Thursday, February 7, 2013

What is your grant request missing?

There are many more nonprofits seeking grant funds than there are foundation or corporate grantors with money available. Some categories, such as human service-based nonprofits, are numerous enough to resemble the competitive atmosphere found in the for-profit retail world. Others are so niche-specific that they don’t have many funding sources. You have to stand out from your competition to compete successfully for the finite amount of funding available. One of the ways you do that is with evidence-based reporting.

I was recently contacted by a smaller (less than 30K annual income, 4 staff members, 22 volunteers) nonprofit that works with teens and young adults aged 14 to 24 to provide career and educational assistance. Their mission statement was clear, concise and very compelling. They had a five-year organizational history, well-documented financials, an adequate website, and a few locally well-known supporters. They are far more credible as funding targets than many smaller nonprofits.

The problem?  They were constantly being passed over for grants. They did have some events that supported their basic needs, but they just couldn’t attract money for program support, much less capacity building. They were slowly losing the excellent volunteer base they had, as people became disillusioned with the rate of progress. They had submitted nine applications, and all had been denied (or ignored).

Upon closer inspection, there were two things wrong with their funding appeals. They had only one program narrative. They had crafted a basic boilerplate narrative to describe their entire mission (as opposed to program), and it went out to everyone, even when it didn’t appear to quite match the grantor’s own mission statement.

But more importantly, they couldn’t prove their claims of success. Yes, they had anecdotal statements from current and former program participants, and even a nice letter of support from a business, but there was no hard evidence. There was no evidence-based reporting or documentation of the results, and no ongoing performance reviews for the program.

Initially, I met with considerable resistance to my suggestion that they set up a data collection and reporting system that would provide such commonly requested information as demographics, completion rates for the program (which actually turned out to be two programs and are being re-stated to reflect that), and measurements such as before and after income or before and after hiring-to-application ratios for the older group. For the younger group, I suggested that they use measurements like truant day improvement, grade point increases, or disciplinary problem reductions.

It is a lot of paperwork. The initial resistance was in the form of “If we spend all that time on paperwork, we won’t have time to help the kids.”  My response was “How many kids can you help if you don’t exist anymore?”

There is software available that nonprofits can use to record all types of input, but it is not absolutely necessary at first. Look at the requirements of the grants you are applying for, and set up a basic spreadsheet to capture information. Design some simple survey forms for participants, family members, school and employers to capture the raw data. Set your program up with specific goals, and capture the results as measured against the goals. For instance, let’s say that your goal is to place 20 young adults in full-time jobs every 6 months. Show how many people you have in the program, how many completed the whole program, how many interviews they went on before entering the program, the number of times they were hired, their average earnings from each jobs pre-program. Contrast that with the interview-to-hire ratio post-program and the earning increases.

They are in the process of compiling this information, and dividing their programs so that the data will more accurately portray their results. When the data is complete, they should be able to show prospective grantors that they used $5000 to create X full-time employees, earning X income, which was an increase of Y percent in each category pre-program. They will even be able to say that the increased employment, coupled with less public assistance dollars spent per participant has had a positive impact of Z dollars in the community. They will be able to document grade-point improvement, graduation rates and behavior improvements in the younger group. That’s going to present a cost-benefit ratio that will be hard for any grantor to ignore. 

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