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Showing Value

Use your budget to tell your story

Show me the money, or more importantly, where it went. Funders these days tend to be more hands on than in the past. A long history of operation, a stellar reputation and widespread name recognition are no longer enough to convince potential funders to send you a check. Most potential funders want to see an Organizational Budget with your application, and this isn’t just an item they check off a list. Funders are taking a close look at the budgets of non-profits. It may be time for you to take a close look at your budget too.

It can be frustrating trying to explain expenses – you know where the money went and the good it did – but they don’t. Like everyone else, potential funders were squeezed during the Great Recession. They’ve had to closely watch their dollars, and once that money leaves their hands, they want you to keep a close eye on it as well. Demonstrating that you have been a good steward of previous contributors’ funds and that you run a tight ship, can be one of the most important aspects of a successful application. Sometimes going through your own budget can be an eye opening experience. What was all the money in line 12 spent on? If you don’t know, potential funders you’re applying to certainly don’t. You might find ways of trimming your budget while going through it and suddenly realize you’ve just secured some funds, without even having to fill out an onerous application.

There are two ways to make sure your budget numbers are showing their true value to the skeptical eye of the funder (remember, donors are besieged with requests, they have to be skeptical).

1. More details in the line item – if you have a line item that says – supplies-$20,000, you may want to throw some detail in there. A potential funder may think of supplies as office supplies – paper and ink, and consider that a wasteful number. If it is paper and ink, maybe work into your narrative somehow what it is you’re printing out and why you need it. Or maybe supplies are something else – essential medicines for resident foster kids, blankets and pillows for a homeless shelter. Don’t be vague. Budgets are typically added on as attachments in an application so length is not an issue. The potential funders won’t mind – if they didn’t want to look through it, they wouldn’t have asked for it.

2. Give the big numbers a background – If the largest numbers in your line item budget aren’t self explanatory, then you need to mention what they are and why they are necessary somewhere in your narrative. Even if the item is self explanatory (mortgage on the building) it still doesn’t hurt to emphasize somewhere the necessity of the expense.

The essential consideration in the budget you submit is to make sure it doesn’t automatically elicit questions. It’s better to err on the side of too much detail rather than too little. Remember to show them the money-and they might show you some more.

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Courting Funders

How to stand out in the dating pool

Asking a potential funder for money is sort of like asking someone on a date. You need to make sure your organization is as attractive as possible to the potential funder. First impressions are important, and you will be scrutinized. Here are a few of the things funders like to check out in a potential “partner”.

1. Low Administrative Overhead – Funders like to see their money spent on the programs themselves, not administrative overhead. To remain attractive to funders, a charity should try to keep spending near a ratio of 75% directly on the programs and 25% on administrative overhead, including fundraising costs. Funders understand that non-profits need talented, dedicated people at the helm of the organization, but simply put, the higher the percentage you spend directly on your programs, the more attractive you are. In areas of the country where salaries and cost of living are higher, funders may expect more to be directed towards salaries.

2. Executive Pay – Based on an analysis of thousands of mid to large charities in the United States, the average CEO compensation is about $130,000 annually. A variety of factors impact pay including geographic location, size of the organization, and type of work performed. Potential funders understand this. However, keep in mind that seemingly oversized executive compensation may be a turn off.

3. Growth – Funders will often try to determine if the charity they are considering supporting is expanding or shrinking over time. They can quickly check this by comparing budgets from the current year with that of the previous year. While growth doesn’t need to be dramatic, charities that fail to grow at least at the rate of inflation are in fact shrinking. Potential funders may be uncomfortable giving money to an organization they feel is on the wane and whose impact, and therefore the impact of funds they are given, is diminishing. Big can be beautiful in the non-profit world and those who can show expansion will attract more suitors.

4. Diverse Sources of Income – A non-profit’s funding sources will definitely be given a close look. The more ways you have of gathering funds, the more attractive your organization will be.

Some charities rely heavily on government support while others survive almost solely on individual contributions and fundraisers. Still others depend on program service revenue. There are obvious benefits for non-profits that have various wells from which to draw. If an organization experiences a drop in donations from individuals, or a loss of government funding, then it can draw from other revenue sources to sustain its programs. The stability this gives the non-profit makes it a safe, and thereby attractive, partner for potential funders with similar interests.

5. Visibility – You have to put yourself out there. The best charities are transparent and accountable to the public and have a professional looking website. Your website is the face you present to the public and potential funders are certainly going to take a look. They should be able to readily find information about your organization’s staff, Board of Directors, programs and recent successes.

If you’re looking for a partner who shares your passion for your programs, remember, looks are important. If the above criteria leave you looking pretty, you’ll have the potential suitors lining up.

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Foundation Grants in 2014

Our grant giving forecast

Like everyone else, non-profits and charitable foundations were affected by the anemic economy of the last several years. When stocks dropped precipitously in 2008, so did the ability of many charitable foundations to issue grants, as they watched their trust funds and investment portfolios contract. The economic recovery has seemed to plod along for many of us, especially those most in need of charitable foundations. The stock market, however, has been anything but sluggish over the last year, reaching never before seen heights in 2013. That’s good news for the grant givers, whose ability to help others is often tied to the success of their investments. It’s especially good news for those seeking grants.

Take a look at a few of these numbers. The groundwork for 2013 was set in 2012, when the S&P 500 gained 13.4%, the fourth largest return in the last decade. The Nasdaq Composite Index was up nearly 16%. Investors, including many charitable foundations, began to catch their breath as it appeared the Great Recession really was beginning to recede in the rearview mirror. As good as the numbers were for 2012, they were merely a springboard for the stock market’s leap forward in 2013. The S&P 500 gained an astonishing 29.6% in 2013 – its biggest jump since 1997. The Dow Jones Industrial average had its best year since 1998, gaining 26.5% and hitting 52 all time highs along the way.

Interesting numbers, especially if you’re a stockbroker or own a nice portfolio, but what does it all mean for those seeking funding for their charitable projects in 2014? It means now is the time to be looking. The stock market in 2013 let investors know that 2012 was no fluke. Charitable foundations haven’t just caught their breath. They’ve now regained their confidence, along with much of their previous losses. In 2012, national charitable giving rose 3.5% over 2011, reaching $316.2 billion. The first ten months of 2013 saw a growth of 4.4% in U.S. based charitable giving, compared with the same period of 2012. Online charitable giving rose 11.8%.

More of the same is expected in 2014, and foundations flush with cash are looking to reach out to those in need. Seeking funding opportunities and preparing applications can be a time consuming process, but those hoping to benefit from the surging stock market need to begin now. Historically, giving is very dependent on the stock market. While the market is at all time highs, grant seekers should make every effort to take advantage of the wave of high returns and good feelings. As we all learned in 2008, what goes up sometimes goes down. For those who have thought about seeking out grant money, now is the time.

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Personalizing the Process

Even when the process isn't personal

Sometimes searching for funds can be a daunting process, somewhat akin to corking a message inside a bottle and casting it out into a vast and impartial sea, hoping a chance current or lucky breeze will carry your message to a friendly shore. Even non-profits who do their homework and wisely target the right folks who share their interests may be struck by how impersonal the whole process has become. Even local charities seeking funds from a local business will typically find themselves directed to an application process, often online. It doesn’t matter if the business you’re asking for funds is across the street from your non-profit. You’ll need to fill out the forms, visit the website, get in line, meet the deadline, and wait to hear back from….someone, whose name you may never know, to decide if you are worthy of funds.

With the non-profit landscape as crowded as it now is, you can hardly blame the potential funders. They are besieged with requests, and to handle them fairly, there must be a process. That doesn’t mean potential funders don’t also pine for the days when a conversation and a handshake sealed the deal. The organizations, people, and businesses, who give out grant money to non-profits do so because they want to, they want to help you. There are little things a non-profit can do to personalize what has become an impersonal process, making it more palatable for everyone involved, and perhaps most importantly, making you stand out from the crowd.

1. Throw a party. Every year savvy non-profits should host a barbecue/cook-out/get together of some kind, preferably at their own facility if they have one. All past donors should be invited and potential donors as well. Many will appreciate the opportunity to network with each other. They will also like to see where there money has been, or might be, spent and get a firsthand look at what you’ve been doing. For businesses, it’s a great chance to advertise. In your applications to potential funders, mention the annual get together. Invite everyone – even if you are applying to a potential funder in another state. Regardless of whether or not it’s practical for them to come, they will appreciate being invited, and you might be surprised at who shows up.

2. Don’t take the money and run. When submitting applications, don’t think of them as simply a chance to win money, like a lottery ticket. Think of them as a chance to win a partner. Personalizing the process means you need to let potential funders know they have a chance to become a recognized part of what you do, if recognition is what they would like, and it usually is. Donors should be listed on your website. Thank you letters should be written. Even better would be a thank you DVD. A short ten minute video showing the work you do and the people you help (when appropriate) would go a long way towards personalizing the process.

3. Updates. A quarterly, or even annual, newsletter is a wonderful way to remind past donors that you’re still out there doing good work. Update past and possible donors on what your organization has been doing. The newsletter is an excellent way to give donors recognition as well.

It’s a crowded field out there. By doing your part to personalize the process, you can help your organization stand out. You’ve still got to fill out the applications, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to get a handshake and a smile.

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Understanding the Grant Review Process

Write for the reviewer

  • Each funding source has its own review process.
  • Federal agencies generally use external panelists to review proposals.
  • State agencies generally use staff as external panelists to review proposals.
  • Panelists are given a proposal rating sheet and are instructed to assign points based on how well each of the review criteria are met.  Many federal agencies now assign point values to different parts of the applications, to denote their weight in the review process.
  • Foundations generally rely on staff to make review decisions.
  • The evaluation criteria used by the reviewers can sometimes dictate the proposal framework or format. However, if the format is specified in the announcement, follow it exactly.

Special Tip: Have someone who is not affiliated with your organizations review your proposal; make revisions based upon that feedback.

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Southern Hospitality and Grants

When giving is just good manners

Southerners are known for their giving nature, and this generosity extends to the grant world. Alabama in particular is a generous state, ranking third out of all the fifty states in charitable giving. This largess is distributed among a relatively small number of nonprofits. Alabama has only 0.7 registered nonprofits per 1,000 residents—the seventh-lowest rate in the country. Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city, ranks as the third most generous of the fifty largest metro areas in the United States, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The only two cities that beat Birmingham were Salt Lake City and Memphis. The state of Alabama as a whole was only surpassed by Utah and Mississippi in charitable giving (www.philantropy.com).

What does this mean for your non-profit? If you’re located in the south, it means you’re in the right neighborhood. If you’re in Alabama, your non-profit has a second advantage – lower competition. While this doesn’t mean there’s a potential funder behind every bush in the State of Alabama, it does mean that non-profits located in the south generally, and Alabama in particular, should take advantage of local generosity and actively seek out potential funders who may themselves be looking for a worthy cause on which to bestow their money.

When looking for potential funders in your area start close and work your way outward like the ripples from a pebble thrown into a pond. The closer you are to a potential funder, the more likely it is they share a common interest with you, and the easier it will be for them to check up on you, including making a site visit. Potential funders who are neighbors may also know someone on your board of directors, or vice versa. Southern non-profits have an advantage here as there are more funders to find in their own backyard. Additionally, funders these days prefer to think of themselves as partners, and who better to partner with than a neighbor? Many funders would rather support the same charity over a period of time, where they can see the long term results of their giving, rather than just randomly spread their money around. If the potential funder is the charitable arm of a business, often you must be a neighbor to receive a grant. Business-connected charitable foundations are looking for non-profits close to home where they can build a long term relationship that will not only boost their community over time, but also their name recognition within that community.

In the South, being a good neighbor is an integral part of the culture of hospitality and giving.  Non-profits below the Mason Dixon line should take steps to tap into this proud tradition.

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A Good Story Can Win Grant Dollars

Statistics are fine, but don’t forget to tell your story

Grant applications, like everything else in our highly digitized world, are increasingly data driven. It’s understandable that donors like to see big numbers. As the effects of the Great Recession linger, everyone wants to stretch the dollar, including those giving the dollars away. “How do you measure success” is a question frequently seen in grant applications, and it can give smaller charities fits of anxiety. Giving to a charity that “only” helps twenty people may seem less worthwhile to a potential donor than giving to a charity that helps two hundred, or two thousand.

For smaller charitable operations that can’t show big numbers, attracting big money can seem like an insurmountable obstacle. For those of you who work for the smaller charities, relax, and take a minute to remember what got you into charitable work in the first place – certainly not the promise of big money. You wanted to help somebody, and maybe it was just one person whose story you heard. You couldn’t stop listening and you couldn’t look away. You were snagged by a story. For the smaller organizations that don’t have big numbers on their side, the stories they can tell may be their best weapon in the hunt for funds.

The people reading these applications like to see big numbers, yes, but they’re still people. Everyone loves a good story, and can be potentially moved by the good stories you can tell. If you’re running a small operation, a children’s home with a dozen kids for example, numbers aren’t going to help in your quest for grant money. You’ve got to put down the numbers you have, but it’s essential to work your story, and the stories of those you help, into the application. If you help only one person make it, to pull through and move beyond whatever obstacles they were wrestling with, the ripple effect of that seemingly small success can be infinite, and is better measured in words than numbers.

Even in standardized, online applications there are little places to get in a good narrative chunk. Use the space that is given to tell the story of those you’ve helped. Everyone has numbers to throw around, and for those sifting through the mountain of applications, these numbers can become a blur. If numbers are all you have, then that’s what your application will become, just another number. If you have a story that sticks out, that’s where you have the advantage. A good story with insight into what it is you do, that puts a face and a name to your numbers, has a better chance of sticking in a reader’s head. Anyone can plug numbers into a form.  Those who can work a good story into their application have a better chance of standing out at the next Board meeting. Whatever it is you do in your charitable work, remember that story that got you started, and use another one to help keep you going.

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Grant Writing Secrets and Tips

Part 2

This post is an extension of Grant Writing Secrets and Tips: Part 1.  Be sure to check it out!

  • Good writing should be easy to read and should present your ideas in an exciting, yet specific manner. The abstract of your proposal is the single most important paragraph of your proposal. You should know exactly what you’re planning to do with their money, and express it in elegant simplicity. If the grant reviewer has a good idea of the direction of your proposal from reading the abstract, it creates an important first impression that you do indeed know what you want to accomplish, with whom, at what cost, and specifically how. In reading an exciting, well-written proposal, one idea flows naturally to the next. One disjointed or boring sentence can kill the mounting enthusiasm of a tired grant reader. Maintain a tempo of easy to understand sentences that build on one another in a crescendo fashion.
  • Show in your proposal that you’re aware of who has done similar projects, and that you’ve partnered with appropriate entities to assure your project will have enough support to make it through to completion.
  • Sustainability is a big issue. Too many grant projects disappear after the funding is gone. How can you assure ongoing benefits once the funding runs out is one of the biggest questions in the mind of the grant reviewer.
  • Measurable outcomes. Once the grant is over, exactly what was produced, how will it be disseminated and exactly how many people will have benefited? How do you intend to measure tangible outcomes to prove the projected benefit actually occurred?
  • In the passion of writing a grant it is easy to get too ambitious. A major red flag for grant reviewers is the indication you’ve planned to accomplish more than your budget makes realistically attainable. It is better to limit your proposal to less, more assuredly attainable goals, than to promise more than you can deliver. Most projects find they badly underestimated funding for staff and particularly technology support. Be realistic and conservative.
  • Tie yourself to a major regional, or national, issue and position your proposal as a model to be replicated once you’ve proven your idea works. Make it clear you’re not just benefiting ten people in small town Alabama, but that you’re solving a problem shared by all rural schools or communities and are creating a replicable model.
  • Choose your partners wisely. The more partners you have to deal with, the harder it is to keep everyone happy, particularly where control of large sums of money is at issue. If you plan to be working with your grant partners for years, you’d better be sure you know who you can trust and work with. Many projects end up with internal in-fighting that takes the fun out of getting funded. Money changes friendships. Tread cautiously. Consider whom you may have to work with if you get funded and whether you should include them for a share of the funding to avoid future resistance to your project. Grant reviewers look closely to see who is flying solo and who works well with the other girls and boys. The better partners you have, the safer their money is when invested in your project.
  • Even if your first grant-writing effort doesn’t get funded, the planning and writing process still allows you to resubmit your idea elsewhere. Often project partners get so committed to a good idea, even if funding isn’t won, that the means for moving forward on a project can still be a possibility. Boilerplate paragraphs from old grants are typically recycled. Seasoned grantwriters are skilled recyclers, reusing paragraphs from successful grants.
  • Make it fun! If you get funded, you’d better enjoy working hard to make your dream happen. Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it! Once a grant ends, what will you have built for the future? Will you be right back where you started having to write another grant? Plan accordingly.
  • Many web sites exist to support grant-writers. Knowing this, find them and use them!
  • Evaluations are the means by which you prove your success at the end of the grant period and are often the key to winning your next grant. Be tangible and realistic in what you set out to achieve, and in how you’ll know whether you’ve achieved it after the money is spent.
  • While it is considered to be inappropriate to submit the same grant to multiple funders at the same time, one option is to change the grant slightly so multiple funded grants would actually dovetail together instead of creating duplication.

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Grant Writing Secrets and Tips

Part 1

Below is a list of secrets and tips to help your grant writing efforts succeed:

  • Find out which foundations have given grants in your region similar to your planned proposal! Talk to those who got funded and ask for advice and, ideally, copies of their successful grant applications.
  • Read the current guidelines for those foundations on what they will fund and when the grants are due. If a foundation says they won’t fund equipment, don’t ask them for equipment.  If they say they’ll fund up to $15,000, don’t ask them for $50,000. Foundations often shift their focus, and timing can be very important. Watch for timing-sensitive opportunities. Do your homework! Grant reviewers appreciate those who paid attention to their RFP’s (Requests for Proposals.) Too few do!
  • Collect sample successful grants to use as boilerplate models. Many foundations will send you, on request, proposals from past funded projects, or at least will give you the addresses of past grant recipients, so you can ask them directly for copies of successful proposals. The more good proposals you read, the more you’ll understand how clear writing and following guidelines leads to funding.
  • Use the same terms in your proposal that the foundation used to describe what they want to fund. Buzz phrases push important buttons. If they tell you what to tell them: listen, and be convincing as to how your project dovetails with their posted guidelines. If an RFP says they don’t fund technology grants, don’t use the word technology. Find other words to express your project, ideally taken directly from the RFP guidelines.
  • Get to know individuals who have worked with the foundations to which you’re applying. Talk to foundation personnel as much as is politely possible. Typically, little suggestions and hints you’ll pick up, even from a phone conversation, will make major differences in the final form and focus of your proposal. The more personal contacts you make, the better for you. Foundations appreciate those who take the time to gather all the facts, and they might even recognize your name when your proposal comes up for review. Pay careful attention on what to emphasize and what to tone down.
  • Less is More! Reviewing stacks of proposals is a difficult job. Grant reviewers quickly learn to scan text, particularly proposal abstracts, in an attempt to get a quick overview of exactly what you expect to do, with whom, when, how, and toward what measurable outcome. If you are short and to the point, and you’ve answered the key questions, your grant will be viewed as comprehensible and fundable. If you bog down the reviewer with too much ambling detail they’ll have a hard time understanding your proposal and it is likely to end up in the “NO” pile. Good proposals are easy to understand.
  • A catchy name, like “Reach for the Sky” which is also descriptive of the project, can make a big difference. First impressions and a memorable theme and name are important! Remember they will want to promote your project proudly as one of their great projects.

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