Council on Foundations-Commonfund Report 12% Earnings Growth in Foundations in 2012

A just-released joint study from the Council on Foundations-Commonfund Institute report a asset growth in 2012 of 12% amount a group of 140 surveyed foundations.  This is encouraging news — it represents a veritable “tidal shift” over the minus 0.7 returns reported in 2011 in a similar study.

Certainly, many of us have heard that grantmaker boards taken both a sharper eye and a sharper pencil to investment strategies since the Great Recession began.   And this news may bear out that changes in these strategies are paying dividends to the investors. The larger question is whether asset growth will add up to increased dividends to grantees.

One initial sign that growth in investment income may be pointing to some resurgence in foundation philanthropy is the reported 4.4% increase in 2012  foundation giving reported in Giving USA, this after three to four years of virtually no growth (in inflation-adjusted dollars) in such philanthropy.

Read more about the study here:

A spike in earnings or a sign of some positive lasting change?  And is this change you are seeing and feeling in your grantseeking efforts? Please add your thoughts below.


Sell the Party First: The Charity Will Follow

I had a very interesting conversation with a client today. A wealthy friend wants to hold a cocktail party as a cultivation event to benefit his favorite charity.  And, of course, he asked my thoughts about how to go about this.

I confess that I went into “auto-consultant” mode and started mapping out the usual M.O. — select the date, select the venue, invite people personally so they will say “yes”, so forth and so on.  But then a little voice in the back of my mind chimed in — “um, would YOU attend this party?  And if so, why?”

I stopped mid sentence and said to him, “You know, given that the folks being invited to the event don’t know anything about the charity, I think you have to sell the party first and then you can sell them the charity.”  Those readers who are far more adept that me at planning events –  that would be about 99.9% of you – already know this.  But I spend a lot of my time focusing on strategies of persuasion and invitation and precious little time thinking about the fun of simply engaging with others in a way that there is some residual benefits for others.

Back to my conversation with the client.  Our conversation turned to what kind of parties we like and that our friends seem to like most.  What kind of music is best. What kind of wine goes down with what slice of cheese . . . or brats on the grill in the backyard.  The upshot was to think about what kind of gathering would attract people, would make them feel most welcome and at ease, provide some fun (everyone brings a bottle of wine for a blind tasting and the winner gets a prize).  And all to benefit a charity that is doing some amazingly great things to help families and children.  

What we agreed is that if we find the right way to make people feel the most welcome, we are creating the most important ingredients of the personal invitation to give: comfort and permission.  The beauty of philanthropy is found both in your own heart and where more than one of us gather to offer the generosity of our spirit magic can occur.  

It was wonderful to revisit that idea this afternoon.  And even more, to pass it along through this simple post.

Cocktails on the veranda or brats in the backyard?  The club or the tailgate?  A quite afternoon in the sunshine or dancing until dawn?  How are you creatively building safe and generous space for your volunteers and donors?


Kudos to Foundation Center For Launching FDO Free

From our friends at the Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch comes exciting news:


The Foundation Center, the leading source of information about philanthropy worldwide, has launched Foundation Directory Online (FDO) Free, an online tool that dramatically expands public access to the Center’s authoritative collection of foundation information. At no cost, users can search the basic profiles and IRS Forms 990-PF of nearly 90,000 grantmakers, less than 7 percent of which have web sites of their own. This resource benefits the entire social sector by putting critical data at anyone’s fingertips. FDO Free is the newest member of the Center’s premier Foundation Directory Online suite of fundraising research tools, which provide even deeper access to a wealth of detailed, structured grantmaking information that successful grantseekers have relied upon for decades.

With FDO Free, users can search for grantmaking foundations and find their contact information, fields of interest, financial data, and program priorities. The Center has also released an FDO Free search “widget” that can be embedded on any web site to further widen access.

Unique to this new tool is how it enables users to search by keyword across the entire text of the IRS Forms 990-PF for all independent grantmaking foundations. “While the IRS may someday make foundations’ 990 returns available in machine-readable open format,” said Bradford K. Smith, the Foundation Center’s president, “‘someday’ isn’t soon enough for the millions of nonprofit organizations who are tackling the world’s most pressing problems. FDO Free makes it possible to search the raw data on the IRS forms today, alongside additional information that has been cleaned and organized by the Center’s professional staff.” Together, these produce a powerful fundraising tool that helps nonprofits find the grants they need and is completely accessible to social entrepreneurs, researchers, or anyone else who wants to know about how America’s foundations contribute to the public good.

Initiatives to expand the amount of free data and information the Foundation Center makes available are in keeping with its mission to strengthen the social sector by advancing knowledge about philanthropy in the U.S. and around the world. FDO Free also contributes to the goal of connecting nonprofits to the resources they need to thrive, part of the Foundation Center 2020 strategic plan.

FDO Free is available at

Falling Forward: Grantseeking Questions for Autumn 2013


Summer is (almost) over and I am dusting the sand of my shoes and thinking about this autumn’s grantseeking.  Here are the questions foremost in my mind.

  1. Will foundation giving see an uptick in the last quarter of the year?  The conventional wisdom is that grantmakers will benchmark their allocations against an 18-month trailing average.  With some economic recovery over the past year (felt in some places more than others) will there be a rising tide to lift our boats?
  2. Will foundations “play it safe” and keep giving level?  I have heard several foundation leaders say that the big lesson from the Great Recession is to work contrary to #1 above and keep giving closer to the 5% minimum and use the good times to rebuild assets.  Now, we know the old axiom “if you know one grantmaker, you know one grantmaker” is true — everyone has their own approach.   The trends may be telling us that grantors may still be in a conservative mood when it comes to giving.
  3. Are more foundations beginning to implement “cycling”?  I myself see more foundations implementing cycles of giving — e.g. two years on, one year off.  This means that we may find ourselves working to replace grants, leaving our overall results fairly steady over last year.
  4. Will there be new “hot buttons” emerging in your industry sector?  For example, in the field of youth education and development, I saw more giving for college access and retention programming in Spring 2013 and I expect this may be a trend that will affect fundraising for many of my youth-serving clients this fall.  What are the trends in your sector?
  5. Will corporate philanthropy continue to flourish?  The irony of our recession is the rise of corporate giving (with the caveat that many corporations increase donations of products or services).   I myself am quite excited by some of the prospects for increased support and involvement with nonprofits and plan to follow this trend in the fall, particularly as we try to engage donors and prospects now for 2014 gift/volunteer allocations.

I hope the summer has refreshed and rejuvenated you, dear reader.  What is on your mind as we turn the corner into what I hope will be a season of promise?

5 Things You Can Do in Less Than a Minute Help Your Grant Proposal Succeed

Our grandmothers were right: little things mean a lot. Especially to someone who has to read a lot of little things . . . called “grant proposals.”  So, what can we do to make our document stand out?  Here are five things that we can do in less than a minute to make a difference.

  • Check the spelling of the recipient’s name . . . and the correct gender.  How many books on the topic of sales tell us that one’s name is the sweetest music we ever hear.  And when that tune gets mangled, we are oftentimes taken aback.  I have enough email and snail mail addressed to “Mr. Hick” to use as exhibit A.  And a few addressed to my fictitious alter-ego “Ms. Hick.”
  • Confirm the deadline date for the umpteenth time.  One minute after midnight doesn’t work with grantmakers who are overwhelmed by requests and need some ground rules to help cull the load of applications.  Mark the date in your calendar and then set your own deadline a few days earlier to make sure that you get that application out the door on time.
  • Decide to let go of the editor’s pencil.  This one is tough! I remember working with a client once who kept making edit after edit to a proposal.  At some point in the process, I told him that the proposal doesn’t mean anything until it is sitting on the grantmaker’s desk.  At some point, the rubber must meet the road and the paper must meet the desktop (real or virtual).
  • But not until you proofread the first page . . . again.  A misplaced comma or even an overlooked typo is not necessarily going to doom your proposal.  But given our ready access to spell-check, grammar-check, and online dictionaries and thesauruses there is really no excuse for sending a grantmaker a proposal with a lot of typographical or grammatical errors.  Even though you should proofread the document (or better, have someone else proofread it) before it is submitted, a final run through of page one is worth the 45 seconds it will likely take.  If an error is found there, it may well prompt the reader to pull out the red pencil for the remainder of the document.
  • Add up that budget one more time.  Proposals are, at their heart, about dollars and cents.  A survey of grantmakers by The Foundation Center found that six of ten grantmaking professionals turn to the budget before reading the rest of the proposal.  Their biggest frustration? When the math doesn’t add up.  Yes, Excel will total that column for you — provided you select the right range of cells to add up.  Review those numbers and keep in mind the carpenter’s adage: measure twice, cut once.

Proofreading.  Confirming deadlines.  Just plain letting go.  What other things can we do in less than a minute to help our proposals along?

Eyes on the Dashboard: How Do You Measure Your Grantseeking Efforts?

Frequently, I am asked to measure the success of a grants program.  Of course, the financial measures are the most obvious.  But what about the intangible metrics of the program which go beyond dollars raised?   And why are these metrics important?

  • Are we raising the right money?  Grants bring an infusion of cash.  They also bring expectations and deliverables that very well may take you beyond your projected budget for a program or activity.  I have seen any number of significant grants that, six months down the road, led to cost overruns in the interest of meeting the requirements and expectations of a grantmaker.  Careful planning and budgeting are clearly a panacea for this problem. But so too is developing the right strategy and clearly communicating what you can realistically accomplish.
  • Are we adding the “right” foundations to our donor list?  Foundation giving brings two things to the table, cash and credibility.  While having enough money to pursue your mission and programs is critical, having the support of industry leaders is important too.  Recently, when assessing a grants program for a large nonprofit, I learned that the institution had a central goal of positioning itself as a thought leader in its field.  Understanding this goal helped me to not only assess how much money was being raised and how that money was being raised but which grantmakers had a “place at the table” and which ones needed to be cultivated and invited to support the organization’s growth agenda.
  • How strong is our network?  One of the most common misconceptions about corporation and foundation relations work is that the essential skill is writing.  I argue that CFR professionals must be — first and foremost — consummate at communicating content and able to build trusting relationships with foundation professionals and board members.  Writing is important too, but to be competitive we have to be known.  So, a metric to add to our dashboard would be “how many relationships have we built that may result in a grant and/or increased visibility in the sector?”
  • How well-known is our organization?  Visibility plays are role in all fundraising, including grantmaking.  The reality is that if your organization is known before your proposal hits an in-box (online or sitting next to a coffee cup on a desk), chances are that it will be read.  I would argue that CFR professionals and nonprofit CEOs alike have the responsibility to spend time away from the office raising the profile of the organization among your community of practice, one that not only includes peers, civic and political leaders and constituents but also includes foundations who play the role of major stakeholders.  This is not purely solicitation time but time spent gathering and sharing ideas and discussing challenges.  Showing yourself to be a thoughtful and connected leader helps to build credibility with potential grantor, which helps lead to an investment in your mission and programs.

The right donors.  The right money.  Visibility.  Connections.  What other metrics do you consider to be important?  And why?

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:


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.