Fund-Raising Advice from Both Sides of the Desk

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Written by Jane Quinn, Originally published in Youth Today Newspaper

I remember those halcyon days when I didn’t have to worry about where money came from. I started my youth work career in the protected employ of a city government, where others were charged with securing program funds.

When I subsequently moved into the nonprofit sector, I experienced a baptism by fire. After two weeks on the job, I found myself on a plane to Cleveland where my sole assignment was to ask a kindly philanthropist for $25,000. We had a lovely lunch, during which I tried to muster the courage to ask for the grant. By the time dessert arrived, I still hadn’t popped the question, causing him to inquire, “So when are you going to ask me for the money?” So I did. He said yes. And I was off to the races.

But I wish I’d known then all that I’ve learned in the intervening years – on both sides of the desk, as both a grant-seeker and grant-maker.

After my maiden voyage to Cleveland, I spent the next 10 years raising funds for youth programs as part of my jobs at the Center for Population Options (now Advocates for Youth) and Girls Clubs of America (now Girls Inc.). Then I took a decade-long break from soliciting funds to work for two philanthropies: the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund (now Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds). Two years ago, I returned to program development and fund-raising.

Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way about seeking grants:
Do your homework. The object of foundation research is to find a fit between its priorities and yours. The Internet has made this work easier but it’s still work – relentless, ongoing work.

Find out how much money a foundation has. This never occurred to me as a neophyte fund-raiser. But it matters whether a foundation’s grants budget is $5 million or $50 million – and also whether its assets are moving up or down.

Take no for an answer. The most annoying experience I had as a grant-maker was getting arguments from grant-seekers about how their project actually fit our guidelines or why our guidelines were off base.

Don’t make end-runs. The second most annoying behavior I encountered was back-door approaches from potential grantees who contacted board members when our guidelines clearly stated that staff did the screening and recommending. If a particular source’s process isn’t clear, ask, “How does your foundation like to be approached?” But don’t ask that question if you don’t intend to follow the advice.

Stay in touch. Things change, at their end and at yours. Although it’s not inevitable that you will eventually find a fit, it is possible.

Ask for feedback. Sometimes the problem isn’t a lack of fit but something else. Find out what. Grant-makers are often in a strong position to help you improve your work.

Cultivate relationships. Help funders learn about your organization by inviting program officers to visit and adding them to your organization’s list to receive appropriate mailings.

Also, here are some tips for maintaining relationships once you secure a grant:

Do what you promised. My biggest surprise as a funder was discovering that some organizations just didn’t deliver. It’s better to exceed modest goals than to underachieve on ambitious ones.

Provide regular reports. Grantees who are thinking long- term take care to submit timely narrative and financial reports.

Ask permission if you need to change the plan. Most funders have established processes for authorizing changes – sometimes called budget or program modifications.

Don’t forget to say thank you. Good manners are also good business.

Give credit where credit is due. Make sure you understand how each foundation wants its grant acknowledged publicly, and make sure you get the correct spelling of its name. I was amazed to see how many variations there could be for the name “DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund.”

Speaking of names, I am hard- pressed to explain why nearly every organization I have worked for changed its name. Perhaps that’s the subject of a subsequent column.

Jane Quinn is Vice President for Community Schools and Director of the National Center for Community Schools at The Children’s Aid Society in New York City. janeq@childrensaidsociety.org.