Writing The Springboard Case

One of my clients is a terrific leader and motivator.  Toward the end of each program year, he gathers with his program directors and he poses two questions:

  1. What are the most meaningful things we accomplished over the past 9 months?
  2. What do these accomplishments tell us we should be doing in the year ahead?

He prefaces these questions by saying “what we have done is history but it provides a springboard for what we CAN do in the months ahead.”  From the ensuing discussion we write up what we call our “springboard case” which, in turn, becomes the nexus and core for fundraising communications moving ahead.

I realized that most of you reading this post do the same — or similar — thing each year.  What seems to be different in this case is that the term “springboard” is a much more dynamic analogy for planning.   Why?

A springboard gives you energy.  Think about it.  When you jump off a platform (which is immovable) you create your own momentum and energy to propel you forward.  In the case of a springboard, the flexibility of the platform adds energy to the jump.  In building the “springboard case” the goal is to identify what adds energy to accomplishment and helps to create momentum.

For example, in the case of my client, we found that 90% of high school juniors, all of whom came into the program two years earlier with failing grades, had achieved passing scores on state standardized tests.  We agree that having students achieve these academic benchmarks is great but what does it mean as we move into the next program year?  Upon further reflection, we agreed that the accomplishment builds confidence among these students which suggests that they can and must be challenged to do more.  This leads to the “springboard case” for a financial investment on the part of a foundation in program expansion/enhancements to deliver a more challenging/enriching level of service.  In short:  our students made the leap, we are moving rapidly forward and we don’t want to lose our momentum.

The concept of a “springboard case” isn’t unique.  Read any of Tom Peters’ various writings on the topic of excellence and passion in the organization and at the core you will find that great and growing organizations have energy and momentum at their core.   Ideally, we can find the same in most nonprofit organizations where dedicated and talented staff devote themselves as change agents at every level.  Your “springboard case” for support is there — find it and share your story with investors who can help you effect the lasting and positive change your constituents and community deserves!


The Foundation as Change Agent

This morning I read a wonderful article from The Christian Science Monitor celebrating the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100th anniversary .  Created as one of the “big three” foundations — Carnegie Corporation and Russell Sage Foundation being the other two — the Rockefeller Foundation has served as a powerful philanthropic force both in the United States and abroad for a century.  Equal to its generous support of thousands of charitable endeavors, the Foundation in and of itself has proven to be a change agent by inspiring thousands of philanthropists to invest fortunes in the valuable work of the third-sector.

What inspiration can we as grantseekers take from reflecting upon Rockefeller’s history and legacy?  From this articles, I gleaned the following:

  1. If the rules don’t apply, find new rules.  John D. Rockefeller first tried to create his foundation through an act of Congress.  When that didn’t pan out, he simply turned to the laws of New York State — far easier to navigate.  The important mission for him was to get the foundation up and running, no matter the pathway to success.
  2. Its about ideas, not charity.   The Rockefeller Foundation has always practiced mission-driven philanthropy. Rather than just contributed the earnings of the foundation for public good, Mr. Rockefeller and his heirs have consistently focused on solving core problems where the solution could bring the greatest impact.
  3. Be flexible.  Stay nimble.  The Rockefeller Foundation made venture philanthropy cool before the phrase “venture philanthropy” ever existed.  By adopting a broad mission and mandate, both Mr. Rockefeller and his heirs have been able to respond to an entire host of problems and issues over the years– environmental, political, social, economic.
  4. Inspire by example.  Now entering its 100th year, the Foundation is now the 16th largest US Foundation, eclipsed by those who followed such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or The Ford Foundation.  

Link here to read the full article:  http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Making-a-difference/Change-Agent/2013/0527/100-years-on-Rockefeller-Foundation-still-promotes-the-well-being-of-mankind


Making the Case for General Operating Support

Conventional wisdom is that making a case for general operating support though a grant proposal is a difficult proposition.  Or is it?

Recently, I revisited Paul Brest’s terrific article from the Winter 2003 edition of Stanford Social Innovation Review entitled “Smart Money” — link here to read http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/smart_money.  He takes a very strategic view of the notion of general operating support on the part of both grantee and grant maker with both benefiting from the ability of the grantee to sustain the gains made through program investments and the increased capacity of the grantee to launch and support new initiatives.

This suggests that the central case to be made in a general support proposal is as follows:

We, the prospective grantee, have a vision/theory of change, realistic goals and the expertise/experience to achieve them.  In the next year, we have identified programmatic objectives which will require flexible resources and a strong infrastructure to support them.  Your grant will be used toward this greater purpose.

To support this case, the proposal should communicate three key things:

  • Significant challenges or opportunities to be addressed and pursued during the coming year
  • Your organization’s vision or theory of change vis a vis the above
  • A broad look at programmatic objectives (this allows you to describe particular program or groups of programs but with clarity of purpose)

Addressing these three content areas challenges the writer and the broader team (leadership and program staff) to step back and take a more holistic look at the work of the organization during the coming year.  Its a worthwhile exercise if it helps to craft a case for unrestricted support that will help ensure adequate resources for the coming year.  It is an essential exercise if your organization looks to thrive and grow.

It’s All About Context, Part 2: “Frame” Your Story

Context works when you give the reader strong visuals to help make the information you are sharing — about problems and proposed solutions — both real and relevant.  In today’s post, I am going to share how I use the analogy of photographs to help frame your story in a way that may make your proposal memorable.

We know that the challenge of a grant proposal is to introduce a good deal of information in a very small space.  Painting an accurate and compelling picture about your community or constituency and helping the reader visualize success are key.  When I am coaching a grantwriter or working with program staff of a client to develop a proposal, I use the following construct to help guide our discussion.

  • “8 x 10”:  This is the photo you place prominently on a wall.  It’s eye-catching.  It can be the centerpiece of attention in a crowded room.  It usually makes a bold statement (my family, my friends or just me).  In this case, I apply the “8 x 10” model to mission:  define how your mission is relevant to current landscape.   For example, if you are a food bank and your community has been facing recessionary times, is your program just about food distribution or are you, in fact, addressing food poverty issues that are intensified by unemployment, underemployment or uncertainty.   Many foundations think of their own missions in this way, choosing the “8 x 10” they will use to frame their philanthropy during the coming year.  Your own photo must compliment their own.
  • “5 x 7”:  This is the photo you place on a mantle or a desktop.  Smaller, it invites a bit more intimacy.   Its usually viewed by a someone whom you have invited into your office or a living room.    In the case of a proposal, a “5 x 7” picture is an invitation to the reader to look more carefully and closely at what is happening in your own community of practice, not necessarily the broader field.  As a grantmaker once said: “if you want to interest me in what you do, tell me what you see when you go to work each day.  I know the stats, but I don’t know you.”    This approach works particularly well for direct-service organizations and its a technique I employ quite frequently in writing proposals for such groups. Examples of “5 x 7” data are your own studies and surveys, evaluation data from your own experience,  information compiled by a credible outside authority about your direct geographic service area.  
  • “Wallet-size”:   This is the photo that requires the viewer to enter your personal space.  In short, use outcomes and anecdotes to give the grantmaker a real sense of how your program makes an impact both great and small.  For direct service organization, this information can be easy to come by — case studies are a prime example of showing a grantmaker what your program can mean to an individual or a family.  For a larger organization with a much larger constituency  the “wallet-size” view allows you to put a human face on a bigger program.  Case: for a single-disease client organization serving more than 20,000 families nationwide, we demonstrated the impact of the disease by talking about the emotional, economic and physical toll on one case family which had to spend $17,000 in out-of-pocket, non-reimbursed expenses in one year to manage a health condition.
Each photo has a value to the reader.  Combining these differing views in a proposal can help you to craft a document that captures the attention and imagination of a reader — the first step toward winning a grant to support your good work.


It’s All About Context

Every time I complete a grant proposal or application, I cannot prevent the following thought from crossing my mind:  will this thing actually be read?  Willingly?  Carefully?

Recently, I had the good fortune to spend some time with a seasoned grantmaker chatting about the topic of grant proposals.  What works.  What doesn’t.  What is changing.  Midpoint during the conversation, she said to me, “John, I think one of the reasons that I don’t read proposals as carefully as I used to is that I already know so much about the issues and, sometimes, the organization itself.  What’s missing in most cases is context: why the work you are doing now important today?”

When pressed a bit further, she went on to say, “In most cases, we get proposals from organizations that are doing work in a community where we already know “the grim statistics” (her quotes).  So, I tend to skim this part which means that when I get to the meat of the proposal, I don’t really have any context upon which to judge the program I am being asked to support.”

One opinion, to be sure.  But one that is eye-opening.

Context is generally defined as “a set of circumstances or events influencing an event.”  And when you step back and apply it to a grant proposal, suddenly it means everything. With hundreds or thousands of proposals constantly crossing desks, setting the context for your presentation becomes quite important.  Here’s three ways that context influences your reader:

  1. It makes your work relevant.  Relevant to your community or constituency   Relevant to the times (this helped a lot of relief organizations successfully leverage grants during the recent recession by framing their mission against clear and present need and suffering).  And most important, relevant to the mission and work of the foundation.
  2. It helps to focus the reader on the here and now.  Grants are not rewards for work you have done.  Or prior accomplishments.  Grants are investments to be used in the coming months or years to create real, positive and (hopefully) lasting change.  Focusing the reader on why your work must be done now may be the lifeline you need to secure the grant sooner rather than later.
  3. It allows you to frame the measures of your success.  When you set the context for your funding request, you are setting forth the boundaries and parameters of success for your work.  This is important by way of setting and managing expectations for the reader (trust me: most foundation  staff want to see realistic goal setting) who will hopefully become the donor.

Context makes your proposal current and relevant.  It demonstrates that you are in touch with your community and constituency  two attributes of a good and, ultimately  successful grantee.  In my next few posts, we will look at some tools and techniques for setting context effectively.

Stay tuned!


I teach a class on grants for Columbia University’s Masters Degree in Fundraising Management program.  Each week, I end my lecture with a recommended writing soundtrack for students because a) I love to listen to music while I write and b) heck . . . I just love to listen to music.

So, friends, I have decided to add a new feature to Grantworthy, the periodic sharing of five albums I like to plug in as I work.  Without further ado.

Cavalcade by Cold Satellite.  This album will be officially released on May 21.  I picked mine up at the opening show of their tour about a month ago and it is, by far, my favorite album of 2013.  Amazing lyrics adapted from the poetry of Lisa Ornstein by bandleader and singer Jeffrey Foucault.  This is an amazing, alt-country Americana album that moves from dark to light, from dense to open air.   Select track: “Sleepers Wake” 

Little Broken Hearts by Norah Jones.  This was my favorite album from 2012.  The amazing vocal talents of Ms. Jones is matched with the deft and creative production of Danger Mouse.  Haunting melodies collide with upbeat pop.  Select track: “Miriam”

The Dirty South by Drive-By Truckers.  This 2006 effort was recorded when the band boasted three songwriters — Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell — who are Americana rock’s answer to Lennon, McCartney and Harrison.  Gothic southern tales of desperation  woe and sweet tea and, I kid you not, a three-song set about famed Tennessee sheriff Buford “Walking Tall” Pusser.  Select track: “Sands of Iwo Jima”

Summerteeth by Wilco.  Digging back into the oldies here (1999!), this album shows front-man Jeff Tweedy and his one-time partner and foil, the late Jay Bennett at the peak of their creative powers.  Nineties grunge rock collides with acoustic folk and mellotron-driven Beach Boys harmonies on an album where every song is written in a different style, voice and measure.  Select track: “Via Chicago”

My Maudlin Career

My Maudlin Career (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My Maudlin Career by Camera Obscura.   From the highlands of Scotland comes this fabulous little band that writes and records music that I can best describe as follows: imagine if Nancy Sinatra and The Beach Boys were put in a time machine and transported to 2011 London and herded into a recording studio?  The result — this album which I consider to be my “go-to” summer listen.  Select track: “The Sweetest Thing”

Elementary! Foundation Giving Clues to Be Found in Giving USA 2013

On June 18, the Giving Institute will release Giving USA 2013, an annual report looking at the philanthropy for 2012.  While prior performance is no indicator of future success (or challenge), there are clues to be gleaned about the world of foundation philanthropy.  Top of mind for me are three key questions.

  1. Did foundation giving increase?  This one is pretty obvious   But the 2012 number is pretty significant.  Many foundations reported (via survey or anecdotally)  that their portfolios continued to recover in 2012.   Prior to the recession (2009), foundation giving was on average higher than the requisite 5% payout.  During the recessionary years, the number fell back closer to the 5% mark.  Are foundations building nest eggs as a hedge against another downturn?  An overall lower increase in aggregate giving may suggest this is the case and that a return to the liquid, pre-2007 days may yet be another year away.
  2. Where did the money go?  Increasingly, year after year, a greater percentage of foundation dollars is going to international philanthropic endevours.  Did this number increase again in 2012?  While the aggregate number may be small compared to overall domestic US giving, an uptick may signal that while foundations are thinking locally, they continue to act more globally.
  3. Where did the money go, sector-wise?   Giving to human service and relief organizations increased during the recession at the expense of foundation support for the arts and education.  I am pretty keen to know if those numbers rebounded since it may mean that foundations are broadening their portfolios again.

While these numbers are no guaranteed harbingers of foundation performance in 2013, they may provide some valuable clues as we set fundraising expectations and plot our strategy for the remainder of the year.  Stay tuned.  I will come back to this topic shortly to dissect the numbers and see what we can learn . . . and to ask your feedback!

Making Grantwriting . . . um . . . Fun

A  couple of years ago, a good friend and colleague invited me to speak at her AFP Philanthropy Day event on a topic related to grantwriting. The presentations for the day had a decidedly creative and fun bent and I bemoaned being asked to talk about writing proposals as I cast an envious eye on the other topics: e-philanthropy, major gifts, marketing, case statements.

Then she reminded me that I was the guy who had told her all about “fun on the bus.”  To wit: when Mick Jagger was auditioning singers for a solo tour he told them “I know you can all sing, but if you ain’t fun on the bus, you ain’t coming on the tour!”   So, she suggested, talk about making grantwriting all about fun on the bus.

She’s right.  Grantwriting can be just about filling about forms and applications.  Or we can make it a creative exercise.  So here are my thoughts:

  1. It’s a game.  When we write a proposal, we are competing for support.  The nice thing about this game is there are multiple winners.   So, what’s the objective of the game?  I think of it as finding a creative, meaningful and substantive way to connect a charities work with the objectives of the foundation.  I little more along the lines of “Connect Four”
  2. It’s a puzzle.  Sometimes, getting a grant involves unraveling the ball of yarn that makes up a foundation’s process.  Or finding your way through a labyrinth of contacts.  Or negotiating with personalities.  The proposal you write becomes a map of sorts with way points (this could be goals, objectives) that will carry you from point to point, from conversation to conversation.   Writing becomes a creative strategic challenge.   A little like “Chess” or “Pente”
  3. It’s a mystery novel waiting to be written.   In the first edition of “The Foundation Center’s Guide to Proposal Writing” interviewee Carol Robinson of the Issac Tuttle Fund noted that: “A proposal should read like a mystery novel and keep me wanting to turn the pages to find out what happens next.”  What a wonderful and creative analogy:  indeed, in a proposal we set up a mystery (problem) and we solve it (project description).  And we certainly have a great cast of heroic detectives (our team).  “Clue” anyone?

Some tips for your creative process:

  • Engage your team.  Writing a proposal is a great excuse to spend some time out of your office and on the front lines.
  • Find the beauty and greatness in the ordinary.   I had a proposal writer for a Meals on Wheels program ask me “How is what we do so fun?  We drop off food.”  My response: “No.  You deliver food and you drop off companionship, care, hope and love.”
  • Make your mission and your work fit the times.   When the recession hit in 2009, I had the pleasure to work with some organization that raised more money from foundations simply by making it clear that NOW was the time when they were most needed.  This means getting in touch with what makes your work important.  And why you get out of bed every morning wanting to make it possible.

I cede the closing words to American business titan Walter Chrysler: “I like to build things, I like to do things. I am having a lot of fun.”  So may we all!




Becoming a Beneficiary When a Foundation Closes its Doors

Recently, The Hagedorn Foundation in New York joined the ranks of an increasing number of foundations that have adopted a plan and a policy to spend down their assets and close their doors within a prescribed time frame (in this case, 2017).   For me, the news of the Foundation’s strategy and intent raises an interesting question:  do we try to position ourselves to benefit from a foundation’s final largesse?  And if so, how do we go about it?

First question first: do we even try to get on the list?  If our organization is a current/recent grantee AND the experience has been a good one for both parties, the answer is quite obviously “yes.”  But what about a situation where we have no prior relationship?  Then the strategic questions become:

  • Does our mission and work offer the foundation to leave an impactful legacy within our given field or community of service?
  • How would we logically fit into the foundation’s philanthropic history?  Are we a next generation legacy grantee?  Are we a traditional organization that may have a growing reach or an evolving program that might present an interesting opportunity to the grantmaker?

Assuming we decide to approach the funder, what is the best tactic to do so?  Networking always heads the list so, of course, we turn to our leadership, our current grantors (who have a vested interest in our obtaining new revenue to grow/improve/help sustain a program), our network of colleagues looking for an introduction.

But what about the case where we have to make the cold approach?  Yes, a grant proposal will likely be in order.  But I observe that most foundations that are in “sunset mode” tend to close their application process as they begin to select legacy recipients.  What then? Minus a personal introduction, the best way to ask for their support is to not ask for their support keeping in mind that, sometimes, the greatest permission to ask occurs when there is not expectation that an ask will be made.

Case: I was working with a very large, very well-known national charity a few years ago when we considered an approach to a large foundation that did not accept applications.  The client and I saw a very clear connection between the foundation’s recent giving in Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast States and work the client was trying to do to rebuild community schools.  Instead of trying to force an unwanted proposal through the door, we agreed that the client’s public policy staff would develop a “white paper” with information gleaned from their field work with community schools in the region.  In a section titled “Solutions,” the organization’s work and results were highlighted.  This was sent to program professionals at the grantmaker; ultimately, following a few  emails and phone calls, a leadership meeting was convened with the outcome being that the client was selected a  new grantee.

Legacy grants can be generous and game-changing. They always worth pursing where you have build a relationship.  They may be worth pursuing when perhaps the best legacy a foundation can leave is to invest money in a worthy new grantee .

Balancing Your Portfolio: Step Three: Focusing Your Strategy

Balancing your portfolio of grants between investment and sustaining grants also requires you to balance the investment of your time and resources.  Logically, larger foundations with more resources to invest may require more intensive use of time — to cultivate, apply and ultimately to steward — than smaller foundations.   Thus, the name of the game when developing an effective outreach strategy is efficiency.

Some questions that will help to determine the most efficient use of time are:

  • Do we have a good working relationship with this funder already?
  • If so, is the funder accessible to us?  Will they take the time to listen, meet, discuss a more significant investment?
  • If not, do we have access to the funder at a significant level?  Do we have close personal contacts to leadership within the foundation that will help us to get the most effective hearing for our case?
  • Is this a foundation where we might meet their expectations when it comes to outcomes or reporting?  Will we have to adjust our work or our systems significantly to fit into how this funder does business?  If so, can that adjustment be easily made?
  • If the foundation is a prospect for sustaining support, do we have enough of a track record to make a case to continue our work?  Would this funder find value in what we do for the modest size of its grant?

Considering the signficant number of hours required by an organization’s  staff and volunteers to cultivate, solicit and steward grant support, selectively choosing prospects is essential to a balanced portfolio.  Because you will have begun your process by focusing on donors that are close to your agency or to your project, you are building an inner circle of donors who should be seen – and treated – as investors in the program. Because these donors now have a vested interest in your program, every step should be made to include funder as a partner. Seek the grantmaker’s advice on your fund-raising plan and ask for help in opening doors to other potential donors.

If the donor is unable to help in these ways, seek the grantor’s permission to be positioned as a champion for the project in funding updates to other prospective donors. While no direct contact may take place between these prospects and the lead donor, a carefully crafted statement of support can be developed with the donor’s approval and added to supporting documents for the funding proposal.

Finally, don’t forget your Board or your network of volunteers. All volunteers want to help, but frequently need the security blanket of someone else setting the example. Reluctant fund-raising volunteers often “come to life” when presented with the opportunity to tell their prospects that your organization and its program have the backing of a key foundation.