Manifesto: After the Survey


A Conversation Between Cynthia M. Adams, Founder and CEO, and Ellen C. Mowrer, President and COO, GrantStation

I’ve analyzed the results and written the reports for the State of Grantseeking Survey™ since 2012. Over the years, we’ve increased the depth and breadth of the questions and increased the core group of respondents from around 700 to over 2,800.

Over the past eight years, one thing has remained constant – nonprofit organizations are seriously hobbled by a lack of time and staff and are constantly constrained in their ability to provide services and increase capacity.

Collaborative grantseeking, where the awards and programs are generally larger, is trending in popularity among grantmakers; it is one way to get an organizational “boost.” However, even those opportunities appear to be aimed at larger nonprofits because collaboration often takes additional staff and time, which equates to increased costs. The “price” of admission is high: 60% of respondent organizations with budgets of $25 million or more participated in collaborative grantseeking in 2018, whereas only 15% of organizations with budgets under $100,000 took part. The time and staff investment necessary for the collaborative process may exclude nonprofits that are already working at peak capacity.

This year, while my frustration on behalf of nonprofit organizations is still running high, I thought I could channel it by having a discussion with Cynthia Adams on how, given the limitations, nonprofit organizations can move forward productively and positively.

Let’s set the stage with some data from the 2019 State of Grantseeking Survey. (The report is free and available now.)

It is no surprise that when asked about their greatest grantseeking challenges, our respondents called out a lack of time and staff, followed by research to find potential grants, competition for awards, and funder practices and requirements.

Indirect and administrative costs, which includes grantseeking personnel and other staff, remained the same for half of our respondents, and increased for 38%.

Most organizations feel great pressure to keep indirect and administrative costs low. Regardless of annual budget size, these costs are most frequently reported as 20% or less of their budgets.

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The most frequently reported cost controls involved reducing the number of staff or staff hours and relying more heavily on volunteers. I find this ironic and sad, since effective grantseeking – which can increase an organization’s budget – requires staff and time.

I’ve asked our CEO, Cynthia Adams, how an organization – especially an organization with an annual budget that doesn’t run into the millions – can meet these challenges and thrive?

This is great data, Ellen, and I thank you for sharing it with us. Your question is, as the Brits say, spot on.

As we know, there are stages of growth, whether you are a nonprofit or a business. The first stage, the start-up phase, requires a lot of stamina, and some financial supporters (usually individuals). The second stage is all about survival, and many nonprofits never mature beyond this stage. In the survival stage the organization is successfully addressing its mission, and has several, fairly secure, types of financial support. But to go beyond this stage is tough, and that’s where techniques like collaborations can make a significant difference.

I believe that many organizational leaders who consider collaborative efforts reject the idea too quickly because of concerns that it is more than their organization – particularly a small organization – can take on. They often don’t realize that there are many ways their organization can collaborate with another organization without the process taking a lot of time to develop.

Let me share with you an example of a fairly simple form of collaboration that could strengthen a grant request yet takes little time to develop.

One of the time-consuming tasks when establishing a collaboration is finding the right partners. Many organizations belong to a network of people, types of organizations, etc. that are either formally or informally connected. Let’s say you are a nonprofit based in a community of 75,000 people. Your organization provides mental health services, as do several other nonprofits and the public health clinic. You all get together once each quarter to compare notes, discuss issues facing the community, etc. This is a loose network that could easily become a strategic alliance, which is simply taking that network one step further by creating a real partnership. A strategic alliance allows you to maintain your nonprofit’s independence while working with others to achieve a common goal.

In this example, the existing network deciding to form a strategic alliance is a natural next step. It doesn’t take a lot of effort at this stage – simply agreeing to some terms around the adoption of this alliance can move the collaboration forward quickly. The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits in Principals and Practices for Nonprofit Excellence stated “…strategic alliances can serve a variety of purposes, including resource sharing, policy influence and improved operational efficiency. While nonprofits operate in both cooperative and competitive environments, strong relationships between nonprofits can strengthen both the capacity of individual organizations and the sector as a whole.”

Once you are engaged in a strategic alliance, it is much easier to make applications to grantmakers by turning that alliance into a strategic co-funding relationship. The key to this type of collaboration is to make sure the alliance has an articulated goal that will be clearly stated in your strategic alliance agreement. Coming to a consensus on the goal is usually the most time-consuming part of this fairly light-weight collaborative agreement. You also want to clarify in this agreement what resources you will share (perhaps data about the clients you serve), and how you can work more closely to eliminate any redundancies in the work you do.

Taking small steps like this allows you to flow into these relationships, slowly building trust between organizations, getting agreements in place, and figuring out how you will proceed without the pressure of a deadline hanging over your head. Building this type of strategic alliance positions your organization for making applications with your partners when the time is right.

Action steps you can take today