Answer The Question, Win Valuable Grants – The NonProfit Times

I was fortunate enough to earn a feature article in The NonProfit Times for my session at AFP New York City’s Fund Raising Day in New York in June.  Pleased to share with you here: Answer The Question, Win Valuable Grants – The NonProfit TimesThe NonProfit Times.


2014 Foundation Giving: A Cautious Comeback

Year-in-ReviewI  love the days immediately before the New Year begins. For me, they are filled with reflections of the joys and challenges of the prior 11.9 months and anticipation for what is to come. Anticipation is a good word as we stand on the verge of 2015, since we are ending a year in which foundation philanthropy seems to be solidifying a long-awaited comeback.

The conventional wisdom is that foundation giving will always remain strong as we head into a recession (after all, many give based on prior-year returns when the market was stronger) and will trail a recovery (alas, the same principal still at work but based on a weaker market). The Great Recession seemed to have challenged that rule significantly since not only were foundation boards trying to sustain their philanthropic mission (not to mention the minimum 5% distribution) but were at the same time trying to rebuild endowments. Talk about building the boat as you sail across an ocean!

And lets not forget the game change of the disappearing foundation. Atlantic Philanthropies is in its final spend-down phase having left an enormous legacy, a deep footprint on its way to leaving a significant void among the giants of the foundation world. To be sure, new “Atlantics” are abloom but perhaps being created with the same notion of spend and invest generously during the lifetime of the donor. I refer to this as “supernova philanthropy” — a magnificent burst of energy as a star explodes leaving behind a beautiful aura as a legacy for astronomers and star-gazers (like moi) to behold.

Which brings us to “The Cautious Comeback.” For your consideration:

* According to Giving USA 2014, foundation giving marked a 5.7% increase in 2013.

* The Foundation Center’s own “2014 Key Facts” report published in November 2014 predicts that when all is said and done, ” overall foundation giving will continue to grow a few points ahead of inflation in 2014.”

* The 2014 survey of 637 foundations by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations found that the median level of grants devoted to general operating support rose to 25 percent in 2014, up from 20 percent in 2011.

* Foundation Source, which consults to and helps family foundations manage their funds notes in its annual report that “the combination of a recovering stock market and additional contributions by their funders resulted in increased foundation endowments for a second straight year, in spite of charitable distributions that exceeded the 5% minimum by almost 50%.”

The conditions for a comeback have been created and creatively used by foundations to increase giving. Looking ahead, I see both opportunities and challenges:

Opportunity: General operating support grants are on the rise as many grantmakers seem to be willing to help charities maintain/sustain operating infrastructure costs. According to a colleague in foundation world, this may be because they have seen many grantees make efficient, wise and pragmatic management decisions during the recent financial crises and this has reduced the sense of risk in these types of grants.

Challenge: I see more foundations closing portfolios, preferring to continue to support long-time grantees. Finding new grant opportunities is becoming more difficult and time consuming, adding to the length of time it takes to build or expand a grant portfolio.

Opportunity and Challenge: From my own work as a consultant, I have seen how many foundations have emerged from the Great Recession with stronger, more-targeted philanthropic investment strategies. This will be boon to some and a barrier to others.

I close by wishing all of you every success in your grantseeking efforts in the year ahead. May 2015 bring the investments of others toward the good you bring to those who benefit from your mission, passion and good work.

Framing Your Proposal for Success

As a means of donor engagement, the grant proposal presents an interesting challenge for the fundraiser.  It is a two-dimensional medium — words or graphics on paper — leaving much to the imagination of the reader.  The choice of words and messages gain importance.  Brevity is key given that most experienced grant readers skim, cut-to-the-chase and then reread for depth.

Framing — choosing the right words, vision, messaging — becomes much more important.  Done well, framing helps you gain some distinct advantages with a grant reader.

Standing out from the crowd:  Your work is important.  The needs of your constituency and community are urgent.  So are those of a lot of other organizations and chances are that many of them have a proposal sitting on the same desk at the same time.  Finding your unique niche becomes key when the reader has to decide which programs and proposals will take priority for his/her foundation.

Defining your story:  Many grantmakers openly say that they consider themselves educated about our challenges and issue before our proposal arrives on their desk.  An important mission for your proposal is to define the distinct challenges your organization must address and the unique opportunities afforded to make a real difference.  One of my clients, a youth service agency in New York City, has done a superb job of capturing the attention of grantmakers by demonstrating that their services are in high demand because they get results.  Their grant proposals use results to frame an important message for funders — we have the ability to put your money to work now and get solid results.

Bringing the reader into your point of view:  Elizabeth Costas of the Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Memorial Fund says:  “A compelling proposal tells me what you see when you go to work each day and brings me into your point of view.”  Providing the grantmaker with an engaging picture of your community can engage the reader and inspire them to learn more.

Defining your measures of success:  Most grantmakers have defined missions and desired outcomes for their philanthropy — and the measures of success to go along with them.  Sometimes those measures do not apply to our program.  Your proposal is an opportunity to frame how you define success and, hopefully, the funder will agree.  One of my clients approached a grantmaker heavily focused on college acceptance rates as a key measure of success.   The client’s program graduated fewer students but focused on college retention — the number of program graduates remaining in college after one year. remaining in college.  By leading with this number, the proposal communicated information that was interesting enough to engage the funder, leading to a conversation resulting in a grant.

Engagement is key and framing is a critical element.  I have posited a few ideas as to why.  What are your thoughts?  How have you used framing to create success for proposal?  Please add your comments and ideas.


Setting Priorities: Getting Better Results from Your Prospect List

Portfolio management is one of the trickiest propositions when it comes to success in grant seeking.   We know that we will likely have to invite support from an number of foundations in order to be successful (and hopefully, we will hear the answer “yes” sooner rather than later).  To manage a list of prospects, t the key to success is understanding where to put your time and energy when it comes to building relationships and spending time on applications.

Priority must be given to major gifts prospects (that is donors who will make leadership commitments needed to attract other support).  You should arrange your contacts into a schedule of cultivation and solicitation to take place over the span of a few months. To ensure you are able to cover all of these sources in the shortest possible time frame, I suggest that you prioritize your prospects by assigning to each a code that signifies the level of intensity of contact. This code will be based partly upon the level of gift you will be seeking and partly upon your perceived ability to connect with the funder (see below)

Intensity of Outreach Success Factors
  • Has funded your agency before
  • You have a personal contact with an officer or director
  • One of your board members has a personal contact with an officer or director
  • Mission statement aligns tightly with focus of your program
  • Has given to program very similar to yours
  • Assets and giving are large enough to accommodate a grant to your agency
  • Mission statement aligns tightly with focus of your program
  • New or small family foundation or local corporation with no established giving patterns
  • General priority match(i.e. gives to organization that fall within same genre as your agency or gives to local charities)

Using this rating system, you can organize your list into a list of “likely” prospects vs. “maybe” prospects which will help you to maintain focus.   For example, a high level gift prospect will likely be a well-established funding source with ample staff for you to connect and refine your approach. Or, this prospect may be a smaller, more low-key donor but with whom a member of your Board may have sufficient enough of a contact to open the door.  On the other hand, you donor prospect may be a family foundation who has given to agencies similar to your own. However, this foundation may be administered by a trust department of a bank where staff do not take the time to meet with prospective donors but rather collect and screen proposals.

The rating system yields an added bonus: setting and managing expectations about results.  Oftentimes, I will present a prospect list to a client using these ratings to help make it clear that for best results, we will invest more time with fewer key prospects where the chances of results will be higher and less time with a larger group of prospects where we will spend more time cultivating the donor.

Rating your prospects helps you to set and manage expectations, manage your time and, in the end, achieve better results.  Grant seeking can, indeed, be a numbers game.  Rule number one is to make the numbers work for you.

Strategic Planning: Building a Better Roadmap


Recently, I met with a client who asked “are strategic plans really important?”  

I confess that I hesitated before answering.  Of course, a strategic plan that is well-done and well-executed can make all the difference in achieving terrific results.  At the same time, I am equally a skeptic when it comes to strategic planning; after all, I had spent some quality commuting time earlier in my career taking in Henry Mintzberg’s “The The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning,” a book that stirred much controversy in corporate and nonprofit America in the early 1990s We get quite caught up in the process and never really get around to focusing on the vision and ultimately the results, Mintzberg argues. By his way of thinking, the process of strategic planning gets in the way of strategic thought and “tricks” managers that planning will automatically improve organizational performance.  We invested the time and energy on planning; ergo, we are strategic.

So, how can we make the planning process more fruitful?  Where does it go wrong? How do we move from just strategic planning to strategic action?  Here are some ideas:

  • Strategic planning should look at a forward timeframe of no more than three years. In our “new normal” change occurs at a more and more rapid pace. Projecting future growth and changes in an organization’s mission/service landscape beyond 36 months is very difficult at best.
  • Strategic planning requires objective information and data. One of the places where planning can “go off the tracks” is asking the planning team to identify the important data points as part of the process.  At best, you get good guesstimates about information.  At worst, you end up taking in hearsay and opinions.  The remedy?  A “briefing book” which includes baseline information required by participants to answer key questions in the process. This information can include organization financials, internal performance metrics, historical background, information on competitor organizations, baseline data on issues/topics of concern. 
  • Strategic planning should address very specific questions of concern to the organization, rather than generic questions. Instead of asking “what are our weaknesses” you might ask “what internal systems and structures do not perform well enough to allow us to help clients meet our benchmarks?” 
  • Strategic planning never ends. Once the planning is completed, an oversight team (perhaps even the same team that created the plan) should periodically (annually or semi-annually) review progress on the plan and update or expand it.  This team needs to be well-versed in environmental changes, emerging trends and practices.  So, that briefing book gets edited, updated and shared.  It never really goes out of style or is consigned to life as a dust-collector or doorstop.

To be sure, there are more and better tenets for more effective planning. The important thing is to not avoid creating the plan itself. In a rapidly changing landscape where competition for philanthropic support becomes keener, a good roadmap can always come in handy.

Learn about Henry Mintzberg’s 5 Ps of Strategy here:


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.