Former AAI client World Hunger Relief, Inc. (WHRI) of Elm Mott, TX is “a Christian organization committed to the alleviation of hunger around the world.” To that end, WHRI operates a 40-acre farm, manages an urban gardening program, and educates school children, community groups and churches in sustainable farming techniques and conservation.
After nearly 20 years as a volunteer with the organization, Dale Barron was approached by WHRI’s executive director about increasing his involvement there. He asked for more details and, as the director began listing several immediate needs, Barron recognized that he was describing a development position.
A clinical social worker at the time, Barron makes it clear that he had no interest in fundraising. “The image I had of fundraisers was one of a mercenary salesperson who could switch ‘causes’ seamlessly and often with little integrity.” But his passion for WHRI’s work led him to accept the offer; he has since found his own style of fundraising that has proven successful while counteracting his preconception. That style has allowed him to blend important fundraising principles with WHRI’s mission and his own personality in approaching prospective donors. During his tenure as development director, WHRI’s income has increased by nearly 500%, approximately one third of which is grant money.
WHRI sets goals for grant income based on both one- and five-year strategic plans. Barron explains, “Because our income stream is three-fold (donations, grants, and farm production), the balance is intentional in order to be able to respond to fluctuations in economy, agriculture, and markets.” To the extent that it can, WHRI strives to maintain this three-way balance from year to year.
By now Barron has developed a fine-tuned system of grantseeking. For example, this year he picked out 50 potential funders, four to six of whom he plans to contact each month. Some of these are regular funders, some have denied funding in the past but have invited WHRI back when it has met certain conditions and some represent completely new contacts. He tries to balance his proposals between personnel, programmatic and general operating expenses, and endowment.
But he also notes the need to look at other funding streams, recognizing that grants are both unpredictable—especially considering current economy—and time consuming. And he qualifies his impressive track record in a couple of ways. First, because he invests considerable time and energy in developing relationships with funders (more on this later), he ends up actually applying only for funds that WHRI is almost certain to receive. Second, he says, “Anytime I start thinking we’re really good at this, I remind myself that we are the beneficiary of having programs and services that meet fundamental human needs—food, clothing, shelter. Those seem like very essential products in these leaner times.”
That notwithstanding, Barron’s success in securing grant funds is notable. Some of this, he says, was instinctual, “a bit was diligent research, lots was consistent with my training as a clinical social worker, and much was working in concert with [current Executive Director Neil Rowe Miller], board of directors, trusted colleagues, spiritual guidance, and sound advice from a professional advancement consultant.” His experience has brought with it a wealth of knowledge and practical tips that he graciously shares.
1. Use technology. According to Barron, there are too many opportunities out there for one not to have access to a lot of information. He cites The Foundation Center and Guidestar as valuable online resources that allow him to view the 990s of various nonprofits and the giving history of foundations.
2. Get help from people that know your organization. While grantseekers will admittedly have to “kiss a lot of frogs” to unearth some opportunities, Barron suggests starting with the personal connections already present between members of your organizational circle and foundation representatives. He frequently puts out feelers to board members, major donors and other loyal constituents to see who might know whom. “Sometimes you have to look really hard for those connections,” he says, “but our main grants have come about that way. Those connections are often much more important than how well you write or how big your budget is.”
3. Start local. Grantmakers, says Barron, are quite jealous. That is, they want to be a part of successful organizations. Before going after the biggest, most competitive grants, you will do well to secure several local grants. The more extensive your record of local support, the stronger your case with larger (i.e. regional, national and international) grantmakers will be.
4. Ask lots of questions. Much of Barron’s knowledge has come from asking questions. At first, they were quite basic: “I don’t know what a grant looks like. Would you send me a copy?” Today, he might ask past grant recipients about their experiences working with certain foundations. When approaching new fund officers he frequently asks how each prefers to be communicated with and whether they’re open to him sending an annual report from WHRI. When a proposal is rejected he is not afraid to ask why or who else the foundation thinks may be interested. “I’ve learned that grantmakers are very appreciative of being asked these things. There are so many agencies that they never hear from again.” And when considering prospective funders, there is one question Barron always keeps in front of himself: Is there really a connection here? “Sometimes I have to conclude that, while we’re both good organizations, there’s just really not much overlap in our missions.”
5. Developing relationships is critical. Grants, according to Barron, are “absolutely a matter of partnership. I’ve been comfortable approaching new foundations because my focus is not just getting money, but finding people whose interest truly overlaps with our mission. One big revelation that I couldn’t have gotten any way but through direct contact and personal relationships [with grantmakers] is that they can feel as lonely as grantseekers. They are just as eager and passionate about being good stewards of the money they have to give as we are about using it. I’m not looking at it as a competition with other agencies; as a faith-based organization, I consider it somewhat of a spiritual task to find people who are very willing to work with WHRI as a partner versus just a financial resource.”
6. “No” isn’t necessarily the end. Finally, Barron acknowledges that grant cultivation is not for the thin-skinned or weak of heart, as some of his best leads come from executive directors and fund officers who ultimately turn him down. “The real work often begins at the time of denial. Grantmakers have their own network—they talk about who’s turning in proposals, who didn’t do their homework, etc. I spend just as much energy on the grants that we don’t get.” For Barron it’s just another step in an ongoing process of seeking, getting to know a grantmaker and developing a partnership that proves rewarding for both parties.
To learn more about WHRI visit www.worldhungerrelief.org.