Fund Times

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Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth November 13, 2012

Have you ever considered turning down a donation?  This may seem like a strange question in today’s economy, but knowing the answer may impact your bottom line in more ways than one.


In my first job as a fundraiser, I was introduced to the wonderful world of grantmakers.  Channeling my inner nerd, I would often research the history behind the formation of a philanthropic institution, paying careful attention to the ways in which wealth was accumulated.  I came across foundations who built their endowments through a variety of means; some of which would be viewed as highly unethical these days.   In an era where information is readily accessible (I dare you to google yourself), I wonder how many nonprofits consider the source of  funding prospects?  Turns out The Real News Network (TRNN) does.


TRNN considers themselves to be “…a television news and documentary network focused on providing independent and uncompromising journalism.”  To this end, they do not accept government or corporate funding choosing to solely raise money through the individual donations of their viewers.  This mantra is even boldly placed at the top of their website.  Now this may seem like an unimportant detail to most.  But for a donor looking to ensure that their money is given to an organization that will truly advance independent media, this promise may be the sticking point needed for them to write that check for years to come.


So how do you determine the need to vet donations to your nonprofit? Below are a few points to consider:

  • Ethics Outweigh Need: If your organization is committed to promoting a specific ideology (think: marriage equality), then it makes sense to scrutinize funding prospects (despite their tasty sandwiches, approaching Chick-Fil-A is not a good look). Let’s face it, nobody likes a hypocrite.
  • Need Outweighs Ethics: If your nonprofit works to address the physical needs of people (think: homeless shelter), then the beliefs of a potential donor or institution may be less of an issue (you will approach Chick-Fil-A because darn it, people have to eat).
  • It’s All Filthy Lucre: Perhaps the source of donations is simply a non-issue for your organization.  You may find it impossible to fully separate your nonprofit from money gained through the promotion of unfavorable beliefs or unethical business ventures.  All you know is that there are folks in your community that rely on your organization to help them overcome life’s biggest challenges.  To quote Eleanor Roosevelt, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why we call it ‘The Present’.”


What do you think of vetting donor prospects? Is it worth the investigation?


Fund Times Turns Two! August 7, 2012

Filed under: accountability,capacity,foundations,strategic fundraising — fundtimes @ 1:19 pm

Wow, I can’t believe the end of this month marks the second year of Fund Times!  If this blog was a human being, that would make her a wee toddler (yes, its a girl). Hey oh!

(@ @)

But seriously, thanks for sticking with me as I share all things fundraising.  I hope the first two years have truly been beneficial in helping your organization to strengthen its fundraising strategies towards long-term sustainability.

So grab your virtual slice of cake, two scoops of ice cream and take a trip down memory lane with me of my favorite posts.  Enjoy!


Peeking Behind the Philanthropic Curtain April 3, 2012

Filed under: foundations,strategic fundraising — fundtimes @ 8:14 pm

As a fundraiser, I have always been fascinated with the decision-making process that occurs in a grantmaking organization.  Is that grant proposal that I worked so hard on buried underneath a pile of papers on some program officer’s desk?  Did I manage to capture their attention in the first few paragraphs?  Should I send a basket of Edible Arrangements to sweeten (pun intended) the deal?

Thankfully, I know this great guy named Lucas Trainer who was more than pleased when I asked him to share some insight on how best to navigate the grantmaking process with the readers of Fund Times.  Check out what he had to say!


Q: While many fundraising staff are familiar with the term “program officer”, they may not necessarily understand who or what this person’s role is within a grantmaking organization.  Could you explain what a program officer does within a foundation?

A: Day to day, program officers are involved in a variety of work to support both grant and non-grant activities that help foundations meet their objectives. Program officers are assigned to develop a clear understanding of issue areas to help accomplish philanthropic goals.

As part of their grantmaking responsibilities, program officers may work closely with nonprofit organizations, cultivating relationships, soliciting proposals, assisting grantees to improve proposal quality, and stewarding the process. They also provide critical analysis of proposal strengths, weaknesses, and risks.

Program officers are your partners in proposal development. Keep in mind that they are your most helpful allies, and that they have an interest in making sure that the board of directors reviews the best possible proposals that align with the foundation interests. They want your project to fit guidelines just as much as you do.


Q:  Decision-making on who gets grants is often clouded in a veil of secrecy within the foundation world.  Can you help clarify this process for my readers?

A: There are a variety of processes by which foundations receive, review, and evaluate requests for funding. Essentially, when a foundation receives a request, they look to see if it is a good fit for the guidelines and priorities established by their governing board, what risks are involved, and whether the project as proposed will be effective and benefit society.

Many fine proposals may come before program officers and trustees, and while the amount of resources that they have at their disposal seem large in comparison to your program, the fact is that there are over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States. Private foundations do not have anywhere near the level of resources needed to fund every project and every organization, so sometimes tough choices about what gets funded and what does not have to be made.  No program officer is ever happy to tell nonprofit leaders that the foundation cannot provide funding for their wonderful proposal at this time.

Effective grantmakers provide clear and consistent communications, and use transparent grantmaking processes. Strong foundation leaders aspire to be clear about what they will fund and why. Approach foundations with a clear sense of their priorities and interests, and pitch your proposal to make sure it is a good fit. Then, when you establish a working relationship with your program officer, you should feel free to ask about the grantmaking style of their foundation. Ask what their review process is like, how much of the proposal and correspondence that the board sees, what else they would like to know to make the most well informed decision, etc.


Q:  As a former foundation staff person, what additional advice would you offer to nonprofits seeking foundation funding?

A: Pay attention to the people behind the curtain!

It is critical that grantseekers remember that decisions about grant proposals are made by real people. They have preferences, likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams, and flaws just like any other person. It is your job to help foundation staff and board members understand how your project fits in with their interests.

As a grantseeker, you should be mindful of the perspectives of the variety of people who will read your proposal. Do not assume that staff or board members already know what you plan to do.  If they need to know something, tell them in the proposal. Do not assume that just because you mentioned an important fact in a previous proposal or report that you do not have to mention it again.

Try not to use abbreviations. It may make writing the proposal easier for you, but it makes digesting the proposal more difficult for readers without your content expertise. Remember that in a grantmaking round, foundation staff and trustees may review anywhere between 30 to 100 proposals. If every nonprofit uses two or three abbreviations in their proposals, that can quickly turn into hundreds of abbreviations or acronyms that you’re asking non-subject matter experts to immediately recall and understand.  It can be mentally jarring for the reader to refer back to the beginning of your proposal repeatedly to find the meaning of abbreviations.


Lucas Trainer recently completed a project with the Corporation for Enterprise Development where he successfully secured over $1 million in funding for policy and research project over a six-month period.  He was worked as a fellow with the Jessie Ball duPont Fund in Jacksonville, Florida.  To learn more about Lucas, connect with him on Linkedin


Right Reporting November 1, 2011

Filed under: accountability,evaluation,foundations,transparency — fundtimes @ 2:18 pm

Fall is in the air!  As most of us near the end of our fiscal year, we might feel inclined to kick back, grab that medium hazelnut coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts (I’m not picky), and stare into space about all the days we have off in the next few months.  Will we finally take that ski trip or opt for a staycation?  The options are endless.

But, as you know, reality always rears its ugly face.  Because while you were daydreaming about Aspen, up popped an email from the XX Foundation reminding you of that final grant report that’s due in two weeks.  Not only did you forget about this deadline, but you failed to ask your program staff to start gathering the data you need to evaluate this grant’s impact on the population you serve.

————————<feel free to bang head here>—————————-

Once you’re done sobbing in a fetal position, look at this as a lesson learned on the importance of grants management.  Sure it’s great to be uber-savvy about cultivating foundation prospects, writing compelling proposals, and thanking your donors.  Yet, if you fail to report back to your supporters in a timely fashion, you risk cutting future funding off at the kneecaps.

So what are some sure-fire ways to ensure that the grant reporting process is as satisfying as the day you received the grant award letter?  Check out my top three tips below:

  • Track Deadlines.  Ok, so this first tip isn’t that mind-blowing.  But it has to be said because the solution to never missing a grant reporting deadline is, well, to write it down.  Love online reminders? Consider using the ‘tasks’ function in Microsoft Outlook.  Think paper and pen work best?  Place sticky notes across your desk.  The best way to keep track of your grant report deadlines is really up to you.  The main thing is to pick a tool that helps you to remember these important dates so you’re not stuck panicking at the 11th hour.
  • Monitor Milestones. Chronicling your program accomplishments is incredibly important.  That is, this process provides tangible proof that your nonprofit is effectively meeting its mission.  Not only is this good fodder in which to high five your colleagues, but it is often required in proving to your foundation supporters that their money was put to good use.  Membership organizations like the Nonprofit Technology Network offer incredible (and sometimes free) resources on how to create a “data-driven” culture in your office.
  • Make It a Company Affair.  I once attended a workshop on individual donors where the presenter asked who was responsible for raising money in an office.  Responses ranged from the development staff to the board to that of the executive director.  The answer?  Everyone.  From the person who answers the phone to the one who processes payroll, all staff must have a spirit of accountability in ensuring that potential and existing supporters experience the best interaction possible with the nonprofit.  The same is true when it comes to reporting on a grant.  Development must work with program staff to make sure the appropriate data is collected in advance of a reporting deadline.  This includes frequent check-ins between the two departments as the day-to-day workload can often take precedence over data collection.

Now it’s your turn.  How does your nonprofit manage the grant reporting process?


When For-Profit Met Non-Profit October 11, 2011

Once upon a time, there was a fellow named For-Profit (FP). He was creative, handsome and had tons of money (me-ow).  One day, he was strolling down the street (counting his cash, of course) and bumped into a lovely woman named Non-Profit (NP).  Suffice it to say, it was love at first sight.  Some people gossiped that NP only wanted FP for his loot; others said that he was only with her because he pitied her.  Despite the rumor mill, their love grew and FP asked NP to marry him.  A year later, FP and NP welcomed their first child into the world: Corporate Giving (aka, CG).  As FP and NP gazed down at their son, they knew that CG would add to the fulness of their lives for many years to come…


Silly love story? Perhaps.  But before you judge my fiction-writing abilities, consider the real opportunities that arise when nonprofits partner with for-profits through the latter’s corporate giving programs.


According to Giving USA 2011: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2010, corporate giving rose an estimated 10.6% last year (i.e., $15.29 billion).  In taking a closer look at the data, the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy found that 53% of companies gave more in 2010 than in 2007 (before folks began using the phrase “in these tough economic times” to begin every conversation).  Much of this increase is attributed to a variety of factors, including increased corporate mergers and acquisitions, a rise in donations of medical products to uninsured individuals, and a heightened sense of human need in the wake of natural disasters (e.g., the earthquake in Haiti).  While corporate contributions are still small compared to the support received from individuals and foundations, it remains a viable revenue stream for nonprofits to tap into.


So, what are some of the things that your nonprofit should consider in pursuing corporate support?  Check out my top three tips below:

  • Match Mission.  When researching corporate support, the process is similar to that of foundations.  You want to make sure that your nonprofit’s mission aligns with the goals and strategies of your corporate prospects.  For example, if your organization provides back-to-school supplies to urban youth, you might consider approaching the Staples Foundation in soliciting either cash or in-kind donations (e.g., folders, pens, etc.) for your program.
  • Emphasize Partnering.  In my experience, I have found that soliciting support from corporations is a much easier sell than that of foundations.  While any giving program is designed to address a social need, with foundations the funding pitch begins and ends with a nonprofit promising to partner with grantmakers to advance their shared charitable goals.  However, with corporations, nonprofits can emphasize how the corporate gift will not only advance charitable goals, but increase the company’s bottom line.  A perfect example is Susan G. Komen for the Cure.  Synonymous with the fight against breast cancer, the partnership between Komen and their corporate sponsors have undoubtedly raised the financial and marketing profiles of all involved.
  • Consider Dual Impact.  Now that I’ve gotten you all excited about soliciting corporate support, a word of caution is in order.  Before you make the leap in approaching a corporation, be sure to consider their track record in the community.  Has the corporation been involved in any fair-wage disputes (think: Wal-Mart)?  Is there a questionable increase in philanthropic dollars due to a proposed company merge (think: Capital One-ING Direct)?  If your nonprofit is at all concerned about the potential backlash of accepting certain forms of corporate support, then it is worth it to do your homework in the front end.


Now, it’s your turn.  What other tips would you suggest in seeking corporate support?


Tales From the Funding Side May 6, 2011

Filed under: foundations,transparency,Uncategorized — fundtimes @ 1:29 am

The “overachiever” in me wants to always understand the entire process of things.  Not only do I like to eat (my family can attest to that), but I want to understand the seasonings that are combined to create a magnificent dish.  The same is true with my love of all things fundraising.  Dedicating my professional career to fundraising is only one way that I show my support for building the capacity of nonprofits.  What you may not know (if you haven’t read my “About” section, shame on you) is that I have moonlighted as a volunteer grant reviewer.  The things that I’ve learned from this process are enough to prompt you to want to take me out to dinner to hear all about it.

But never mind that.

This month’s post is dedicated to sharing the top four grant writing strategies that will make  a  program officer want to commit a “philanthropic drive-by” on your behalf (i.e., slide past your office with grant check in hand).

  • Understand the Process. Before you put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), it’s important to review the entire Request for Proposal (RFP) or application guidelines.  Taking time to do this ensures that you gather all of the necessary information in order to effectively respond to each section of the application.
  • Grading on a Rubric. The strength of your application will likely be assessed using a scoring rubric.  While you won’t necessarily have access to the scoring rubric or know how many points each section is worth, it is important to thoroughly answer each and every grant question.  Which takes me to my next point…          
  • Don’t Curb Your Enthusiasm. When reviewing grant applications, there were many applicants that omitted the requested information.  They cynic in me likened this to laziness on the part of the writer.  Was the applicant tired of writing about their program or did they in fact, not have an answer to the question?  I can’t say, but it definitely impacted my decision to move their application forward.
  • Less is More.  It can be tempting to want to describe each and every detail of your program in a grant application, but don’t.  As a volunteer grant reviewer, I was tasked with scoring between five and ten applications.  That may not sound like a lot, but when you consider that each was about 10 pages long, the process turned out to be rather lengthy.  The first thing I learned in my “Introduction to Grant Writing” class in graduate school was to sum it up.  Mastering the art of succinct sentences is critical in keeping a grant reviewer or program officer interested in reading about your work.

Have you ever volunteered as a grant reviewer or worked as a program officer?  What other bits of advice would you add about the review process?


Granting Your Wish February 1, 2011

Filed under: foundations,strategic fundraising — fundtimes @ 2:27 pm

For many nonprofits (particularly start-ups), foundations are the first source of revenue to obtain.  And for good reason.  Grantmakers are some of the oldest charitable institutions, outside of churches.  However, in recent years, foundation gifts have dwindled significantly.

According to Giving USA 2010, grantmaking by private, community, and operating foundations fell by 8.9% in 2009.  What’s more, of the $303 billion in contributions granted this same year, only 13% or $33 billion (chump change for you ballers) came from foundations.  With the number of nonprofits reaching almost one million, the competition for grant dollars will no doubt continue to be fierce.

So what can your organization do to ensure your grant application doesn’t end up in some program officers’ recycling bin?  Below are some quick tips to better inform your foundation approach:

  • Clarify your intentions. Before you start out on a paper chase, make sure that you have a written narrative of what your organization does.  For example, you should be able to articulate your organizational mission and history, the need you plan to address, your program description (including your target audience), and expected outcomes.  If writing is not your strong point, then consider hiring a professional Grant Writer (aka, me) to create a series of grant templates that you can then modify on your own to fit a specific funder’s request.

  • Do your research. It’s tempting to think that your program aligns perfectly with a foundation’s priorities.  However, for grantmakers that support a particular issue (e.g., education reform), one foundation might support community organizing while another is interested in creating change through policy.  Before you start kicking out grant applications, be sure to thoroughly review a foundation’s website to ensure your work lines up with theirs.  If the foundation does not have a website, consider calling them directly to inquire about their giving areas.  Additional online tools include both free (e.g., Foundation Center) and paid options (e.g., The Chronicle of Philanthropy).  You can also look at the list of funders (usually reported on an IRS 990 form) that fund organizations similar to yours for insight as well using free sites like GuideStar.
  • “Friend” a program officer. Whoever shunned “brown-nosing”, never had to raise money for charity. There’s a common adage in fundraising that goes, “people fund people, not paper” and this has been the greatest lesson I’ve learned raising money over the years.  With the sheer number of nonprofits that exist in this country, your foundation approach must include a personal touch.  To start, you can call or email the program officer that oversees the giving area you’re interested in and set up a meeting to discuss your idea further.  You can also tap your board to see if they have relationships with foundation staff and/or trustees in opening the line of communication.  Even if you don’t receive funding the first time around, the grantmaker now knows who you are and can put a face to your organization.

Have you used any of these strategies in the past?  What has or hasn’t worked for your nonprofit in approaching foundations?