Cindy Solomon
Securing Your Organization’s Future by Michael Seltzer
How to Treat Your Donors, a great quick video from GrantSpace.
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(This post is from Naomi Worthington, consultant at Grants Plus. Read other Grants Plus posts here.)
Earlier this month, the Cuyahoga Arts and Culture Board of Trustees approved the distribution of their 2014 grant funds for Project Support. Since 2007, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture has awarded grants in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, funded by a voter-approved cigarette tax, “to promote public access to arts and culture activities and encourage the breadth of arts and cultural programming in our community.” Grants are awarded in two categories—Project Support and General Operating Support.
Most notable about the Cuyahoga Arts and Culture grant review process is its transparency. In October, a panel of nine arts professionals from a variety of arts organizations throughout the United States gathered to discuss and score applications. Each application was first reviewed by two panelists who presented comments to the panel, and then discussed by the entire panel in a completely public forum—open to the public to attend and listen in, either in person or online.
This type of glimpse behind the curtain is so rare in grant seeking, and we heard several nuggets of wisdom invaluable to us as grant writers. We share the best with you below:
While the guidance above was specifically directed to grant seekers for Cuyahoga County Arts and Culture grants, it certainly applies to many other funders. We salute Cuyahoga Arts and Culture for its open process and the sage advice it has offered to grant writers in our community.
Like with most development professions, few young people grow up aspiring to be a grant writer. Most of us in the grant profession stumble into the role at some point; some of us are lucky enough to be guided there by a mentor. Consider proactive ways you can encourage a junior professional towards grant writing:
(This post is from Dana Textoris, consultant at Grants Plus. Read other Grants Plus posts here.)
Recruiting and retaining new nonprofit leaders should be at the top of the priority list for any organization. The need to replace baby boomers as they retire from the nonprofit profession is accelerating, yet organizations often struggle to find—and keep—new professionals to fill their shoes.
And this struggle goes the other way. Young professionals, eager to make a difference and save the world, too frequently leave their positions in frustration when their expectations don’t match their realities.
Securing new young leaders may be especially challenging in the Cleveland nonprofit market. According to a 2011 report by the Cleveland chapter of the Young Nonprofit Professional Network (YNPN), 82% of local young nonprofit workers said they have considered leaving Cleveland to increase their upward mobility. This is especially the case among young professionals who feel their heavy workload is out of sync with their low pay grade.
“There’s a complaint that Millennials aren't loyal to their companies and change jobs more often than other generations,” says Katie Richlick, Board member from the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Cleveland Chapter. "I would encourage organizations to invest in their young professionals so they have a reason to want to stay.”
Extra perks can go a long way. The YNPN report showed that young professionals in Cleveland place high value on employer-supported benefits like professional development, mentoring, and flexible schedules. Megan Wilson, a donor relations assistant at The Cleveland Foundation, just completed her first year in the nonprofit sector. “I’ve learned that Cleveland offers so many networking opportunities. It’s helpful to have a place to talk with fellow young professionals. We can help each other through common struggles and celebrate our successes.”
Fortunately, organizations can take proactive steps to not only keep their young new staffers but help them thrive:
Encourage junior staff to network and establish a professional community of peers from within the field. Organizations like YNPN exist to ensure younger works feel connected and supported. The Greater Cleveland chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) maintains an
active Young Professional Committee with networking and training opportunities geared to development professionals under age 30. Young professionals join AFP at a reduced rate.
More experienced professionals can provide important role modeling. The Academy for Educational Development has a useful guide on mentoring for nonprofits of all sizes and recommends organizations authorize staff to spend at least two to four hours per month with an external mentor. Mentors can help employees, especially more junior ones, navigate their professional pathway, access resources, and serve as a vital sounding board. The Cleveland YNPN chapter runs a mentoring program that matches young nonprofit professionals with local mentors.
Sending a junior staff person to a workshop or conference shows a willingness to invest in his or her success—and the added skill will hopefully benefit the organization. Be sure to explain your organization’s policy on how professional development hours should be treated from a payroll perspective.
An employee who understands your expectations is much better positioned to meet them. Make sure your new employee has a clear job description that articulates his or her responsibilities (for tips, see the Nonprofit Job Description Toolkit on The Bridgespan Group’s website). Schedule regular informal check-ins as well as formal performance reviews. Consider a 90-day review for new employees, especially ones with limited professional experience, and speak directly about concerns—theirs or yours—early on. Partner with your junior staffer to identify solutions to any problems.
Early on, help your junior staffer to envision a pathway of success, within the organization and in his or her larger career. Make job announcements visible to your team. Practice promoting from within, when possible, and seek out ways to ready your team members to move up. When a quality staffer leaves the organization, make yourself available as a reference and future resource—you never know when they might want to circle back.
Build a workplace culture where everyone has the opportunity to be heard. Remember that something as routine as a staff meeting can be intimidating to junior employees who assume they should defer to higher ranking colleagues. In meetings, effective facilitation is key: invite questions, make room for discussion, and, at least occasionally, assign a junior staffer to lead an agenda item. Staff will take their cues on how to interact with one another from senior leaders; make sure your management
team helps promote respect throughout the organization.
An investment in your young professional employees is an investment in your organization’s future. Demonstrate your commitment and they’ll be more likely to give you theirs.
In Greater Cleveland, Ohio we are fortunate to have Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC), a public entity that directs funding to arts organizations in a variety of ways including general operating support and support for specific projects. CAC is an independent unit of government that collects a dedicated tax on cigarettes sold in Cuyahoga County, to fund local arts and culture organizations. Since 2007, CAC has invested more than $80 million in 182 local arts and cultural organizations.
At the close of their recent three-day review of 61 proposals for general operating support, the reviewers were invited by CAC Executive Director Karen Gahl-Mills to share advice with grantees.Their advice was especially acute and relevant to anyone writing a grant proposal for any type of project. It is rare to have the opportunity to hear this kind of frank feedback – and I wanted to share the best of it with you.
When writing about evaluation, make sure you are not only discussing how and what you will measure but also what you have learned from evaluation results to date and what you are going to do or have already done about it.
When outlining partnerships in which your organization is involved, don’t just list them. Explain what makes the partnership successful.
Be candid about challenges, changes, struggles, etc. We are all operating in a quickly changing environment. It is not realistic to portray that your organization has not had any bumps in the road. As one reviewer colorfully stated, “Cut the bull****.”
Don’t assume a reviewer knows anything about your organization or community. Large organizations should especially beware of this, because they can often assume funders know things they may actually not know. Make sure you are adequately articulating how you are serving the unique needs of the community and how you know you are successful in this endeavor.
Make sure your proposal is well-written and not redundant. Never forget that real people have to read and understand the proposal, and it is likely that the reviewer will be reading many others. Respect their time and make sure your proposal language is clear, readable and understandable.
Many thanks to CAC for its significant investments in the arts in Cuyahoga County and for its transparent grantmaking process. This type of advice is rare and so helpful in making all of us better advocates in seeking needed funding for our organizations.
In the fundraising profession we all know it costs more to engage a new donor than to get a donation from a current or past donor. It always surprises me when I hear organizations spending lots of time and resources reaching out to new donors when they have not paid adequate attention to past supporters, who for one reason or another have not made a gift to the organization in a while. When you re-engage past supporters, you can generally skip the “get to know you” phase because they have already been a supporter. The communication with them can be instead about the most exciting recent developments at the organization, which can lead to discussions of opportunities for support much more rapidly than with a new potential donor.
Here are four tips for re-engaging past supporters, including:
1) Major donors who made large gifts to the organization several years ago and nothing since
Do some investigating around the circumstances of that past gift. Who was the lead contact? Is that person still an employee/volunteer? What type of recognition did the organization provide the donor? Have you heard from or reached out to this donor since the recognition? What did you learn when you did? While it is true that some donors make a “one-time-only” large gift, it is also likely that they still feel warm about the organization and want it to succeed.
If the organization has not been in touch with a past major donor lately, develop a re-engagement strategy that is focused on opening the lines of personal communication with the past donor, and filling him/her in on the organization’ s latest news. It may open the door to new donations to the annual fund or special projects.
2) Foundations that have awarded the organization grants in the past but not recently
Recently many foundations have re-evaluated their giving priorities, which has left some grantees outside of those priorities. Take a look at some of your recent declined grant proposals. Do you know why they were declined or is there more to learn by having a conversation with a foundation representative? Meeting with a former funder can help illuminate whether there are any synergies between the foundation’s current priorities and the organizations existing programs and near term plans. Some foundations still have ways to support organizations that may fall outside of their current priorities, like through discretionary or board-directed grants, or donor-advised funds of community foundations. Bottom line: don’t assume the organization is not a fit, make sure you have explored all the options.
3) Donors who are not living up to their potential
Does your donor list include a Fortune 500 CEO who is giving $100 per year to your annual fund? Does the largest local foundation grant your organization $2,500 per year when the majority of their other grants are in the five- and six-figure range? Mine your donor list for these gems and investigate what the missed potential might be. For foundations, look at their 990s for recent giving. For individuals, you may be able to assess their giving levels to other organizations by looking at other annual reports or using a wealth screening program like Wealth Engine. If you find that you are on the low end of a donor’s giving potential, develop a strategy to move them up the ladder of support. Hint: think to yourself,“Have we done everything we can to communicate the organization’s needs and what we could do with a higher level of support?” You might find that this donor may not fully appreciate the impact a larger donation could have on the organization.
4) Individuals who attended a special event or volunteered for the organization but have never made a financial gift
Savvy organizations capture the names and addresses of their event attendees and add those to their mailing list and include them in other fundraising strategies. Think about the last communication your organization had with these people. For many organizations, these people/companies get added to a newsletter list and nothing else. They think because there is a donation envelope in their newsletter, they are being “asked” for their support. The reality is that there is no “softer” ask than a passive envelope folded into a newsletter. Develop a plan to test out some different strategies to generate financial support from this group. Tests can include an e-mail campaign, a targeted fundraising mailing campaign for a specific need, or a phone campaign. In all cases, make sure the request is as personalized as possible and paints a specific need. If one of these methods works well, try it with a larger group.
We’ve all heard it said that effective donor cultivation is like a courtship, and you would not ask a potential donor for a gift at the first meeting just like you would not make a marriage proposal on the first date. The trusted relationship that often precedes charitable support can take years to build. It makes sense then to look inward to your organization’s past supporters to expedite and increase future gifts. Of course it is always important to engage new donors, but make sure in your efforts to attract the new, you are not ignoring those closest to your organization already.
When people hear I do grant writing for a living, I often get this: “I want to start a nonprofit organization that does ________ (fill-in-the-blank-mission). Can you get me a grant for that?” I also get frequent calls from people who have taken next steps and are building boards and applying for 501(c)3 status. But, whether the nonprofit is in the idea phase or in its infancy, the reality is that getting that first foundation grant can be next to impossible. Here’s why.
Most foundations are not set up to make grants to start-ups. Many require attachments that include service statistics, a certified audit, or list of other funders. By and large, foundations are looking for a grantee partner that has a positive track record, history of sound financial management and stability, and a broad base and range of support.
In general, foundations do not want to be the only funder of an entire organization, or the first funding in the door. Think of a potential foundation funder like a potential investor in your business. They want to make sure they are investing in a sound organization with a plan for impact and longevity. Look to the individuals who are closest to your organization to be your first funders.
Foundation leaders and people familiar with the nonprofit sector are aware there are already many nonprofit organizations in existence, indicating likely duplication of services. Latest figures indicate there are over $1.5 million in the U.S. As a fellow consultant offered in a recent blog post, “To put that into perspective, that’s one charity for every 300 people.” Sometimes nonprofit organizations are created to provide a service that should really be the program of a larger organization. Nine times out of ten, we can accomplish more when we work together.
Understanding the reality of the grantseeking environment for a new nonprofit is the first step. Below I offer some guidance on what you can do with this information to move toward a successful grantseeking program.
Make sure you have adequately identified and can articulate the community need for your program and organization. Gather data on the subject that can help show that a need exists for the services you provide. Talk to other nonprofit organizations that operate similar programs to determine overlaps, differentiators, and possible collaborations.
Seek out smaller grant opportunities from sources with informal application processes and that have a history of supporting new, unproven organizations. Look for community-based and civic organizations in your location that have giving programs, individual giving circles, youth-directed funding programs, etc. These can sometimes fly below the radar and be tricky to find. If you use Foundation Directory Online, try searching “giving circle” in your keyword or Power Search field. Also look at larger community funders like your city’s community foundation, churches or religious associations, civic clubs, or the local United Way.
One of your first tasks in a new organization should be creating a business/strategic plan that includes an outline of annual expenses and what revenue generating or fundraising activities you will undertake throughout the year to generate enough income to cover those planned expenses. Once the plan is created, work the plan.
Every year the largest percentage of charitable gifts to all nonprofit organizations comes from individuals. Officially this number has hovered around 75% of all charitable giving, but when you include individuals who give through family funds and charitable bequests, it is well over 80%. The power of individual donors to your organization cannot be understated. Make sure you are cultivating and ASKING individual donors to support your organization at least once a year, starting with your board of directors.
If you can accomplish the above tasks, you can start to build some small successes and begin the track record that larger funders are looking for. If you can secure a small grant from a grassroots funder or several individual gifts, use those to kick start your program and treat it like a pilot project. Make sure you have a plan for measuring your success against some pre-determined goals for the program. Tracking data from the beginning to the end of the project that will help you articulate the impact it has made on the community it exists to serve. This will become the start of your track record of success on which you can build in coming years.
Grantseeking for new start up organizations can be a significant challenge. If you follow some of the advice above, it may be a little bit easier. With patience and perseverance, if your organization is truly filling a community need and has developed a sound approach, you may be able to secure more grant funding for your work.
Best of luck!
(This blog post was inspired in part by “Fundraising 101 for Community Programs,” a workshop offered by Neighborhood Connections and The Cleveland Foundation in Cleveland, Ohio on March 13, 2012. This was the first in a series of workshops called Strengthening Services 2012, which are aimed at building the capacity of grassroots and faith-based organizations. Thanks to Janus Small and Tom O’Brien for assistance with this article.