Posted on

AAI offers small organizations “good model” for grantseeking

In the past few years, several AAI clients have shown heightened interest in researching and pursuing grant monies. And many of these organizations share a similar profile when it comes to seeking grants:

• Minimal experience

• Limited staff time

• Facing one or more immediate needs

Take, for example, Mennonite Education Agency (MEA). MEA gives support and leadership to nearly 40 pre-K through graduate level institutions. Since 2007, the agency has also overseen the Hispanic Pastoral Leadership Education (HPLE) program.

Begun 24 years ago by the Hispanic Mennonite Church (Iglesia Menonita Hispana) HPLE provides leadership training for pastoral and lay leaders throughout Canada and the United States.

Within HPLE, two “tracks” have been developed: Instituto Bíblico Anabautista (IBA), a biblical and theological education program equivalent to an undergraduate degree; and Seminario Bíblico Anabautista Hispano (SeBAH), a formal alternative program of ministerial education at a graduate or seminary level.

Securing adequate funding for HPLE has been an ongoing challenge for MEA, which contacted AAI nearly one year ago about grant research.

Executive Director Carlos Romero presented Associate Sherilyn Ortman with a somewhat mind-boggling set of parallel circumstances. On one hand was an impressive set of statistics documenting the success of the program:

• Enrollment in IBA has grown by an astounding 73% over the last five years, a trend that is projected to continue.

• There is no typical IBA student; students are males and females whose ages range from 13-80.

• Last year, IBA maintained 45 study centers in 11 different states and Puerto Rico.

• Several regional conferences of Mennonite Church USA have mandated IBA training for all of their Hispanic pastors.

• HPLE has prompted inquiries from other denominations. The Church of the Brethren, for example, has adopted SeBAH as its primary leadership training program for Hispanics.

• MEA hears a clear call to translate materials into English so that they may be used throughout various parts of the church.

• Financial support for the Hispanic Pastoral Leadership Program has roughly doubled each of the last three years.

On the other hand, however, MEA’s Chief Financial Officer Lisa Heinz pointed to an equally impressive—though considerably more sobering—set of data that explained some of the reasons for ongoing challenge:

• Since the start of the national recession, the organization as a whole has suffered a 24% decrease in giving by supporting congregations.

• This loss has been compounded in the last fiscal year by a 12% drop in contributions by individuals other than board and staff members.

• In 2009, in light of financial challenges, a major source of support for HPLE had to reduce its financial commitment. This development required MEA to make up approximately $70,000 over two years, and had prompted an earlier grant research contract with AAI that year.

• Student tuition covers only a fraction of the cost of education for IBA and SeBAH students.

Ortman began her research by revisiting several prospects identified in the AAI contract of three years ago. Using the Foundation Directory, an online database of over 100,000 private foundations, public charities and corporate giving programs, AAI next attempted to generate a list of additional grantmakers that would be compatible with MEA’s mission. The directory allows users to search from among multiple criteria including fields of interest, geographic focus, size of gift and types of support.

For example, in the case of the Hispanic Pastoral Leadership Education program, Ortman searched for foundations that:

• state an interest in funding theological education and/or leadership development among Hispanics/Latinos,

• give either nationally; in Indiana (MEA is headquartered in Elkhart); or in one or more locations of IBA study centers,

• provide general operating support, program development or scholarship funds,

• commonly award gifts of at least five figures.

Further research revealed past grant recipients and additional information about the application procedure that either confirmed or brought into question the worthwhileness of MEA’s investment in pursuing certain grants.

AAI divided the remaining foundation prospects according to their perceived likelihood of funding MEA. The organization received a written report, which contained a profile of and contact information for each resulting foundation, as well as a suggested first step for making the contact.

Romero expressed a desire to continue working with AAI to develop several proposals; both parties agreed to take first steps with four of the grantmakers identified in the report. In each case, Ortman and Romero worked together closely to examine the average gift size and giving priorities for each foundation and to match them with specific projects or expenses in the HPLE budget. Lisa Heinz answered financial questions and provided supporting data. HPLE’s two program directors supplied important insight about the nuts and bolts of the program. AAI Principal Rich Gerig reviewed drafts of each proposal and gave feedback at several points along the way.

Romero considers this approach “very, very worthwhile and helpful. Having a group work together meant that each person could make the contribution(s) that best matched his or her skill,” he says. “We ended up with a better, stronger product than if it had just been me doing it.” He also believes this approach has resulted in a greater understanding of program goals and an increased sense of ownership among the staff involved.

The resulting proposals represented requests for support that ranged from technology, to staff salaries and instructor stipends, to translation costs, to funding annual tutor retreats, to producing educational materials. Identifying these priorities, Romero says, “pushed” MEA in a good way. “It forced us to put real financial numbers with our dreams.”

A final component of the project was the creation of a template that MEA can use to develop proposals for additional grants.

MEA submitted the proposals last month and is now awaiting responses. Even if none of them materialize, Romero is committed to cultivating relationships with a number of foundations to which he and MEA board members have personal connections, and also with several to whom he has been introduced in the past year. Sometime in the next few months, for example, he hopes to sit down face to face with one foundation representative from Florida who, in spite of not funding MEA last year, “also didn’t close the door.” Romero is aware of a handful of such foundations who showed interest in the Hispanic Pastoral Leadership Program, but for whom the timing just wasn’t right.

He also appreciates the groundwork that the research and writing processes laid for future steps MEA may take. “I feel like we did some really good foundational work, not just for grants, but also for other development work. Now we have articulated some particular projects that we could easily create a case for support from. The numbers are there; we just have to create the new context.”

Looking back, MEA feels AAI’s collaborative approach is a beneficial one for those organizations that fit the profile above. “For a small organization like us, the ability to team up with Sherilyn and Rich felt like a good model to help us keep moving forward,” Romero says, “and one that we’ll consider using again.”


Posted on

Making the corporate connection

“Corporations are people, my friend.” Perhaps no other single statement made in the last several months has received as much attention or ignited as much debate as this one. But regardless of how one perceives it, the statement alludes to a certain understanding of critical importance for nonprofit organizations interested in pursuing corporate grants. Inside the multi-story building and behind the popular brand and public image, are real people. And some of those people are responsible for doling out corporate funds.

For 16 years, one of those people was Rene Hoy, who served as Manager of Community Relations for a major corporation that, at the time, employed 12,500 persons and contributed well over $1 million annually through various giving programs. Because she retired three years ago and can no longer speak as an official representative, Hoy has requested that we withhold the corporation’s name.

In addition to grants, the community relations department oversaw the company’s United Way campaign, volunteer activity and matching funds. Each year Hoy and her colleagues received about 600 grant applications; roughly one third of those requests—which ranged from bricks-and-mortar to purchasing several tickets to a nonprofit’s fundraising event—were actually honored. And while she was not the ultimate decision maker, it was Hoy’s job to review proposals and make recommendations to a five- or six-member foundation board.

When asked what advice she would offer to nonprofits wishing to tap into corporate funding, the former foundation president had these thoughts to share.

On whether size matters

“I don’t think small nonprofits need to shy away from approaching corporations. We funded a lot of small grants throughout my years there. To some organizations, $5,000 is huge. It’s not a capital campaign, but it might make the difference between, for example, having computers and providing a teacher for an after-school program or not.”

On getting your foot in the door

“Some of our grant requests came out of the blue, and some were brought to our attention by board members or employees who volunteered at the charity. My company was really proud of its volunteer program. If an employee volunteered 50 hours at a qualified nonprofit, this corporation gave $200 in his/her name to that charity. Literally hundreds of employees took part in that and so corporate dollars followed. I suppose having a connection like that helped a nonprofit get its foot in the door over someone that we didn’t know at all. And a lot of nonprofits try to find those ‘right’ people. We actually fielded up to 20 requests per year wondering if we could provide board members for different organizations.”

On due diligence

“Before making first contact with a corporation, make sure you do your due diligence.

• Know what the guidelines are. I was always surprised at the number of people who would fill out an application and had clearly not read our guidelines. They weren’t even in our hiring area, for instance. We never strayed from that in our giving.

• Make sure you meet the deadlines.

• If you know anyone at the corporation, get in there and talk to him/her. Try to learn what you can about the grant process.

• Make sure you completely understand your project. When will it start? When will it end? Who will it serve? You also need to be prepared to answer questions about the organization. How is it doing financially? What’s its service area? And to ever get another grant you have to answer a lot of questions about how the money was used: What was your goal? Did you reach it? If not, why not?”

On establishing a personal relationship

“We received a lot of proposals that felt like the organization had just sent out about 100 applications and hoped one would land in the right spot. But every corporation has its own culture, and I really feel it’s worth the time it takes to customize each application you submit.

“People would often call our office and ask to come in and sit down with me, to describe the project or to invite us to come to their site to see it for ourselves. Other times we would make the call and ask to come see a project. But building a relationship somehow is important, rather than just sending out a request for funding.”

On finding a connection

“We had money to give, so I always tried to find that connection that would allow us to give it. In some cases a corporation might have specific giving areas and your project doesn’t fit neatly into any of them. A corporate representative can help you figure out how you might fit into one of them. Nothing is black and white; I say you need to start a conversation to get counsel for those grey areas.

“As an example, the corporation I worked for didn’t support religious organizations (which typically refers to churches). One organization approached us that had been started years ago by a religious group, but it was obviously serving the greater good and it was located in a county that fell within our geographic guidelines and we had three employees who volunteered there. So I tried to build on what I already knew; ultimately, we decided to fund them.

“Sometimes the desired connection just isn’t there. Of course there were worthy projects that we would have liked to fund, but we tried hard not to make exceptions to our stated guidelines. We knew that nonprofits talk to one another just as corporations do; word would get around if we funded a project that we had told someone else we wouldn’t fund. That sets a bad precedent.”

On positioning your organization for future funding

“First, find ways to evaluate your program. When I retired, my department was developing a set of questions to help grant recipients evaluate if the money was used as anticipated, how many people were served, questions about how the project nurtured diversity (an area of interest for our corporation), etc. Having this kind of information was important because if I would take a request to the foundation board, they’d ask if we’d ever funded that organization before and how that went.

“As far as other ways to maintain that relationship, a number of our recipients kept us on their mailing list. We might receive their newsletter that contained an article highlighting what our gift had done, or they might invite a board member or other representative to be part of ribbon cutting.

“What you shouldn’t do is just get your money, never talk to the corporation again, and assume you’ll get funded again in the future.”

Approaching a major corporation can be intimidating. But don’t let the corporate façade dissuade you; on the other side of the revolving door you might find someone like Rene Hoy—that key person who has the interest, the willingness and the authority to recommend funding for your organization.

Posted on

Grants feed World Hunger Relief budget

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

Posted on

Finding the best funders

From pop-ups on your web browser to glossy brochures that arrive in the mail, grant offers seem to be everywhere. Supporters pass on bits and pieces about specific grants they’re familiar with, or stories of other organizations that have benefited from grant money.

Grants can indeed be an important ingredient in a successful fundraising project or capital campaign. But actually tracking down a funder whose philanthropic interests are compatible with your needs can be a bit more difficult. Investing in dedicated research may be well worth your time and money.

Casting the net

A good place to begin your research is the Foundation Directory, which allows one to search grantmakers by a wide range of criteria, including:

• geographic focus

• fields of interest

• size of gift

• types of support (general/operating support, donated products, scholarships and program development to name just a few)

Once the search criteria are entered, the directory generates a list of potential funders and allows one to view a profile of each. In addition to the items listed above, this profile provides contact information, names of officers and board members, deadlines and, often, a sampling of past recipients.

One drawback to the Foundation Directory is that it requires an annual subscription of anywhere from $195 to $1295, depending on your membership plan. This can be cost prohibitive for organizations operating on a tight budget or planning to make only a minimal investment in the grant process. A second disadvantage is that it only includes grantmakers who are registered with the Foundation Center; some private family foundations are not. Even so, the database contains over 96,000 foundations, corporate giving programs and public charities, and makes an excellent starting point for grant research.

Other free sources provide some of the same search options, though are not as comprehensive as the Foundation Directory. One is, which sorts available grants by subject area, population group, and a general category “Regional Grants and Resource Sites,” that includes grant opportunities in each of the 50 states. State libraries also commonly maintain an online grant directory and/or links to other grant resources.

Identifying the best prospects

Once you’ve compiled an initial list, it’s time to go over the resulting grantmakers with the fine-toothed comb to yield the best matches for your organization. In many cases this process whittles a few hundred possibilities down to just 10 or 15 best prospects.

An obvious first step is visiting each foundation’s website and/or requesting any publications they have. In addition to more complete application guidelines, these materials often reveal whether or not the Foundation Directory profile is up to date. For example, perhaps the foundation is no longer accepting unsolicited applications; perhaps it has decided to add or drop one of its giving programs; perhaps it has a new program officer or contact person.

At this point, the Directory offers another helpful tool: a grants database that profiles additional past recipients, often providing links to their respective websites. As an example of how this can be useful, a church camp and Advancement Associates client was looking for money for a capital campaign. Two organizations with “Camp” in their names showed up as past grant recipients from a specific foundation, whose stated areas of interest included children/youth services, environment, and medical research. Judging from the names alone, the first two interest areas made our client seem like a good candidate for grant money. A visit to one recipient’s website, however, produced an important realization: this “Camp” also engaged the foundation’s third area of interest, as its patrons were children with cancer.

As a second example, suppose an organization similar to yours—maybe even in your geographic area—has received grant funding, but you don’t know from whom, for what or how much. If the funder is registered with the Foundation Center, you can learn all of that information and more by entering the organization’s name in the “Recipient Name” field.

One word of caution at this point in your research process: be realistic. Your passion for your organization can tempt you into thinking that by wording things just right or by enthusiastically conveying the uniqueness of your ministry, that you’ll find favor with a grantmaker, even when its profile suggests otherwise. If a foundation specifies a geographic location, respect it. If it indicates there is no funding for specific kinds of projects, believe it. Don’t expect to be the exception. A foundation’s past giving record is the best evidence of whether or not your project is likely to catch its interest.

Getting your hands dirty

The research steps described thus far can be accomplished anonymously. Not so from here on out: it’s time to make some phone calls, arrange some meetings and send some emails before submitting your request. The more you know about a potential funder, the better your chances of preparing a winning grant proposal. Here are a few pointers:

1. Capitalize on personal connections. Take a list of a foundation’s key personnel to your next board and staff meetings. Especially at the local level you or someone connected to your organization—staff, board, loyal donors, campaign cabinet members—may be personally acquainted with a board member or CEO of a foundation or corporate giving program. If you’re fortunate to find a connection, ask that person to arrange an introductory meeting for you or to put in a good word for your organization.

2. Learn as much as you can about each grantmaker. If you’re unclear about whether you’re eligible to apply or if your project fits the grantmaker’s guidelines, call the program officer and ask. Pay attention to what you hear; even if the project you have in mind doesn’t seem to fit the foundation’s priorities, maybe a different need would. As long as your project is mission driven, be open to other possibilities. If you’re comfortable doing so, call past recipients to ask if they’d mind sharing their experience working with a given foundation and what advice they would offer you.

3. Keep track of what you learn. Even if a particular giving program doesn’t seem to be a fit right now, it might in the future. While some foundations limit the amount an organization can receive within a certain amount of time, others fund repeatedly the same places. Documenting your previous contacts can help you save time later in identifying the relationships from which you are most likely to benefit in the future.

Final thoughts

Remember, the ideas presented here pertain only to the first step of the grant cycle–research. Once you’ve identified the most promising grantmakers and have your foot is in the door, more work remains:

• Preparing and submitting the grant proposal;

• Exercising good grant stewardship (allocating funds correctly, filing program and financial reports on time, etc.);

• Maintaining an ongoing positive relationship with the foundation and program officer.

As with research, each of these steps requires careful diligence and attention to detail from those involved.

How AAI can help

Organizations with little or no previous grant experience or limited staff time should consider enlisting outside help for grant research. Advancement Associates, Inc. subscribes to the Foundation Directory and offers grant research services that ensure efficiency and care in identifying best prospects for our clients and the wisest use of organizational resources for pursuing grants. To inquire about these services, email us.