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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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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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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What we can learn from Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire’s reputation for grace and style survives his generation. He may be less familiar to people born after 1980, but you can find his best dance routines on YouTube. If you take a moment to view a couple, here’s some things you may miss unless you are looking for them.

Fred Astaire’s best moves make his partner the center of attention. He moves smoothly to guide her along, keeping his dance moves clean and simple.

When Astaire guides his partner into a spin, he centers the spin and she moves around him. On the surface that may seem to make him center of attention.

It actually causes us to focus more on her because of the way our eyes work. We see large movements better than small movements. At the center of the spin Astaire minimalizes his role while his partner, spinning around him, catches our eye.

Some people will disagree with me, claiming that they focus on Fred Astaire. But would you think he was stylish and graceful if he made his partner look like a bag of potatoes?

Why am I sharing this observation with grantwriters?

Think of Fred Astaire’s dancing as an analogy for your organization and the community it serves. Just as Fred Astaire made his partner look great, your job is to feature your community—its needs and opportunities—and how your organization gracefully enables that community.

Look at these two examples:


The ABC Organization is writing for a grant to acquire and install two new refrigeration units in our main food warehouse. These units will provide refrigeration and freezer capacity for our food program. We need these units to get more donations from food brokers that require freezing or refrigeration. We can’t serve the people in our area until we get this additional space. We get these large donations and break them into distribution size units for the local food banks and food pantries we support.


During the course of our work we’ve found that our community can benefit from increasing donations available through food brokers. These foods are better for the people we serve because they are either fresh or frozen, thus having far less salt than canned foods. Your own local grocery store is probably giving far more space to fresh and frozen goods because of this shift in the food system. That’s why such foods are available from food brokers. By increasing refrigeration and freezer space more donations can be safely stored and distributed to food banks and food pantries serving our communities.


Aside from the second example being slightly longer than the first, the key question is one of approach. Which passage is more Fred Astaire? Which passage features the community you serve?

Stylistically, the first passage is about buying refrigeration equipment. The second passage is about tapping a source for greater donations to feed your community. Which approach probably aligns better with a funder’s point of view?

Even if you don’t feel there is a difference, do you think using the second approach would cost you a grant that the first approach might win?

What does this mean in practical terms? My point is simple. Funders who are open to looking at grant proposals beyond pre-selected groups or RFPs talk more and more about supporting outcomes, not agencies. Featuring your community and a positive impact that could occur is a way to align with that approach to grant making.

When you show funders the positive impact that is possible, you may find them more flexible in what tools they will allow you to acquire with their grants.