Interlude: Two (More) Grantwriting Soundtracks


I take a lot of inspiration from music and love to listen while I work. My earlier post, “Five Grantwriting Soundtracks,” received a pretty tremendous response with a lot of requests to post more listening suggestions.  Without further ado, two more albums in my current rotation.

Jason Isbell, Southeastern.

I absolutely love Jason Isbell. He writes amazing, plainspoken lyrics and sets them to powerful music. Just like you would want a grant proposal to “sing” to a reader. One listen to this album and you feel that you have entered a personal world from which you simply cannot look away. Select track: “Elephant” (Warning: explicit lyrics).

Foxygen, We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic

In the Sixties, The Grateful Dead famously sang “What a long strange trip we’ve been on.” This 21st Century nouveau San Francisco old school duo are continuing the journey on this offering that echoes Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, The Kinks, The Beatles and any number of great psychedelic power pop bands. No surprise at the number of Frisco references.  This is my go-to summer listen so far.  Select Track: “San Francisco”


Building a Bigger Footprint (Part 4): The $10 Mosquito Net (or, “It’s All About Impact”)

In the creative, can-do, innovative world of nonprofits, attracting support is as much about the power of your ideas and the impact of your results as it is about who you are.   Let’s now turn our attention to re-framing — positioning your impact to present a bigger footprint — using the story of a $10 mosquito net that captured the imagination of the public just a few years back.

One way to establish a bigger footprint though a simple program is to show how for every dollar spent the ROI can provide manifold value.  A few years back, The Gates Foundation presented a simple solution to malaria: a $10 mosquito net.  While the net itself could very well reduce the caseload of the disease, the larger impact was to make the general public and policymakers aware of the impact of malaria and other endemic diseases on fragile health systems (huge burden) and economies (working conditions).

Sometimes your bigger footprint is established not through the breadth of positive change but rather the depth of the change.  Investing deeply in the lives of a few students may yield substantial benefits, especially if you can reverse a significant negative trend.  For example: many nonprofits providing educational services to high school students are deepening their impact by helping graduating seniors successfully transition into college.  While the number of graduates served in such a program may be much smaller than the number of active students, by helping ensure that they finish college with a degree deepens the impact of the program and points to sustained positive results.

Using your results (perhaps with some re-framing) requires time and resources.  One cannot insist that the impact of a given program qualifies as having a bigger footprint without the proof of data and an attendant set of conclusions.  This means that one must have the means to collect, analyze and draw conclusions from data.  And you must demonstrate how evaluation is leading you to conclude that your footprint is, indeed, growing.  This process — data gathering and analysis — requires time, skills and expertise which may or may not exist within your team.

For organizations who can point to small victories — be it a high school senior who becomes the first in his or her family to attain a college degree or a life-saving solution accessible to all — small results can point to or leverage larger solutions.  From my experience as a consultant, a surprising number of charities have a $10 mosquito net hiding somewhere that could well be the key to attracting attention and ultimately meaningful financial support.   Step back, look at your work and find yours today.

Building a Bigger Footprint (Part 3): Multi-Site Programs


CBOs — community based organizations — are fascinating organizations and ones from which every nonprofit can learn a valuable lesson:  the more time you spend in the street, the bigger your impression and your impact.  Many provide outreach programs and direct services outside of their home base; you can find CBO program sites in church basements  housing facilities and even storefronts.  

A CEO of a community-based organization with several community locations in New York City once told me: “We are a retail business and the more touch we have with the community, the better we do.”   I love the analogy:  in retail, if you have market presence, you will thrive.  Leave yourself in the corner of a strip mall and you will wither on the vine. So, to wit, good retailers operate on the premise of location, location, location.  Not only do you invite customer touch but the more visible your brand, the more investment you will attract.

So, if your organization t operates multiple program sites, how can you build a bigger footprint?   At a first glance, many organizations offer multiple services in multiple locations.  And many fall into the “trap” of looking at each location is unique rather than as a part of a bigger story.  In many instances, I have spent time with clients drawing comparisons between programs to identify a bigger footprint to present to a grantmaker.

  • Tutorial programs at 3 satellite locations becomes a single program with common goals and objectives replicated in three places.
  • Education programs in eight schools are now described as elements of a unified education initiative based on nonprofit/school partnerships with the ultimate goal of moving high school students into college

And building a bigger footprint is not just about changing perceptions.  As you recast and re-frame the program in your proposals, sometimes the organizational strategy begins to shift.  In the case of the second program above, as a result of re-imagining their education work as falling under one umbrella, the organization is now reaching into new communities, building new partnerships, reaching even more students.  This bigger footprint  has provided stronger results and is opening up new opportunities — which both combine to create interest  among larger foundations and excitement from existing donors.

In these cases and many others, a smaller organization that has a good reputation, solid community connections and a firm toehold in the community has a fine opportunity to present a bigger footprint.  So fine, in fact, that the footprint doesn’t necessarily have to be built.  The imprint is there; you just need to fill the space between the lines.



Ready. Fire. Aim. Revisiting Tom Peter’s Action Manifesto

In the world of grants, we are constantly innovating, revisiting outcomes, shifting strategies.  For inspiration, I pulled Tom Peters’ “Action Manifesto” from the desk drawer (okay, I really go online and download it) and read through it again.   A collection of ideas, sayings from business leaders and the general public.  Provocative.  Entertaining.  Never dull. Always challenging.  

My top five:

  • Ready. Fire. Aim.  

  • Fail forward fast.

  • Move fast. Break things.

  • No matter.  Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

  • Reward excellent failures. Punish mediocre successes.

What’s yours?  Download here

All For a Song: Lessons from the World of Songwriting

Pain is pain, hunger is hunger, joy is joy and to call them anything other in the hopes of making your story seem to be more important may well be putting your reader on the outside rather than bringing him or her inside.  Great songwriters overcome this challenge and, from them, we can learn some valuable lessons about writing.

In some recent posts, I have explored the idea that when it comes to writing a proposal, fewer, well-chosen words can be the most powerful way to convey an idea or information.  Certainly, Tony Proscio touches upon this idea more than once in his treatise “In Other Words” (see my prior blog post about Mr. Proscio’s work) where jargon tends to obscure rather than clarify.  And certainly, repetition and long-winded narrative does too; writing this brings to mind Martin Teitel’s wonderful acronym that is banded about foundation halls — MEAGO, which stands for “my eyes are glazing over.”

As someone who has been writing proposals for 25 years, I have found new inspiration about the power of simple words chosen carefully from a surprising source: the realm of the singer-songwriter.  In a radio interview a few years back, songwriter Jeffrey Foucault said “I think my songs became more powerful once I learned how to pare down my lyrics and trust the listener to fill in the rest.”

Think about it, great songs rely on the imagination of the listener who, given just enough words and imagery, will come to his or her own conclusion as to how those words resonate with his or her life experience.  Here is a line from Foucault’s song “Northbound 35”: “You were as much in my hands as water, or darkness, or nothing can ever be held.”  No doubt he is carefully choosing images that any listener will understand.  We come into contact with water and darkness each and every day of our lives so these words need little, if any, explanation.   But the line is about so much more; when I hear it, I think of fleeting touches, evasion, loss, emptiness.

So, how to make the creative, highly personalized world of songwriting jibe with what can be the static, facts/outcome driven world of a grant proposal?  Here are the lessons I have learned:

Its okay to leave space on the page.  Ilene Mack, formerly of the William Randolph Hearst Foundation says “You don’t have to tell us everything.   We read a lot.  We know more than you think we do.  We can fill in the gaps.”

Tell stories that engage the listener.  One of the greatest storytelling songwriters working today is the talented Jason Isbell who writes about hardscrabble lives in the modern South.  His songs are powerful, expressive and incredibly plain spoken.  Charles Hamilton says “Foundations don’t give millions for research.  They give millions to save lives.” So, tell us about a life you are trying to save.

Use themes to inspire.   What makes a song memorable is its hook.  It can be a melodic idea.  Or a big, bombastic theme.  Rock superstars U2 are incredibly adept at writing inspiring stadium anthems, all based on pretty simple hooks backed by ringing guitars.  Center the message in your proposal around an inspirational idea.  A few that I pulled out of some recent work:

  • “We offer children from the city a life-changing summer experience”
  • “We are helping motivated high school students build a pathway to a college degree”
  • “When we strengthen a family, we nurture a child.”

Studying great songs gives us insights to great writing — taking complex and even painful themes and with simple, well-chosen words opening a window for a listener.  The same can be true for a grant proposal or a case statement or a mail appeal.  No doubt, we have great stories to tell.  Find our voice and sing them out loud.

Building a Bigger Footprint (Part 2): The Strategic Alliance

The philanthropic marketplace is crowded.  In the US alone, we have in excess of 1.1 million not-for-profit organizations vying for support.  For some, standing out in the crowd is easy: a long history of excellence, great name/brand recognition, strong reputation, sheer size and magnitude.  For others, visibility is daunting: the start-up organization, the small college or hospital competing with a major university or medical system.

In this post, we will briefly explore the strategy of using strategic alliances to build visibility, brand and, hopefully, to leverage support.  This is not a new idea, but it is one that doesn’t get used as much as it should.

A few years back, I made a presentation at one of CASE’s fabulous Corporate and Foundation Fundraising conferences and was struck by the disparity in my audience.  Top CFR officers from schools such as MIT, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Texas A&M were sitting next to colleagues from much smaller schools including community colleges.  The disparity in leveraging power between these schools became readily apparent when I tried to engage the group in some dialogue about best practices.  The larger schools were negotiating and managing support at vastly different levels than the smaller schools (not surprising).

But listening carefully, it dawned on me that in some cases, both smaller school and larger university were bringing to the table similar levels of experience and expertise.  Same wine, different bottles.  It occurred to me that if several smaller schools could identify similar needs and opportunities, perhaps they could form a strategic alliance that would provide leveraged benefits to all partners.  In doing so, they could present a much larger “footprint” to a grantmaker, perhaps even comparable to a larger campus.

Take the same premise and apply it to other fields:

  • Small unaffiliated hospitals that, combining resources and expertise, could present a bigger footprint comparable to a larger medical system;
  • Community-based organizations serving a similar geographic area and constituency that could leverage staff experience and resources; or
  • A cluster of arts groups that could create cross-channel marketing, education and programming that could deepen their collective impact and footprint.

At a time when philanthropy is showing modest growth at best, leveraging resources to stand out to donors is an important strategy.  Alliances may be a cost and results-effective way for your organization to compete for support.

Building a Bigger Footprint is a multi-part series.  Stay tuned.


Can’t Compete With the Big Guys? Build a Bigger Footprint

We all know the feeling.  The community college or small university that can’t compete with the state university for grant dollars.  The community-based organization that watches larger competitors win mega grant after mega grant.  How do we get ourselves into the game?

This post begins a series of posts with the theme “Building a Bigger Footprint.”  We will look at some very distinct strategies that may help your smaller, effective nonprofit become known to larger grantmakers.  We will explore some interesting territory which includes

  • Rebuilding your case for support around multi-site programming
  • Framing the impact of your work to change context
  • Building strategic alliances with other similar organizations

So, for starters, what is the concept of a “bigger footprint.”  Quite simply, its all about finding a way to leverage the excellence of your nonprofit — be it a school, a hospital, a college, a community based organization, an arts group . . . anything.  Here are two key considerations that I take into mind in situations where I might advise a client to consider the strategy:

  • Does 1+1 = 3?  It only makes sense to present a bigger footprint if you can convince the grantmaker – and deliver on your promised program – if the footprint promises a return that is greater than the sum of the parts that make up your delivery mechanism.  If you are telling a funder that you are leveraging yoru resources across five satellite sites, then the perceived return on investment needs to be greater than the combined operating expense of those sites.
  • Does a bigger footprint leverage excellence or dilute it?  I have certainly come across alliances where the combined resources bring amazing depth and benefits to participants. And I have worked with collaborative projects where maintaining an alliance proved to be an incredible drain on time, energy and financial resources to the point that the project became inefficient and ineffective — two things that add up to a “kiss of death” for a grant.

Building a bigger footprint is a worthwhile strategy if your organization has the resources, experience, talent, skills and connections to make it work.  I look forward to sharing additional strategies and examples in upcoming posts.  Stay tuned!

Another Observation on Giving USA Foundation Giving Data

According to the summary report (still waiting to diving into the details), giving  by community foundations grew 9.1 percent last year, which helped to bolster total foundation giving to a 4.4 percent increase.  The report notes that operating and independent foundations increased grant making by 3.5 percent and 3.9 percent, respectively.

While these are good numbers (and in this economy, any number in the black is a good number), my key concern is that the real growth in foundation giving was felt among foundations where philanthropy is donor-driven/donor-designated.  While many community foundations have robust competitive grants programs, I suspect that these programs likely grew at the same rate as operating and independent foundations.

So, when it comes to competitive grants — that is, those grants where you can openly apply for a gift — it looks like we are dealing with a 3.5/4.0% growth rate in giving.  More than respectable, but will it be enough to include new grantees or significantly increased gifts?


Giving USA: First Glance at the Foundation Numbers

Its 7:15 AM Eastern Time and with coffee in hand and high hopes in heart, I am taking a look at the just-released information from Giving USA 2013 report.  This may be a several part post as I digest information and I will share my observations as time progresses.

  • Foundation giving overall posted a 2.3% increase.  Back in 2010, I told any number o clients that I expected foundation giving to stay relatively flat after the 2009 decline.  That trend seems to be continuing.
  • Giving to foundations, adjusted for inflation, declined by 6.5%.  This figure is usually heavily-weighted toward family foundations and, given economic uncertainties, it isn’t surprising since those donors with a private trust (or two) may lack the liquidity to fund them at this time.
  • Giving by individuals posted a very modest (some articles this morning are using the adjective “weak”) gain.  Does this potentially place more stress on foundations in 2013 as cash-strapped charities look to diversify their giving?  Will this need for unrestricted support lead to more general support grants?

So, for your organization, how did your 2012 foundation giving fare:

Too Much of a Good Thing: Making a Case for Support When You Are Overfunded

This morning’s client challenge: we just exceeded our grants goal for a new program which has captured the enthusiasm of several major grantmakers.  In fact, there is arguably enough money to carry the program for two years  — and we still have more grantors who may want to help!  Talk about Christmas in June!!

Of course, we could pat ourselves on the back and say “well, we don’t have to write another proposal or application for at least another 12 months.”  But the reality is that when you take yourself out of play, well, you are out of play.  Momentum is a rare gift in fundraising and one never should waste the opportunity.

So, I was asked to frame what I would consider to be the major selling points for continued support.  My thoughts:

  • Be forthright and tell the prospective grantor that you have a lot of money.  Foundations are entrepreneurial organizations that are oftentimes risk adverse. Not in the sense of trying something new, but in the sense of supporting something that may not be financially viable or sustainable.  Early fundraising success is one of the strongest indicators of future sustainability.  
  • Add structure to the story.  Rather than say “aren’t we lucky, we have a lot of money” put that money into context.  What has happened is that enough money has been secured to fund a pilot and development phase.
  • Give the additional money meaning and purpose beyond a budget or balance sheet.  I believe that fundraising is not about money, but what money will buy in terms of real, positive and lasting change.  In this case, we really need to ensure the program can be continued into future years to sustain gains made with participants in the first year or so.

When success strikes, don’t hesitate to continue to build upon it.  When it comes to the valuable work that nonprofits do, there is never a case of “too much of a good thing.”