Doing Good Better sometimes requires a helping hand.
Part II – Lauren Steiner
It was her volunteer work as a lawyer with a homeless shelter that made Lauren Steiner realize that she wasn’t happy doing litigation. “So I left a big firm and a big salary and I went to work for a homeless shelter and they hired me in fundraising and I had not done that before.” Her need for fundraising education first brought her to Foundation Center Midwest where she took free, then paid courses that became her basis of fundraising expertise. She spent several years in fundraising and found her passion in grantwriting and founded her firm, Grants Plus, in 2007. “What Grants Plus does is help organizations that get grants as a part of their funding mix helps them improve their grantseeking so that they're spending their time wisely and that they're doing it in the most efficient and effective way possible.”
Like Janus, Lauren works with a lot of clients and this gives her a lot of insight into different missions and operations. Like Janus, Lauren sees a couple common themes that plague nonprofits. One thing is not having a grantseeking plan that blends renewals with existing funders and a strategy for pursuing new opportunities that are based on sound prospect research. “I think the biggest challenge that we see is a lack of planning in grant seeking, and it's more of a reactive responsive mode than being planful and getting ahead of it.” Lauren works to get her clients to move away from doing things the way they’ve always been done and focusing on putting out little fires everywhere, which is very common for nonprofits especially after the recession.
Speaking of the recession, Lauren had the luck of founding her firm right before the recession. Nonprofits responded to the recession by outsourcing services, which included grantwriting. Even after organizations recovered, the outsourcing trend has continued. “I actually think it's for the better because it is allowing nonprofits to only spend resources where they're specifically needed, or for a specific purpose, or project. And I see that all across the board not just in grant writing consulting…It's been—to me—a great kind of efficiency builder in our sector.”
Lauren tells one success story that involves using Foundation Center tools. A human services organization got a new executive director who realized that the organization’s grant funding was not as effective as it needed to be to meet their needs. The organization brought in Lauren and her team who did a funding scan using Foundation Center tools to identify gaps in existing and potential funders. She describes Foundation Center data as a “repository of all the latest information about the funders, so it's a key tool that we need.” Using Foundation Center tools and working with the client through a sustained engagement for a year led to funding from new sources in a short amount of time, which can be unusual as the process tends to take months of rapport building. “To me the big success isn't necessarily the dollars in the door, but it's that we helped them move up the ball on their grant seeking program and now they're doing it better. And they're using us as an as-needed resource. We're on call when they need us, but we don't have to hold their hand anymore. They're doing great.”
Foundation Center works to create transparency between grantseekers and grantmakers. Lauren sees transparency on the part of funders improving, “Funders are finally I feel like you know willing to have the really hard conversations that they need to have with organizations. They are having proactive conversations with grantees.” She said there is room for improvement and cited a report that Foundation Center was a part of that said foundations play a role creating obstacles for grantseekers through burdensome application and reporting requirements. The report was written with the intent to “spark new thinking and discussion”.
Lauren thinks that it is a “privilege to work in the philanthropic community”, yet it’s not as diverse and open to everyone as it could be. One solution Lauren offers is to develop pipelines into the sector as early as possible, “I think we have to start with education. We have to educate a broad spectrum of youth about this as a sector; that it’s a possibility as a profession. That it's a respected profession, that it's an option for you to learn how to do this and then practice this.”
Lauren sees Foundation Center keeping pace with the changing needs of the social sector. “As long as the tools continue to evolve with the times, I think that we'll be in good shape and it will continue to be a really important resource for us and the sector going forward.” Countless nonprofits could not make an impact without Lauren and her team, and Lauren couldn’t help them without the services provided by Foundation Center.
Inspired by its recent 40th anniversary celebration and theme of “Doing Good Better”, the Vision and Voices series is a collection of blog posts based on storytelling from Foundation Center Midwest leaders and stakeholders.