PSGA Ken's Corner

Observations and advice on grant writing from the other side of the desk

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Grant Writing

I’ll be a panelist at this month’s Seattle Lunchtime Program on March 25th. The session is on the writing part of grant writing.

How important is writing? Grant writing isn’t a writing contest. But writing skill is critical. Why?

You always have much more to say than space to say it.

It’s as simple as that. Basic writing skills can help you turn a mountain of data into a tablespoon of information.

And note, I wrote “writing skill” not writing talent. Skills can be developed. Or as Stephen King put it:

Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

This month’s program focuses on something we all deal with–pulling pulling together information from a variety of documents and sources and turning it into a comprehensible whole with a consistent voice. You face this writing a full proposal or filling in an online application question by question. I face it doing write-ups of applications for a board meeting.

The key presenters will be Connie Chaplan and Kyra Freestar from Tandem Editing, LLC along with Patricia Kile, President of Open Door Consulting and a PSGA board member.

And I may make a comment or two from a funder’s (i.e., reader’s) point of view.

Again, it’s Wednesday, March 25th. Doors open at 11:30, program at Noon.

Location: The Swedish Club, 1920 Dexter Avenue in Seattle.

You can register now at the PSGA website.

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Grants by Community Foundations and other public charities

While private foundations list their grants on the 990-PF they must file each year, public foundations such as United Ways and Community Foundations file 990s. Those 990s are like the organizations that seek grants from them. As a result it’s difficult to find the grant listing on the 990—but it’s there.

Take the great folks at the Moyer Foundation. Their 990 for 2013 shows on pages 1, 2, and 10 that the organization made $824,000 in grants to other organizations to carry out its work. In typical IRS fashion none of those three citations tell you where you will find a list of those grants. What is cited on pages 1 and 10 is that the organization must complete line 22 in Section IV. That section is in those four pages (3-6) with the mind-numbing list of questions about disclosures, governance, and other policies.

What you find there is that if a public charity makes grants to other organizations then it has to complete Schedule I, as in I for Income (which is curious because the grants are expenditures for the organization filling out that 990, not income). If you look at Schedule I on this 990 (which begins on page 32 of the return) you’ll see the list of grants. It includes the grantee’s name, location, purpose of the grant, and amount of the grant.

The bad news is that the listing for a community foundation can be quite large. The Seattle Foundation’s 990 for 2013 is almost 500 pages, most of them the grant listing. Also, it’s difficult to determine if a grant is made from unrestricted funding or from a special source such as a dedicated fund or a donor-advised fund.

Yet, the information is there. The 990 grant listing is most useful for getting to know a smaller public foundation. It helps you understand what the organization’s grant guidelines really mean. A general listing that a funder supports Education doesn’t tell you a lot. Scanning the grants list in Schedule I might tell you if they mean K-12 or higher education.

Many of you may already know and use this approach. But from time to time it’s good to put it out there for people who haven’t researched public foundations before.

Email me at if you have an idea you’d like me to cover.

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Collective Impact

Over the past several months I’ve had a calls and emails about Collective Impact. Grant-seeking nonprofits have heard about Collective Impact and are asking, “How do we start a collective impact project?” or “How do we find out who’s funding Collective Impact?”

Good questions and here are a few thoughts that may clarify things for grant writers.

Collective Impact is a funder model. It’s about funders joining together to move in a common direction around an issue. Funders are looking at Collective Impact when they feel they need to be a part of a joint effort in order to really affect an issue.

When a number of nonprofits join together on a common project it’s called Collaboration. Collective Impact and Collaboration are two sides of the same coin.

Here’s what they have in common. Funders joining a Collective Impact project agree to five key ideas:

• A common agenda or vision
• Shared measurements
• Mutually reinforcing activities
• Continuous communication
• Backbone support organization

Don’t those all sound like basic elements of collaboration? Collaborations ask nonprofit partners to share a vision, agree on what success looks like, ensure that their activities work towards the shared vision, communicate often, and finally agree to a lead organization when needed for grant and other funding.

How do you find out about Collective Impact projects and funding?

In a Collective Impact model the project funders usually choose a lead organization to re-grant funding in line with project priorities. That can be a challenge for local nonprofits because traditional grant research may not find those opportunities.You need to rely upon informal communications to hear about these efforts.

When funders select a backbone support organization for a project they look for an organization with experience in the field of service and the capacity to communicate with interested parties. As a result, you need to be active with other organizations that do similar work in your area. If you are active and a Collective Impact project begins in your area of service, you should hear about it and the funding opportunities it brings.

In some Collective Impact projects the lead organization doesn’t re-grant. It coordinates communication and priorities between local nonprofits and funders. Funders use that information to shape their grant making. Again, if you’re active with other organizations and networks you will probably hear about a Collective Impact project directly or from others in your community.

Collective Impact is still in its infancy in the Northwest. I’m sure we’ll see more such efforts in the future. And Collective Impact will change over time. For example, if it begins to get used enough I could foresee organizations such as community foundations and Philanthropy Northwest making concerted effort to alert communities about Collective Impact projects.

For now, keep communicating with others that serve your community and people you’re dedicated to helping.

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Getting the most out of a Funders Forum

The Funders Forum on the campus of UPS takes place on Friday, December 5th. Here are some ideas from a funder’s point of view about how to get the most out of these events.

First, look at the list of funders attending the event and check their websites or other information. Make your top priority getting around to funders that you don’t really know, but who make grants to organizations like yours.

Second, go ahead and sit at the table of one funder that might not be directly relevant to you now. In a year or two your organization might have a relevant program. Or you may be working at a different organization.

Third, check out funders you’ve worked with to see if they have new priorities. The upcoming event at UPS will include both the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation and the Employees Community Fund of Boeing. Both have new giving guidelines. While the Employees Community Fund made a presentation at the PSGA Annual Conference, this format should allow for more information.

Finally, on a practical note, make sure to listen to each funder. Listen for the words they use, how formal or informal their speech is, and other cues that can help you drafting an LOI or completing an online form.

Also, while pitching a project is not only against the rules, doing so can also do more to lessen a funder’s interest than raise it.

There’s nothing wrong though with introducing yourself, mentioning your organizations name, and saying thank you to the funder for attending the event. That creates a positive impression that can help your next LOI or application.

More information and registration for the event can be found at PSGA’s website.

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What I learned at the PSGA Annual Conference

Just a few passing thoughts on this weeks PSGA Annual Confernce

PSGA is as vital and important as ever. There were plenty of new faces and new groups as well as old acquaintances.

There were a great variety of seasons addressing the wide interests that grant writers should care and learn about.

While I may have missed something in the past, it seems that there were more funders involved in presentations this year.

Plenty of curiosity about how do one’s job better, yet still a lot of concern and confusion around big ideas circulating in the world of philanthropy such as-

* Collective impact

* Sustainability

* Why funders make grants

A lot of what I saw and heard reflected the topics addressed each month at the meetings in Seattle and Tacoma. Certainly the monthly meetings, which rotate between the two cities, are doing a great job between conferences.

In addition to those meetings, the South Sound Funders Roundtable is coming up on December 5th.

Finally, the Annual Conference wouldn’t go on without the great support of the PSGA Board and the Conference Committee, and we can’t forget, the staff who see to it that all the details fall into place.

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Elevator speeches

It’s fall and time for conferences, funder roundtables, and other events. Those events can be places where you’ll meet funders and have a chance to make an impression that can help your future requests come alive.

Leaving that kind of impression requires two things: be succinct and don’t be dull.

Over the years one way people have approached this is with an elevator speech. For example, I start my roundtables asking each person to share their name and a short description of their organization—an elevator speech.

One common observation I can make is that most of the people who have sat at my tables over the years must work in tall buildings. Elevator speeches shouldn’t be more than 30 seconds. That doesn’t seem like much time, especially if you’re the speaker. But if you’re the listener, 30 seconds can seem like a long time.

At a relaxed, understandable, conversational voice that means 70 to 80 words on paper. And don’t think that you can go to 100 words because you talk fast. That’s not the point.

Your goal isn’t to share everything there is to know about your organization. Your goal is to leave a compelling and memorable impression; a good impression opening the door for questions and discussion.

So what’s important? What should you say with those 70 to 80 words? The most likely common ground between you and a funder—or any donor—is what your organization accomplishes in its community. Think of it this way: “helping homeless families in the community” is an accomplishment. Providing “rapid re-housing” is a tool to achieve that. Everyone can identify with the idea of helping homeless families while many people may not have heard of rapid re-housing.

So beginning an elevator speech with “We help homeless families in our community by providing rapid re-housing” is more memorable than saying “We provide rapid re-housing for homeless families in our community.”

This mirrors a basic tenet of good writing, move from the known to the unknown. Any funder who isn’t aware of homeless families in your community won’t recall anything you say no matter how you say it. But a funder who is aware of homelessness in the community may not know about rapid re-housing. Starting your elevator speech this way almost begs that funder to ask about rapid re-housing. It’s a question that you can go ahead and answer before it’s asked.

Let’s extend your elevator speech. “We help homeless families in our community by providing them with rapid re-housing. We know that getting a family into safe and stable housing right away is the best approach. Most homeless families don’t need to go to shelters.”

Those three sentences use just over half of your 70 to 80 words. But they carry so much meaning, not the least of which are the ideas that 1) you know what your goal is, and 2) you’re willing to look at how you accomplish that goal and use the best methods rather than relying on the same old programs year after year.

If your organization offers more than one program create an elevator speech for each program in addition to a general one for the organization as a whole. For example, a funder comments to you, “I hear you just opened a new shelter for homeless youth.”

That invites a response from you such as, “Yes, we started that program because we looked at how youth use services. Many young people prefer couch surfing to using nonprofit programs. When they couch surf only their friends and people they trust that know they’re homeless, not the whole community or their school. So we designed our program with that in mind. And so far, youth are using our services.”

In just under 70 words you convey a lot of meaning such as 1) you looked into those programs, 2) you used what you learned to design your program, and 3) it’s working.

Over the years I’ve had a discussion with grantseekers about this kind of focus. And at times I’ve spoken with people who’ve stated that they’d rather share too much rather than too little. They figure that if they provide a lot of information, then the funder will wade through it and hopefully find something they will fund.

That may have been true 20 years ago. But today’s environment is much more competitive. Being concise, and memorable, is what counts.

This same approach can help you craft compelling narrative for that limited amount of space online screening tools or online applications allow. Funders craft these limited spaces because they want you to get to the point; and your point should be what you accomplish for the community. Then, and only then, how you do that.

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Boards and fundraising

Is your board involved in fund raising?

Has a funder asked you that lately? It seems more and more funders want to understand the full span of an organization’s development work.

The challenge is that many good board members dread fund raising. Yet my experience shows me that often that is the result of one key error—the desire to have board members solicit new donors.

Talking to new donors feels a lot like selling, and few people like selling. But listening is a skill and a task that most people find in their comfort zone. So who should they be listening to and why?

Nonprofits and small businesses alike tend to make the same mistake, looking for new donors (customers) and failing to actively retain current/past donors (customers). How do you come up with a list of names, especially for the past donors who haven’t given in a year or so? Here is where you test the capacity of your fund raising resources—its ability to provide you with the information you need in a meaningful format.

Get a list of everyone—primarily individual donors—who has given to your organization over the past 5 years starting with your last complete fiscal year; say 2013 back to the beginning of 2009. You need the list of names and the total amount each person gave by year. Lay it out on a spreadsheet, donor names down the left hand column and then a column for 2009, 2010, 2011, etc. Make you save your work often and when you finish save that sheet with a name like Base Data. Make a copy of that sheet for the calculations that follow. This will ensure that if you make an error, you still have all your hard work saved.

On the new sheet select the entire range from the row above first name (this includes the year headers on each column) to the amount given by the last donor on the list in 2013, even if that cell is blank because that donor didn’t give in 2013. Go to Data and Sort and set up your sort:

• Click on the My Data has Headers, it will make organizing the sort easier
• On the first line for sorting, set it to sort on 2009, on values, and from A to Z (that means highest to lowest value)
• Click on Add a Level, and repeat for 2010
• Repeat until you’ve set five levels for all the columns, 2009 to 2013

Hit OK and you’ll see some interesting patterns emerge.

The top rows will be your continuous donors, donors who have given every year since 2009. At the bottom of the sheet you’ll find all the newer donors, such as those people who gave in 2013 but who never gave before that. In between you’ll find a variety of patterns, or groupings, of donors. For example, you may find people who gave in 2009 and 2010 but haven’t given since. You can cut each group and past them to a different worksheet. As you to this, think of questions your board members could ask of each group to elicit information about your organization and their giving.

Don’t give your board members a long list of questions. Since they will likely be a little nervous, their natural reaction would be to read the whole list. You only need a few questions, and a few reminders that their goal is really to listen so that can share the observations. The questions could be along these lines:

• I want to thank you for supporting our organization back in 2009; how did you get involved?
• You’ve given to us off and on for a few years; I want to thank you for that support. What work of ours attracted your support?
• I want to thank you for your past giving. How do you perceive our organization and what it does in the community?

Since these are past donors, and perhaps people your board members know, asking your board members to talk with them should be easier than talking to people who haven’t given in the past. This process gives your board members a way to participate in an important task.

Why is this important to grantwriting? First, improving any funding source helps. Second, you can answer that question from funders, sharing any lessons your organization learn along the way. These encounters will likely produce some great stories. Also, it shows that your board is involved and cares. Finally, you may find that board members who enjoy these visits; these board members may be great resources in the future.

If you found this an intriguing approach consider attending the Specialized Training Workshop coming up in early August. Laurence Chen will be teaching the how to use your data in Excel. The PSGA email notifications will announce registration for the Friday, August 8th event soon.