It was hard to miss the news last week that Lance Armstrong finally admitted to doping during his legendary cycling career that included seven Tour de France wins. The admission was a significant let down for many people who not only believed Armstrong’s claims of innocence, but also idolized him because of his incredible athletic achievements, his successful battle against testicular cancer, and subsequent good work done by Livestrong, the cancer support organization he founded and championed.
There may not be much of a silver lining in what has undoubtedly been a spectacular fall from grace, but here are a few lessons that grantseekers can learn from Lance Armstrong:
- Don’t do illegal, immoral, or prohibited things. That may seem obvious, but there are some pretty critical ways nonprofits can get in trouble, like spending restricted funds for a purpose other than what was designated by the donor. (There are other, obviously illegal things, too, like stealing money from the organization.) Don’t do them. And keep a keen eye out for others in your organization who might be at risk of doing something illegal, immoral, or otherwise just wrong for your organization.
- If something goes wrong, don’t lie about it. In the process of running a grant-funded program, something may well go wrong. Things frequently do. When someone on your team makes a mistake, or something unexpectedly bad happens with a grant-funded program, come clean about it immediately to the funder. Don’t hide it and hope the funder never finds out. Getting caught in a lie will only compound the problem, and pretty much sink any chance you might have of receiving future support from the funder (and possibly from any other funder, if the word gets out).
- Winning at any expense isn’t worth the cost. The old adage that cheaters never prosper rings true in the grantseeking world. Misrepresenting your organization’s abilities, or doing something that undermines your competition will only come back to hurt you in the end. Yes, grants are competitive. Yes, you need to do something to make your proposal, organization, and programs stand out, but do it honestly, and by highlighting your strengths rather than misrepresenting them or denigrating others
- It’s not always a good thing to be interviewed by Oprah. Several nonprofits had great success after Oprah appearances. While Oprah may no longer be the primary aspiration for publicity-seeking nonprofits, many nonprofits still seek that one big media break that will make their organization a household name. But not all publicity is good publicity. Appearing on a major media outlet – or being interviewed by a celebrity interviewer – can bring both fame and infamy to your organization. Just be sure that the publicity you’re seeking is for the right reasons and that the coverage will be positive, otherwise it can do more harm than good to both your grantseeking efforts (if the foundation has heard of you because of a negative news expose, you’re not going to get that grant) and to your organization as a whole.
Feel free to add any other grantseeking lessons learned from Lance Armstrong in the comments.
Image modified from http://www.flickr.com/photos/bike/3281864282/
In preparation for next week’s webinar on winning foundation grants, I’ve been reading Martin Teitel’s book, The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Winning Foundation Grants: A Foundation CEO Reveals the Secrets Your Need to Know. While all webinar attendees will receive a copy of the book, in addition to hearing from the author, I thought I’d share a few nuggets inspired by the book to start the year.
Without further ado, three myths and one truth about foundation funding:
- Myth #1 - Foundation boards rubber stamp staff recommendations. Foundation boards are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the organization is a good steward of the donor's funds and that it pursues its mission objectives. The board ultimately makes funding decisions. Staff (when the foundation has staff) work diligently to evaluate proposals and prepare recommendations to boards. But that doesn't mean that the board will necessarily approve every recommended grant. Foundation staff can certainly influence board decisions (and the degree to which the board accepts staff recommendations varies from foundation to foundation), but part of the job of the grantwriter is to help the foundation staff tell the prospective grantee's story well to help make the case to the board for funding.
- Myth #2 - Good writing doesn't matter if your organization is doing good work. Think of a grant proposal as a journalistic apiece. It should be clear, concise, to the point. Your organization's grant request has a limited window of opportunity to stand out from the many proposals on the program officer's desk. You may be doing great work, but if it isn't clearly conveyed in your proposal or LOI, the program officer (or ED or trustee) reading your information won't be able to easily see what is compelling and why your organization should benefit from the limited resources the foundation is able to invest. Good writing matters. Spend time on your summary or LOI to help your organization make a strong first impression and encourage your reader to want to engage further.
- Myth #3 - Progress reports don't matter. Many foundations require progress reports. Many nonprofits neglect to submit them (or neglect to submit them on time, or put much thought/effort into them). Those same nonprofits tend to think that foundations don't read the reports, so the reports don't matter. While that may unfortunately be true in some cases, in many others the progress report can play a significant role in determining whether your organization will receive future funding from a foundation. Neglecting to submit a progress report (or doing a cursory job) conveys a lack of respect and follow-through to the foundation, which is not the impression you want to leave with someone you're hoping will fund your organization in the future.
- A Truth - Understanding the motivations of both the foundation as an organization and the program officer as an individual is important. Foundations have missions to pursue -- and donor intent to support. Program officers are inundated with requests and have to make a case to their board for why a given proposal should be funded. What that implies is that a) nonprofits need to be attentive to the foundation's mission and requirements, and b) grantwriters should think about the reader while writing proposals. To elaborate a bit: if what you're proposing isn't aligned with the foundation's mission and stated strategies, it isn't going to get funded, and it's not a good use of your time -- or the foundation's -- to put a lot of effort into a request. Foundation priorities can change. Take the time to review current priorities and requirements before starting a grant proposal. And be sure that what you're writing/presenting is clearly aligned with those priorities and requirements. In terms of the program officer, remember that he or she will a) be reading tons of proposals, b) will need to be able to easily summarize what your organization is doing, why it's aligned with the foundation's mission and something that should be funded. Help your reader help you by giving them clear, compelling prose, backed up with just enough data, to make a case for why your organization should receive a grant.
Please join us next Tuesday to hear directly from the author about what grantseekers need to know about foundation funding.
Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jjpacres/3293117576/
As regular readers of this blog know, we at PhilanTech are fans of Project Streamline, the initiative of the Grants Managers Network dedicated to streamlining the grants management process.
After five years of learning and sharing tips to simplify and streamline grantmaking, Project Streamline is taking stock of how well its messages have been received and implemented by the grantmaking and grantseeking communities.
Project Streamline is asking for input from the grantmaking and grantseeking communities in two surveys (one for each audience). Please take a few moments to help assess how well these initiatives are taking root:
The deadline for the surveys is December 15th. We'll share the results when they are published next year.
PhilanTech and GrantStation are pleased to announce the release of the State of Grantseeking Fall 2012 Report.
The fifth semi-annual survey provides a snapshot of grantseeking activities and challenges in the US. Like with past reports, grantseeking remains challenging for nonprofits. The combination of the economic environment - and resulting cuts in expenses, both by grantmakers and by the grantseekers themselves - and the process of seeking and obtaining grants continue to test nonprofits.
Other findings from the survey included:
- Almost one quarter of respondents told us that their greatest challenge in grantseeking was the lack of time and/or staff.
- The number of grants from all levels of government increased by 6.1%.
- Private foundations were less likely to be the source of the largest grant award than previously reported in The State of Grantseeking surveys, regardless of organization size as defined by annual budget.
- The median largest grant in the first six months of 2011 was $39,000; the median largest grant for that same period of 2012 was $50,000.
As with past surveys, respondents maintained a sense of optimism, with 71% reporting that grant funding would increase or stay the same in the next 6 months.
The next State of Grantseeking survey will be conducted in early 2013.
Download the State of Grantseeking Fall 2012 Report now!
Last week, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, I wrote about atoning for grantseeking transgressions. In that post, I promised to post this week about grantmaking transgressions, and immediately post-Yom Kippur, I’m particularly motivated to keep my promises. So here it is: atoning for grantmaking transgressions.
As indicated in last week’s post, one of the unique elements of Yom Kippur is a type of communal atonement. Many of the prayers recited are in first person plural, ways "we" have transgressed, rather than ways "I" have transgressed.
I offer the following grantwriting transgressions we, a community of grantmakers, may have made in the past year. Note: atonement is only meaningful when it is accompanied by a good faith promise to do better in the coming year, to not repeat the mistakes and transgressions of the past year.
Again, in no particular order:
- We have been unclear. While grantees and applicants have a responsibility to ensure that their organization and programs are a good fit with the foundation’s priorities before applying, the foundation must help that process by making its priorities clear. When a prospective grantee visits your website or reads your annual report, if you don’t have a website – and why don’t you have a website? Even if you don’t have – or don’t want - an online application, you can still help your grantees by putting together a very simple website (it can even be one page). But I digress. When a prospective grantee visits your website, can they easily find clear information about:
- Your priorities
- What types of organizations and projects you will consider funding (organization type, size, location, issue area, types of grants/requests)
- What types of organizations and projects you will not consider funding
- What information should be submitted for a grant request
- To Whom
- In what format
- What your deadlines are
- When they can expect to hear something back from you – how long does it take for a request to be considered? If a grant is awarded, how long does it take from the date the decision is made until the grant funds are in the grantee’s hands?
- What are the reporting requirements for awarded grants
- How the applicant can get questions answered in the application process
- Your preferred initial form of communication (should applicants talk to a program officer? Submit an LOI if they meet the basic eligibility requirements? Take an online eligibility quiz?)
- We have increased the full cost of our grants by asking for information we don’t need. Seeking grants is costly. Nonprofits spend a tremendous amount of time (read: money that could be spent on other mission-related activities) doing it. The Center for Effective Philanthropy has said that 13% of every foundation grant dollar is spent administering the grants. 13%. That’s $6B across the sector. And the breakdown of that 13% is roughly 1.5% foundation expenditures, 11.5% nonprofit expenditures. Foundations can help that.
- Take the time at least every other year to review your LOI, proposal, and report forms and processes. What information are you requesting from your applicants and grantees?
- For each piece of information, ask yourself, “How are we using this information?” If the answer is, “We aren’t,” or “I’m not sure,” get rid of it. It will save your applicants and grantees time. Incidentally, it will also save you time, since you and your staff, board, and reviewers will not have to read information that is extraneous to your decision-making process.
- Next, for each piece of information, ask yourself
- We have not actively encouraged our grantees to talk about failure, and we have therefore collectively not learned from it. Not every project is going to be successful. Even the most impactful and well-run organizations will have some initiatives that will not work. If a grant has not gone well, will your grantees tell you about what went wrong? Will they really? Many (even most) nonprofits fear sharing failures with foundations. Their concern is their perception that foundations only fund successful programs. If you’ve funded them once, they really really really want you to fund them again. What if their admission that something didn’t go perfectly discourages you from funding them again? Failures in programs and initiatives (even organizations as a whole) create amazing learning opportunities, not only for the organization but for you as the funder and for the field as a whole. Assuming that you fund several organizations that work on similar issues – and talk to other foundations that fund similar issues – you’re uniquely positioned to learn from one project’s failures and shortcomings and shorten the learning curve for others so that they don’t have to make the same mistakes. But you need to get an honest assessment from your grantees of what worked and what didn’t. This isn’t easy, given the concern that many nonprofits feel about sharing less-than-stellar results. Encourage your grantees to talk about failures. Reward them for doing so by funding them again – and by helping the issue that they’re working on by sharing information productively and broadly.
- We have been unwilling to take risks. It makes a ton of sense of invest in things that work. But there are a lot of new, innovative, potentially world-changing ideas and organizations out there. And they’re having a hard time getting funding, particularly because they’re new. They don’t have a track record, which clearly makes them a riskier investment. But with higher risk also comes the potential for higher reward. Some of these unproven new ideas will radically improve whatever issue they’re dedicated to tackling. And we’ll never know their full potential unless they get some support. I’m not advocating turning away from successful organizations and programs, but rather trying to push beyond the comfort zone of only investing in things you’ve invested in previously. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Maybe 5% of your grants next year could be to organizations under two years old? Maybe even under a year old? And maybe you could connect them with other resources (knowledge, people, potentially other funders even?) to help set them up for success? You may “lose” that money. But you may invest in something world-changing.
Feel free to add your own grantmaking transgressions in the comments.
This week marked Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish tradition. As you may know, Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, a day in which atoning for one's sins of the previous year creates a path to forgiveness, and the opportunity to begin the new year (celebrated last week) with a clean slate.
One of the unique elements of Yom Kippur is a type of communal atonement. Many of the prayers recited are in first person plural, ways "we" have transgressed, rather than ways "I" have transgressed.
And so it is in the spirit of Yom Kippur that I offer the following grantwriting transgressions we, a community of grantseekers, may have made in the past year. Note: atonement is only meaningful when it is accompanied by a good faith promise to do better in the coming year, to not repeat the mistakes and transgressions of the past year.
In no particular order:
- We have failed to respect the funder's stated requirements. Many funders clearly state on their websites (and/or in other publications) what they will and will not fund, what their priorities are, and how they prefer to be contacted. Not following whatever guidelines have been set by the funder virtually guarantees your proposal will not get funded, and yet many nonprofits still think that the guidelines do not apply to them, or that the grantmaker will be persuaded once they have had a chance to see how amazing the nonprofit's work is.
- We have failed to communicate quickly with the funder if something goes wrong. Put yourself in the funder's shoes. They've just invested a good bit of money in your organization. Yes, it's a grant, but they're invested in the success of your organization and programs, and the impact you're having on the communities you serve. If it were your investment, wouldn't you want to know if something was not going as expected? Surprising the funder in your final report with news about something that happened early in the grant will not endear you to that funder. Looking at it another way, your funder can be a valuable partner. If something is not going as planned, the funder may be able to help. Perhaps the foundation has access to resources that can be useful. Perhaps a grant to another organization in the past experienced similar problems and found a creative solution. If you don't take the initiative to communicate with the funder, you'll never know.
- We have failed to attempt to maintain a relationship after a proposal was declined. Sometimes a rejected proposal means "I don't want to date, but we can still be friends." Sometimes it doesn't (and you don't want to become a stalker), but trying to learn from the declination can be very helpful. Funder priorities can change. Your program might change. In a year or two, perhaps you and the funder will be better suited to each other. If you don't stay in touch, you'll never know. (Again, I'm not advocating stalking here -- and be respectful of a funder's stated preferences for contact in terms of both frequency and medium -- but occasional updates to a not-right-now funder can be valuable in the future.)
- We have made unrealistic promises to try to get the grant. Under promising and over delivering can make your organization look good. Over promising and under delivering will inevitably cause more harm than good. Overpromising might get you the grant, but at what cost? You may have to change your organization's priorities to meet the grant's requirements (which may not be the best thing to do for your mission). Or if you don't then keep the promises you've made, it will be very hard to get back in that funder's good graces (even if you atone for your sins). So don't do it.
- We have failed to calculate the full cost of the grant before deciding whether or not to pursue it. I've written before about the cost of managing grants. Not all grants are created equal in terms of the amount of effort (read: cost) to pursue, get, and manage the grant. While funders bear some of the responsibility for this (see next week's post), grantseekers also have a responsibility to view their time as a valuable resource, and evaluate the cost -- and opportunity cost -- associated with dedicating that precious resource to a pursuit that is likely to have a low return. Before jumping into a grant application, think about whether the expected value of that grant (if you get it) is enough to justify the cost, or whether your resources better spent pursuing other funding opportunities.
Coming next week, atoning for grantmaking transgressions (since it is not only grantseekers who should seek forgiveness and strive to do better next year).
Feel free to add your own grantseeking transgressions in the comments.
My last post was about how PhilanTech's support email was spoofed. It was an unfortunate experience, and one from which I learned several lessons that are surprisingly applicable to grantwriting:
- When things go wrong, acknowledge them, fix them, and move on. While you're not likely to face the same situation we did a few weeks ago (hopefully), it's possible something will go wrong in a grant-funded project, or in a project that you're hoping will be grant funded. Many of us have a tendency to avoid talking about things that don't go well (and many nonprofits fear that foundations will not be willing to fund them if something in the project hasn't been successful. More about that another time). But avoiding talking about something doesn't make the issue go away, and embracing it and demonstrating an understanding of the issue and what you'll do in the future to avoid a similar issue goes a long way. Obviously, just saying that something went wrong isn't sufficient. Dig in to understand what went wrong and why, and clearly communicate what you are doing to ensure it won't happen again in the future.
- Communicate often. The people who were the recipients of the spoofed emails were not PhilanTech clients or users, so this isn't directly applicable to our particular case, but a good lesson nonetheless. Funders generally require at least one annual report. If something does go wrong with your funded program, don't wait until you submit the final report to let the funder know. Stay in touch with your funder (and you can ask them about the best modes and frequency of communication) and let them know how things are going so that they are able to share in your successes, and they are not surprised by challenges when they read the year-end report (and when they might simultaneously be considering future funding).
- More isn't always better. We've been trying to figure out why our email was spoofed. It's the kind of thing that happens to Microsoft or Google, but not generally to small nonprofit software companies. In trying to find a cause, we discovered something unusual: the "contact us" page on our website comes up first if you Google a particular common phrase (which I'm a bit reluctant to post here, since it was the prevalence of that keyword, we think, that made us a target). While many organizations (companies and nonprofits) strive for good search engine optimization so that their website will be at the top of the list when people search for particular terms, it was not a good thing in this case. For your grantwriting, highlight the things that are meaningful - to you, to your constituents, and to your prospective funder. Highlighting the things that are the most or the biggest isn't necessarily helpful if they aren't the right things to highlight.
What do you think? What are lessons you've learned from bad experiences that impact your approach to grantwriting?
Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/bunchofpants/65911953
PhilanTech's email was spoofed. Someone posing as PhilanTech support (sending email "on behalf of" our support email address) spammed hundreds of people. We are as frustrated about this as the people who received the unwanted email, and have been hard at work to resolve the issue and ensure it does not happen again. Here is an email we sent this afternoon to people who may have received unwanted emails.
Note: no PhilanTech or PhilanTrack data was compromised or accessed. These emails were not sent from the PhilanTech or PhilanTrack domains. We take the security of our users' data very seriously. Please let us know if you have any questions or concerns.
My name is Dahna Goldstein, and I'm the CEO of PhilanTech. I understand you may have received many unwanted emails from an email address that appeared to be at my company, and I am writing to apologize for the inconvenience, and explain what happened.
I am very sorry for the emails you have received. I know how annoying it is to receive unwanted emails and to feel like you are unable to stop receiving them.
Here's what happened: our email was spoofed. In other words, someone who is not affiliated with PhilanTech sent an email that appeared to be from our support address. It was sent from musica at pablosuarez.com "on behalf of" support at philantech.com - but it was most certainly not sent on our behalf. We have no affiliation with pablosuarez.com and no idea why they would choose to spoof our email.
When people responded to that email, responses went to our support email address, and those responses were drawn into our helpdesk software, which generated automatic acknowledgements. Because of the particular nature of this incursion, those automatic acknowledgements appear to have been sent to everyone who had received the original spoofed email. Some people then understandably responded asking to be removed from the email list. Those emails, too, were sent to everyone.
We've been diligently working on getting this issue resolved today, in concert with Google (who supplies our email services) and the supplier of our helpdesk software, and we believe we have resolved the issue.
The best thing you can do is not "reply all" to any emails you have received. If you wish to reply or address any concerns, please email me directly at dahna at philantech.com.
Again, my apologies, and I appreciate your patience as we get this issue resolved.
Founder and CEO
One additional note: it is certainly possible that pablosuarez.com itself was hacked or spoofed. We do not mean to imply specifically that anyone affiliated with that domain engaged in malicious activity.
This is a guest post by Theresa Sondys
As a foundation program officer, I am often asked what it takes to write a winning grant request. It may be easier to tell you the faults that will most certainly make it a losing one.
5. Say what? Avoid using overly academic, abstract, vague or pontificating language. Make the proposal easy to read and understand for anyone. What we don’t understand we don’t fund.
4. Budget Woes. The budget should be well-justified, show both revenues and expenses, and – most importantly – add up properly. After all, if you can’t manage your money, why should we give you any of ours?
3. What are you going to do? The key to a strong proposal is proving the likelihood that it will achieve its goals. When you write your objectives, follow the acronymic advice: “Keep them S-I-M-P-L-E.” Your objectives should be:
- Specific – precisely what you intend to change through the project
- Immediate – the time frame during which a problem will be addressed
- Measurable – exactly how you will measure success
- Practical – how each objective is a real solution to a real problem
- Logical – how each objective systematically contributes to achieving your overall goal(s)
- Evaluable – how much change has to occur for the project to be effective
2. A proposal that doesn’t fit – Research potential funders thoroughly and contact the funder to clear up any questions in your mind. Make sure your proposal matches the funder’s mission and objectives. Never ignore a funder’s guidelines in the hopes of ‘fitting’ your program into their niche. It almost never works.
1. Follow the instructions – When dealing with any funder, read the instructions before applying – then follow them (i.e., if the instructions say to double space the proposal, don’t single space.) Some foundations will throw out your proposal for this small, seemingly unimportant error.
Theresa L. Sondys is the Senior Program Officer of Metro Health Foundation, a Detroit-based private philanthropy dedicated to helping metropolitan Detroit organizations meet the community’s health needs. Theresa does extensive work in the southeastern Michigan community. She is currently a member of the board of directors of The MINDS Program, President-Emeritus of Hamtramck United Social Services (a/k/a HUSS); and has served as president and chairman of various non-profit boards and coalitions. A woman of many talents, Theresa has held a variety of different positions including Legal Secretary, Administrative Manager, and Inspector for Nonconforming Material on a nuclear power construction site. An accomplished vocalist and author of two novels (The Pink Lady and Star-Crossed Murders), she is also an experienced speaker who has taught workshops and seminars on Program Planning, Introduction to Proposal Writing, Grant-Writing, etc. Mother of two children, Theresa will be celebrating her 30th wedding anniversary later this summer.
Bad news for nonprofits. A report just released by the Foundation Center indicates that while foundation giving totaled $46.9 billion in 2011 (a slight increase from the previous year), inflation-adjusted foundation giving actually decreased. Highlighting just how big the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is, the report suggests that giving by foundation has decreased 3% (on an inflation-adjusted basis), if the Gates Foundation is excluded from the mix.
A few highlights (or maybe lowlights) from the report:
- Foundation assets increased slightly to $646.1 billion, but that's still well shy of the pre-recession high of $682.2 billion;
- The financial market fluctuations and uncertainties of 2011 continued to take a toll on foundation assets; the report predicts that trend is likely to continue this year, which is less than encouraging for grantseekers;
- Foundation giving overall is likely to remain flat in 2012;
- The report anticipates a slight increase in giving for 2013 (though is cautious about making predictions beyond this year, given recent economic turmoil and the unpredictability of global markets that can impact foundation assets.
Despite all of the financial gloominess, 44% of foundations indicated that they expected to increase their giving next year.
So what's a nonprofit to do with this less-than-encouraging news?
- Maintain and manage relationships with current funders. Funder relationships require care and feeding. Keeping in close touch with your current funders can help facilitate the process of renewed funding, or can provide key information that may impact your fundraising strategy (which may sometimes mean you find out that they're planning to shift their funding priorities, but it's better to find out sooner than later);
- Don't assume increased grant funding for next year. Budget for consistent, or possibly decreased, funding from foundation sources;
- Continue to diversify your funding sources (which is always a good idea);
- Start cultivating relationships with potential new funders now. It's a process that takes a while. Don't wait until you're desperate for a new funding source to start building new relationships.
What do you think? How will your organization deal with this less than optimistic forecast?
Image source: Foundation Growth and Giving Estimates, 2012, Foundation Center