Monday, August 27, 2007

Grant Writers, Get an Inside Peek On Where Our Foundation Donors' Heads Are

This past Wednesday, Charlie Rose on PBS aired the "Joel Klein; philanthropy panel" episode, dated August 22, 2007.

It is really important that as a grant writer, I take time to listen to grant donors. It's good to know what concerns them and where their work is heading today. This specific knowledge helps me, as a grant writer, position the organizations that I work for to more likely receive grants. This kind of knowledge also helps me, as a fundraiser, understand what donors' goals are now, and how they want to achieve their goals. I don't suggest that the non profits that I write grant proposals for shape their programs or projects into what the grant donor wants. Rather, I look at where the non profit organization's needs and goals are. I then match them with the foundation or grant donor that is interested in the same work and cause; but also assist the non profit to lay out their project or program in a thought out, measurable, short term goal-oriented plan. Donors today want their money to make an impact that solves problems' underlying root causes.

Charlie Rose's August 22 panel included Matthew Bishop, Chief Business Writer for The Economist, and global philanthropy expert; Joel Fleishman, Duke University professor, and author of "The Foundation: A Great American Secret"; and Judith Rodin, former University of Pennsylvania President, and current President of The Rockefeller Foundation.

The Rockefeller Foundation is arguably the grandfather of American foundation work (where Carnegie may be the great grandfather of American foundations). So, when The Rockefeller Foundation's President discusses how they measure their donations' success, what modern philanthropy is, what it should do, how the best foundations view themselves, and what the current difficulty is in operating today's major foundation is; I listen.

In this post I am going to focus on Rodin's comments, not because they are more important than Fleishman's or Bishop's; but because her opinion is an example of modern donors' opinions. The following is my reiteration of her comments in the interview. Any errors in quoting or paraphrasing her are mine, and I apologize in advance for them. If any corrections are needed, I will gladly make them.

Like you, I want to raise more and higher dollar grants. If I know what is going on with my potential grant donor, I'm ahead of others who are also going to apply to them for the same grant money.

As I've written grant donors are doing again and again in this blog, Rodin explained that she measures Rockefeller's success in giving by looking at impact. She explains that if donors define the problem that they are aiming to alleviate properly, then they can ask after donating, 'have we made a difference; have the beneficiaries been effected?'

Donors want to be involved in our non profit's mission statement's goals. This is why they give.

Rodin explained further that donors should set intermediate goals. She warns that it's common for new philanthropists (new wealth) to want to "fix" (end) problems, but this isn't a real goal. She urges that donors are more effective by setting short term goals. Long term goals are too far off and you can't determine if you made an impact. To set short term goals, you set measurable goals in the program planning and measure along the way to see the impact, as the program progresses, but also to make mid-course corrections in the program, if necessary.

By the way, if you ever wonder why grant donors like to get in on your projects at the ground level and hope to be a part of the program designing, here's one reason why. This is a great example of what grant donors can offer your mission goal (programs' work). Modern foundations often have experience in designing effective results-based projects and programs. Their expertise benefits your non profit organization in three ways. This is great for your relationship with this grant donor. It's wonderful for your cause's constituency (as they benefit). Lastly, this effective project designing helps you raise more money next time around (as your organization can demonstrate positive collaboration relations, effective mission-based success, and strong management).

Given today's economy, for instance, Rodin sees foundations as venture capitalists who do not replace governments' contributions, but rather provide funding for pilot programs, seed money, and more innovation.

Rodin feels responsible to her board of directors, but to the public, too. She says of donations, "these are tax privileged dollars"..."we owe the people transparency and impact". She explains that foundations will be judged, ultimately, by what they did. Performance is everything. She continues to say that if foundations find root causes, rather than giving money to the issues the root problems cause, then they can define the problem, measure impact, and make a difference.

Foundation failure can often be attributed to leadership's lack of management experience. Failing organizations often need better bolstering, better capacity building and these are critical for successful grantees. The issue that surprised Rodin when she joined the world of foundations is what she calls the "entitlement culture", inside. Foundation fund managers are always appreciated or complemented and if they believe this to the point of blowing their ego out of bounds, they can be difficult to work with.

Rodin finishes by explaining that the best foundations do not view themselves as charities. This is right in line with modern fundraising's paradigm that all non profits need money - so that's not enough of a reason to give potential donors when attempting to raise funds. Rodin explains that the best foundations are trying to look for the root causes and make "systemic fundamental change." She explains that this is why foundations' donating is long term work.

Getting that donors want "systemic fundamental change" for today's issues is why modern non profit fundraisers see potential donors as investors. Ultimately, non profits are partners with their donors, so non profits must demonstrate to potential donors their mission-based successes, strong track records, the ability to effectively collaborate, and ultimately show that they are effectively meeting the need that their mission addresses.

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