Deciding which grants to apply for is not as clear cut as some might think. Nonprofits often scramble to write just the right grant so that just the right funder will underwrite their latest program. But increasing competition and limited resources can lure some nonprofits to apply for grants that don’t quite fit into their mission.
Sometimes they pursue funders who have an interest that is slightly different from the mission. This practice results in “mission creep,” which can undermine the integrity of the mission. At the opposite extreme, some nonprofits give up too easily when a funder declines to fund a proposal, not realizing they just needed a bit more persistence to win the award.
Recently I had the privilege of interviewing Chuck Slosser, senior fellow with The Philanthropic Initiative. As many of us fondly remember, Slosser served as president and CEO at the Santa Barbara Foundation for 18 years. In the interview that follows, he shares his advice on strategies for producing successful grant proposals that strengthen the organization as well as the community.
Three Guideposts for Successful Proposals
During my 40-year career in the nonprofit sector, I worked at three universities, a museum and a foundation, so I’ve been on both sides of the fundraising process. I’ve written and read hundreds of proposals. I’ve been elated on many occasions and disappointed on others.
Through it all, however, I think I learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t. I also had the privilege of meeting and working with some of the most dedicated, selfless and compassionate people on our planet. All in all, it was a remarkably rewarding experience.
Giving advice is always a bit dangerous, but as I reflect on my career I thought of three things that became guideposts for me and helped me make fewer mistakes over the years. They are: 1. Choose the best funding opportunities; 2. Develop good management skills; and 3. Realize that simple perseverance is often the key to funding success.
Choosing the Best Funding Opportunities
In all organizations, there is a danger in what I call death by opportunity. When a nonprofit sees a chance to apply for a grant, it either forgets to take into consideration all of the resources necessary to implement the project and/or it tweaks its mission to make it fit the funder’s expectations. This is also called mission drift, and it can cause all sorts of unintended consequences.
Be careful of these opportunities, because they can often be Trojan horses. While it may be difficult to say no, it’s important to evaluate all of the components of the project and know exactly what you are committing to.
While I was at the Santa Barbara Foundation, there were a number of funding opportunities that came our way with specific conditions attached. One involved getting matching funding, and another asked us to re-grant funds to San Luis Obispo organizations (SLO didn’t have a community foundation at the time). These were both compelling projects, and I don’t regret asking the foundation’s trustees to allow us to take them on, but I had no idea how much additional time they would take from my day-to-day responsibilities and those of our staff.
Also, remember that most foundations build an exit strategy into the grants they make. It may be three years of funding, but the question becomes, “What will happen when the money runs out?” This can be particularly vexing if the project falls outside the main focus of the organization’s mission and subsequent funding is problematic.
Over the years, I became increasingly better at analyzing the financial, time and human resource impacts of each project. Don’t let the primary focus be the carrot. Ask your board to get involved. All too often, such decisions are made by the staff because they are the ones who will ultimately implement it. Don’t let the board simply rubber-stamp it. They are there to help you curb your enthusiasm. Nonprofits are notorious for using their heart rather than their head when making decisions — and that’s not always a bad thing.
Nonprofit Management Resources
Many people over the years have asked me to tell them the best book I’ve read on nonprofit management, and my response is Good to Great by Jim Collins. The strange thing is that the first edition is not about nonprofits. It’s about successful for-profit companies.
Collins and his team of graduate students at Stanford University looked at a number of corporations in different fields and tried to determine why one was invariably more successful than its competitors. The answer is insightful for anyone reading the book — whether they are in the for-profit or nonprofit sector. It’s about leadership, a hedgehog mentality, getting the right people on the bus and a host of other things.
As I looked at Collins’ principles through the lens of the Santa Barbara Foundation, it made no difference that it was a nonprofit. I would venture to say that, unlike the for-profit sector, a significant number of people who work in nonprofit management positions have never taken a management course. We usually learn by doing. This is especially true at the university level where many department heads, deans and even presidents have had little or no formal training in management. They are academics and often move up the management ladder by being good academics.
Learning to manage takes time, and learning to manage well takes education. I guess my point is that we in the nonprofit world often do not educate ourselves on either the mechanics of management (HR, labor issues, etc.) or the art of management. As one gains more responsibility, it is imperative that learn by doing becomes learn by learning.
Good to Great is simply one book that resonated with me. The more important message is to find your own books, articles or classes that will help you be a better manager because your success and that of your organization depend on it.
Perseverance in Making Funding Requests
If you have a great project that you think fits the guidelines and philosophy of a particular foundation, corporation or individual, don’t mistake a no for a never. Never is unmistakable and emphatic, while no is often conditional. Never is a word rarely used by funders because it is so bold. It is usually tempered by language that is perfunctory and suggests you should look elsewhere for support. A no, however, can mean not now.
I received both responses during my career, but the never usually came when I had not done my homework. If you don’t read the guidelines correctly or the body language — if it’s an individual — a never is a strong possibility.
Far more often, a no letter or phone call should be viewed as a maybe next time.
A case in point: When I was at the Museum of Natural History, I went to the Keck Foundation to ask for funding for educating kids about science and natural history topics. I chose the Keck Foundation because I had read that it provided funding under its Southern California Grants Program for a Los Angeles Art Museum project that sought to bring the museum’s education programs to a larger audience of children. They liked the idea (because they did a lot of science-oriented funding) but told me they were devoting the majority of their current resources to a telescope project in Hawaii.
In this case, the no was a maybe. The next year I went back and got the same answer. Finally, when I went back the third time, the telescope was finished, and they gave us a six-figure, three-year grant. Unfortunately, too many nonprofits don’t persevere. I’m sure I became a bit of a burr under their saddle, but I knew they were not saying never, and I knew the project was a good fit. It was simply a matter of timing.
And even when it’s not timing, you should always ask how you can make the project stronger. Where are the flaws? Funders want to know that the organization that will be spending the money has the passion to make the project work, and your passion is reflective of that broader institutional commitment. Once again, vet the proposal with your board members.
As I said in the section on funding opportunities, board members can be some of your best constructive critics. If a funder requires that the board formally approve the request before it is submitted, make their review more than a consent agenda item. Let them really critique it. If it is a project that is intended to create some systemic change within the organization, find out how strongly they are committed to making and supporting that change.
With the exception of a few years of teaching, I spent my entire career working in the nonprofit sector — most of it in fundraising. It’s not always the most glamorous job, but it’s one of the most essential and rewarding to those who understand it.
Learning to choose funding opportunities wisely, to manage people judiciously and to persevere when it would be easier to move on are just three of the valuable lesson I learned during my journey. I can only hope your own journey is equally rewarding and that these ruminations are somehow helpful.
Biographical Information for Chuck Slosser, Senior Fellow, The Philanthropic Initiative
Chuck has spent more than 35 years in various positions within the nonprofit sector. Most recently he became a senior fellow with The Philanthropic Initiative, a nonprofit consulting firm based in Boston that serves the needs of foundations (corporate, family, private, operating and community foundations).
Prior to joining TPI, he was president and CEO of the Santa Barbara Foundation for 18 years. Established in 1928, the foundation is one of the 50 oldest and largest of the nation’s 700-plus community foundations. During his tenure, its assets grew from $30 million to more than $300 million. Today, it is one of the largest private sources of grant support for nonprofits and students in Santa Barbara County, awarding about $17 million annually in grants and financial aid.
Prior to joining the foundation, Chuck spent six years as the director of development at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and three each as director of corporate and foundation relations at UCSB and Pepperdine University.
He completed his undergraduate studies in political science at Valparaiso University in Indiana and received a Ph.D. in history from UCLA. His graduate work was in the field of urban development and his dissertation topic was, "A Study of Social Mobility in Late 19th Century Los Angeles."
He remains a consultant to the Santa Barbara Foundation, is a trustee of the Hutton Foundation, a board member of KDB (Santa Barbara’s local classical music radio station), a member of the philanthropy board of Reiter Affiliated Companies, a board member of Plan!TNow (a national nonprofit that focuses on weather-related disaster preparedness), chairman of the Audit Committee of the Wood-Claeyssens Foundation, a member of the Investment Committee of the Visiting Nurse Association, and emeritus member of The Foundation Roundtable (a regional association of grant makers in Santa Barbara County).