Tuesday, April 05, 2016

"No Unsolicited Proposals" - What happens when there are no doors for smaller nonprofits to open

An October 2015 opinion piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy noted that 72% of US charitable foundations do not accept unsolicited grant proposals, a significant increase from just four years ago, when that number was 60% (“Let’s Require All Big Foundations to Let More Nonprofits Apply for Grants,” by Pablo Eisenberg, Chronicle of Philanthropy, October 20, 2015). The author goes on to say that:

“Organizations that are small to medium size as well as those that represent poor, minority, and other grass-roots constituencies, pursue controversial causes and activities, or lack influential connections or friends struggle to get foundation support. This invitation-only system allows foundations to perpetuate inequality in American society, and that’s why Congress, regulators, and nonprofits must come together to force change... Foundations and their wealthy benefactors receive enormous tax benefits that subsidize their operations. Donors receive upfront deductions of 40 to 50 percent for their gifts, while foundations are exempt from local and state taxes as well as from taxes on their investment income. In exchange for these benefits, foundations and donors have an obligation to the public to ensure that their philanthropy is accessible to all nonprofits that want to apply for grants.”

As someone who has helped nonprofits pursue foundation grants for two decades, let me share with you how this looks from the nonprofit’s side:


The nonprofit researches foundations that might be interested in its work.

The nonprofit sees that the foundation does not accept unsolicited proposals and gives up on the idea of reaching out to the foundation.

Unfortunately, every foundation the nonprofit identifies says that it does not accept unsolicited proposals. Lacking a robust major gifts program (attaining five-figure, six-figure, or higher donations from individuals) or other substantial funding streams, the nonprofit plods along with an annual fundraising campaign, wondering how it will ever expand its services to meet growing needs.


The nonprofit’s in-house fundraiser or fundraising consultant says “Don’t worry about that ‘no unsolicited proposals’ thing – it just means that you have to reach out to the foundation, tell them about our organization, and get it to invite you to submit a proposal.”

A debate ensues about whether or not they should reach out to a foundation officer or the foundation’s board.

Because nobody wants to make a “cold call,” some passing-the-buck takes place around who should make the call.

The fundraising consultant says that she can no longer make these outreach calls on behalf of the nonprofit because she is not registered as a solicitor with attorney general of the state in which the foundation is located, and the foundation would rather hear directly from the nonprofit’s staff, anyway.

The Executive Director of the foundation reviews the prospect research and makes a call to the foundation’s executive director or a program officer.

The Executive Director does not hear back.

The Executive Director calls again a week later.

The Executive Director does not hear back.

The Executive Director sends a follow-up email a week later.

The Executive Director receives a polite email from the foundation, saying the foundation is not accepting unsolicited proposals, has spent out everything it can spend for this year, is no longer funding XYZ....


The Executive Director does get a call back from the foundation. The conversation goes fairly well, and the nonprofit is invited to submit a proposal. The nonprofit spends 15-20 hours deciding what to apply for, compiling the proposal and all of the required ancillary materials (budgets, audited financial statements, board lists, and more) submitting the proposal, and following up – all while other projects and priorities fall by the wayside. The proposal (a) is rejected, (b) is moved to the next docket, which is happening in six months, or (c) gets an “entry level” gift of 10% - 20% of the original ask.


Certainly, there are scenarios that play out more happily than this, scenarios in which the nonprofit and the foundation’s staff work collaboratively to present a proposal to the foundation’s board that will be accepted at a level close or equal to what was requested. This first gift will lead to a longer-term collaboration between the nonprofit and the foundation, one in which both entities pursue their visions and achieve their missions.

My experience says that this dream scenario is becoming a less frequent reality. As more and more nonprofits are established in the US (there now are more than a million of them, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics), there is increasing competition for funds. I believe that there may simply be too many nonprofits in the US, and some of these organizations that cannot sustain themselves should probably close or merge. But I also have observed that many substantial foundation gifts are made because somebody knew somebody who opened a door. For those on the fringes, for those without connections, it does not seem to be a level playing field.

Meanwhile, smaller nonprofits are spinning their wheels, spending hours and hours preparing for and pursuing grants that they are very unlikely to secure. Those are hours that could be spent on more mission-driven activities.

I imagine that the situation at foundations can be equally frustrating. When they accept unsolicited proposals (and even when they do not), foundations can be inundated with phone calls, letters, emails and more from nonprofits that do not meet their giving guidelines, do not offer programs or services in which the foundation’s board is interested, or simply do not have a chance of receiving a grant. Distracted and overwhelmed by this, foundation officers cannot adequately turn their attention to the business at hand – helping the board make grant making decisions that advance the foundation’s mission. Furthermore, many foundation grant officers also spend their time helping their current grantees make other funding connections, run effective programs, and more. They do not have the time or resources to address every unsolicited inquiry that comes in.

And, of course, there’s the Golden Rule: He who has the gold, rules. If a foundation knows that they only want to support certain hand-picked projects, that is their prerogative.

So what is a foundation to do? What is a nonprofit to do?

Perhaps there is a way to reach a middle ground. For example, mid-size to large foundations could be required to accept unsolicited proposals, but they also could set parameters, such as “you may only submit one unsolicited proposal over a three year period.” That would force nonprofits to think carefully about those submissions, lest they squander a good opportunity. But even if they accepted those unsolicited proposals, I do not think they could be forced to fund them.

I don’t know what the answer is, but from where I sit, after 20+ years of working with nonprofits and foundations of all sizes and scopes, the philanthropic field and the public interest are not well served by the current hamster wheel of a system.  

Sunday, October 04, 2015

25 Ideas for When Your Professional Writing Needs a Creative Jolt

You know that thing when you’ve been writing the same blah, blah, blah for so long that your fingers almost work on autopilot – it’s as if the (same, boring) words just appear there, of their own volition? Or when you find your own writing so mundane that you can’t stand to even proofread it? Or when your own work is entirely indecipherable from that of your colleagues or clients?

It’s time for a creative jolt! I’ve written here before about Writing Prompts for creativity, but now I am proposing another alternative:

Don’t write.

When you need a burst of inspiration or creativity for your writing, sometimes the best thing you can do is to not write at all. When you walk away from your writing, even for a few minutes, you can return to it with deeper insight and fresh energy. Here are a few ideas for ways to hit the restart button on your creativity:

1.            Walk around the block. Instead of spending that walk thinking about everything you have to do, want to do, or wish you had done... find 10 beautiful things. Colors, scenery, textures, sounds. 10 things.

2.            Leaf through a travel magazine. Rip out a page or two, and post them next to your writing space.

3.            Smell something. Anything.

4.            Eat one square of a chocolate bar, or one m&m. Let it melt slowly in your mouth. Notice how it tastes, smells, and feels.

5.            Stretch left. Then right.

6.            Sing your favorite song from elementary school.

7.            Notice your breath. Don’t alter it, by breathing more slowly or more quickly. Just notice it.

8.            Give yourself a scalp massage.

9.            Make a paper airplane. Fly it.

10.            Notice how many things you can hear right now. How long of a list can you make?

11.            Eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Does it remind you of anything?

12.            Come up with a name for a new Ben & Jerry’s flavor.

13.            Do a headstand. Or a cartwheel. Or a sommersault.

14.            Make a “painting” out of the next five things you can get your hands on: White out? Nutella? Shampoo? Orange juice? Lipstick?

15.            Draw a maze.

16.            Make up your own palm reading, for your own palms.

17.            Check out the clouds. What do they look like?

18.            If you had to name the color of the sky right now, what would you name it?

19.            Find something hot. Find something cold.

20.            If you made an autobiographical album, what would it be called? What would be the names of the songs on it?

21.            Tap dance. Tap shoes not required.

22.            Pick a song, and play air guitar.

23.            Try to name all of the characters in your favorite movie.

24.            Feel something soft.

25.            Come up with five other items for this list.

Of course, the Writing Prompts I’ve described also can do the trick! But sometimes the best thing you can do is to get out of that part of your brain. When you activate other parts of your mind, everything can come alive again.

Lauren Brownstein has worked in the non-profit community for more than 20 years as a fundraiser, educator, and program manager. She specializes in: helping grant seekers develop meaningful partnerships with funders, crafting outstanding grant proposals, and working with individual donors to help them make philanthropic contributions that reflect their interests and passions.

Learn more about Lauren’s fundraising and philanthropy work at www.pitchconsulting.com. Purchase her e-book, Grant Writing Quick Tips, and her audio file, Grant Writing for Creative Souls, HERE.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Writing Prompts for Great Grant Writing (or any nonprofit writing)

It’s a crowded marketplace for grant proposals. Many foundation program officers have dozens (if not more) proposals to consider, and they have to make tough choices about which ones to pass along to their trustees. How can you make your grant proposal “stick”? How can you make it more memorable, so that it will stand out from the pack?
Based on my more than two decades experience working in philanthropy, I firmly believe that part of the answer is in an unexpected source: CREATIVITY. Telling stories, using unexpected language, and crafting a fresh approach engages the reader (a foundation officer or trustee) and can help your proposal float to the top of the pile.
I also know, from years of experience, that my own writing can sometimes get stale. I may find myself writing the same sentences, using the same phrases, and constructing proposals in the same ways, over and over. Even I can get bored with my own writing! That’s when I turn to creative writing prompts to shake things up. Here are a few prompts – focused on nonprofits and grant writing – that will enliven your writing and your creative spirit.
Grant writing creative prompts:
  1. What if the need for your program didn’t exist?
  2. Set a timer for 60 seconds. Write as many words as you can think of that describe your organization. No phrases, just words.
  3. What would one of your organization's clients write in this proposal?
  4. Someone says “I didn’t know your organization did that!” Why did they say it?
  5. Write a testimonial quote from a disgruntled client or supporter.
  6. Your organization is releasing an album. What’s the album title, and what are the titles of five of the songs on the album?
  7. Five words that best describe how your organization’s beneficiaries feel.
  8. Start/Stop list: Five things your organization should start doing, and five things it should stop doing.
  9. Tweet your proposal: sell the idea in 140 characters.
  10. Find a magazine. Open it to a random page, which has a photo or other image. How does that image relate to your cause or organization?
  11. Write five one-syllable words that describe the cause/need your organization addresses.
  12. What’s the first thing your organization should spend $100 on?
  13. What does your organization have in common with winter? With summer?
  14. Write an online dating profile for your organization.
  15. Write an obituary for your organization.
  16. Fast 15: Five sounds, tastes, and smells that describe what your organization does.
  17. What should be the last sentence of this proposal?
  18. Finish this sentence from a donor/supporter: I support this organization because...
  19. Nonprofit haiku: Write a 5 syllable/7 syllable/5 syllable poem that describes your organization or cause.
  20. Talk to me like I’m 5: Explain your organization’s work to a five year old child.
These prompts can help anyone in your organization (marketing team, Executive Director, board members, and more) think creatively about how they describe your organization and its work. Take a few of them for a spin, and see if they set off some creative sparks!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Be Better than the Gap - Choosing Words that Say What You Mean


Let me start by saying: I have nothing against the Gap. I have lots of clothes from the Gap. As far as I can tell, Gap, Inc. is a solid company that sells things that almost everyone I know has, or had, or will have.

But this post isn’t really about the Gap.

I recently was editing some web site and other collateral content for a client, a personal and professional coach who is rebranding her business. She is deeply talented, highly trained, and a superb motivator. I would hire her in a heartbeat. However, some of the language for her web content was just too blah, too bland, too pedestrian to reflect the inspiring, transformative work she does with her clients.

For example, the word “awesome.” It’s one of those words that is so overused that it has lost all of its meaning. It no longer has any punch. Do people typically use the word “awesome” to describe a state of being filled with awe? No. My eleven year old daughter typically uses this word to describe a plate of mac n’ cheese.

My feedback for the client was: “ Don’t say ‘awesome.’ You’re better than that. Be better than that. (cut to Ryan Gosling telling Steve Carell in ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love.’ to ‘Be Better than the Gap.’)”

In “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” Ryan Gosling’s character helps Steve Carell’s character bounce back after an unexpected divorce. He takes Steve Carell’s character shopping, encouraging him to shift from white sneakers and “mom jeans” to stylish man-about-town. When Steve Carell’s character, after a long and expensive day of shopping, balks at the price and style of new designer jeans and says “Can’t we just go to the Gap?” Ryan Gosling’s character holds Carell’s face in his hands, looks deeply in his eyes, and says “Be better than the Gap. Be. Better. Than. The. Gap.”

Sometimes, you shouldn’t just use your default choice or take the easy way out. Sometimes, you have to dig deeper.

  • Do you really want to say “awesome”? Or do you want to say “inspiring” or “revelatory”?
  • Do you really want to say “improve”? Or do you want to say “elevate”?
  • Do you really want to say “unique”? Or do you want to say “singular” or “unparalleled”?

Notice which words you use over and over, and ask yourself if you can dig deeper. As yourself if the words you are using are really revealing the deepest truths about what you want to describe.

Be better than “awesome.”

Lauren Brownstein has worked in the non-profit community for more than 20 years as a fundraiser, educator, and program manager. She specializes in: helping grant seekers develop meaningful partnerships with funders, crafting outstanding grant proposals, and working with individual donors to help them make philanthropic contributions that reflect their interests and passions.

Learn more about Lauren’s fundraising and philanthropy work at www.pitchconsulting.com. Purchase her e-book, Grant Writing Quick Tips, and her audio file, Grant Writing for Creative Souls, HERE.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Riding the Rails: Reflections from a Lifetime Amtrak Passenger

Amtrak has been a part of my life since I was 4 years old. My family moved from Baltimore, MD to Richmond, VA when I was that age, and my mother, brother and I used to take the train from Richmond to Baltimore to visit family. We would wave at the old man on his porch in Ashland, VA, who would spend his day sitting in a rocking chair, waving at the trains going by his front door. We would get snacks in the snack car, weaving our way back and forth to the rocking of the cars. Once, a sailor who worked with Jacques Cousteau tried to pick up my (married) mom on the train, with her two children sitting right next to her! The three of us watched the world go by on those trains, and my brother and I saw what different communities looked like, heard what passengers had to say, and built memories when we didn’t even realize we were building memories (the best way to build them, in my humble opinion).

In college, I took the train to from Charlottesville, VA to New York for a life-changing trip that showed me the glories of city living. My brother then moved to New York, and I took the train to visit him. This country and suburban mouse was becoming more of a city mouse with each trip.

Fast forward to my 20s. When I first moved to Washington, DC, I would take the train to visit family in Richmond and Baltimore. Then, when my mother fell critically ill, I would take the train home on weekends. Did you know that there was a time when they showed movies on some trains? When I was Amtraking home to visit my mom in the hospital, I made sure to bring headphones so I could watch the movies. I once called Amtrak to book a ticket and requested a train with a movie. The Amtrak agent didn’t believe they existed, until he consulted his supervisor.

My toughest ever Amtrak ride was when I took the train home for what I knew would be my final moments with my mom. My dad and my brother were both waiting for me on the tracks when I arrived in Richmond – I knew that if they had left my mom in the hospital, it was bad. They didn’t want me to be alone when I arrived, and they didn’t want to be the only one with mom when she departed.

After that, my Amtrak habits shifted. No longer using the train to visit family (I had my mother’s car in DC), Amtrak became my work trip and friend trip mode of transportation, with regular – sometimes constant – trips to New York. Oh, Pennsylvania Station. The times we have had together. I remember the good old days, when you could purchase an unreserved Northeast Corridor trip and hop on any train of the day. Meeting ran long, and you can’t make the 3 p.m. train? No problem! Hop on the 4 p.m.! I made day trips for work and weekend trips to be with my many New York friends. Sometimes I worked on the train. Sometimes I slept on the train. Sometimes I listened to music or watched movies. Always, I reflected on the meetings, outings, and shenanigans of my time in New York, watching the Northeast Corridor roll by outside the window. I’ve seen some of my favorite sunsets on the Amtrak, golden and colored light streaking the water as we rode over so many rivers.

We’ve been hearing for years that Amtrak is underfunded. That major investments are needed in its infrastructure. That, other than the Northeast Corridor, the system is hemorrhaging money. Just the other week, I read this article about the future of Amtrak, “How Washington Derailed Amtrak.” http://www.nationaljournal.com/magazine/amtrak-acela-high-speed-trains-20150417
What a terrible shame that so many Americans can no longer access Amtrak, or never will.

With last night’s tragic Amtrak derailment, I have been thinking a lot today about the role that the train has played in my life. I’m grateful for this wonderful, deeply flawed piece of our national infrastructure. I hope that Congress will invest desperately needed funds in Amtrak. I hope that yesterday’s survivors fully heal, and that the friends and family of those who were lost find comfort. I hope that everyone gets to have a great Amtrak experience, riding the rails and seeing American roll by outside their windows.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

How to be a Generous Professional

As someone who has worked in fundraising and philanthropy for more than 20 years, “giving” has always been at the forefront of my profession. Whether inspiring generosity in donors, or helping individuals and groups to determine how, what, and how much to give to great causes, generosity has been a constant theme.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to live a generous life. Of course, giving to charity and volunteering time are major parts of the equation. I’ve always believed that it’s not about how much you give (time and/or money) – it’s about giving in a way that is meaningful to you. Five hours or $50 to one person is as meaningful as 50 hours or $5,000 to someone else.

Beyond time and money, what does it mean to live generously? To have a generosity of spirit? To do things big or small that ease the burdens of others? To be generous with your words?

What does it mean to be a generous professional?

Be generous with your ideas: Sometimes, we don’t share our ideas because we don’t want anyone else to take them. Or, we may not share new ideas because we’re just not sure if they are good enough (or if we are good enough). Be generous with your ideas. If it’s a great idea, or even a good one, it will move your organization forward. If not, it may spur another great idea in someone else, to the benefit of everyone.

Be generous with your acknowledgments: Give credit where credit is due. Say “thank you” or “great job.” Notice when someone is working hard, shifting habits, or growing as a professional.

Be generous with your time: You’re busy. I’m busy. Everyone’s busy. OK, are we done with that excuse now? Being generous with your time could mean taking 10 minutes to listen to a colleague’s question or problem, helping a client even if it’s “off the clock,” or pitching in on a project that’s not necessarily your direct responsibility.

Be generous with yourself: Have you met Burnout? Exhaustion? Lack of Inspiration? They are often at the party, but they are not your friends. Cut yourself some slack. Walk away from your desk and take a walk. Get an extra half hour of sleep. Take an extra few minutes for lunch. Stop beating yourself up because you messed up that project or said the wrong thing to a client or hit “send” on that email before you should have.

Generosity leads to better professionals and stronger organizations. If it becomes a regular professional practice, it might even spill over into your personal life. So open up. Consider generosity as an aspect of your professional life, and see what blossoms.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Living Generously

I've recently been reflecting on what it means to live generously. What could it mean to live a generous life?
  • Donating money - enough so that it hurts, a little? enough so that you notice you are donating?
  • Donating time - volunteering?
  • Being generous with your words - how you speak with others?
  • Being generous with your heart - opening your heart to others, especially when it's hard, especially when you feel challenged by others? 
  • Giving someone else... A helping hand? Credit where credit is due? A few extra minutes of your time (even when you feel you have little time to spare)? Your undivided attention?
So much of my own life is bound up in the concept of generosity. My profession (a fundraising consultant for nonprofits). My faith (Judaism, which emphasizes giving to others in many different ways). My yoga (yoga includes principles that could be interpreted to include generosity). My home life (I've recently adopted a child, which means giving, and giving, and giving! Though I certainly don't see parenthood as an act of generosity, it definitely requires a generosity of spirit). My communal life (which, until I became a solo parent, included many hours per week of volunteerism).

I've also been reflecting recently on the notion of abundance. In order to be generous, you have to feel that you have enough. More than enough, in fact. It can be hard to look at your bank balances and feel like it's more than enough. It can also be really hard to look at the amount of time in your "time bank" or the amount of energy in your "energy bank" (hello, solo motherhood!) and feel like it's enough.

Over the past couple of years, I've identified my core desired feelings, and one of them is "abundance." I've come to believe that if I cultivate a sense of abundance (yes, cultivate. It's not dependent on external factors, like what's in my checking account), I can feel more "ease" (another core desired feeling, and I can feel I have more to give. I can life more generously.

What does it mean to you to live generously?

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

A nonprofit sacred cow: The December Mailing

With Giving Tuesday upon us, there is no doubt that we are in the throes of the holiday giving season. Traditionally, this is the time when many Americans make their charitable gifts (end of tax year + holiday season = donation season). It is also the time when many, if not most, nonprofit organizations are in a frenzy of year-end fundraising.

Nonprofits will move mountains to get their December “appeal” in the mail (and email) on time. They will lose sleep. They will lose focus. They will sometimes even lose sight of what’s best for the organization, or their key messages, or their organizational priorities, just so they can get that appeal out the door.

I recently posed a question about the December appeal to some fundraising groups on LinkedIn, and boy, did the fundraisers come out of the woodwork to share their two cents! In service to the larger nonprofit/fundraising community, I’m sharing my discussion topic, and a sampling of the responses, with you:

“Avoiding the December Mailing: Not Getting Lost in the Shuffle”

I recently counseled a client, who is in the midst of developing a new case statement, NOT to stress out about doing their biggest mailing of the year in December. Their organization has another major milestone in the spring, and they can craft their biggest mailing around that. Not only will this give them time to thoughtfully complete their case statement and accompanying materials, but it also will avoid the problem of their mailing getting lost in the shuffle of the overwhelming amount of appeals that get sent out in December.
What are your thoughts? Is December truly the end-all, be-all of the annual campaign mass appeal? Have you had success with doing your biggest mailing at another time of year?

[Let me start by saying that there was a bit of a misunderstanding about my question – my fault, no doubt. This client is not completely forgoing a December mail and email appeal. They are still sending something in December. But they are waiting until spring, around a milestone in their organizational calendar, to do a larger mailing that will serve as a rollout and announcement of a new fundraising campaign.]

A sampling of responses:

I've wondered this myself as it a) seems risky but b) makes sense. Everyone is zigging so you zag. I'd say you should do something, simple case and reminders but you don't have to do your big thing. I think that time and quality piece is in play here too. Crap in December can't be better than quality in the Spring.

I've never been a big fan of end-of-year solicitations or appeals that rely heavily on deductibility in their argumentation. As a result, I've encouraged clients (and students) to time appeals for occasions or events (ideally annual ones) that make sense in terms of their organizations' work. That being said, even if their "big" appeal is at another time of the year, organizations with older constituencies should generally still to do a major appeal by US Mail & Email during 4th quarter. There are still just enough habitual 4th quarter givers out there to make this worthwhile.

There are so many reasons the year-end appeal works, and I would suggest cautioning them away from giving up on this tried and true approach. If they feel the direct-mail approach is too cumbersome, they might consider tasteful email solicitations with direct links to an online giving page.

Year-end giving is actually less effort because donors are, to put it simply, in the mood! The media - and now social media - around the holidays provide plenty of encouragement to give. Further, savvy philanthropists put aside money to make charitable gifts at this time of year.

I would also caution not to forego year-end giving, as statistically, donors give at year-end, and it's that psychological momentum and habit (along with the tax deduction) that gets donors to give. Perhaps the organization can do a controlled experiment, and at minimum, mail the donors who have historically given in fourth quarter. If the organization buys mailing lists, they can split the mailing, doing half in December as usual and the other half with their event.

Has the organization looked at their own data for the last three years and seen which of their appeals are the most successful? Our Thanksgiving and year-end appeal is substantially more successful than our February and April appeals.

Your client should send both mailings. Save the big case statement for the spring, sure, but allude to it in the winter mailing. You can't miss the opportunity to be a part of a family's year-end giving decisions. Those same people may well give again in the spring.

I wouldn't be comfortable giving up the December mailing altogether. As [name] mentioned above, hesitant to give up on something so tried and true. 

One of my smaller organizations that is ten years old started with a general appeal at year end. We know that many if not most people make their charitable contributions at year end so we are going to continue to do it. But we have a lot of events in the summer and last year we added a mailing targeted at that time to larger donors only. Using highly personalized letters, we asked for specific, larger amounts to start a major donor society... So I agree that a year-end mailing is not necessarily the end all and be all. There may be other great opportunities during the year for special appeals, even major appeals and you can target them to specific parts of your donor/prospect base.

I think those who say it's the only time that most people give might be assuming peoples' habits without really checking with them to see if that's truly the case. I would suggest that all nonprofits do a survey of their donors to see when THEY would like to give.

It depends on the cause of the NPO, but generally speaking most of the Social Service NPO's I've known generally receive roughly 40% of their annual donations during the November-December time period. NOT doing an appeal in December, could have serious impacts to annual revenue. But, if your client is let's say, Easter Seals, well then obviously a differently timed campaign could be more effective. So, again, depends on the NPO, but from what I've seen, tapping that good ol' Holiday Spirit typically proves effective. 

What conclusions can I draw from these responses?
  • We fundraisers are, for the most part, reluctant to give up our sacred cows. Especially when those cows have a tried-and-true track record of being lucrative. Conventional wisdom is conventional wisdom for a reason.
  • If you're going to follow conventional wisdom, do it strategically. We have the technology to easily track when people give, how much they give, if they are repeat donors, etc. Use that information to send a December mailing that is targeted, tactical, and creates an imperative to give. 
  • We also have the capacity to be more donor-centric when designing our mass appeals. If our donors don't really care about giving in December versus giving during an organizational milestone/touchstone in the spring... then ask them in the spring. If they really want to give in December, follow their lead. To that point: 
 Really, it's not about December. It's about giving when people are in the habit of giving. It's about riding the wave of a spirit of generosity that is in the air. We can target our appeals for whenever that spirit is most alive. Customization, my friends, is key.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tell your story!

I just read about this resource in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and I can't wait to share it with all of my great nonprofit pals!

It is "a web platform to help organizations gather, curate, and use stories to effect change." Check it out here:

Storytelling is having a moment. For years, research has shown that people (i.e. potential donors) respond more, and more generously, to the story of ONE person who is being helped by a nonprofit's work, rather than a barrage of statistics - even if those statistics are really impressive. 

Now, it seems like storytelling is everywhere:

The Chronicle of Philanthropy's November 6, 2014 edition included a major spread on nonprofit storytelling (sorry, most content is currently limited to subscribers, but that will likely change).

A Nonprofit Storytelling Conference in Seattle earlier this month was completely sold out.

NPR correspondent Shankar Vedantam (yes, I'm a superfan) recently told us "Why Your Brain Wants to Help One Child in Need - But Not Millions."

Through Consumer Union's stori.es, your organization can gather stories through the use of questionnaires, curate the answers, and develop meaningful stories to share with your stakeholders, including potential donors.

All nonprofits know that they have to do this - gather and share stories - but they don't know how, don't have the staff to devote to the task, can't get organized, etc. Hopefully, this new resource will make it easier to tell the world about the great work you do!

My own resources on creative grant writing, which can help you tell your organization's stories in more compelling and impactful ways, can be found HERE. Check out Grant Writing for Creative Souls.

Happy storytelling. Once upon a time...

Friday, November 07, 2014

Foundation giving hits an all-time high

A new report from the Foundation Center, among other things, foundation giving in the US has reached a record high of $54.7 billion. The report estimates that foundation giving will continue to grow at a few points above inflation in 2014, with independent and family foundations showing an even higher rate of growth. According to the report, in 2012 the US was home to more than 86,000 foundations.

The link above will take you to a one-page infographic/summary. From there you can download the 8-page report, which is also very graphic-heavy and easy to digest.

I put less stock in the numbers related to how/where foundations are giving (e.g. to education, health... or to economically disadvantaged, women and girls...), mainly because the sample size was relatively small - 1,000 larger foundations. However, I do think that the scope of the foundation world, the total amount of foundation assets, the rates of growth, and other statistics are interesting, revealing, and even surprising.

In my own work with foundations, I haven't necessarily seen that foundations are giving more, or are giving more easily. Securing foundation gifts still requires a skillful approach to cultivation and solicitation, ideally a partnership between foundation and grantee. While foundations may be giving more, my sense is that they are giving in a more focused, specific way, and there are more organizations out there doing the asking, which makes for a highly competitive field.