Tag Archive: fundraising

What Grant Makers Really Want To Know: 4 Ways to Compel Giving

Heather Stombaugh

It’s happened. You received the dreaded decline letter from a funder. However, you know they gave to 10 other organizations in your community. So why didn’t you win?

All grant seekers must remember that foundations and corporate sponsors are philanthropic investors. As nonprofits themselves, foundations have a philanthropic mission they have to meet. They make funding decisions based on guidelines that are framed from their original donor(s) intent. They do not make decisions in a vacuum and are influenced by local and national economic trends. Do not overlook this distinction.

You are asking an investor to put their money into your solution, but you’re not just asking for money: you’re asking for an invested partner.

If you were not funded, perhaps it’s what you asked for and they simply didn’t want to fund that type of project or request. But, it is more likely how you asked for support and, more importantly, how you presented your organization to the funder.

In my experience as a local, state, and federal grant reviewer and as a professional grant writer for the last 14 years, I have gleaned that grant makers care about four fundaments when they consider investing in a nonprofit:

1. Credibility – of your organization and leadership (especially the CEO, of course)

2. Capacity – do you have the right infrastructure/facilities/people in place to do what you say you want to do?

3. Evidence – of both your need (local, recent statistics) and your chosen solution (i.e. best practices or evidence-based practices)

4. Sustainability – diverse and obviously well-planned and tested revenue streams

In practical terms, that means:

DO include bios in your requests. Use credentials, advanced degrees, and specialized training to your advantage here. Also, consider the length of employment for each person you highlight. For instance, one of my clients has a five-person leadership team who have all been with the agency for more than 25 years. That shows amazing credibility to potential funders, and we language about their longevity in every proposal we write. It pays off—we’re at 206% of our grant-seeking goal this year.

DO address your facilities, your staffing, your volunteers, and your information technology system in your proposal. As a reviewer, it is glaringly simple to weed out high-capacity organizations from low-capacity ones. Too often, organizations lose points in review because they simply didn’t speak about their capacity even when they have it.

DO use statistics from your own agency in your Statement of Need. If you use external statistics about your work, choose only the most localized data you can find. Any statistic you use in a proposal should be no more than two years old. If your organization uses a best practice, say you do. If you modified the best practice to fit your community, say how you modified it and how you tested the modification to ensure you still provide meaningful results. That’s what this element is all about: meaningful results that show a real, measurable impact in your community.

DO include a description of a comprehensive approach to fundraising. As a reviewer, I want to see diverse revenue streams for your proposed project as well as your organization as a whole. I want to see how much you raise from special events, individual donations, corporate sponsorships, government sources, fee-for-service income, etc. If you have a formal development plan, you should cull information from it to use in this section. I do not just want to hear about grants here (although you should highlight that stream as well). Give reviewers a full picture of how you fund your work.

Help foundations want to invest in your work by focusing on the fundamentals. When your organization is grant ready, it will have the capacity, credibility, evidence, and sustainability that will compel grant makers to give.

On Thursday, April 17, Heather will present “Grant Writing for Beginners” at the NEW Center in Ann Arbor.  Click here for details.


Last week we read about lifelong donors and the importance of cultivating such a donor base.  This week, we continue the conversation with resident resource specialist, Ann Gladwin about relationships and the secret to building them:

The Story

I had a nice chat with Marshall Howard the other day.  His book “Let’s Have Lunch Together” has been instrumental in my take on fundraising–though Mr. Howard still had to set me straight about the story.   The story is me, not the mission of the organization. That’s hard for most of us to grasp; we want to extol the virtues of our nonprofit’s impact on the community:  Look at the great strides we’re making… the number of people served!  According to Mr. Howard, this ‘story’ might rate a 6 out of 10–what about the remaining 4? 

I started to understand that it’s my relationship to the person I’m asking for support that is crucial.  Do they connect with the mission?  Perhaps, but it’s the fact that I asked them that is important.  And they are responding to me; I can ask a stranger for a donation to my cause, but I’m not likely to get results no matter for what I’m asking.  Ask someone I know for support?  Much more likely. 

Wow – that’s powerful!

Real Life Example

Mark Zuckerberg’s gift to Newark, New Jersey public schools serves as a real life example for this theory.   

Mr. Zuckerberg, 26, who grew up in Westchester County and now lives in California, has no particular connection to Newark. But in July, he and Mr. Booker met at a conference and began a continuing conversation about the mayor’s plans for the city, according to people familiar with their relationship.

From The New York Times

There’s that key word again, relationship.  I would treat it as a synonym for success.  

Get Connected

Another proponent of relationship building is Terry Axelrod, founder of Benevon (and guest writer on our blog last week).  She will present a Get Connected workshop for NEW in Detroit on Wednesday, April 27 (9am-10:30am).  This “Relationship Building for Fundraising” is yours to attend for free.  Sign up today!

Also visit Marshall Howard.com to find a multitude of free resources, including his blog. Get a fresh look at a tried and true method for bringing people into your organization.   


Ann Gladwin is Resource Specialist for Nonprofit Enterprise at Work at our Ann Arbor office.  Feel free to contact Ann regarding any of the advice, tools or service mentioned in this post by email at agladwin@new.org or via phone at 734-998-0160 ext. 218.

You can contact Ann with questions on any aspect of nonprofit management.  Call for an appointment to use the Foundation Directory Online at either the Ann Arbor or Detroit office of NEW.

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True Contribution

What we are looking for are happy lifelong donors. Lifelong donors are people who regard your organization’s work as vital and exciting. They are people for whom a gift to your organization is not just a donation, it’s a real contribution.

In the old fundraising reality, we would be scolding ourselves for not having asked for a check at the Point of Entry®. That was the “strong-arm the Rolodex” model of asking, where the underlying, unspoken assumption was: “Someone around here knows you, therefore we have a right to ask you for money.” Back then, we had short-term goals to meet. Cultivating lifelong donors was not a priority. Each successive wave of board members would solicit their friends. The old reality also presumed a bottomless pit of potential donors. Even if only a small percentage said yes, we could move on to others the next year. Our existence as nonprofit organizations was hand-to-mouth, year-to-year. Building something for the future was only a dream.

In the new reality, giving is an ongoing process of ever-deepening engagement, involvement, and permission from donors to ask them for more. There is a give-and-take which requires a depth of listening skills that was not essential before. There is a respect and honoring of each donor as an individual who is genuinely interested in contributing. There is an interest in building a long-term relationship.

To put it simply, you want to treat each donor as if they have the potential to become a major donor. Regardless of the size of their contribution, treat them with the same respect and dignity you would want to receive.

It is often helpful to begin by recalling that you too, are a donor. Your name is on the donor list of many organizations. Think for a moment of all the places you contributed money in the past year: your kids’ school or soccer team; your church, synagogue, or religious organization; your professional association; your alumni association; the community hospital.

Going back over your list, notice how much money you gave to each of them. Think about the medium by which you were solicited in each case: in person, by mail, by phone, online? Look at how many years you have been giving to each of these groups. Now think about how involved you feel with each organization you give to. How much contact do they have with you in the course of a year? Is there any correlation between how involved you feel and how much you give?

Next, look at your in-kind contributions. Make a similar list of the groups or individuals you have made a non-financial contribution to in the past year. Include any charitable organization where you have given your time, your expertise, volunteered on a board or a committee, planned an event, offered advice, or just listened to a friend in need. Think again of how many hours you spent doing this, the circumstances in which you were asked to make that contribution, and how connected or involved you felt with the organization or individual you gave to. For how many months or years have you been giving there?

Looking back over all the places you have given money or in-kind gifts, ask yourself what qualities were present when you felt good about your giving. You will notice that these same qualities are usually missing when you haven’t felt good about contributing.

In those cases where you felt good about your giving, you probably have felt it truly made a difference. You felt connected or involved with the cause. It related to a personal experience you had been through. You were giving back or repaying a favor or a debt of gratitude. You were memorializing a loved one.

The odds are, if it was truly a contribution rather than giving as a result of feeling manipulated or “strong-armed” by someone, you weren’t even looking for recognition when you did it. The giving itself was a source of personal pleasure. You felt connected in some way to the group or cause. You felt they were making good use of your contribution. You felt that whatever the size of your contribution, they needed it and appreciated it.

That is exactly the way you want your donors to feel when they give to your organization. They should feel so good about their gift they don’t have to tell anyone else they did it —they should feel as if your organization is their special project, their personal indulgence.

You want them to feel as though they have sprinkled “fairy dust” on the most worthy organization in the world. You want them to feel as though they are an insider to your organization, as though they are a true friend or even part of the family. If you have accomplished that, you will have allowed them to truly contribute. That’s the feeling you are after.

Everything you do to connect and reconnect with a potential donor after the Point of Entry, should be designed to deepen and enhance this sense of true contribution. That is what will develop loyal, committed lifelong donors who are giving for the right reasons.


Terry Axelrod is the Founder & CEO of BenevonBenevon has trained and coached more than 3,000 nonprofit organizations to customize and effectively implement the mission-based Benevon Model for nonprofit fundraising from individual donors.  Terry will speaking in Detroit on April 27, free and open to the public on behalf of NEW & The Arts League of Michigan. Terry can be contacted at info@benevon.com. Feel free to contact Dan Robin regarding the April 27 event at drobin@new.org or via phone at 313-887-7788 ext. 300

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by Neel Hajra, President & CEO

This goes toward my ailing 403(b)

This goes toward my ailing 403(b)

First, some fluff:

  • I asked the concierge to check with Lost & Found about my misplaced jacket. They couldn’t find the Lost & Found lady. So, do two losts make a found? (answer: yes – they found the jacket, but not the lady)
  • On the last night of the conference I joined a large contingent at Detroit’s MGM Grand Casino. The picture says 1,000 words.

Alright, on to the good stuff. On Thursday night Geoffrey Canada (of Harlem Children’s Zone fame) received the John W. Gardner Leadership Award. He proceeded to give one of the great acceptance speeches I’ve ever heard. Inspiring. Insightful. Hilarious. Real.

On Friday morning I had the opportunity to attend a follow-up, CEO-only group conversation with Mr. Canada. Amazing again, but in a totally different way. The conversation was much more about Geoffrey as a CEO, instead of Geoffrey as a visionary leader. Here’s a really high level summary of some of the topics that were discussed:

  • Scaling operations: Geoff felt strongly that one “must sacrifice perfection for scale.” He also noted that it’s a constant struggle to maintain culture among a large organization. A lot of his daily duties involve finding out “why someone didn’t do what he said he would do.” Scaling requires constant re-training and constant corrections in order to maintain mission. This NEVER ends.
  • Fundraising: Like most executives, Geoff hates fundraising. Isn’t it nice to know that even the greatest of the great fundraisers don’t necessarily like it??
  • Staff retention: Mr. Canada felt that executive management has to be very constant, with extremely low turnover. HCZ achieves this through many tools, including the use of annual and five year bonus plans. Salaried staff has to be fairly constant – about 15% annual turnover or less. He accepts high turnover among part time employees due to the nature of the work (hard!) and workforce (many first-time jobholders that might not be ready for the high standards of HCZ).
  • Working with Boards: Geoff worked to convert his inherited board into a fundraising board (through planned and natural turnover). The transition continued as HCZ went from a $5 million to $70 million annual operation over a decade – board members that couldn’t secure six or seven figure contributions were given the opportunity to step down (and did). He feels that the Board Chair is critical in showing leadership for a fundraising board.
  • Innovation: He noted briefly that fundraising was critical because “public money would never have allowed for the creation of the Harlem Children’s Zone.” It’s a profoundly important observation that the nonprofit sector generates innovations and impact that other sectors cannot.
  • Corporate Giving (and philanthropy in general): He takes foundations to task for expecting outsized results from “small philanthropy”. He notes that no one expects an undercapitalized for-profit to succeed, and yet that’s exactly what’s expected of most nonprofits. “The philanthropic community needs to step up!”
  • Succession: Great story – when Mr. Canada and his board chair were asked by an important funder what would happen if Geoff were hit by the proverbial bus, his board chair simply replied: “we’re F**ked”). That set into action some very deliberate succession planning, and some very interesting observations. In the for-profit world, companies simply pay a group of potential successors a ton of money to keep them from moving to other opportunities. Can’t do that in the nonprofit world! Instead, Geoff has set a specific timetable for his departure – by the time he turns 60 in a few years, he will have transitioned away from day-to-day operations. Also interesting is that his role will be replaced by several managers, each with certain deep expertise (e.g., finance, psychology, education, etc.). I also loved his characterization of typical succession: Executive Directors stay too long, which causes organizations to wane. So when a new E.D. comes along, every blames that person for the declining fortunes of the nonprofit, even though it started with the prior E.D.!
  • Planning and Implementation: The nonprofit sector has gotten much better at planning, but still is weak on implementation. HCZ relied on a seven year (!) business plan, developed with Bridgespan. A decade later, “90% of it was right”. The plan actually envisioned their stratospheric growth, including the fact that the cost of living adjustment in year 7 represented half of the total budget in year one!!! Geoff wanted to take that “absurd” number out, but was convinced that he had to leave it in if they truly wanted to achieve their vision.
  • Data Infrastructure: Mr. Canada was surprisingly passionate about a fairly boring subject: data collection and interpretation. He feels that it’s a critical part of the success of most nonprofits, yet foundations refuse to invest in this kind of infrastructure. Without it, there’s no true accountability to achieving mission.
  • Collaboration: He stated that most “nonprofits misunderstand deals that work.” On the for-profit side, there’s an immense amount of investment in understanding brand, market share, value, and many other considerations. Nonprofits don’t have the capacity to do this, but CAN improve their collaboration through transparency and clearly defined expected outcomes. He tied this back to accountability – if you can’t mutually define clear and measurable outcomes, the deal’s not worth doing.
  • Replication: The Obama administration plans to replicate HCZ in many other communities. This is the classic model of the nonprofit sector innovating, and the public sector providing capital for replication and sustainability. Geoff’s main concern is that the first 5-6 replications MUST succeed, otherwise everyone will lose faith in the potential for replicability. He said that the “biggest mistake” made by communities wanting to replicate HCZ is that “they don’t read our business plan.” The key is to have a strong business plan, and then “manage to it.”

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