Monday, October 20, 2008

Fundraising in Tough Times

“This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.

So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear. . .is fear itself. . . nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933

Fundraising in Tough Times

When the economy gets tough, people get scared – plain and simple. Google “Fundraising in a recession” and you’ll get 670,000 results.

Advice varies, depending on who is doing the giving. While many nonprofit pundits believe that the best strategy is no strategy – that is, to stay the course of the fundraising basics you’ve been weaned on – others believe you should adapt to the realities of a changing economy, and as quickly as possible.

Frederick S. Lane writes, in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, that nonprofits should keep costs down by cutting payroll, sometimes trimming programming, putting together collaborative efforts with other nonprofits, and making general spending cuts.

Is it possible to “stay the course,” survive, even prosper without making cutting either your programming or your staffing?

It is if you learn to work smarter – not harder.

Begin by strengthening your case for support. Does yours read like a mission statement? You need a strong compelling story, preferably real, rather than a composite, with pictures. A story that tugs at the heartstrings and opens wallets. A story that could only be told by your organization.

Annual Appeal? If you’ve got donors who are giving you $1,000, $100, even $25 every year, they’re prime candidates for a monthly giving program. Implement one now. And what rule says you can only mail once a year? Why not twice or even three times a year?
By the way, are you keeping your donors informed? Because if the only time that they hear from you is when you want money …

Understand that foundation giving may be declining. On the other hand, it may not. Is your organization making it a practice to routinely scope out new sources of foundation funding? Develop a system where you’re sending out proposals to new foundations on a weekly basis.

Never ever cut back on development staff during tough times. Do your level best to keep good development staff on board. Know that continuing education is a great motivator and spend a little extra on development workshops and membership organizations. It’ll pay off.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Check out my latest tutorial on foundation prospect research.

If you work for a smaller nonprofit organization without the budget to subscribe to foundation prospect search services such as The Foundation Center's Foundation Directory Online or Metasoft's Foundation Finder, this tutorial is for you.

Using just an internet connection, you'll be able to regularly research and seek out new foundation sources of funding on a regular basis.

Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A little something to remember as we head into this election ...

I would like to share with all of you a powerful article that appeared today on Consortium News. With McCain lagging in the polls, there is no telling what McNasty will pull to win this election.

by Robert Perry
As the American people pick through the wreckage left by the Bush administration, many may wonder how the most powerful nation on earth got so far off track. An illustrative case study is the bogus story of Al Gore’s “Chinagate” scandal.

The story doesn’t explain all that’s gone wrong in the past eight years, but it reveals how aggressive right-wing operatives, aided and abetted by a lazy or complicit news media, can create an impression for millions of voters that is nearly the opposite of the truth.

So, in the razor-thin presidential election of 2000 – at the dawn of the George W. Bush era – a significant number of Americans went to the polls believing a right-wing canard, that Al Gore was implicated in a treacherous scheme to trade American nuclear secrets to China for campaign cash.

The smear had been pushed by a combination of Republicans and right-wing activists relying on the Internet, talk radio, direct mail, Fox News and TV ads. Meanwhile, the mainstream news media did little to dispel the ugly suspicions, even though exculpatory evidence existed that would have cleared Gore.

A bitter irony of the story was that Americans, who voted against Gore to stop a “traitor” whom they thought had bargained away life-and-death nuclear secrets to China, were letting back in Republicans upon whose watch the nuclear secrets apparently were leaked.

Up had become down. The votes of those misguided Americans then helped make Election 2000 close enough for Bush and the Republicans to steal the White House. [For details on that election, see our book Neck Deep.]

Daisy Ad

The “Chinagate” story surfaced dramatically in the weeks before Election 2000 when a pro-Republican group from Texas, called Aretino Industries, ran an emotional ad modeled after Lyndon Johnson’s infamous 1964 commercial that showed a girl picking a daisy before the screen dissolved into a nuclear blast.

The ad remake accused the Clinton-Gore administration of selling vital nuclear secrets to communist China for campaign donations in 1996. The compromised nuclear secrets, the ad said, gave China “the ability to threaten our homes with long-range nuclear warheads.”

The ad – airing in “swing” states including Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Pennsylvania – suggested that a Chinese government front funneled $30,000 in illegal “soft money” donations to the Democrats in 1996 in exchange for the nuclear secrets. The most important secret had been the blueprint for the W-88 miniaturized nuclear warhead.

The allegation hit a nerve with many voters because the Bush campaign had run other ads showing grainy photos of Al Gore with saffron-robed monks at a Buddhist temple in California, implying corruption with mysterious Asians.

The daisy ad also played off an earlier report by a Republican-controlled congressional investigation into China’s apparent theft of the W-88 warhead design and other U.S. nuclear secrets. The so-called Cox report, named for the probe’s chairman Rep. Christopher Cox, accused the Clinton-Gore administration of failing to protect top-secret nuclear data from Chinese espionage.

When released on May 25, 1999, the Cox report was greeted by conservative groups and much of the national news media as another indictment of the Democrats in the aftermath of President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. By then the press corps, addicted to “Clinton scandals,” paid little attention to the sleight of hand in the Cox report.

Cox’s key trick was to leave out dates of alleged Chinese spying in the 1980s and thus obscure the fact that the floodgates of U.S. nuclear secrets to China – including how to build the miniaturized W-88 nuclear warhead – had opened wide during the Reagan-Bush years.

While leaving out Republican time elements, Cox shoved references to the alleged security lapses into the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

For instance, the Cox report’s “Overview” stated that “the PRC (People’s Republic of China) thefts from our National Laboratories began at least as early as the late 1970s, and significant secrets are known to have been stolen as recently as the mid-1990s.”

In this way, Cox started with the Carter presidency, jumped over the 12 years of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and landed in the Clinton years. In the “Overview” alone, there were three dozen references to dates from the Clinton years and only five mentions of dates from the Reagan-Bush years, with none related to alleged wrongdoing.

Cox’s stacking of the deck carried over into the report’s two-page chronology of the Chinese spy scandal. On pages 74-75, the Cox report put all the information boxes about Chinese espionage suspicions into the Carter and Clinton years.

Nothing sinister is attributed specifically to the Reagan-Bush era, other than a 1988 test of a neutron bomb built from secrets that the report says were believed stolen in the “late 1970s,” the Carter years. Only a careful reading of the text inside the chronology’s boxes made clear that many of the worst national security breaches could be traced to the Reagan-Bush era.

But the major U.S. news media did little to challenge Cox’s misleading findings, even though some newspapers knew then or learned later that the evidence pointed to a hemorrhage of nuclear secrets during the 1980s.

For instance, the Washington Post reported on Oct. 19, 2000, just weeks before the election, that when federal investigators translated previously ignored documents turned over by a Chinese defector in 1995, they learned that the exposure of nuclear secrets in the Reagan-Bush years was worse than previously thought.

“The documents provided by the defector show that during the 1980s, Beijing had gathered a large amount of classified information about U.S. ballistic missiles and reentry vehicles,” the Post reported. But the newspaper didn't dispute Cox’s earlier findings or debunk the treasonous “Chinagate” allegations then being spread about Gore.

[Cox is now chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, where he has come under criticism for failing to adequately regulate Wall Street banks. One of his aides on the Cox report was I. Lewis Libby, who became Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and was later convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the “Plamegate” affair.]

Iran-Contra Connection

Other evidence, also available before Election 2000, suggested that conscious decisions by senior Reagan-Bush officials in the 1980s may have put communist China in a position to glean those sensitive secrets.

The rupture of U.S. nuclear secrets followed an extraordinary decision by Ronald Reagan’s White House in 1984 to collaborate with Beijing on a highly sensitive intelligence operation, the clandestine shipment of weapons to the Nicaraguan contra rebels, in defiance of U.S. law.

The collaboration was especially risky because Congress had forbidden military shipments to the contras and the administration was insisting that it was abiding by the law. In reality, President Ronald Reagan had tapped a National Security Council staffer, Oliver North, to oversee an off-the-books contra supply operation.

Reagan’s White House turned to China hoping that it would deliver surface-to-air missiles that might turn the tide of the battle against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government, which had been inflicting heavy losses on the contras by using Soviet-built attack helicopters.

In his 1989 Iran-Contra trial, North described this procurement of China's SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles as a “very sensitive delivery.”

For the Chinese missile deal in 1984, North said he received help from the CIA in arranging false end-user certificates from the right-wing government of Guatemala. But China balked at selling missiles to the Guatemalan military, which was engaged in a scorched-earth war against its own leftist guerrillas.

To resolve this problem, North was dispatched to a clandestine meeting with a Chinese military official.

The idea was to bring the Chinese in on what was then one of the most sensitive secrets of the U.S. government – the missiles were not going to Guatemala, but rather into a clandestine pipeline arranged by the White House to funnel military supplies to the contras.

“In Washington, I met with a Chinese military officer assigned to their embassy to encourage their cooperation,” North wrote in his autobiography, Under Fire. “We enjoyed a fine lunch at the exclusive Cosmos Club in downtown Washington.”

North said the Chinese saw the collaboration as a way to develop “better relations with the United States.”

Possession of this sensitive information also put Beijing in position to leverage future U.S. actions by the Reagan administration. It was in this climate of cooperation that secrets, including how to make miniaturized hydrogen bombs, allegedly went from the United States to China.

The Wen Ho Lee Case

While the details of how China learned the W-88 secrets are still unclear, it is clear that the Reagan administration authorized a broader exchange program between U.S. and Chinese nuclear physicists. The Chinese were even given access to the Los Alamos nuclear facility.

By 1985, the Reagan administration’s expanded nuclear exchanges with China were in full swing. In March 1985, Los Alamos nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee (who would later come under suspicion of espionage) was seen talking with Chinese scientists during a scientific conference in Hilton Head, South Carolina, according to a New York Times chronology that was not published until after Election 2000 (on Feb. 4-5, 2001).

In 1986, with approval of the Los Alamos nuclear lab, Wen Ho Lee and another scientist attended a conference in Beijing. Wen Ho Lee traveled to Beijing again in 1988.

“With the Reagan administration eager to isolate the Soviet Union, hundreds of scientists traveled between the United States and China, and the cooperation expanded to the development of torpedoes, artillery shells and jet fighters,” the Times wrote. “The exchanges were spying opportunities as well.”

The fruits of any Chinese espionage during Ronald Reagan’s presidency became apparent during the presidency of George H.W. Bush.

“On Sept. 25, 1992, a nuclear blast shook China’s western desert,” the Times wrote. “From spies and electronic surveillance, American intelligence officials determined that the test was a breakthrough in China’s long quest to match American technology for smaller, more sophisticated hydrogen bombs.”

Assessing this Chinese breakthrough, U.S. intelligence experts began to suspect that the Chinese had purloined U.S. secrets.

“It’s like they were driving a Model T and went around the corner and suddenly had a Corvette,” said Robert M. Hanson, a Los Alamos intelligence analyst.

By the early years of the Clinton administration, investigators had begun looking back at the mid-1980s when the Reagan administration had authorized U.S. nuclear scientists to hold a number of meetings with their Chinese counterparts.

Though the American scientists were under restrictions about what information could be shared, it was never fully explained why those meetings were held in the first place – given the risk that a U.S. scientist might willfully or accidentally divulge nuclear secrets.

A breakthrough in the probe didn’t occur until 1995 when a Chinese walk-in to the U.S. Embassy in Taiwan provided documents indicating that China apparently had gained access to American nuclear designs back in the 1980s.


It took four more years – until March 1999 – for the Chinese nuclear story to gain national attention, when the New York Times published several imprecise front-page stories fingering Wen Ho Lee as an espionage suspect.

During those chaotic first weeks of “Chinagate,” Republicans and political pundits mixed together the suspicions of Chinese spying and allegations about illegal Chinese campaign donations to the Democrats in 1996. Clinton’s Justice Department overcompensated by demonstrating how tough it could be on suspect Wen Ho Lee.

Amid the spy frenzy, however, no one took note of the logical impossibility of Democrats selling secrets to China in 1996 that China seemed to have obtained a decade or so earlier during a Republican administration.

Instead, pro-Republican groups grasped the political and fund-raising potential, especially since President Clinton had just survived his impeachment ordeal and there was a strong appetite for more “Clinton scandals.” Plus, Clinton’s sidekick, Al Gore, was the frontrunner to succeed his boss.

Larry Klayman’s right-wing Judicial Watch sent out a letter seeking $5.2 million for a special “Chinagate Task Force” that would “hold Bill Clinton, Al Gore and the Democratic Party Leadership fully accountable for election fraud, bribery and possibly treason in connection with the ‘Chinagate’ scandal.”

The hysteria had especially ugly consequences for Wen Ho Lee, the 60-year-old physicist who was imprisoned on a 59-count indictment for mishandling classified material.

The Taiwanese-born naturalized U.S. citizen was put in solitary confinement with his cell light on at all times. He was allowed out of his cell only one hour a day, when he shuffled around a prison courtyard in leg shackles.

However, the tenuous case against Wen Ho Lee began to collapse in 2000 against the backdrop of the presidential campaign. On Sept. 13, 2000, the scientist pled guilty to a single count of mishandling classified material, and U.S. District Judge James A. Parker apologized to Lee for the “demeaning, unnecessarily punitive conditions” under which Lee had been held.

Still, the suspicions about Clinton-Gore treachery with China lingered and reemerged during the final days of Campaign 2000 with the “daisy ad” remake. The closing message was blunt: “Don’t take a chance,” the ad said. “Please vote Republican.”

George W. Bush’s campaign also exploited the “Chinagate” suspicions, albeit a touch more subtly, by running those ads showing Gore meeting with the saffron-robed monks at a Buddhist temple in California.

So, millions of Americans went to the polls in November 2000 thinking that Gore’s temple appearance and the Chinese nuclear spying were somehow linked. The mainstream news media – still bristling with hostility toward Clinton and Gore – offered no timely explanation that the Chinese espionage represented a Reagan-Bush scandal, not a Clinton-Gore scandal.

Through disinformation from the Right and acquiescence from the mainstream media, the stage was set for a historically close presidential election and for the Republicans to be returned to the White House.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Details, Details, Details …Developing Standards, Protocols, Procedures for a Strong Development Department

Can you imagine a more tedious topic?

Developing comprehensive policies and procedures for a development department would hardly seem a subject loaded with the fun factor of, say, the latest direct mail tactics, or the newest strategies for online giving, or attending a workshop geared towards putting more “oomph” in your grant proposals.

Yet the policies and procedures that a good development department sets forth, particularly early on, can bring the organization untold dividends far into the future.

And ignoring the importance of standards will create havoc down the road.

Imagine receiving a donation from a contributor who notes that she would like her check to be allocated to a specific program – and having no record of the program?

Imagine having found that “perfect fit” foundation, spending three days crafting your organization’s first proposal, sending it off … and later finding that the foundation HAD funded your organization three years ago, kept no record, and failed to follow through with a final report? (Did I mention that you are the third development director in three years and files are nonexistent?)

Imagine your offices receiving a call from an irate regular donor of thirty years, vowing to never contribute again because she has phoned three times in the past to have her deceased husband’s name removed from the mailing list – and she just received a newsletter in his name?

Imagine not having any idea of how well your Fall Appeal did – because the proper coding was never created in the donor database.

I have encountered these horror stories and, yes, worse, in a wide variety of nonprofit organizations.

An organization’s best campaign will fall on deaf ears if donors have given up on your organization in frustration over poor stewardship.

Attrition probably plays the biggest role in the problem. Staff turnover in development is a huge issue.

Penelope Burk, the founder of donor-centered fundraising notes that “Everyone in fundraising knows that high staff turnover in our industry is ferocious” and is creating a new study on the reasons and affects of staff turnover.

Of course, one major reason for staff turnover relates to the often abysmal pay in the field. Another relates to unrealistic benchmarking and not recognizing that some cultivation efforts will take months, if not years, to bear fruit (it’s only after a year to even two years that an organization will typically begin to see real results from the grantwriting process).

Yet another part of the problem is the cavalier attitude paid to establishing firm guidelines and record keeping, support staff, selecting an appropriate donor database, budgeting for training and recognizing the long-term value of maintaining the integrity of your data.

From the smallest organization to the largest, written protocols should be established early on setting forth the most exhaustive details – from your organization’s salutation standards, to who signs thank you letters – and regularly tweaked (and always put in writing).

What salutation style does your organization prefer? First name or Mr./Ms./Mrs.? Ampersand or “and”? How do you handle deceased records? How are the grant files maintained?

What is the turnaround time for gift acknowledgement? One week? Two? Who places thank you phone calls? When and why?

When deciding upon a donor database, is price your only criteria (I sincerely hope not!)?

Once you have a database in place, is your organization recognizing the value of proper maintenance, including training and the hiring of a qualified database manager? Raisers Edge can be the Cadillac of donor databases – or an Edsel, depending on how many people have had their hands in it and how badly folks have mucked up the coding.

And Excel is not a database. It is a spreadsheet. If you’re keeping your records in Excel, you’re in for some problems.

Development is, by nature, data-driven. Pay attention to the details.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Grant Proposal Writing - YOUR Best Tips!

Whoever ceases to be a student has never been a student.

No matter how long you’ve been writing grant proposals, or how successful you’ve been, you can always learn something new. It pays to refresh your thought processes from time to time, either by taking another class in proposal writing (or even a short story writing class) or reading another grant proposal writing book.

Think outside the box to boost your creative thought process. If you’ve never read Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” do. The writing is so succinct, so eloquent – in the words of one reviewer “I haul my copy out every 2-3 years just to remind myself how wonderful the rhythms and nuances of the American language can be at the hands of a master.”

Get yourself outside of your organization to actually meet your constituency. Talk to your board members. Find out why they give of their time and money.

Recently I posed the question “What is your best tip?” to the Grants listserv of CharityChannel. Following are some responses that may help your proposal writing.

I find that an important aspect of grant writing is putting the proposal in the right "voice" for the funder. In general, funders respond well to language that is personal but not overly familiar; for example, using "we" instead of "The X Organization" when referring to yourself. Don't use slang or colloquialisms; define technical or discipline-specific terms a potential funder might not know. Sound enthusiastic about your proposed project but not wildly exuberant.

However, some funders--especially government and academic funders--respond to a more formal voice--"The X Organization" rather than "we." They also generally do want to see technical and discipline-specific terms in the proposal, whose correct usage demonstrates your knowledge of the field.

One way to try to identify the correct voice for a specific funder is to look at their application guidelines, and use the voice they do. If you can get copies of proposals they've funded, that may give an even more specific view of what they'll respond well to.
Another idea is to avoid writing in BIG BLOCK paragraphs. Break such
paragraphs into bite-size pieces. Readers don't like having to wade through
huge blocks of print.

throw out the jargon and mean-nothing phrases. If you are having a hard time explaining the project, its outcomes or the need for it in a straight forward manner,
it appears that you don't really know the answers or are hiding behind
convoluted language.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Six Critical Things to Look For in a Foundation’s 990 For Successful Grant Funding!

Prospect research is the absolute key when you're investigating potential sources of foundation funding. And there is no finer tool for truly observing the workings of a private foundation -- and whether or not their mission provides a match with your organization -- than with a thorough investigation of a foundation's federal 990-PF form (downloadable at a number of sites for free, including Guidestar and Nozasearch).

For a clearer picture, download the past three years of the foundation's 990.

What, exactly, should you be looking for? Let’s take a walk through a typical grantmaking foundation’s 990-FP:

1. Do take a look at the foundation’s Fiscal Year. Why? Well, if they happen to be closing in on the end of their fiscal year, they may have already spent the required 5 percent payout. On the other hand, if they’re fairly new to grantmaking, the foundation may have yet to hone their grantmaking policies – and you may get lucky if they’re looking to send some last minute grant checks out the door.

2. Assets: Note, of course, the total fair market value of all assets recorded on line 16 for the last year reported. Now take a look back - has the XYZ Foundation's assets declined or grown over the past few years? Are they a fairly new operating foundation?

3. Part I, Analysis of Revenue and Expenses summarizes other sections of the report. Pay particular attention to line 1. If major contributions have been made during the year in question a founder or trustee may have recently passed – and an increase in giving could be in the future.

4. Part VIII – Take note – here’s one of your most important resources. Information about officers, directors, trustees, foundation managers, highly paid employees and contractors: You will certainly want to note the names of the trustees. Could members of your board possibly know any of the trustees of XYZ Foundation? Does the XYZ Foundation have staff members or is it entirely family-run? Are the trustees paid?

5. Part IX-A - Summary of Direct Charitable Activities: Here's where you find out the exact dollar amount given in grants. If the foundation you’re researching tends to give many grants in the $2,500 to $10,000 range (as opposed to a few grants in the $25,000-$100,000 range) and you are a first time applicant, you’ll want to frame your first ask accordingly.

6. Part XV: This section will tell you how grant applications should be prepared, if there are any deadlines, etc. along with a listing of grantees. Although it's still a good idea to phone and get grant application guidelines directly from the foundation in question (or their website), this section will get you started (and don't write a foundation off if they specifically note that they only grant to pre-selected organizations - I've had success with smaller grants of $250-500 with these foundations when there was an otherwise good match in giving!) Are there organizations similar to yours on that listing of grants given in 2003? What is the dollar range in their grantmaking and where would your organization fall? Income from investments: Why would this be of interest to a potential grant-seeker? Taking a look at the XYZ Foundation's investments can give you a generalized idea of their overall philosophy. Are their investments centered in "grandfather" stocks? Their philosophy may be rather traditional and conservative. Do they invest in eBay and Amazon? Perhaps they're more open to creative approaches to problem solving and would welcome a more inventive grant application.

Have your basic funding research form ready and do a little detective work to really "get to know" the foundation you're seeking funding from. You’ll dramatically increase your chances of successful funding!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Awesome New Site for Finding Foundations!

Check it out:

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Building Relationships With Foundation Funders

When it comes to foundation grants, the biggest question seems to be “how do we get our foot in the door?” How can our nascent grassroots arts organization quickly build relationships with the regional foundations that will help make our programming happen?

Generally speaking, I’ve always believed that your first proposal provided the best tool for opening doors. That’s why I recommend consistent (daily is best) foundation prospecting and sending your proposals to a wide variety of foundations in the beginning. You might call it the shotgun approach - and most grant professionals are adamant against doing it. Yet I believe that, if you are paying strict attention to the guidelines and only sending proposals to foundations whose criteria your organization fits within, the “shotgun approach” provides an excellent method of quickly establishing relationships with foundations.

“But,” you might say, “I’ve sent out fifteen proposals. Every single one fit within the foundation’s guidelines. And every single one was declined.” Is this the letter that you received?

Thank you for your proposal to the Blankety Blank Foundation seeking support towards finding practical solutions to….. avoid human transmission at the beginning stage of a pandemic. We appreciated the opportunity to become acquainted with your organization.

Unfortunately, it is not a good fit with our philanthropic priorities and therefore, we are not in a position to support your request. Our declination in no way diminishes our recognition of the project.

Although we are not in a position to offer our financial support, please accept our best wishes for success with your worthwhile mission.

Join the club.

What you need to remember is that that rejection is merely an opportunity. You never want to take that declined proposal and pop it in the file with the rest. No no NO! Put it in writing in your organization’s procedures that EVERY DECLINED PROPOSAL goes through these steps prior to filing:

Follow up –

Either phone the foundation or check the website for a program officer’s name.

Call with these specific questions:

  1. Is there anything we could have done differently in our proposal?
  2. May we resubmit for your next funding cycle? (Note the date and REAPPLY)
  3. Are you aware of any other foundations that we might approach?

Your final step should be a gracious letter to the foundation, thanking them for their time and their thorough review of your proposal.

Remember to be organized, thorough & consistent, and always persistent!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Foundations Don’t Fund General Operating Costs – Or Do They?

Do you still believe that tired old legend about how difficult it is to find foundations that support general operating expenses?  

It’s one of the grantwriting myths that even I bought into.  Why not?  The foundation that I worked for for a number of years generally dissuaded grantseekers from applying for general operating expenses, preferring to fund specific programs and capital.  Foundation trends did, for a number of years, steer away from funding organization general operating expenses. 

Because foundations’ founders and their leadership tended to be from the corporate world, there was a major push in the 1980’s through the 90’s for nonprofits to be accountable and goal driven.  Funding was directed to short term projects – ones that could deliver measurable outcomes. 

But we all know that project-based accounting often forced grantees to sacrifice long term effectiveness.  

After all, if your organization is continually adding more programs or sites while your underpaid (frequently revolving) staff is working on obsolete computers without proper supplies, where will you be in five years? 

I am pleased to report that that is changing. 

In 2004, the Independent Sector Board of Directors unanimously endorsed a statement to “opt for general operating support over project support when feasible and when the goals of the two organizations are substantially aligned.”

Further, they encouraged foundations, when providing project support, to pay “the fair proportion of administrative and fundraising costs necessary to manage and sustain whatever is required by the organization to run that particular project.” 

And now a recently issued report from the Foundation Center notes that, not only has foundation giving increased by 14.6% in 2006, but foundation grants for overhead costs grew by 6.7%.   Likewise, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, after surveying 20,00 grantees and 79 foundation executives,  noted that foundations “should make larger, longer-term operating grants” of unrestricted funds that can be used to support the organization and its overall mission, not just specific projects or programs. 

Hallelujah! Foundations are finally recognizing that nonprofit organizations don’t operate in a vacuum!   

So where do you find foundation grants for general operating costs? 

Check out your core of current donors, those who have been most consistent in the past, who are already enthusiastic supporters of your programs.  If you’re doing your foundation research on a regular basis, you should be compiling a steady roster of new foundation prospects.  And don’t forget those foundations to which you’ve applied but have never funded you. 

Make your case for support not only as clear as possible - but as compelling as possible as well.  


Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Foundations Increased Giving by 14.6% in 2006

This just in from The Chronicle of Philanthropy ...

February 28, 2008
Foundations Increased Giving by 14.6% in 2006, New Study Finds
By Caroline Preston
The nation’s largest foundations increased their giving to $19.1-billion in 2006, rising 16.4 percent over the previous year, according to a report released today by the Foundation Center, in New York.
The number of grants awarded also rose, but more slowly, by 7.3 percent to 140,484.
The report, which was based on a survey of nearly 1,300 grant makers, attributed the growth in part to the financier Warren Buffett’s 2006 gift to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has enabled the Seattle fund to step up its giving. The strong stock market also helped boost foundation assets nationwide and led them to give out more money, the report said.
While foundation giving to all major causes increased in 2006, there were some shifts in how foundations chose to award their money.
For the first time since such data were first collected in the late 1980s, health groups won more support than any other cause, including education. That gain was due largely to the Gates foundation’s giving to global health, the report said.
Giving to health charities rose 17 percent annually from 2003 to 2006, to $4.4-billion. By contrast, education groups won $4.3-billion, while human-services groups received $2.7-billion and arts groups $2.3-billion.
Grant making to charities that work in international affairs, development, and peace increased more rapidly than giving to any other cause. Contributions to such groups rose by 43 percent a year between 2003 and 2006, reaching $1-billion, the report said. Giving to international causes, meanwhile, reached $4.2-billion, or 22 percent of total foundation dollars.
Support for Overhead
The survey also found that foundations increased the amount they gave charities to pay for their overhead costs, but not as rapidly as they increased grants to carry out specific programs or finance renovations and construction.
Foundation grants for overhead costs grew by 6.7 percent annually from 2003 to 2006, to $3.6-billion. By contrast, grants for charitable programs increased 15.4 percent annually, to $9.6-billion.
Giving by funds on the West Coast outpaced grant making by East Coast foundations for the first time since the study was first conducted, due largely to giving by the Gates foundation. However, charities in the Northeast received more money than did organizations in other parts of the country, according to the study.
Independent foundations provided the biggest share of their grants to health, international affairs, science, and social-science causes. Corporate grant makers favored education causes, and community foundations gave the most to human-services organizations.
A summary of the report, Foundation Giving Trends, is available free on the Foundation Center’s Web site. A full report is available for $45 or for $95 if purchased as part of the Foundations Today Series, a three-book annual set of research reports. It can be ordered online or by calling (800) 424-9836.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Myths About Women & Weight Lifting ... Er, Grant Writing

The other day I mentioned to a couple of women that I was lifting weights in the gym. 

I was surprised at the responses that I got. 

“Pam!  That’s not good for you!” 

“Yeah, you never want to use weights heavier than 5 pounds or so …” 

Frankly I thought that the myths about women and weight lifting had been put to rest years ago.  I have been using weights – dumbbells from 5 to 25 pounds and a barbell loaded at 25-55 pounds – for a number of years.  I’ve always found that the heavier I lifted, the leaner I got.  As a matter of fact, I joined a gym recently so that I would have heavier weights at my disposal. 

The simple fact is, I don’t have much testosterone.  Testosterone is the hormone responsible for increasing muscle size.   Most female bodybuilders, unfortunately, use anabolic steroids (synthetic testosterone) along with other drugs in order to get that high degree of muscularity that turns a lot of women off to weight training. 

There is also the common myth that women only need to do cardio and if they decide to lift weights, they should be very light.  First of all, if you only did cardio then muscle and fat would be burned for fuel. Women need to lift weights in order to get the muscle building machine going and thus prevent any loss of muscle tissue - not to mention bone loss. Women that only concentrate on cardio will have a very hard time achieving the look that they want. As far as the lifting of very light weights, this is just more baloney. Muscle responds to resistance and if the resistance is too light, then there will be no reason for the body to change. 

So, what, pray-tell does women’s weight lifting have to do with writing grant proposals? 

Well, just like women and weight lifting, a lot of myths have built up around writing grant proposals over the years.   

Which brings me to an article I’d like to share from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, entitled Debunking Some Myths About Grant Writing by Kenneth T. Henson.  I'll share some additional myths in another blog post.

Article begins here:

Grant writing is all about power. We write grants because they bring us prestige, programs, equipment, travel, and time. Grants free us to do the kind of research, teaching, and service that we enjoy most. So why is such an essential skill so difficult and so mysterious for so many academics?

You can be as successful as you want to be with grant writing, but you have to realize that it's a craft, and like any other craft, being successful at it requires developing and polishing a few skills. It starts with attitude. You must believe in your own ability to master this craft and to succeed at the level you choose. Then you must have some clear reasons for writing grants. As the Cheshire cat told Alice, if you don't know where you are going then it doesn't matter which direction you take. So, begin by taking a step backward and asking yourself, Where do I want to go in my career? Five years from now? Ten years from now? Grant writing can be a powerful force to get you there.

In the past two decades, I've written millions of dollars worth of successful grant proposals and traveled the country giving workshops on grant writing. I've encountered a lot of myths about this subject, and believing them can, and often does, derail even the brightest professor's grant-writing program. I'd like to tackle a few of the myths and then offer some tips.

Myth 1: There is no money available; the grant-writing well has dried up. Wrong! Money is tighter these days but there is still hundreds of millions of dollars waiting to be taken. Furthermore, those who are entrusted with dispersing this money are just as eager to give it away as we are to receive it.

Myth 2: The money that is available goes to big, prestigious institutions, not to individuals or to small institutions. That statement is half true. Enormous amounts of money are given to the same institutions, year after year. But it is not simply because grant agencies are impressed with the institutions' prestigious names. It is because certain individuals at those institutions have proved themselves good stewards of the money. Furthermore, small institutions and people who are "unknown" to the general public are getting hundreds of millions of dollars. But these people are not so unknown to the grant agencies. They have established reputations for delivering quality service and managing their budgets wisely -- two skills that you can easily master.

Myth 3: Successful grant writing requires connections, and I don't have any. This excuse begs for rebuttal. Connections can help but they aren't required. What's required is the ability to craft a quality proposal that will convince grant givers that you will give the most and best in return for their money. You can do this by keeping one eye on the foundation's request for proposals (RFP) to make sure that you have addressed each of its goals in your application.

A second way to ensure that you submit a quality proposal is to ask the grant agency for a copy of the rating form it uses. Be sure to cover all of the points on which your proposal will be evaluated, and do an especially convincing job on the parts that count the most.

If you still believe that successful grant writing requires connections -- and without doubt, they can help sway the evaluation -- then why not develop some connections? Volunteer your services as a proposal evaluator. This will give you valuable insight into the process and let you inside the heads of those who will be evaluating your future proposals. Or just pick up the phone and call the grant agency. Be prepared to talk about your unique strengths and listen carefully to pick up on any additional expectations that may not be included in the RFP.

Myth 4: Meeting the deadline is the most important goal of a successful grant writer. Not exactly. The two most important goals are to produce a top-quality proposal and target it to the right grant agency. Far too many professors succumb to the urge to put deadlines ahead of everything else. Resist firing off 11th-hour proposals to meet a last-minute deadline. Slow down, produce a quality proposal, and submit it to the agency next year or submit it to a similar agency now.

Myth 5: Collaborating with colleagues will give more time for grant writing. Unfortunately, just the opposite is true. Collaborating on a grant actually requires more time than writing one alone. This does not mean that collaboration is bad. But if you decide to pursue a grant with colleagues, take time from the outset to clarify the roles of all participants. Above all, choose partners who are compatible and who have similar work habits. Choose self-motivated, Type A personalities. People with Type B personalities won't get beyond talking about grant writing anyway, so it really doesn't matter whether they choose to collaborate.

Myth 6: Grants are awarded to those applicants with the greatest needs. Most grants go to applicants whose proposals seem most likely to deliver services and meet the agency's goals better than all other applicants. So, instead of focusing on your needs, focus on how your strengths can meet the grant agency's goals. What unique attributes do you, your institution, and your region have that can be used to excel at meeting those goals?

Buying into any of these myths can keep success at arm's length for many grant writers. In addition to safeguarding against them, perhaps you can also benefit from the following tips:

Tip 1: Make sure that your proposal contains all of the essential parts. At a minimum, each proposal should include a transmittal letter, a title page, an abstract, a table of contents, a list of objectives, a timetable, a budget, and a plan for evaluating your program.

0.A transmittal letter is a one- to two-page letter signed by the senior officer at your institution assuring that the institution supports the proposal. The letter should contain the president's telephone number, fax number, and address.

0.Your title page should contain the project's title, your institution's name, and the date. Make sure that it responds to the purposes stated in the RFP.

0.The abstract should be short and clear. It is an opportunity to sell your idea; so, use it accordingly.

0.The purposes, goals, and objectives section offers a second opportunity to present your proposal's strengths.

0.An often-overlooked tool is the timetable. Although many RFPs do not ask for a timetable, all grant agencies want to know when you promise to deliver on their goals. A good flow chart can help. Also, be sure and say how you can sustain your program once the grant expires.

0.The proposed budget deserves special attention. Be sure it is adequate to do the job but not excessive. The most important parts of the project should be allocated the most money. Be sure to offer in-kind contributions; the more the better. Also, you might consider offering a special feature to enrich the offerings of your proposal but one that also can be deleted during negotiations, without damaging the rest of the proposal.

Tip 2: Clarity is everything. Because so many proposals are poorly written, I devoted a full chapter to writing style in my new book, Grant Writing in Higher Education: A Step-by-Step Guide. For grants, the best style is straightforward and simple. Avoid unnecessary jargon, long paragraphs, long sentences, and unfamiliar words. Consciously or unconsciously, many grant writers try to impress their readers with unfamiliar phrases, high-toned language, and complex writing. This is all wrong: By far, the best proposals are also the clearest.

Tip 2: Mention unique qualities. Because they receive so many applications, program evaluators often face the dilemma of having to choose from among several excellent proposals. This gives a distinct advantage to any proposal that has a unique (and memorable) feature. For example, you might know a distinguished expert whom you could use as a consultant to give your grant additional credibility, or your town might have some businesses, social institutions, or industries that would contribute to the effectiveness of your proposal. Accentuate those assets.

Tip 4: Talk the talk, then walk the walk. Professors often ask whether they should use trendy language. My answer is yes, but only if you can show how your proposals will live up to the promises suggested by that language. For example, at one time, the most common word to appear in education-reform proposals was "rigor." So when writing a proposal to finance a series of summer institutes for physics teachers, I claimed that my proposed program would be rigorous. Then, I planned into every participant's schedule 12 credit hours of physics. That's a heavy load to take during the summer. Because of this and a few other unique qualities, the proposal was supported, again and again, beating out the competition four years in a row.

Tip 5: Remain flexible. Sometimes writers become so attached to their articles, books, or grant proposals that they are unwilling to alter their work, even when asked to do so by potential publishers or grant agencies. That can be a big mistake. Grant agencies seldom award the full budget you request without asking for a few adjustments in the proposal. Perhaps a healthy outlook on this is, "If I was creative enough to produce something that a foundation wishes to support, I am creative enough to find ways to meet both its goals and mine."

Tip 6: Take steps to make sure your grant gets renewed. Once a proposal is granted, the time has arrived to begin working to ensure that it stays that way. Start by collecting artifacts that attest to the quality of the job you have done. Consider the level of evidence of each artifact. For example, a handwritten note that says "Thanks" is evidence but it is not as good as a letter written on official letterhead thanking you for the outstanding job you did.

I have one final piece of advice. Most institutions have fallen on hard times. Instead of worrying about your needs, search for a grant agency that supports needs that are similar to yours and then carefully craft a proposal that assures the evaluators that, if given the opportunity, you will out-perform your competition on meeting the organization's goals. Should your proposal be rejected, realize that in grant writing, rejection is an essential step to success. Just take a deep breath and rewrite your proposal, making it irresistible to the next evaluators.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Do Angels Sleep?

When my youngest daughter was three years old her great grandmother died.  I traveled to Michigan for the funeral and it was the first time I’d ever been away from Abbey overnight. 

I was gone four nights and when I returned Abbey couldn’t quit asking about the great grandmother she’d never known.  A cousin had thoughtfully put together wonderful scrapbooks of photographs of my grandmother, Grace, and passed them out to family at the funeral.  Every night before bed, Abbey poured over the photos. 

Her repeated question was “mommy where did your grandma go?” 

It was her first experience with death and I explained to Abigail that her great-grandmother had gone to be with the angels in heaven. 

This went on for several nights until, about four nights after my return Abbey asked plaintively, “mommy is your grandma asleep?” 

“Abbey,” I replied, “I told you, your great grandma is an angel in heaven now.” 

“I know mommy,” Abbey said patiently, as if I were a bit slow, “but do angels sleep?” 

I looked at her in some surprise.  “Well, that’s a good question Abbey – I don’t know if angels sleep!” 

With that she sat up – in her recently acquired “big girl bed”  - with her hands on her hips and replied “well just how did you get to be a mommy anyway?!  You don’t know anything!” 

I still laugh when I remember that night.  

We don’t take any classes or get any kind of special training to be a mother, although God only knows we could use some.  

I started writing grant proposals without any training whatsoever.  Just a background in writing and a dedication to my organization’s mission.  Our budget didn’t allow for much by way of training either.  

Fortunately I’d spent six years working for a foundation and reviewed a lot of proposals.  I’d also always been a great one for self-learning – and a frequent visitor to the “How to Do It” bookstore in Philadelphia. 

And I’m still learning. 

By the way, the next day when I took Abbey to preschool, the principal, Sister Maryanne was in front of the school and I posed Abbey’s question to her. 

She didn’t know the answer either.

Monday, February 25, 2008

I may not be there yet, but I'm closer than I was yesterday.

Several years ago I was fired from a job for the first time in my life.

In retrospect I should have seen it coming – I’d had health problems that had absented me from work for long stretches of time – and fatigued me still to the point where I wasn’t giving this particular job my best effort. Still, a large grant with promises of repeat funding had just arrived the day before from my proposal, I’d just completed work on the organization’s new web site, the quarterly newsletter I’d written and designed (a simple and, better yet, READ piece) was popular with the board and donors alike, and the development calendar for the year ahead was set.

So when I went into the executive director’s office for our weekly meeting, I was flabbergasted when he announced he was letting me go. Particularly when no reason was forthcoming, other than a lame “it’s not a good fit.” This was after a year and a half of work (the longest term of any development director in this particular organization) – and exemplary evaluations. When I pressed for a reason for my termination I was finally told, “you should get a job that doesn’t involve writing.”

I was devastated.

For years writing had come naturally to me and been a part of – if not the focus – of my education and my entire career.

And now I was being told that I should get a job that didn’t involve writing!

I took this man’s words to heart for more days - ok, maybe months – than I care to admit.

When I sat down in front of the screen I quite literally couldn’t write. None of the tips and tricks I’d picked up over the years helped. I couldn’t even make an outline!

Months later I shared my experience with a dear friend. “That was one person’s opinion,” he said.

“I personally don’t find Pam Anderson attractive, but millions do and my opinion doesn’t mean anything to her – or reflect on her ability to earn her living from her looks.”

He pointed out, too, that in this case I was dwelling on the negative. After all, I had written successful grant proposals raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, designed and written countless successful annual appeals, written press releases, newsletters, newspaper articles - a BOOK even – why was I putting my focus on one person’s statement?

Why indeed? Time to make up for wasted time and get back to focusing on refining the craft of writing.

What are you waiting for?

Have you let a few declined grant proposals or the (bad) edits of your boss get you down? Time to revisit your agency's program, speak with some of the recipients of your program, take a refresher writing course ... do something to shake off the staleness. In the words of Les Brown, “you don't have to be great to get started, but you have to get started to be great.”

Sunday, February 17, 2008

What Scares You as a Grant Proposal Writer?

Ever get that feeling?  You know the one I’m talking about, XTZ Foundation’s deadline is next week, they’ve declined you once before and now you find yourself sitting there staring at a blank page. 

It seems you’re not alone. 

CharityChannel’s online forums, always a wonderful source of inspiration, ideas and practical thinking, are also a barometer of universal concerns within the nonprofit arena.  One recent thread that garnered widespread responses centered on fear, specifically “what scares you most” as a grant proposal writer. 

Respondents pointed to a variety of common fears, from fearing the initial contact with a new foundation to fear of rejection to fear of leaving out a key component.  However, the most basic fear cited was the one inherent in most writers, the fear of the blank page. 

“I can only say that it does not matter how long you work in the field, rather it is a new client, or a new proposal for a current client - a blank page is scary. The beginning of every new proposal is empty white space yet it is filled with so many opportunities to write the perfect proposal. “ 

How do you craft the perfect cover letter, create an opening, tell your agency’s story in a compelling way that makes the funder want to fund you?  How do you get past the blank page syndrome? 

Whether it stems from procrastination, frustration or just plain fear - here are a few tools that no grant proposal writer should ever be without. 


Testimonials are all around you. They are in the thank you cards your program receives, the messages on the machine in your office, in emails, conversations, and in speeches at recognition events. If your program isn’t in the habit of collecting testimonials, make it a top priority!  Actively seek them out by sending surveys to your clients and donors. Get in the habit of keeping a tape recorder handy, and set up a comment page on your website. 

Storytelling shows why your donors keep coming back, year after year, and why your staff is so dedicated to your mission. Telling the story of your program through testimonials lets you bring a diversity of voices to your proposal in a way that numbers can’t and helps your application stand apart from the rest, long after the numbers have been forgotten. 


There are a number of great books out there on grant proposal writing.  Any one of these would give you a little nudge in the right direction: 

How to Write Knockout Proposals: What You Must Know (And Say) to Win Funding Every Time by Joseph Barbato

A gem of a book – this one’s a precious jewel and just might be all that you need. 

Storytelling for Grantseekers: The Guide to Creative Nonprofit Fundraising by Cheryl A. Clark

Teaches you the narrative aspect of the grant proposal.  Mine is dog-eared. 

Grassroots Grants: An Activist's Guide to Grantseeking (Kim Klein's Chardon Press)– by Andy Robinson

This one’s full of examples – and great for getting past that blank page. 

Five Days to Foundation Grants

Ok, this is my own book (smile) .  But it’s one that I turn to time and time again for a quick basic reflection on all the information covered in the aforementioned books – and then some.  The accompanying grant proposal toolkit – basically a book of templates of successfully funded proposals – always gets me past the hump. 

What else?  Sometimes music works for me.  I once based an entire annual appeal around a Sly and the Family Stone Song – Everybody is a Star! 

What’re you waiting for?  You’ve got nothing to fear but fear itself.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Storytelling - a skill that everyone can use!

I rely heavily on storytelling when writing grant proposals. There is no better way to put across the organization's impact on their clients. This story, from a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy, proves that storytelling is a skill that everyone can use:
Story TimeFoundation leaders spin tales from their families' lives as a way to share values and traditions
By Darlene M. Siska
As a boy, William C. Graustein heard plenty of family stories -- up-by-your-bootstrap, American success tales about his father, aunts, and uncles. Children of a German immigrant dairyman, they were encouraged to use their education to imagine and create successful careers for themselves. As a result, education transformed their lives. That generation included a Harvard-trained lawyer who headed the International Paper Company, a Harvard mathematics professor, two Harvard Ph.D.'s in natural sciences, and a New Hampshire state senator.
What Mr. Graustein didn't know until later in life was how those stories would help provide him with direction and purpose when the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund (named for his uncle) increased its endowment hundredfold, to $50-million in 1993, after his mother died and her assets were added to the foundation's total.
Rather then continuing to simply write checks to the same charities his late father had, Mr. Graustein, now a trustee, decided to develop a giving strategy for the Hamden, Conn., fund that focused on education, and hired a consultant to help develop it. While traveling with the consultant to talk to education experts, Mr. Graustein says, "We asked what they cared about. They shared stories about their passions and life's work."
He began to notice similarities and differences between the educators' tales and those of his family. He started to understand his own stories differently. "My family stories became fables with a moral," he says. "I began to hear how the world could change."
As a result of honing the meaning of his family stories, Mr. Graustein and the rest of the trustees decided to reconfigure the fund's new mission. Where it once spread its efforts among a variety of charitable causes, it now puts a particular emphasis on engaging children younger than 8 in education.
Today, Mr. Graustein tells his family's stories in the foundation's annual reports, to help grantees and others better understand the principles that drive the fund's work. The fund's staff members use storytelling when meeting with grantees -- for example, they might start off by telling an anecdote about their own experience, which may help prompt a charity's clients to tell their own personal tales and offer ideas that then help shape a group's programs. Mr. Graustein says he even judged candidates for the fund's executive director job in part on their respect for the value of storytelling.
"It's hard to overstate how significant storytelling is to me because it provoked a major career change," says Mr. Graustein, who, in 1997, left a 25-year career as a geophysicist at Yale University to focus on philanthropic work.
Growing Popularity
Mr. Graustein's family foundation is far from the only one to incorporate storytelling in its work.
Although he cannot point to data that show the scope of storytelling as a new trend among family grant makers, "there are certainly more families doing this now than in the past," says Jason C. Born, senior program officer in the Boston office of the National Center for Family Philanthropy. Several consultants, he notes, now specifically help family grant makers with storytelling.
Family stories are being recounted orally at board meetings and retreats, and also documented in books, on tape, and on videotape. The tales are being used to give recognition to and celebrate a family's history, to shape grant-making programs, to train the next generation of board members, and to pass on philanthropic values that help keep family members involved -- a major challenge for such organizations.
As families grow more geographically dispersed, "sometimes family stories are all that members of a family foundation have in common," says Deanne Stone, a writer and research associate at Lansberg Gersick & Associates, a consulting firm in New Haven, Conn., that helps families with business and philanthropic enterprises.
Charles Hamilton, executive director of the Clark Foundation, in New York, and editor of Living the Legacy: The Values of a Family's Philanthropy Across Generations (National Center for Family Philanthropy, 2001, $45), says family grant makers may latch on to storytelling because "there's not only an incredible thirst by a family to understand its legacy and values, but so many family foundations are rather informal and don't have -- or may even dislike -- the idea of formal mechanisms. Things like strategic plans and vision statements are counter to their culture."
Also, says Mr. Hamilton, storytelling can be an easy way to deal with big current issues. Family foundations must concern themselves with money and family dynamics, he says, and "since no one wants to talk about values or money directly, stories allow them to talk about those things without someone getting hit over the head with a big 'should.'"
Family tales can also be used to spur action among trustees, says Catherine Conant, a professional storyteller in Middletown, Conn., who has coached charities and foundations on using storytelling in their work.
"Assets and numbers of grants made may not persuade a person to act," she says. "If I were someone who didn't understand why my grandparents created a foundation, I may not act. But for me to hear, 'Our grandparents lived during the Holocaust, and by sheer force and will they survived it. But they were painfully aware that others were obliterated, so they created a foundation to help' -- that provides a deeper understanding and an incentive to act. It's something to pin my actions on to."
Consultants who work with family foundations say that members of every generation -- not simply the older relatives -- must be able to tell their stories. And, Ms. Conant cautions, "Storytelling shouldn't be used to manipulate others or moralize. No one person should insist they and only they have the truth. No one likes being preached to."
Bridging Generations
Richard Woo, chief executive officer of the Russell Family Foundation, in Gig Harbor, Wash., says the foundation began using storytelling four years ago, when it was working to establish its culture. The family, which made its wealth in investment services, told tales -- illustrated by family photos -- at board meetings to help identify its values.
Today, he says, it has evolved into a ritual at every board meeting, and a tool integrated by trustees into several of the grant maker's activities. Every board meeting, Mr. Woo says, starts with "time for reflection, where members may share a poem or story or metaphor or allegory." A lit candle at every board gathering represents the trustees' predecessors, he says, "the people whose spirits and values drive the foundation's activities today."
Susan Price, managing director of family foundation services at the Council on Foundations, an association of grant makers in Washington, looks for storytelling to be used more often in the coming years.
"We are seeing more family foundations, as they mature, having to train their next generation to come on board," she says. "One way they are doing that is to share family stories and their values and legacies in videos and oral histories."
Rebecca Richards, 29, a lawyer in New York and a trustee of the Maxine & Jack Zarrow Family Foundation, in Tulsa, Okla., which was founded by her grandparents, grew up listening to her family's lore.
"We're a Jewish family in Oklahoma, where there is not a huge Jewish community," she says. "My grandmother grew up in a small town in Texas, where there also weren't a lot of Jewish people. She and others held their daily lives together through family stories that shared lessons and experiences, and provided a connection to their roots and a larger community not visible in their own."
In January, Ms. Richards participated in a workshop with 21/64, a nonprofit consulting division of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, in New York, aimed at helping young trustees learn how to express their values through grant making. At the workshop, she learned that stories not only revealed her family's history, but also help her as she works out her role as a trustee.
"Stories tell of morals and values, but are also useful in helping us figure out what our ideals and giving priorities are," Ms. Richards says. By examining family stories and their values, she has realized that "my grandparents do good works as a way to influence how others might act, not to get recognition for themselves."
With three generations on the Zarrow foundation board, each offers different types of tales. Her grandparents will bring their family stories to board meetings, while she will recount an anecdote of her own. "I'll say, 'Here's what is going on in my life and I think we should look at this,'" she says. "Using stories is comfortable, and not being 'talked at.' If you want to engage people, it's a way of everyone being part of the same conversation."
Sharna Goldseker, special-project manager at 21/64, conducts storytelling workshops for current and prospective foundation-board members ages 18 to 28. In the workshops, Ms. Goldseker invites young people to tell their stories. To help prime the pump, she asks participants to create a timeline of their family events and the decisions made in the foundation. Such activities help young people reconcile their ancestors' values with their own.
For example, Ms. Goldseker says, "Say that someone's grandparents lived in an era with a high level of patriotism and decided to base scholarships on that. Rather than thinking, 'Why did my grandparents want to give scholarships for this?,' they may come to understand why their grandparents developed the values they did and figure out how they can align their giving with that."
A Bigger Audience
Some family foundations, such as the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, incorporate storytelling into their work with grantees and grant seekers. "When the fund's staff are out in the community, they can listen to the stories of people they are working with and think, 'I don't have to judge this completely objectively; I can use my own experience as a legitimate way to understand what is going on," says Mr. Graustein. "It gives them more freedom to engage with the community at the place where the communities are, rather than at our level, where we think about program decisions."
Storytelling allows a fund's staff members to communicate more deeply with the community they serve than they might be able to otherwise, he says.
"Story works at a very different level than analytical thinking," he says. "We're schooled to think analytically, but story communicates at a level that is much more powerful at building things like trust and imagination."
In one of the grant makers' major efforts, the Discovery Initiative, 49 cities and towns across Connecticut are working with the fund to improve education for children younger than 8.
"We didn't send out a request for proposals to create the program," says David M. Nee, the Graustein fund's executive director.
Instead, he says, "the fund met with mayors, superintendents, and others and listened to their stories. Part of being a story teller is being a listener. We listen very carefully. It grows out of a sense that none of us is smarter than the whole of us."
Storytelling has led to a deeper relationship between the grant maker and at least one of its grantees, All Our Kin, a charity in New Haven, Conn., that educates parents and expands children's access to early care and education. The Graustein fund gave All Our Kin a $15,000 grant in 2000, says Jessica Sager, the group's executive director, and she recalls how Mr. Graustein came to visit two years later to see about offering further support. He met with participants in an All Our Kin program that helps parents receiving welfare learn to become professional child-care providers, and broke the ice by telling personal stories.
"It was amazing," she recalls. "He sat down with participants in our program and they started a dialogue together."
Mr. Graustein has made subsequent contributions to her group as a private donor, she says, and she notes that All Our Kin's ties to the fund are closer than those it maintains with other foundations. "Our relationships with other grant makers is mostly conducted through paper," she says.
Because of Mr. Graustein's example, Ms. Sager says, she has begun using storytelling within her group.
"It's for these women who don't get listened to all that often," she says. "It is an incredible way to capture their experiences, for them to listen to each other and to learn of their commonalities."
Ms. Sager also now uses the technique in All Our Kin's annual newsletter to its supporters. "We told the story of one of our participants as a way to express why we're important to the community, rather than to use numbers," she says.
Although Mr. Graustein has published some stories from community members, he says that grantees and others are not forced to tell their stories to the fund's representatives.
He realizes that storytelling does not always come easily for grantees because of the power imbalance inherent in the relationship between grant makers and beneficiaries. Nonprofit organizations seeking money may be hesitant to reveal too much out of concern it could put off a foundation official.
Keeping Motives Pure
The entire nonprofit world is in the business of storytelling, says Mr. Woo of the Russell Family Foundation.
"A nonprofit staff person's task is to interpret and tell a story the best he or she can in the form of a grant proposal, and in turn, the foundation staffers present that proposal to the board," he says. "The best story can be told when members of a community can tell its story directly to the board. There's a lot of alignment between the value and power of storytelling and grant making."
To begin using storytelling as a tool, Ms. Conant says, the top leaders of the foundation have to set an example by telling their own stories, perhaps starting by setting time aside at an annual retreat. But ulterior motives can't be at play, such as wanting underlings to tell stories so that they will reveal their weaknesses, she says.
"If you take a cork off the barrel, you need to understand that your motives are clear and that family members, staffers, and others are treated with respect," she says. "Otherwise it's just asking them to put on rubber noses and run around."
Copyright © 2005 The Chronicle of Philanthropy