Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Capture those Atta Boys!

Recently I was reading a grant proposal that a client had submitted for review. One of the sections on impact requested comments on client satisfaction, and it was essentially blank. Just a general statement that said "Our clients have indicated they like our services".

I thought the client didn't understand why the section was included, so I asked her to include results of client surveys, or even quotes from clients (appropriately stripped of personal identification, of course). Turns out she didn't have any.

It wasn't that no one liked the services. She said someone was always calling and sharing a story of how the charity had helped them.  She (or her staff) just never actually recorded any of that. They got the occasional postcard or note, but just posted them on a bulletin board in the office for a while and then threw them away. They were positive reinforcement for the staff and that's pretty much where it stopped.

We were able to fill out the section just using what she could remember from a few recent instances, but if she receives a site visit, backing that up might be a problem.  This is one of the ways that a nonprofit is just like any other business.  Donors and clients both want to know that you can deliver on your mission.  If you were a restaurant, would you throw away favorable recommendations?  Growing and proving your nonprofit's  impact is no different from capturing new customers.

Admittedly, this client is new at being a nonprofit, having been in business just over a year. I advised her to keep a record of those calls, with the date, the program it relates to if there are several, and a general description of the client, such as "29-year-old single mother of two children under five reported that she was able to obtain a job using our interviewing training".  And of course, create a file and scan any written feedback to save it for eternity, as well as saving the actual document. When possible, have the client complete a short survey ranking your core services say from one to five, and provide a comment section.

Supporters want to know that you will make a difference with their money. It's about proving that you do make a positive difference, i.e. you have impact on the problem you are addressing.  In addition, you can use the comments internally to refine or improve your services as well.

Want me to review a grant proposal you've written?  Contact me at and I'll be happy to help.  For the first three people that contact me in April, I will waive the normal $75.00 fee, compliments of Cloudlancer Writing Services

Monday, March 25, 2013

Starting a nonprofit without grants

As a grant writer and nonprofit consultant, a dozen or more times each month someone contacts me with an email subject line like this one.

"Need a grant to start a nonprofit"

My answer is always going to be along the same lines; it just isn't going to happen. You have to already be a nonprofit, and usually an IRS approved nonprofit, i.e. a 501(c)(3), with financial statements to apply for most grants. If disposable funds for these grantors become less available, as is forecast by many experts, guidelines even for approved nonprofits are going to tighten. Getting that determination letter can require a significant outlay of funds, typically $1,500 or more, usually much more. Typically, a nonprofit doesn't become a viable candidate for significant grant funding for three years.

That doesn't mean you can't start a nonprofit. You just have to recognize that you have to get the money from other sources.
First, you should be a corporation in your state. It will give you some measure of legitimacy and personal protection and you will need that corporate status when you do apply for formal 501(c)(3)status. Filing fees vary, but most states don't charge exorbitant fees to form a corporation. Most states have the forms and fees required available to fill in on their website. They are normally found on the secretary of state's page, but typing in "nonprofit corporation filing fees, your state" in a search engine will get you to the right starting point.

If you are detail-oriented and have a basic understanding of the legal and business terminology used on the site, and are willing to spend several hours understanding the legal ramifications of filing the paperwork, you can do it yourself. Hint-the purpose of filing isn't so you can get grants!

If you don't understand the terms, my company my company offers low-cost assistance to assist you in learning the terminology and provides research avenues for your education in the requirements. Typically, you are going to spend from $100 to $400.00 dollars at this stage.

Even this low level of spending can be daunting if you don't have any money. So where do you get it?

Most nonprofits start out as self-financed organizations, usually through non-tax-exempt donations from supporters. Some also use fiscal sponsors and that can be an ideal way for you to access professional expertise as well as funding. It will allow you put your program on trial status without the bother of having to dissolve a nonprofit entity if things don't work out
One word of caution is warranted here. Due to recent problems with some fiscal sponsor organizations, many are now requiring you to have your determination letter from the IRS, but it is still worth looking in your area for organizations with missions that mesh with yours. Fiscal sponsorship is a topic of its own, and I won't try to cover the requirements and ramifications here.

Who puts up the initial funding? Your friends, family and interested supporters will probably be your first donors. If you have been discussing a community need with friends and family, you start with them. For instance, you will need a board of directors. Although some states only require one board member to file the nonprofit paperwork, (California is one) you should have at least three, since you will need a minimum of a president, vice-president and a secretary-treasurer at some point. Start with prospects for that board, making sure that they have the expertise and commitment necessary to see the task of forming a nonprofit through to the end. They should be willing to provide the nucleus of your fundraising goal.

Maybe they each can only kick in twenty dollars. Ask them to recruit additional funding from people they know. Twenty people times twenty dollars will normally get you started. If you can't generate at least this much support in your own community, you might have to reconsider whether this is the right path for you, and/or redesign the way you are presenting the idea to supporters.

You will need to develop a mission statement, a strategic plan, by-laws, a business bank account and an "elevator pitch" to present your idea to these prospective "investors". In other words, you need to be credible. That's a great way to break into the fundraising side of the nonprofit world.

Other avenues include community fundraisers such as the ever-popular yard sale or car wash, Facebook campaigns, even Twitter posts to find more interested people.
Until you have your IRS nonprofit letter, you should not tell anyone that their contribution is tax-deductible, but you should keep track of donors even at this stage. Some of them may become the nucleus of your organization. They may also be willing to help you recruit more supporters. Call them or drop them a thank-you email even if their contribution is only five dollars, and ask them to refer you to their friends.

If the contributions are in cash at an event, have a postcard-sized handout you can give them outlining your organization's goals and asking for their help in recruiting other supporters. If you have a Facebook page, put out a call for supporters there.

The nonprofit world has certain ethical and business requirements exactly like those found in the for-profit world. It has its own jargon, rules and its own goals. If you understand that this is a learning process and are willing to start small and work at it, you can certainly succeed. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Grant notice-Sheltering Pets of Domestic Violence Victims

Reprinted from:


For full  details, visit the link above

"Often, victims stay in abusive homes for fear of subjecting 
their animals to continued abuse if left behind. Animals left 
behind often face abuse, torture or death."

RedRover Domestic Violence Safe Housing Grants Can Help

Grants, up to $3,000, are offered throughout the United States on a one-time basis. Approximately six to eight grants are available in 2013.
• Applicants must be recognized by the IRS as 501(c)(3) organizations.
• Applicants must be agencies with a primary mission of sheltering victims of domestic violence.
Applications for 2013 are due on May 15, 2013 and October 30, 2013. Funding decisions will be made within 30 days of the application deadline.
We are especially encouraging shelters in these states, where there are no SAF-T shelters, to apply for grants: AR, CT, DE, HI, IL, IN, IA, ME, MD, MA, MS, NE, NH, ND, OK, RI, TN, VT, WV and WI.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Your Grant Request - Highlighting Success

No one likes a whiner. If your grant proposal always begins with a negative picture and you use the same tired phrases or statistics to show need, you could be whining at your grant prospects, instead of encouraging them to cooperate with you in success. 

Which one of these lead sentences makes you feel good about a mission to keep children in school?

1.  “Over 20,000 school children in (your town) drop out of school each year. 64% of them engage in criminal activity, and 3% die as a result of that criminal activity”
2.  “In the past year, 6100 more children successfully graduated from (your area)’s schools thanks to donor support of our “Stay In School, Succeed in Life” Program. Our donors take great personal satisfaction in knowing they were a major part of that success.”

Donors get from dozens to thousands of appeals each year, depending on their size and scope. They already recognize the need. They would not be donors unless they wanted to help, so start your proposal with a positive. Let them know that donors participating in your program have been able to have a positive impact.  There is usually a place in every proposal for a statement of need. That’s the place to include the justification for the program, and to include the negatives you are trying to reverse. Leading off with a positive statement in either the executive summary or the program description sets a positive tone for the whole proposal.

Leading with a picture of success or achievement immediately improves the grant reviewer’s mood. It is human nature to want to be on a winning team that solves problems, so present your program as a success, not as a “thumb in the dike”.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Online Grant Application Tips - Part Two

Special Characters
Many online applications do not allow the use of use bullets or other special characters or formatting you would otherwise use in a proposal sent by mail. Worse, some applications still do not warn you about this feature.
Some applications do not allow the use of apostrophes. In some cases, when the apostrophe is indicating a possessive (i.e. John's dog), you may have to waste those valuable characters with wording that spells out the relationship, if the relationship is critical to reader understanding (the dog owned by John). Replace your bullets with hyphens or asterisks before you paste your copy into the online application.
Charts and Graphs
If you depend on a graphic to present statistical data or your methods, you must often translate the graphic to text. Prepare to do this well in advance of your deadline.
Your grant may be initially reviewed by a computer program, in the same way that search engines look for keywords. Include words that are commonly understood to present your mission. For instance, "hungry" is better than food-insecure, "domestic violence" is better than spousal assault, and so on. One clue to look for is the language the website uses to present the RFP or present the grantor's message. One tell-tale sign that your failed this "SEO test" is when you receive an "application declined" message and the submission deadline just passed a day or two ago. I can almost guarantee you no human ever looked at that application, assuming of course that your mission is within the grantor's parameters.

Some applications give you a link to download a template. You must use the specific template provided. Some templates will allow you to add lines up to a limit, many will not. Be prepared to combine and condense items such as staff salaries. Some downloads in pdf format still do not give you a fillable form, so be prepared to convert it if necessary, using a pdf converter program.

Most online applications do not allow you to add anything that isn't already contained in the online application. If they do, it will say so, usually at the end of the application and will indicate what formats are accepted. Convert word documents to pdf if required.

Images, logos and letterheads
In general, online applications can't read them and won't accept them. If your board member list is on a marketing handout or letterhead, cut and paste the pertinent information into a plain Word document, instead of pasting it with an image. Most online applications will tell you what formats they can accept if they are permitted.

Saving the in-process application.
Many applications will have buttons at the bottom of the page that say, "Save and return later" and "next". Always save the page, even if saving it takes you clear back to the login screen. There is nothing quite as frustrating as losing the application you just spent hours assembling because of a server or power glitch.

Review, Review, Review

Review once as you write, once just before you are about to submit it and if given the option to print your applications when you hit submit, review the print format document, copy it and paste it into a word document, and then review that against the document entries you already have. Note it as the submitted version with the date and grant ID number, because many online applications still do not send you a copy of the application.

Save the "as submitted" version
While many online applications will email you a copy of your application, some only allow you to print the document. After you select the Print button, copy and paste the entire text into a clean Word processor document, and add the date and time you submitted it. You can also review it at this time to be sure that nothing was left out. (A common finding at this point is that some language overflowed its assigned text box and is not visible.) Then you can go ahead and submit it. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Online grant application tips - Part One

The use of online applications is increasing each year, particularly by larger foundations and corporate philanthropic departments, and once adopted they replace the old paper submission format. In spite of our electronically connected world, some nonprofits still prefer the paper submission approach, and avoid online applications.
Many nonprofits feel that online applications are cold, remote and remove the passion element from the equation. That is probably what they are meant to do. Large foundations and corporations can receive as many as 5,000 applications for one grant. They are going to eliminate any application that even remotely fails to meet their criteria, and the online application makes that easier. In some cases, awards don't come down to whose mission is most deserving, but whose program negotiates the online application most efficiently.
Foundations, corporations and government grant opportunities  provide up to 50% of all nonprofit income, so simply crossing online applications off your funding opportunity list just isn't a smart business decision. Learning to live with the format is a necessity today.
It should go without saying, but read the RFP and the grant instructions completely, including any location limitations. There is no single, standard online application format. Online applications vary from fillable pdf documents used by small foundations to various regional so-called "common grant applications", to well designed and fairly user-friendly custom cybergrant applications. Each requires the grant writer to adapt your information to the format. You will have to create a login and password for each organization, and sometimes for each application.
Save your login information in-house, including passwords. That way if something happens to the person originally submitting the grant, the new person can access the application. While most logins will give you the "forgot your password" prompt, not all of them do. Save the grant ID number as well, since you may apply to more than one program area. Once submitted, you cannot edit anything or submit further information unless requested to do so.
Condensing your information
Online applications normally have character or word limitations for each question you must answer. Commonly those limits are 250-, 500-, or 750-words or 500-2,500 characters. The underlined sentence is 105 characters including spaces using 11-pt Arial. Some applications require the use of specific fonts, or they will convert whatever font you are using to the preferred format, usually Arial, Times New Roman or Courier. In general, use one of these three if there is no requirement stated. This is not the place for style points. Know the limits in advance, and be prepared to condense your copy to fit the character limitations. That carefully crafted, board-approved boilerplate probably will not work. Remember that spaces are characters, and some applications may not indicate whether they count spaces as characters. Create your responses in a word or plain text document before you actually fill out the application, and get a count.
If you just can't reduce your text to the limit, have a professional editor or grant writer review it. Some online applications are still simply not providing enough room, but in most cases, someone who isn't so emotionally involved with the text can still get the message out there without losing the context.
Unless they specifically say that spaces are excluded from the count, assume the worst. The Microsoft Word character/word count function does not always count characters in the same way as online applications, and you may have to expand the word count box (by clicking on it) to access the "character with spaces" count. I always try to err on the side of slightly shorter text instead of pushing it right to the character limit. 
Part Two will discuss specific formatting traps and flow.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The strategic (mini)plan

I have mentioned before that many of my clients have an aversion to strategic planning. While some board members and/or founders are simply not sufficiently committed to the organizational aspects of a nonprofit, many more simply see themselves as being too small to need one.  

There is some truth to that viewpoint. First, the plans take time and often money to develop. Second, they require ongoing review and maintenance. Third, there may literally not be enough people to do the plan while trying to accomplish the mission. Having been on the inside, and looking at the long-term effectiveness of some strategic plans, I can understand why they aren't a terribly popular topic around the boardroom table. From the outside looking in as a grant writer, I see the consequences of having no plan to accomplish the mission.
Strategic plans for nonprofits differ from business plans in that they are more vision oriented, versus profit or investor oriented.  Some nonprofits wouldn't pass the financial scrutiny of a first year finance student, but they somehow are very effective in accomplishing the mission. Others have all the right formulas in place but never seem to achieve the desired charitable results.

The strategic mini-plan provides a bridge between the two extremes. It provides a structural framework, without requiring an economist to understand and implement. In the last five years, no nonprofit I have ever developed a mini-plan for has ever said it was a waste of time.
The mini-plan simply puts down on paper the brainstorming sessions and identifies the obstacles as well as the successes toward mission achievement. The basic act of writing things down will often pinpoint areas that increase funding, while identifying programs, philosophies or shortcomings that are holding you back. It still has a financial component, but doesn't attempt to forecast five or ten years into the future.

One nonprofit I worked with had four programs, and each had its passionate supporters. All had worthwhile goals, but upon reviewing them, it was obvious that one was not pulling its own weight. It was vague in concept, required a very high financial input, results were hard to measure, grantors didn't understand it and wouldn't fund it, and most importantly, it wasn't helping the people it was supposed to help. By sitting down and actually putting all the pros and cons down on paper, even its supporters could see that it needed to be folded into one of the other programs. It became obvious why, despite having a pretty decent profit and loss statement, the nonprofit was struggling to pay its bills.
Another nonprofit did a mini-plan after initially being very hostile toward the idea. Three months after we finished it, the executive director left with no notice. By having a mini-plan, they were able to set goals and provide history for the new ED, and they hardly missed a beat. 
If a full-fledged plan isn't an option for your organization, the mini-plan may a reasonable alternative.