When in Doubt, Think

In the words of Gandhi, “If the cause is right, the means will come.” There are resources out there – in every community, however small and however poor. We need to begin to feel empowered to gain access to those resources for our causes. – Anne Firth Murray, Global Fund for Women

This column is about two things: money and power. If you didn’t need money for your organization, you wouldn’t be reading these words. If you weren’t trying to change the world, which involves challenging and changing the relations of power, you wouldn’t be so concerned about raising money.

In our society, money is loaded with taboos, so the idea of fundraising makes most people nervous. It’s considered bad manners to ask other people, even trusted friends, about their income, because money is cloaked in privacy. We’re not supposed to want money – even though we need it to survive – because we’ve heard that “money is the root of all evil.” (This, of course, is a misquote. The Bible tells us, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”) Earning money, we are taught, is good; asking for money without earning it is bad.

The fact that money is both hard to discuss and hard to get can cause us to lose perspective. We tend to forget our other organizational assets, things that have no relation to the bank balance – for example, the skill and commitment of staff, board, and volunteers, and the good will our work creates in the community. We often get obsessive about the subject, which limits our capacity for good, hard-headed planning.

So before you begin writing grant proposals, or doing any kind of fundraising, I encourage you to step back, take a deep breath, and consider the following points.

Money is just a tool. Money is important only because of what it can buy your organization. Other tools are available. What you lack in money, you can often make up for with the talent, enthusiasm and the track record of your members, supporters, board, and staff. While these assets won’t pay the phone bill, they can help you through financially tough times and actually improve your capacity to raise funds.

Find ways to get what you need without spending money. Consider in-kind donations, bartering, free advertising, trading mailing lists with other organizations, and other non-cash strategies. As a rule, the less cash you need, the better off you’ll be. In-kind donations, such as computer equipment and office supplies, will also improve your chances of getting grants, since they demonstrate community support.

Fundraising is selling. While the word sales conjures up images of used car dealers and Madison Avenue hype, it really means developing a systematic way to analyze your situation and play to your strengths. Since a grant request is essentially a business plan, says John Powers of the Educational Foundation of America, “a nonprofit should be just as business-like as a for-profit company, just as fiscally responsible, and just as capable of operating ‘in the black.'”

When you develop and write a proposal, you must answer many of the same questions a business person would address when seeking investors or customers. Who is your market, your audience? Why do they care about your organization, issue, service, product? How can you reach them most effectively and efficiently? How can you expand your market? Is it possible or necessary or even ethical for you to adapt your product (organization) to reach a larger market?

Ideally, while raising funds, you’ll also be building your organization, developing leadership, and increasing community awareness of what you do. The best strategies succeed at both bringing in donations and furthering your program goals.

Fundraising is organizing. For many groups, the process of developing and writing a grant proposal is similar to creating a community organizing plan. An effective proposal can serve as a road map to lead you where you want to go. On the other hand, if you can’t organize your project on paper – if you can’t draw the map – you’ll have a hard time organizing it in the real world.

Fundraising is hard work. Never underestimate the time and energy required to raise money. I have yet to find an easy way. You may think grantwriting is a shortcut to big contributions, but experience has taught me otherwise.

If you want to create effective proposals to help fund your work, you need a clear, compelling mission, a thorough and reasonable plan of action, and talented people to carry out the plan. Most of all, you need common sense. Don’t let your fears and frustrations about fundraising paralyze you or cause you to behave impulsively.

If you take the time to analyze, evaluate, and plan, you’ll raise lots of money, make lots of friends for your organization, and feel good about your efforts. When in doubt, think.

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Jeff Anderson, of Oregon Community Foundation, says, “Don’t apply for a foundation grant unless you’re truly ready for the scrutiny of outsiders, regarding everything from your office’s appearance to the documentation of your organization’s impact to the accuracy of your accounting.”

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