PSGA Ken's Corner

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

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PSGA Spring Funders Forum

The spring PSGA Funders Forum is coming up soon. It’s on Friday, May 13th, and there’s still time to register.

Funder Forums are important even if you don’t have a project on your desk right now. Since it can take from three to nine months for a proposal to navigate the process at some larger funders, what you hear at the May Forum may be important to ideas you’ll be working on for late 2016 and on into 2017.

I just did a funders forum in southern Oregon and it reminded me about the questions grant seekers tend to ask. Here are a few examples:

  • Will you fund salaries?
  • Do you make grants to capital campaigns?
  • Will you make a grant for a vehicle?

While many funders fund buildings or salaries or vehicles, they fund them because they believe in what an organization promises to achieve with that tool. In fact, when you ask funders if they will fund a new building, you may be asked, “Why do you need a new building?”

Your answer might be something like, “We need more room to serve more people.” In that case, you might make a stronger case by not asking about building grants, but starting instead with a question like, “Our community needs more after-school activities for middle school youth; would you support a building campaign to help us do that?”

And if you listen for the right things, you may find that you get the answer to your questions before you even ask them. Here’s some ideas about what to listen for when funders make their presentations or when they respond to questions from other grant seekers.

  • Why does the funder make grants?
  • What are the funder’s priorities?
    • Geography
    • Type of program
    • Type of grant
      • Operating support
      • Capacity-building
      • Capital grants
      • Project grants
    • What’s the process for an initial approach?
    • Deadlines, if any
    • Range of grant amounts
    • Frequency of grants

Also, I encourage people to sit at one table that may not be directly related to their current work. Why?

  • The more funders you hear from the better idea you have about how funders work in general
  • Your organization may have a project in the future that is relevant to that funder
  • You may change jobs, and this funder might be important to your work in the future

Finally, just being there as the face of your organization can be helpful in the future when a funder becomes relevant to your work.


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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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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.