First Steps to Finding Funder Love

Happy February! Yes, Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, but if you’re like most nonprofits, the kind of love you’re thinking about this time of year is good old-fashioned funder love. You know what I’m talking about—that symbiotic meeting of the missions, where the work your organization does perfectly aligns with the priorities of the funder…

But wait, that’s just in the movies, right? How is a nonprofit gal or guy supposed to find grantor/grantee bliss?

I do think of myself as a bit of a matchmaker when it comes to finding the right funder prospects. And I’m certainly not the first to notice the resemblance between the grant seeking and dating processes. Fundraising colleagues have written posts on the ways grant seeking is like online dating, and provided tips on how to develop a long-term funder relationship. There's great stuff here that I couldn’t agree with more!

But too often, organizations look to jump into a relationship with a funder without doing the difficult work of self-reflection and assessment. Personal relationships are more likely to succeed if you know your values, know what you are looking for in a mate, and are ready to talk about the tough stuff. Turns out, these are great ready-to-date criteria for nonprofits, too.

Know your values, and be confidently rooted in them. Nonprofits need to know, deep down, who they are: who they serve, to what end, and via what means. Often, this identity is reflected in the organization’s vision and mission statements—they are the center from which the nonprofit’s values naturally flow, and are guideposts for the community work that the organization undertakes. (If, by the way, your nonprofit's mission doesn’t reflect its identity, your organization may be suffering from mission creep, and would be wise to revisit its mission statement.) This sort of deep and confident embrace of an organization’s values is critical not only to successfully articulating the organization’s goals to potential funders, but also to ensuring that a meaningful alignment exists between the nonprofit and the funder. After all, how can funders know that you have priorities in common if you’re not able to identify what your values are?

Know what you are looking for—and what you can accept—in a (funding) mate. If you’re a quiet-walks-on-the-beach kind of person, you are not necessarily looking for a high-flying, adventurous type to be your mate. Likewise, not all funders are going to be a good fit for every nonprofit. It’s important to be honest about what you are looking for in a funder to ensure a good fit. Maybe your organization is a small nonprofit, debating whether to apply for grants at all. Perhaps it's a medium-sized grassroots organization, and you prefer an accessible, hands-on funder with whom you can communicate directly. Local funders and smaller family foundations may be a good bet for your organization. Has your nonprofit experienced success with smaller regional funders, and you are seeking to raise its profile? State or national funders might be a logical next step. Is your heart set on securing funds for a capital improvement project? Then funders that are committed to program giving are probably not going to be a good match, no matter how well you make your case.

Just as important, your organization needs to be honest with itself about the types of funder relationships it can accept. Is that government grant opportunity tempting your organization, but you worry that your staff of two won’t be able to manage the reporting? It may be wise to seek other funders whose requirements won’t overwhelm your organization, or perhaps postpone applying until your staff capacity improves.

Be ready to discuss the difficult stuff. Nonprofits have to be ready to acknowledge their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Fundraising limitations, budget constraints, programmatic shortcomings—none of these is easy or fun to discuss. But it’s important as an organization to recognize areas for improvement, to realistically assess the bad with the good, and to be prepared to discuss both. The organization that is able to own its challenges is more likely to communicate with a funder in an open, honest way—a key to any successful relationship.


What other similarities do you see between dating and grant seeking? What other steps do nonprofits need to take to be ready for a “funder relationship”? 


What's Scary When You're a Nonprofit?

Yes, it’s Halloween week, time for ghosts and goblins, vampires and ghouls. But if you work in the nonprofit sector, there’s something far scarier out there…silos!

OK, just to be clear: I’m not talking about the grain-storing kind here. I’m talking about the metaphorical kind—the type that compartmentalizes our organizations, divides the efforts of the social sector, and generally keeps my sandbox separate from yours. In recent years, “silos” have been highlighted as a critical problem within the nonprofit community, hindering the sector’s effectiveness. At this month’s annual conference of the Hawaii Alliance of Nonprofit Organizations (HANO), talk of silos and their threat to the sector permeated keynote presentations, break-out sessions, and informal conversations alike.

What is it exactly about silos that is so scary? Maybe it’s their insidious nature—that they can often exist without challenge, quietly reinforcing the status quo in the name of “efficiency” or “delegation.” Or rather, maybe it’s the alternative to silos that truly scares us: creating deep and meaningful collaboration is certainly far more difficult than keeping to ourselves, plowing ahead, blinders on. Like toddlers at a playground, many organizations are content with “parallel play,” independently pursuing the same goals and serving the same populations, curiously observing others alongside without actually engaging them.

Hawaii Community Foundation President & CEO, Kelvin Taketa, pointed out at the HANO conference, however, this approach just isn’t going to cut it in the long run. The philanthropy landscape has shifted in recent years, favoring those who focus on mission over organization. And just as the children on the playground will grow to realize that cooperative play is both more interesting and more rewarding, nonprofits too will need to realize that cooperation and partnership—true partnership—with other “players” will increase community impact and ultimately advance their missions. As Melissa Kushner, Founder and Executive Director of goods for good put it, we need to turn our sector’s silos into curtains, to create opportunities for collaboration that can help all organizations accelerate their work toward achieving social impact. 

So where can nonprofits begin swapping out those silos for curtains? Numerous posts have been written about addressing intra-organizational silos with greater cooperation and integration—for example, with regard to marketing, social media, fundraising, and organizational development. But I think it’s important for nonprofits to think about tackling three types of silos beyond their own walls: 

Silos Within the Nonprofit Sector: I can think of no single reading that makes the case for cross-sector collaboration better than John Kania and Mark Kramer’s piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on Collective Impact. As the authors point out, large-scale social problems simply cannot be effectively addressed by any single organization. Rather, they require coordinated efforts along the continuum of the problem to effect meaningful change—and these efforts require broad, cross-sector coordination. Shifting from isolated impact to collective impact requires not just partnership, but a focus and commitment to shared objectives across organizations in order to succeed. In Hawaii, Hui Kupa’a,  a joint partnership between the State of Hawaii and Hawaii’s nonprofit social service providers, actively utilizes the Collective Impact framework to address some of the state's most pressing and complex social issues.

Silos Between Nonprofit and For-profit Sectors: Unfortunately, the very name of the sectors sets up an “us” vs. “them” dynamic: a nonprofit is the antithesis of a for-profit. But the explosion of social entrepreneurship in recent years demonstrates that this dichotomy can be a false one, and that serving the common good can be sound from both a business and community perspective. Nonprofits must shift from seeing corporations solely as sources of funding, and instead as potential partners in solving problems and increasing effectiveness. This article on Toyota’s donation of expertise—rather than money—to the Food Bank for New York City beautifully demonstrates the results of bridging the nonprofit/for-profit silos to benefit community.

Silos Between Service Providers and Recipients: This silo may be the most difficult of all to break down, because the chasm between those serving and those served can seem the widest. And yet, nonprofit organizations often speak of empowering those served, and giving voice to all stakeholders. Creating mechanisms that invite clients to participate in problem solving and that value their perspectives can cultivate a climate of mutual respect and collaboration. Just as school boards have increasingly given students a place at the table, nonprofits might similarly consider client representation on their board of directors. While not appropriate for every organization, the inclusion of a constituent on a nonprofit’s board can provide a firsthand, unique view into the organization’s service delivery and community perceptions.


How does your organization tackle the problem of silos? How has swapping curtains for silos impacted your organization's work, internally or externally?


Kicking It Into High Gear, Post-Labor Day

For many people, the passing of Labor Day signals two things: the end of summer, and the start of a new school year. For me—and for many of my colleagues in the nonprofit sector—the post-Labor Day period also means a return to routines after a much needed end-of-fiscal-year lull. And, as a recent piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy notes, September is "boom time" for donors, kicking off the busiest fundraising stretch of the year. 

So what does that mean for you and your organization? It means it’s time to shake off the summertime slowdown, and put things into high gear. Here are a few suggestions on how to make the most of your remaining fundraising months in 2013:

Revisit your fundraising calendar. I know, you might be thinking, “What fundraising calendar?” Fear not, fundraising expert Gail Perry offers month-by-month fundraising priorities for nonprofits. Gail's list offers a great starting point for nonprofits looking to maximize their fundraising efforts in the final four months of the year. (A tip to the wise: It wouldn’t hurt to start outlining your fundraising calendar for 2014, either!)  And although December is the most critical month for many nonprofits’ annual giving, relationship building and effective communication with supporters during the months prior is key.

Put your best foot forward for online giving. Recent studies show that online gifts to nonprofits are growing at a faster rate than other types of charitable donations. In 2012, online donations totaled $2.1 billion, an increase of 14 percent compared to the previous year, eclipsing the overall rise of just 1.5 percent in charitable contributions from individuals, corporations, and foundations. Make sure that your organization is ready to accept online donations, and that your website is warm, welcoming, and easy to navigate. The Network for Good breaks down the elements of a fantastic donation page. And both Nonprofit Quarterly and Noupe offer examples of well-designed, inviting nonprofit donation pages.

Add Giving Tuesday to Your Fundraising Toolbox. “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” have entered the post-Thanksgiving lexicon. Charities across the country are hoping to make “Giving Tuesday” just as popular a term and concept. Launched in 2012, the Giving Tuesday campaign seeks to create a national day of giving that highlights and encourages charitable activities at the beginning of the annual holiday season. In its first year, the movement engaged more than 2,500 partners from across the country. Blackbaud online donations processed on November 27, 2012, exceeding the Tuesday after Thanksgiving of the previous year by 53 percent. This year, its organizers are hoping to double the number of participating charities, and are encouraging partners to begin planning activities and communications well in advance of the December 3rd event. While it's still in its infancy, I predict that Giving Tuesday will only get bigger in the coming years. Because the event provides a focal point for charitable giving for your organization—not to mention a welcome antidote to the consumer-driven messages overwhelming us during the holidays—I believe it’s worth including Giving Tuesday in your organization’s year-end giving toolbox.

Think About a Thank-a-Thon. It’s an adage in fundraising: You can’t say thank you often enough. Amid the many “asks” your organization will be making in the coming months, it’s important to carve out time for simply saying thank you to your donors and supporters, too.

I love the idea of a thank-a-thon, which focuses purely on recognizing your donors, and reminding them of the impact that their gifts and support provide to the community. This is a great way to involve volunteers, staff, and board members in relationship building and to encourage a culture of philanthropy within your organization. Taking time to recognize the contributions of your supporters will go a long way toward keeping your organization front and center in their minds. 

Need inspiration for your organization's thank-a-thon? Check out this post by Lynne Wester (aka the Donor Relations Guru) for tips and ideas for a successful Thank-a-thon. Mark Miller of Children's National Medical Center shares his experiences on holding a Twitter #thankathon. And Operation Smile and the National Wildlife Federation provide firsthand insight into their own thank-a-thon events. 


How does your organization prepare for year-end giving campaigns? How do you keep your year-end appeals “fresh” for donors and supporters?


Advice to My 22-Year-Old Self

It’s graduation season, which means it’s the season for advice. Even though I’m no longer a student, I still love a good nugget of wisdom. I’m one of those people who actually listens to the speaker at commencements, hoping to glean some sage advice or witty aphorism that I can squirrel away in my brain, ready to reproduce it when the right occasion arises.

All the commencing this time of year has gotten me thinking: If I could go back in time and visit myself at my college graduation, what would I say? What has experience taught that might benefit the younger me?

Here are a few pieces of advice I’d give to my 22-year-old self:

Don’t diminish yourself. I recently discovered the blog of Alison Green; in it, she dishes out advice to women with professional quandaries. In a post last month, she noted that she had seen an uptick in young women—usually recent college grads—who wrote to her about landing their first “big girl job.” Alison then goes on to make the case why young women must stop doing this, and why the issue goes beyond pure semantics. I couldn’t agree with her more.

In my experience, women in particular have trouble owning their accomplishments, or portraying themselves as smart and competent without feeling the need to apologize or somehow diminish themselves. But how you project yourself is ultimately an indicator of how others should treat you; there’s no need to give others the opportunity to treat you as less than you are. Comedienne and author of Bossypants, Tina Fey, notes that one of the rules of improvisation—Make Statements—applies to us women as well: “Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, ‘I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class at Johns Hopkins, so?’ Make statements, with your actions and your voice.” Exactly.

Block out the noise. Keep your eyes on the horizon, and don’t get distracted. Know yourself well enough to know your own strengths—and if you don’t know them yet, stay focused enough to recognize them when you find them. Ignore the naysayers, the ones who urge you to think small and dream smaller.

An anecdote: After I won a writing competition in high school, a close relative of mine warned me, “You can’t make a living by writing. You need to go into law, or medicine, or business.” As much as I enjoyed my science classes in college, I knew that one of my strengths was as a writer. And realizing later in life that I could contribute my writing for the benefit of nonprofits allowed me to combine that strength with my passion for community benefit work. How short-sighted it would have been for me to take that relative’s advice, pursuing a career that just didn’t speak to me.

Broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien, in a speech at this year’s Harvard Senior Class Day, shared her mother’s delicate phrasing regarding the need to block out the noise: “Most people are idiots.” Remember to ignore the idiots.

Seek out opportunities to “play up.” My sons are both active in sports, and I observe that in many situations, they benefit from the opportunity to “play up”—to be part of a group in which other players are older, stronger, or more skilled than they currently are. This notion of playing up, I have found, applies in professional life, too. Playing up professionally pushes you to develop your skills, to reach beyond your comfort zone, and to grow in ways you didn't think you were ready to grow. Marissa Mayer, President and CEO of Yahoo, put it this way in her 2009 commencement address to the Illinois Institute of Technology: “Find the smartest people you can, and surround yourself with them. Working with smart people means that you’ll be challenged to do your best. You’ll have to strive to keep up with them and as a result, they will elevate your thinking. When there are better players around you, you get better.” Be brave enough to not be the best in the room, while always striving to become better.


What advice would you give to your younger self? What lessons did you wish you knew as you were beginning your career?


Boston in My Pocket

“Did you see the news?”

On the morning of Monday, April 15th, I had dropped off my children at school, then returned home to work. Feeling the weight of a deadline, I had been engrossed in writing for several hours when my husband called. Hearing his question, I felt my stomach tighten. My husband only asks me if I’ve seen the news when something truly terrible has occurred.

“No, what happened?”

As he told me of the initial reports of the Boston Marathon bombing, I opened a browser on my laptop and began to read through the headlines. The searing photos were hard to comprehend. As I read the details of what was known at the time—how the joyful finish line celebrations had been rocked by explosions without warning, how scores had been injured—I felt a deep and painful sadness, and a sense of loss for Boston.

That afternoon, I picked up my young sons from school, and was relieved to find they were unaware of the events from across the country. “Hey Mom,” my older said, “we have to remember to wear shorts with pockets on Thursday, because that’s Poem in Your Pocket Day.” I smiled as he described his school’s tradition of celebrating poetry by having each child either write or locate a poem to literally carry in his or her pocket that day, to share with classmates and to experience a bit of the fun and beauty of words. I couldn’t help but think of the juxtaposition of visions in my brain: the jagged and broken scenes from the bombing mixed with images of children, pockets bursting with tidily folded bits of poetry.

Over the next few days, I felt myself—almost obsessively—wanting to learn more about what was happening in Boston. Which was strange, when I thought about it. Here I was, living with my family more than 5,000 miles away from the East Coast, and yet the bombing had struck such a chord with me. Yes, as an American, I was deeply affected by its senselessness and randomness, and its reminder of our vulnerability. But even beyond that, the reason I felt connected to what had happened was that on some level, I still felt Boston was my community.

I had called Boston “home” for two years when I attended graduate school, and like any place one thinks of in that way, I still carried with me memories of and connections with the city. I had met incredible people through my studies, and forged friendships built on shared interests and common passions. I had explored the sights and sounds of New England there, like the glorious arrival of autumn and the crunch of fallen leaves on my morning walks across the Public Garden. I had learned a flinty toughness from that town, surviving two Boston winters—no simple feat. And my husband and I had been married in Boston, in a little art gallery on Newbury Street, just blocks away from the Boston Marathon’s finish line.

The connection I felt to Boston in its time of crisis was, I realized, born from those memories and emotions that I continued to carry with me from my time there. Much as I felt on 9/11, having moved to Boston from New York City, I felt a solidarity with the city because I had felt ownership of it, if only for a brief time. Boston had shaped who I was, and was becoming; the rhyme and meter of the city had become part of my own verses. And so, much like my son’s anticipated poem, I carried a bit of Boston in my pocket, as I had carried—and still carry—a bit of every city and town in which I’ve lived.

On Friday, as news of the death of one bombing suspect and the capture of the other spread through the Internet, I felt a sense of relief. Again I thought, how strange it is to feel this way when all these events are happening at such a distance. But in some way, it does make sense. We crave connection, and we seek community. So often we define “community” geographically, but community is larger than that. It spans space and time, language and culture. Sometimes circumstance gives us our communities, but other times, we create community through our connections. We need only witness the extraordinary outpouring of support from around the world to know this is the case—that this past week, the community of Boston reached around the globe. Every person who ever called Boston “home”—or strolled its streets, admired its skyline, ran a marathon, cheered on a race’s runners, or welcomed spring with an annual ritual—felt a connection with the city. Last week, we all carried a bit of Boston in our pocket.