Risk and Capacity Building: A Response To Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk

There are oh-so-many things to say about Dan Pallotta and his talk at TED.  The essential point of his presentation is that the nonprofit sector is at a disadvantage to the for profit sector because of the way we – as a society – think about nonprofits and charity.  Some of the many points he makes we can dismiss right off the bat.  For instance, his point that nonprofits can’t share profit to attract risk capital….  Well, yeah, they’re nonprofits.  And that means that they don’t have to pay taxes.  And that means that they can’t act exactly like a for-profit unless they plan on paying those taxes.charity

Many people have talked to me about Dan’s idea of paying top executives in the nonprofit arena more.  I won’t spend too much time on this either; this piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review Blog makes some interesting points.  What I would point out is that many for-profit companies pay their top talent huge amounts of money and just as often as not they prove to be just as mediocre as the rest of us.  I think Dan exaggerates the impact that a single person can have on a nonprofit institution.

What I do think is really interesting about Dan’s talk is how we are much more tolerant of risk and long-term capacity building in the for profit world than we are in the nonprofit. Venture philanthropy is all the rage these days but the funny thing about it is that most venture philanthropy works and acts exactly like traditional philanthropy.  Yes, there is more of an emphasis on clear and measurable outcomes within a defined period of time. However, I would argue major investors in an organization have always wanted this.  What’s maybe changed is that lower-level investors now expect the same thing.

But aside for a demand for clear social outcomes, venture philanthropy still generally acts very differently then venture capital.  Major investments in fundraising and other capacity building is still exceptionally rare even though such investments can leverage a great deal more.

Patience on social returns that take longer than a couple of years is also a rare exception rather than the rule.  And then there is the complicity of nonprofits themselves.  We so rarely dream as big as we need to.  I was talking with a self-identified venture philanthropist recently that wants to fund riskier ventures and wants to encourage fellow philanthropists to do the same and I remember thinking to myself, “Would we believe a funder if they told us they were OK with failure?”  I’m guessing we wouldn’t.  I’m guessing that we would be thinking that if we want to have a chance at additional funding and a career going forward, we’d better show some concrete results pretty fast.  So we play it safe.  Privately, we all dream big but we seldom put it out there for funders to ponder.

So I agree with Dan wholeheartedly that our societal mentality holds the nonprofit sector back.  He’s very much right in saying frugality does not equal morality.  But, as Laura points out, money invested in marketing is only a means to an end.  The true output is the kind of social impact we have.  Sometimes that requires a lot of dollars, sometimes it doesn’t.  At times we may need to invest a lot in our marketing and fundraising but over time we are ultimately better off investing in our mission and its outcomes.  Many, many nonprofits (if not that vast majority) are able to keep their fundraising costs below $0.25 on the dollar and still be highly effective.  The fact of the matter is Dan’s organization engaged in the least efficient form of fundraising out there: event fundraising.  And while his cause lent itself to that model, most other causes don’t require this and can get a much better return on their dollars.  Even Dan’s organization could have done so by leveraging the people his walks attracted for major donor dollars instead of relying on a few big sponsors that left his organization fatally vulnerable.

Ultimately, I’m glad that Dan is raising these ideas.  It’s important that we talk about the respective roles of the for profit and nonprofit world.  And perhaps those people most in a position to be helpful will start to think of nonprofits differently and change the landscape.  But in the meantime, the nonprofit sector remains a market place just as the for profit sector does.  Efficiency does matter.  Diversity of revenue does matter.  Social return on investment is our ultimate metric, not dollars raised.  As Dan points out himself, ours in the market of love and you can’t measure that in money raised.

Laura’s Response to Dan Pallotta

Oh, Dan Pallotta… How I love what you have to say – and how troubled am I by the conclusions you draw!   For those who have read his first breakout work Uncharitable, you will recognize the introduction to this work in the 2013 TED talk that got so much play in Bob’s and my in-box.  Watching Dan Pallotta at work live gave me much of that same heady rush as when I first read that book:  here is someone saying out loud that the ill-conceived and misplaced vow of poverty that not-for-profit organizations are required to take is hampering social innovation!  Whoopee!

But, I thought, surely he will have moved beyond the conclusions he drew from what

was a devastating – and ultimately fatal – blow to his AIDS Ride organization?  He will have a more nuanced response to that now, right?  You can see in the video itself how choked up he still becomes by the memory of laying off his 350 employees.  I am entirely sympathetic and quite touched by how personally he still takes this moment in his life; how could he not?  However, I think this is where he’s got a blind spot that unnecessarily weakens his

argument about unleashing the social capital necessary to truly transform the world.

Let’s work through it:

Blackbaud Online Giving Trends by Sector

  • Are there some social challenges that defy monetizing?  Are there some problems that business will never find a financial advantage – or enough of a financial advantage in ameliorating?  Yup.  Check.  Totally agree.
  • Is the public pillorying of not-for-profit leadership compensation not only misguided but downright hypocritical, especially in light of recent for-profit debacles?  Oh yeah.  (I actually would like to intensify that agreement with a slightly more profane word, but not on the blog.)
  • Is the devotion to irresponsible expectations for overhead keeping many organizations ineffective and impoverished?  Yes, oh yes.
  • Should not-for-profit organizations have greater leeway in advertising and marketing?  Maybe.  But here is where things start to go off the rails for me.  I have found that the social sector is more complicit in this one, often seeking to move into advertising without a clear goal or measurable outcomes for “increased visibility”.  And, this point begins to unpack Dan’s prejudice within the not-for-profit sector:  huge money is only unleashed through wide-spread, grassroots fundraising.  Perhaps because of his brave movement in this arena, organizations that rely on grassroots fundraising (think American Cancer Society, Susan G. Komen For the Cure, other organizations that do walks, etc…) do have a visible marketing presence that doesn’t occur at 4am on public access TV.
  • Following on this fear of moving boldly into the marketing space, Dan also identifies an aversion to taking risk on new ideas.  Again, here’s a place where we could agree.  But we don’t.  Dan identifies the problem as an aversion to risky fundraising ideas.  That is not the problem.  The core problem is an aversion to planning and underwriting risky, innovative solutions to problems.  

He is right in recognizing that the same principles of venture capital need to apply to social innovation:  “risk capital”, investors with patience for a longer time horizon, ability and tolerance for trying and failing and trying again to solve social problems.  If the solutions were easy, we would have found them already.  Trite.  True.  But the challenge holding us back from solving these problems doesn’t lie in the fact that we don’t raise money for them in the right way.  Early attempts at crowdfunding not withstanding, social venture capital comes from a few, very rich, bold people at a much greater rate than it does.  Maybe funding from a broad swath of society will be the answer in the future, but it’s not now.  New ideas in the for-profit realm are started and nurtured by a few venture capitalists.  Why would the NFP market work differently?

Innovation in the social sector comes when leadership and bold investors team up to develop new ideas grounded in data and measurable outcomes, agree that the ability to fail is equally useful as succeeding in solving problems and that investing in the ability to go to scale in the impact realm (which may or may not include costly fundraising programs) is what really matters.

This also takes apart Dan Pallotta’s belief that “bigger is better” in all instances.  Is becoming a $50M+ organization the root to solving all problems?  Not necessarily.  Some problems may require big, centralized investment: diseases, social policy movements.  (But I think we can argue on that point too…)  Other problems are best solved at the local level, but small but appropriately well-capitalized organizations who know their market, know their community, know the issues they need to solve intimately and are nimble enough to be able to address that.   Or put another way, is the only beer we need brewed by Miller and Budweiser?  No way.  Keep my microbrews – and my micro-organizations – safe (and delicious.)

Agree?  Disagree?  I’d love to hear.

Real Social Innovation: The Dan Pallotta TED Talk Going Around…

Both Robert and Laura received emails from multiple friends and acquaintances with urgent pleas to “Watch this Dan Pallotta TED Talk RIGHT NOW!!!”  Being people who like our friends and acquaintances – and being intrigued by the fact that folks from very d5577fdfa6524f0b91a00fd8d9df84810fb5a10c_389x292different parts of our lives felt the need to pass this along – we did.  Perhaps you got some of these emails too?

We both had some things to say in response to this talk…  Our responses to Dan Pallotta in this TED 2013 talk follow this post.

Click here to open a new window and watch.  We bet that you will have some responses too after you see this…

Don’t have 18:51 to view this talk?  Here’s a synopsis in brief of the points Dan Pallotta makes:

  • The NFP sector has a serious role to play in social innovation and social entrepreneurship to address those 10% who will always be left behind by monetized market solutions.
  • The reasons that the NFP sector remains tiny compared to the massive scale of the social problems they seek to address are:
  1. Forced compensation disparity with the for-profit sector.
  2. Perception of investment in advertising and marketing among the NFP as “sinful”
  3. Lack of market for taking risks on new ideas…
  4. …tied to a lack of patience to allow organizations to build to scale…
  5. …tied to a lack of risk capital to invest in new ideas.
  • The sector is forced to remain a slave to low overhead costs at the expense of being able to scale their dreams to meet the need in society.

Our responses – and we hope yours… – follow.  Keep reading.

Raising More Money Before, After and During Your Special Events

Since special events take a lot of time and resources, let’s make them COUNT!  The Wall Street Journal reported that “Retention is the new acquisition and customer service is the new marketing.”  In other words, the keys to raising more money before, during Eventsand after special events, especially at leadership annual giving levels ($1,000+), are holding onto to past leadership event donors and sprinkling those donors with outstanding customer service.

The added benefit of this approach is that your message of high-touch, “WOW” customer service and great stewardship becomes contagious – word gets around your community and more people want to come to your events, learn about your cause, give and get involved. In a brand new book by Jonah Berger, the author tells us that “excitement is an activating emotion” that “increases sharing.”  The author points out that only 7% of word of mouth sharing happens online.  Most happens face-to-face.  The more we “WOW” our special event donors, the more they are going to share our story with others.  The result will be raising more money than ever before!Contagious

Here are six steps for maximizing every event, raising more leadership annual gifts and setting the stage for more major and planned gifts.

  1. Fundraising for an annual event begins the minute the event is OVER.  Make sure your “thank-you-for-attending-and-giving” note and/or phone call is sent immediately after the gift or pledge is made and then again within 24 to 72 hours after the event is over.  Reiterate in the thank you the “promise” of what the leadership annual gift level will accomplish.  If the donor sponsored a $25,000 table, for example, tell the donor and all of the folks involved with securing and giving that gift what $25,000 will help you accomplish programmatically.  Be sure to include a story and let the donors know they will be hearing from you again once you’ve put the money to use. Thank you doesn’t equal stewardship.  It is only the first step.  Sharing impact and outcomes later in the year is the heart of great stewardship.
  2. Build a name-by-name realized and projected table of gifts for each eventPicture 3
  3. Wow and Engage. For the events you held last Fall, now is a great time to provide stewardship for their gifts and engage the top donors in planning for the upcoming event later this year.  For your spring events underway or about to come about, it is not too late to provide stewardship from last year. Start with your table of gifts and list of your best fundraisers. Make appointments and go see them. This is not a phone call.  It is an in-person visit.  It’s hard to wow someone on the phone.  Remember, “Customer service is the new marketing.” Bring pictures, an under two minute video on your tablet or smartphone, a story you can share, a card drawn or signed by a beneficiary, a letter from a program staff member.
  4. At the event, have impact messaging everywhere.  Loop a video. Dot the setting with posters and videos that speak to what the leadership annual giving levels accomplish. Have board members circulate at the event and personally thank donors and fundraisers.  Check out our “Hard Working Special Events” podcast for more ideas.
  5. End where we began.  Debrief immediately after the event.  Who needs a special phone call in addition to the thank you note?  Handwritten thank you notes stand out.  Make sure your best donors and your best fundraisers receive a personal, legible, handwritten thank you note that speaks to the “promise” as discussed in item number 1.  Plan how you will make your event donors say, “WOW.”
      • Exceed expectations
      • Do so in a timely manner
      • Make it personal
      • Add emotion
      • Surprise
      • Let the donors know they are valued and appreciation

by Karen Osborne

Build the Better Budget: Non-Profit Budget Tools from Consultant-Land…and Reality.

An old friend and I were catching up the other day and she observed, “Your approach to philanthropy has really changed since you joined a board, hasn’t it?”  While I’m not sure that it’s been a change in only one direction, I do know that leading a board has made me a better consultant, more cognizant of the tough realities of non-profit management and tied into the calendar.  And that means it’s budget planning time…  I’ve been diving through the waves and waves of non-profit budget planning tools available, both to make sure we’re doing the best possible job as a board, and to take a look at what’s out there, as I wear my “consultant” hat.  But first, a few thoughts on the budget process before the tools are needed…

It may be cold comfort for those who recognize themselves in these situations, but here are the budget and goal-setting processes we hear too often:

  • The budget is set as a mandate from on high and the goal is delivered, Moses-like on tablets carried from the top the mountain.Buried-in-Paperwork-300x200..
  • The year’s impact goals are never really set and the budget is forced to fit the fund development projections…
  • …and that projected goal is developed with a shrug of the shoulders – “Who knows what we can raise next year?  We’ll know when we do it…”
  • …or the budget and goals for the coming year are dictated by donor interest, “We’ll do what our donors support.  How should I know what our budget should be until our donors tell us what they want?”

Being a responsive organization that can build visionary plans and achievable goals does not involve carrying stone tablets, delivering divine proclamations.  And being a donor-centric organization stops considerably short of doing whatever “The Donor” – whoever that mythical being is – wants accomplished.

On to the ideal!, says the consultant side of me.

Ideally, the organization’s leadership will begin with an annual review of the strategic plan:  where has progress been made?  What progress is next?  Which strategic goals need adjustment?  Which have been accomplished?  And from this review of the agreed upon, multi-year strategic plan, the year’s tactical goals for creating impact and outcomes should emerge.  Then the team asks themselves:  what is needed?  What investment of time, equipment, or resources is needed to achieve this goal?  Is it new staff?  New phone system?  And a first pass at the budget is developed from the strategic goals to the impact goals sought in the next fiscal year.

Simultaneously, the fund development team is building their goal from their gifts received and name-by-name projections (you are doing name-by-name projections on your table of gifts, right?!).  The projected goal is hand-built and movement toward key thresholds like reaching 20% of the philanthropy goal from board giving is established. This name-by-name projection is added to the projections for the broader channels of funding, based on program tweaks or overhauls (and the budget costs for those factored on too!) to arrive at an achievable goal.

THEN, these two are compared and any gap is discussed calmly, with a spirit of “Can Do!” give and take.  Cuts are made or more cost-efficient ways to do things are uncovered and the goal grows with innovative ways to increase giving and other revenue sources.

Isn’t that exactly the way it happens every year?  Riiiight.  Perhaps in consultant-land…  Back here in reality, it is seldom that tidy.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t strive for it.

Here are the TWO things (just 2!) we can’t cut corners on:

  1. You must create impact goals tied to the revenue needed to achieve them.  We are doomed to bad business planning and low sights when we don’t know what it costs to deliver the change we seek to make.
  2. You must hand-build that philanthropy goal from the ground up, person by person at the top of your table of gifts and campaign by campaign

If you find yourself applying a flat percentage increase to your fundraising goals or to build your new budget number:

STOP RIGHT NOW. 

TURN AROUND AND GO IN ANOTHER DIRECTION. 

Success in impact and in fund development requires that your goals must be tied to reality.  If you’re having trouble writing a persuasive case for support or convincing donors to give, it’s probably because you don’t have a great answer to this question.

So, to those tools to get this done:

I mentioned in an earlier blog piece, the embarrassment of riches that the wonderful folks at the Wallace Foundation have provided through their new Financial Planning Toolkit.

  • For those going through the budget planning process – especially board leaders – here’s a practical, step-by-step guide for leading this in your organization:  Five Step Guide to Budget Development from the FMA.  This readable .pdf is suitable for sharing with the whole board.

I was also happy to find a thoughtful piece on when to run a surplus budget, break-even budget, or deficit budget from Blue Avocado written by Jeanne Bell called “Nonprofit Budgets Have to Balance: False!”. Did you know you had a choice?  You do.

Need even more?  The National Council of Non-Profits has an extensive toolkit specifically on the budget building process.

A final thought:  my board experience has also taught me that it is just as important that your fund development committee (and fund development staff!) be conversant about your 990 – the ultimate reflection of this entire process – as your finance committee.  Donors deserve to know how your budgeting and spending choices will carry out their giving wishes – that’s the best stewardship and the right way to be donor-centric.

Lean In or Lean Over? Leading with Balance

No one has time.  Everyone is super busy.  In fact, in today’s world that seems to be a badge of honor.  Think Angie’s List ad:  “I’m busy, busy, busy,” says the spokesperson.  “Ask anyone.  Well, I’m super busy, but I guess that’s good, better than the opposite.” Making time and finding time for the RIGHT tasks and meetings are requirements for leading.

Consider this: we could work 24/7 and never be finished. To add to this problem the fact that success breeds more work.  With the new book by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In putting women’s leadership and balancing act all over the news, we are once again reminded, in our female-dominated profession, that making time for what is “urgent and important and just plain important,” (as Stephen R. Covey taught us) is critical toTime1 our success.  As male and female leaders, this is not only essential to getting our work successfully completed, but also to modeling what we expect from our teams.

Elizabeth Grace Saunders, author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment, recently told the Harvard Business Review (and reported in CASE Advancement Weekly, March 11, 2013) that “many managers feel guilty that they are in so many meetings, and so they try to compensate by having an open-door policy for their staff.”  But leaving the door open is a bad solution to a real problem.

Here are some tips for making time and finding time to lead.

  1. Get a handle on what is important and what is devouring your time that isn’t important. Fill in the grid! imagesMost of us handle pretty well those activities that are either “Urgent and Important” or “Not Urgent and Not Important”.  We get into trouble by ignoring or giving short shrift to important items that are not urgent like: thinking, strategizing, writing contact reports, planning, donor strategy development, and staying current.  And spending too much time on “Urgent but Not Important” activities like some emails, meetings, phone calls, and other people’s urgent priorities can cause additional problems.  Identify what’s not working and make a plan.
  2. Perfect balance isn’t achievable.  Balance tends to be uneven and messy.  Balance3Sometimes, life needs more of our attention; sometimes having the door closed all day is the right thing to do.  Leadership requires us to figure out and set clear priorities for ourselves and for our team so we are making time and finding time for the RIGHT things.
  3. Learn how to say, “No.”  This is a tough one but probably this most important. We tend to be “Can Do!”, people pleasers.  “Yes, I can do that.” “Sure, I’ll make it happen.”  We over-promise which can lead to burn-out and/or under-delivering, both of which lead to a work-life balance so out of whack we become ill, or drop a “glass ball” that breaks.  “No” isn’t a bad word.  Saying no to other peoples’ urgent but not important activities, to meetings that will be too long or not productive, to a 30- minute conversation with, “I’d love to speak with you.  I have ten minutes.  How can I help?”  That allows you to say yes to you, yes to making time and finding time to what really matters.

By Karen Osborne

How to Empower & Manage a Junior Board

By: Megan O’Connor Mershon

For the past six months, my partner and I have been bringing together the best and brightest development professionals to talk shop. We host interactive meetings under the name “Innovative Development Professionals” and provide an open, confidential forum for fundraisers and other nonprofit/foundation rock stars to talk through development activities. Instead of bringing in panel speakers who simply talk at the group, we work collaboratively to find solutions to members’ fundraising problems. At a recent gathering we discussed the daunting task of developing a junior board.

As mentioned above, our forums are confidential.  But know that this particular guest speaker was from a very large, very successful international agency. This notable organization has an extremely effective, active, celebrity filled, junior board.  Their effort was spearheaded by one ambitious development manager who gave us the raw, honest truth about what one needs to do to attract and keep the cream of the crop of young leadership boards.

Junior Board Management
Why put in all the effort?  Take a look at this recent article about the UN’s Young Entrepreneur group.  By the way “Young Entrepreneurs” is a far more enticing name than a “Junior Board “or worse yet… a “Young Leadership Committee”.

Our guest gave us the following tips in empowering and keeping a Junior Board:

1.  Manage Your Expectations – Junior Boards take up more time for less INITIAL money
.  Donors in their twenties and thirties most often don’t have the financial capacity to give in the same ways those later in their careers can. With that said, often times they require more attention than your major donors. If your organization is committed to starting a junior board you also need to be mentally prepared that at the start, these people will require more of your attention and contribute less to your bottom line.   Stay open and patient, they will produce.

2.  Inspire and Support Serious Ideas – Individuals in their 20s and 30s are often times noncommittal. As a generation that RSVPs to things via Facebook verses response cards, younger people often get away with canceling plans on a moment’s notice and not following through on promises. To avoid a junior board that makes lofty promises, but doesn’t deliver results, ask each board member that comes up with a fundraising idea to submit a proposal. Those who go through the trouble of submitting a proposal prove that they have the dedication and commitment to warrant your attention and capacity.

3.  Flex your communication style – In order to effectively manage a junior board, you need to communicate more than you think. Their level of activity will directly mirror your level of communication with them. As a result, get in the habit of sending weekly summaries of activities. Appoint a communications chair and put them in charge of compiling a weekly roundup newsletter that both gives an update on programs, but also tracks progress on the junior board’s projects.  Note, the communications you create can often be repurposed to send to other donor groups.

4.  Consider life stage – As you would with any other donor, consider the life stage of your junior board.  At this age, people get married, go to graduate school, change careers frequently and have children. As a result, while a member might have signed up for a three-year term, they can be one job offer away from needing to take a leave of absence from the board. Be patient and give junior board members their space. It’s not you, I promise, it’s them. They will come back to you when things settle down as they have already proven their demonstrated interest in the organization.

5.  Embrace & Respect the Party Animals – Younger people are particularly social. As a result, the fundraising activities of your junior board will likely be parties. Before you freak out, remember the following:

  • Party guest lists = an increased contact list for your organization.  Be sure to capture all those names and have a plan for what to do with those guests after the party is over.
  • Allow for the fact that people who are new to the world of philanthropy have an easier time asking people to purchase a ticket to an event than they do asking people to make an outright donation.  These events will ease your junior board members into making future asks on your behalf.  Be sure that you treat the friends they have brought to the table well.  Remember, we all want to be well liked and respected.  Give your junior board members a reason to be admired by their friends.  Inspire those friends to thank your junior board members for introducing them to you.

6. Attract the right group – With the junior board that I manage at my organization, we started attracting members using good ole’ networking techniques.  We reached out to those who had offered us pro bono assistance, volunteers or even those who had made contributions from the 20-30s age bracket. From there we asked each person to bring one friend to the first meeting. By starting with a group of people who had already engaged in some way with the organization, along with their friends, we started with a very tight knit group of individuals. Another way of attracting junior board candidates is to post an advertisement on your website. IDP members have tried this tacit and were pleasantly surprised how many people applied. Lastly, publicize your Junior Board activities. Potential new members are attracted to and apply for junior boards after seeing Facebook posts, tweets, event listings and other press mentions.

Near the end of our conversation, we came back around to the fact that this — all this work! — is the very reason why it’s hard to sell the idea of building a junior board to senior management.  Our guest’s bottom line was this:  Engaging the a junior board will add enthusiasm and energy to your board meetings, bring a new skill set to the table and increase your reach.  Also, we know that there are immediate financial benefits to attracting the (grown) children of high net worth families to our work.   It’s worth it when done right.

Megan is the Development Manager at Goods for Goods and on the side writes another fashion blog – http://www.step-brightly.com/

Everything You Know About Foundation Fundraising Is Wrong

Everything you know about foundation fundraising is wrong.  Well, maybe not everything.  But possibly quite a lot.  Too often we view Picture 3foundation funding as largely an exercise in research and proposal writing when I would argue that these are the two areas that have the least to do with successful foundation work.  Here are a few myths and misunderstandings that that I’d like to debunk.

Myth #1: Guidelines are set in stone

The way we are all taught to approach foundation fundraising is that guidelines are paramount and are rarely, if ever, violated.  In reality, the opposite is often true.  I know foundations that swear they only give to organizations with national reach, but give regularly to grassroots efforts.  I know foundations who say they never give to endowments or to capital campaigns but repeatedly give to both.

Just like you and your organization, foundations have a vision of the world they are trying to achieve.  Their guidelines reflect their best thinking on how to achieve their vision.  But what is most important to them is their vision, not their guidelines.  If you can get in front of them explain how your vision and your programs may be an equally or even more effective way of achieving their aims, there is a good chance they’ll listen to you.  And if they say “our guidelines really are our guidelines” they will often direct you towards a foundation that more closely reflects your priorities.  You should acknowledge guidelines but not be a slave to them.

Myth 2:  Foundation fundraising equals grant writing

I’m always surprised how many organizations, if they can only hire one foundation position, will opt for a grant writer over a front-line development officer.  Make no mistake, a well-written proposal that can stand on its own is an important part of fundraising.  But foundation work is no different than any other kind of development work.  All of the hard work comes before the ask or, in this case, the proposal.  We should be focused conveying our work through engagement with our programs, engagement with our mission staff, engagement with our Executive Director, etc.  A foundation needs to know you can do everything you are promising.  And that means they need to know your organization and the people in it.  If it’s just a pretty piece of writing it’s likely to be overlooked.  Not because it wasn’t compelling but because there is no way to know if what you are saying to true.  People believe their own experiences not necessarily what you or I tell them in a proposal.  Be sure to give them those positive experiences and the proposal almost becomes a formality.

Myth #3:  Foundation fundraising is a meritocracy

If we have a worthy program that best achieves our own aims and that of the foundation we’ll get the grant, right?  Well, no.  Or at least, maybe.  I’m not accusing foundations of anything nefarious.  What I am saying however is that merit is necessary but insufficient.  There are many, many, many nonprofits doing meritorious work.  Given that, which nonprofit is most likely to get a grant?  The organization that is a known quantity is.  The organization that knows three trustees is more likely to get the grant then the one who doesn’t.  Not because of croneyism but because each of those trustees votes and they can say to themselves “Hey, I know the Executive Director that applied.  I know that she does what she says she will do.  I know that she will report back to us.  I know she will spend the money the way she said she would.  These other applicants, they have some great ideas but I don’t know them well enough so I don’t know if they’ll come through.”

Foundation fundraising is a “who you know” kind of business.  If you can, know trustees.  Failing that, know program officers and other program staff.  Bottom line:  know as many of the decision makers as you can.

These are just three myths but there are others and perhaps in a subsequent post I’ll go through them.  My parting advice is this: when it comes to foundations, don’t see yourself as an applicant, and especially not as a supplicant.  See yourself as a partner with foundations in trying to make the world a better place.  Partnership implies equality and proactivity.  Don’t be passive about your foundation fundraising; get in there and engage with them.