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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.”