Bristol Organizations

An Organization Made Up Of Organizations

By Sarah S. Brophy


It's a threshold moment: when you cross that line from being a good organization to a fundable one. It may happen when you aren't looking, or you may feel it one day as a number of successes coincide: you move from only asking friends and family for gifts to approaching other institutions -- foundations.

Whether or not you are really "there," though, is something too few institutions have thoughtfully considered. You can evaluate yourself based on the field standards -- mission, management, staff, programs and collections, but remember, you're not funding yourself. You are asking institutions to fund you, so evaluate your readiness from a foundation's point of view:

  • Do you do something important?
  • Do you do it well?
  • For anyone in particular?
  • Can you do it again, or help anyone else do it again?
  • Is your organization a safe investment? A good investment?
  • Are you a good partner?
  • Do you have an edge?

You may find, after this assessment, that you need to bring some components up to speed before beginning applications. Or you may find that simply documenting what you do, the quality and the need for it, will get you to the ready point.

How do you explain that you're doing something important? If it's important, there must be an expressed need for this project or your organization. How is it expressed? Does the inquiry log at the front desk reflect this need? Does attendance? Do your evaluations demonstrate the need? Can you provide external evidence of need (the newspaper, polls, churches, government)? Is anyone else solving the problem? If no, that would help make your point. If yes, then why are you necessary?

So let's just say there's a need, or a reasonably anticipated one.

How can the foundation tell that you fulfill that need and fulfill it well? Do your current evaluation tools indicate quality and performance? (I am assuming here that you conduct evaluations -- if not, make it institution-wide before you begin a grant program.) Do you do it so well that no one else competes, or that others try to replicate your work with or without your guidance? Do you have third-party letters that support this? What is the PR like on your organization? Can you provide samples of supportive articles or electronic media presentations?

Is your work innovative? You may make the first cut, and the second, but when the review committee sits around the table for final decisions, and many components are equal among the surviving proposals, innovators will get the brass ring. Yep, it's hard to survive in the non-profit world AND have time to innovate -- but someone's doing it -- why not you?

Do you do this good work for anyone in particular, or whoever takes the bait? Of course there are particular folks who benefit from what you do, but who are they? If you can't tell the foundation who they are, how will its managers know that their money is reaching the people they want to help? Are you a nimble organization willing to search out and respond to new audiences?

Can you do it again, or help someone else replicate it? I can hear you now -- "We just accomplished a great thing -- now you want us to give it away?" No. I want you to increase the foundation's ROI - return on investment. Either offer the program again or help another institution offer it by providing training or delivery at their site. ROI matters for foundations. The more bang for its limited bucks, the better the foundation's performance. In the Center for Effective Philanthropy's 2002 report "Understanding Foundation Performance Assessment Today," on self-evaluation, 67 percent of foundation CEOs anticipate increased scrutiny on foundations in the next ten years. One way to improve their accountability is to maximize their performance -- help them out here!

Is your organization a safe investment? A good investment? This evaluation part of this assessment may be the easiest one for you answer. That doesn't mean you're sure to come up with all high marks, but internal operations and administration evaluation is what directors and boards tend to do annually, and then stop at, because they feel they've done a full evaluation. Well, there's more.

Can you provide evidence of planning that is used effectively (long range, strategic, and business plans)? For museums this means an interpretive plan and a collections plan. A cultural and open space protection agencies will have master plans and preservation plans. The point is, do you use your field's planning tools to your best advantage? Is there a rationale for your choice of tools and how you use them?

Can you demonstrate fiscal responsibility, transparency and vigilance? Is your money management and fund development approach appropriate for the institution and the current financial environment? What is the rationale for your investment policies, fundraising plan, and budget management?

Are your staff, board, and other volunteers the right ones for you? Do they have the training, talent and resources appropriate for this institution and where it is headed? Are their roles and positions clearly defined and appropriate for your goals? Do they adhere to appropriate professional practices and ethical standards?

So many questions; so little time! Your eyelids are getting heavy. You're feeling sleepy, very sleepy. Well wrestle back to consciousness. You are asking people for money. That requires responsibility and due diligence. When you are feeling that the application and reporting burden for grants is too much, consider two things --

  1. it's their money so stop looking at it from your viewpoint and approach it from theirs, and
  2. make sure you're asking for enough money to do an important job well, or it is too much of a burden.

Are you a good partner? This means externally and internally. Externally, do you exhibit behaviors and values the organization wants to be associated with? Internally -- are you good to work with?

A good partner on the inside, from the foundation's point of view, says "thank you," manages the program honestly and in communication with the funder, and reports honestly and promptly. A good partner on the outside, from the foundation's point of view, is credible, applies its mission internally and externally, provides good public associations and positioning, and will strengthen the donor's reputation.

The foundation officers ask themselves: does this charitable organization do something we believe in, in a way we can endorse, that makes effective use of resources for significant, needed change? And does it behave in a way that encourages us to be associated with it?

For example, if you're a green organization, are you green inside and out? That means internally recycling paper and employing solar heating to teaching conservation behaviors. If you are a child-protection agency, does your employee policy empower families? Basically they are asking themselves if you behave well -- it's that simple.

Do you have an edge? You'd better, and there should be two of them - a professional edge and a charitable edge.

The professional edge means that what you do is of such quality that it adds value and new knowledge to the field. Charitable edge is paying it forward or sharing the wealth.

This is optimum performance. Yes -- it's a difficult thing to achieve, but many organizations do. If you want to successfully compete for limited grant dollars, you need an edge or two, and these are they. Foundations don't have to fund anything less than the best or what they think will be the best.

A professional edge is an excellent, innovative, program, process or product that advances the field while serving needs in the best way possible. If your food bank maximizes distribution by solving restaurants' excess food problems and while feeding increasing numbers of clients, you have a two-way program and an edge over the one-way "please give canned goods" food bank. The science discovery museum that has a teach-the-teachers tool demonstrably improving student retention has a professional edge over straight program-delivery museums.

When the conservation lab promises to offer its newly-funded textile-cleaning lab to local historical agencies with once-a-month access and supervision, the charitable edge is obvious -- the grant award serves multiple audiences. Yes, the recipient institution is giving away some of its gift, but we are charitable, right? Sharing your talents and resources enables others to do their job well and extends the donor's impact. The charitable action must serve the donor's mission, yours and the second party's, but then we make all our decisions with mission in mind.

If the local government funding agency helps you bring arts groups to your area, are some of the tickets priced (or free) so that underserved audiences can attend? Set aside a row of seats for Big Brothers/Big Sisters, or the women's shelter or the juvenile program at city court. Think of the difference you make! And all you're doing is your job. Lucky you chose such a good one.

Becoming grant-ready is an important achievement for an institution. It requires the hard work, sureness of purpose, and quality of performance and behavior that is expected of a charitable purpose institution. No, the money will not just come by itself once you reach this place, and you will have to fight to stay here, but at least now you are prepared to be a partner with foundation donors.

How you proceed is up to you and your funding partners.

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