Tracking Unicorns: In Search of the High Level Donor


Recently, I came across a fascinating article about a New York secretary named Sylvia Bloom who, unbeknownst to even those in her inner circle, had built up a large fortune over the course of her lifetime. Known as a frugal woman who rode the subway to work every day until the age of 96, it wasn’t until her passing, and a total bequest of $8.2 million to charity, that her secret was revealed.

One of the lucky organizations was the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which received a gift of $6.24 million to endow a scholarship program for low-income students. Every nonprofit organization should be so fortunate. However, for most, such luck requires careful planning. How can your organization find the Sylvia Blooms (aka unicorns) of the world? We’ve compiled some resources to help with your search.

Understanding the Individual Giving Landscape

Before researching high-net-worth donors such as Sylvia Bloom, it’s a good idea to take a step back and get a big picture view of the individual giving landscape.

If your organization is located in the United States, The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s report How America Gives is a good place to start. This report examines giving trends across the U.S. through analysis of Internal Revenue Service data, providing charitable donation figures from every state, metropolitan area, and county.

One survey specifically dedicated to high-net-worth individuals is 2017 U.S. Trust Insights on Wealth and Worth. Highlights from the resulting report reveal significant differences across the generations in terms of motivations for giving and the ways in which these individuals give back to society.

Two additional resources focus on generational giving. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s report Passing the Torch: Next-Generation Philanthropists attempts to unlock the motivations of millennial philanthropists, a generation which is set to inherit $30 trillion in wealth over the next four decades in the U.S. alone. In addition, the book Generation Impact: How Next Gen Donors Are Revolutionizing Giving offers a portrait of Millennial and Gen X donors and their new approach to philanthropy.

If you are looking to understand differences in individual giving across gender lines, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute and Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy have authored a report entitled Giving by and for Women: Understanding high-net-worth donors’ support for women and girls. This study, based on interviews with 23 women who had contributed or pledged a minimum of one million dollars to female-related causes, sheds some light on women’s philanthropy. For those who want a brief overview, they have also put together an informative infographic of the typical high-net-worth female philanthropist.

Researching High-Net-Worth Donors

Now that you have a big picture view of individual giving, how do you go about finding those elusive high-net-worth donors?

First, we recommend that you check out The Giving Pledge, which is a public commitment by some of the world's most affluent people to give away the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. The website includes a letter from each donor describing their personal motivations for giving. Another useful source of information is The 2018 Philanthropy 50 report, a list of the top 50 donors in the U.S., who in 2017 donated a total of $14.7 billion dollars to charitable causes. A sneak peek at the top ten givers on this year’s list is available here, and information on the biggest living donors in each state (compiled from previous reports) is available here.

In addition, the Million Dollar List (MDL), which provides information on publicly announced gifts of $1 million or more, includes a list of the biggest donors by total dollars. (Warren Buffet makes the top of the list with total donations of $49.61 billion.) Interestingly, this website notes, “Individual donors contribute only 11 percent of the gifts on the MDL, but these constitute nearly 40 percent of the total dollars.”

If you are looking for a more interactive way to research prospective donors, DonorSearch is a research software suite that enables users to identify major gift prospects. The company also hosts a blog with useful information on fundraising and outreach.

For those looking to research potential donors by interest area, the Marquis Who’s Who offers a subscription database, Marquis Biographies Online, which provides biographies on leaders across the globe working in a range of areas, from science, to the arts, to business, and more. Another valuable resource is the Federal Election Commission’s Individual Contributor Search, which is a political giving database. You can search donations by the contributor’s name, state, donation amount, and more to see what political causes interest them. offers a similar database, which also enables searches by the recipient's name.

We hope that these ideas will help get you started on your research. In an upcoming blog post, we will explore the topic of how to build relationships with potential donors.

Action steps you can take today
  • Click on the links above to explore the resources mentioned in the article.
  • Visit the Pathfinder website to discover additional tools and reports that will help you reach your fundraising goals.

Relationship Building to Increase Grant Funding


As you’re thinking about grant funding, keep in mind one of the key components - relationship building. Identifying possible funding sources is just one part of the process. The number one reason we see nonprofits not getting funding is that they don’t have a strategic plan that fits the capacity of the organization. Without a plan, it’s a bit like throwing spaghetti at the wall, all the while risking not getting funding and being able to provide desired programming.

Identifying funding sources is important but, and perhaps more importantly, so is developing relationships with professional grantwriters, nonprofit consultants, and funders. While it takes time, these relationships can make the difference in securing or not securing the monies needed for the future of your programs.

Develop a Strategy

Before writing a grant request, develop a strategy for relationship building to increase grant funding. The Rayvan Group offers a Fund Development Strategic Plan that assists organizations in aligning programs and serves as a guide to meeting objectives whether that is to fund an existing program or develop a new one. In addition to grant requests, nonprofits need to have a clear fundraising strategy. Not only is the strategic plan an important part of the grant funding process, it also provides the team and board of directors insight into the organization, clearly defines goals, and provides a way to reach said goals.

Reach Out to the Grant Funder

When you’re searching for a job, what do you do? You make a list of prospective employers and then reach out to friends, family, and colleagues who have connections at the desired employers to learn more and meet key people. It’s the same for grant funding.

Leverage the relationships of employees, volunteers, and board of directors to learn about the funders - and let them know who you are too. Some funders request a pre-grant interview and this is an opportunity to showcase your people and programs. Share information about the roles of each person in the organization, including volunteers and board. Ideally the interview includes the director, a board member, and a former client. Whether formal or informal, develop a working relationship with funders by picking up the phone and meeting in person. Ideally, by the time you submit the grant, the funders know your organization and programs.

Hire Experts

The process of leveraging relationships could be its own department within the organization and could potentially take over what should be the mission of the nonprofit. To prevent this from happening, consider hiring a professional grantwriter or a nonprofit consultant who understands the process and has connections to funding sources. Even if today it feels like a huge investment, their expertise will save time, money, and resources in the long run.

As crazy as it sounds, writing the grant request is the last part of the process. You’ve got to have a strategy developed and implemented, connections with key people, and the right funding sources. Without these, your time may be wasted on opportunities that will not come to fruition, jeopardizing the organization, or at the very least, a specific program. The last piece of the puzzle is to hire experts who are experienced in highlighting key programs and people, the result of which is increased grant funding for your organization.

Action steps you can take today

How to Reel in Small Donors


Melville's classic Moby-Dick is a timeless tale of obsession. Ahab's need for revenge against the creature that maimed him is all-consuming. He must settle the score with his white whale; this desire shapes his every thought and action.

In fundraising, we may also find ourselves chasing "white whales" in the form of large donors who always seem just out of reach. While it would be ideal for any organization to have a donor who gives large sums year after year, that is not a quest that will come to fruition for many.

Whales may be impressive, but as Ahab and the others aboard the Pequod found out, the quest for them is fraught with difficulties. If Ahab had foregone his revenge, the men of the ship could have lived long lives hunting smaller quarry.

Similarly, your organization should not forget about the small donors. Added together, they can be a large portion of your fundraising. Unfortunately, they may be getting harder to find. Previously, I looked at a review of charitable giving in 2018, which found that the number of households that made donations in 2018 decreased, even though the proportion of giving made up of large gifts increased. So there were more big gifts, but fewer donors overall. Much has been written about going after large donors, but how do you capture the smaller ones, especially as they seem to be disappearing?

Keep in mind that much like entry-level cars that hook buyers into a brand for life, some donors may "try out" small donations to a nonprofit before settling in to larger donations. Therefore, there is no such thing as "more important" donors; your organization should make sure that every donor feels seen and appreciated. Bloomerang has a nice breakdown of how you can thank small donors, as well as how you can use them as a source of information to improve your fundraising in the future. However, even though you should treat both your small and large donors with respect, you don't necessarily need to pursue them in the same way. There is a different skill set to getting large and small donations.

In your marketing, you can target your language to these smaller donors. Words that imply "small" can tell these donors that it's okay if they don't give a large amount. "Every penny helps." "Even five cents a day, less than $20 a year, can make a difference." "Your small donation can go a long way." You want to do your best to remove any stigma around a small donation. Some potential donors might feel like their small donation couldn't possibly make a difference; you need to overcome that perception.

It's also important to overcome physical barriers to giving. If I'm donating $5,000, I'm bringing a check or initiating a bank transfer. But that's probably not the case if I'm only giving $25. While there was once a time that many of these donations were made by cash or check, most of us don't keep our checkbooks with us at all times anymore, and we are past the days where "cash is king." Many of us are probably sitting around with zero physical dollars in our pockets right now.

GrantStation has previously discussed contactless donation boxes, which allow donors to quickly make a donation with a credit card. (In perhaps the cutest implementation of the technology yet, Blue Cross put tap-pay devices on dogs. Give them a pet and a donation!) If you don't have that option, you should consider having a Square reader or some other credit card system on hand. In the near future, people will also likely enjoy the benefit of using their phone's NFC technology to make a donation, no cash or card required.

Once you get a donor to contribute even a small amount, then you must work on keeping him or her as a donor in the future. Some people will increase their donations as the years go by. But even if their donation stays the same size, a recurring small donation is better than a one-and-done. But retaining donors isn't just about offering thanks. It's about keeping them updated on your progress toward your goals so they can see how their donations have helped. You can invite them to meetings or gatherings so they feel personally involved. Surveys and other direct questions can also help create this feeling of involvement. Donors are more likely to stick around if they feel like they are actually a part of something, not just a dollar amount on a spreadsheet. And that is true no matter how much they've donated.

As we saw with Ahab, his desire for one thing and one thing alone led to his downfall. In fundraising, passion is good, but we should extend that passion to donors of all sizes. It will help keep the boat afloat.

Action steps you can take today
  • Welcome small donors! Make it clear their donations are appreciated.
  • Make donating easy! Have multiple ways of accepting donations, including non-cash options.
  • Keep the donations coming! Work to retain donors of all sizes.

Age and Money Matter to Grantseeking


State of Grantseeking data has consistently shown that grantmakers are more likely to fund organizations over ten years of age.

Funders want to support organizations with proven sustainability, and organizational age is a generally accepted measurement of sustainability.

The data from the 2020 State of Grantseeking Survey reinforces this trend.

We’ve defined these age ranges:

Age Ranges

In past blog posts, I advised grantseekers from younger organizations to think of their grantseeking like a stepladder—with the lower rungs representing building relationships with grantmakers, accepting gifts-in-kind that can be leveraged as matching funds, and applying for grant awards from local funders, including private foundations, fraternal organizations and clubs, religious organizations, community foundations, and local businesses. After achieving local success, younger organizations have both a few more years under their belts, and a proven track record to show regional or national funders.

Some basic State of Grantseeking statistics can help guide your organization to achieve grantseeking success.

You need a dedicated grants manager. If you work for a large organization, you probably have a grants department with staff hierarchy. If you are brand-new organization with limited staff, you may assign grants management responsibility to a volunteer or board member. Regardless of size, all organizations should assign a key person, whether staff member or volunteer, to coordinate grant research, strategic planning, writing, submission, and reporting. Even if you are not actively grantseeking, remember that 66% of respondents who submitted one application were awarded at least one grant, but 94% of respondents who submitted three applications were awarded at least one grant. Once you are submitting three or more applications, just keeping track of multiple timelines can be a challenge, and a grant manager will streamline your efforts. Here is how staff size looked among State of Grantseeking respondent organizations of varying ages:

Staff Size

You should be aware of funder giving trends. If you have time for only a few grant applications, you want to ensure that you are appealing to funders who have a higher propensity for funding your type of organization. In the 2020 State of Grantseeking Report, we discuss the most important demographic factors in grantseeking—organizational budget and mission focus. However, organizational age also has some impact on funding, as the older an organization is, the greater the proof of sustainability and implied increases in budget and staff size.

Funder award frequency varies by organizational age, and award size varies among funder types. It is important to keep both in mind as you plan your grant strategy and time allocation. A small award may not be worth your time unless you plan to use it to grow a grantmaker relationship, kick-off a grantseeking program, or use it as matching funds for a larger grant. And other awards may not be worth your time if you have a low probability of winning them and they require in-depth application processes. Here is the median largest award size by funder type:

Median Award

While private foundations are major sources of funding to organizations of any age, their importance wanes as government funders increase. Government funders (who are less likely to support younger organizations) tend to provide grants of greater dollar value than those of non-government funders.

Age vs. Giving Chart

The size of grant awards tends to increase with organizational age, in conjunction with the frequency of federal and state grant awards.

Median Largest Award

You need to keep at it. If you apply for grant awards you have a high likelihood of winning grant awards. This means that dedicating time and staff to grantseeking has a high probability of being worth your while. Here we see that older organizations more frequently report applying for awards; it follows then that older organizations report higher award rates. Even so, over three-quarters of very young organizations applied for grants and 70% of those organizations won awards. Grantseeking is worth the effort.

Application Rates

Award Rates

When it comes to grantseeking, age (representing organizational sustainability) is one pathway to success. Young organizations should start their grants program by crafting deft proposals and introducing themselves to local grantmakers. As they grow, they can submit proposals to grantmakers who require matching funds, or a track record of program funding success. With this success—and age—an organization can then turn to larger-dollar government funding.

Looking to get started with grantseeking? GrantStation offers tutorials on the process. Looking for new funders? GrantStation has databases of private and government grantmakers in the United States and Canada, as well as international funders. Looking to develop your personal grantseeking skills? GrantStation offers PathFinder, a searchable database of resources to help your skills grow. Looking to learn from the experts? Take part in GrantStation’s Online Education webinars, presented by nationally recognized leaders in the field. Join GrantStation, because regardless of your organization’s age, there are grantmakers who are interested in supporting your mission!

Is It Time to Kill the Golden Goose?


The United States government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was designed as a forgivable loan program aimed at enabling small businesses to keep their workers employed during the COVID-19 crisis. However, small businesses weren’t the only ones to benefit from this program. It was recently revealed that around 120 private foundations had received support through the PPP, many of which had ties to affluent individuals. Among them was the Walt Disney Family Foundation ($146,700), the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation ($103,200), and the Letters Foundation, founded by Warren Buffett and his sister Doris ($268,800). All told, over $7.5 million in federal relief funding made its way into the coffers of these foundations. As employers, these foundations were eligible to receive federal support. But many observers have questioned the reasoning—if not the ethics—involved in seeking government help when these organizations possess vast fortunes.

Several grantmakers cited the sharp economic downturn in the early days of the crisis as their motivation for applying for PPP funds. As markets tumbled, many foundations were reluctant to sell stocks at a loss in order to cover their expenses. The Letters Foundation, funded in large part by Doris Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway stocks, noted that "during the market upheaval brought on by the pandemic, those stocks lost considerable value." However, even at its lowest point in 2020, a single share of Berkshire Hathaway stock was valued at $239,440.

This explanation reflects a primary aim of most philanthropic institutions—to ensure that the foundation exists in perpetuity. This is usually achieved by fiercely protecting the foundation’s nest egg, or endowment. Legally, foundations are only obligated to disburse around 5% of the value of their endowments annually, or about the average rate of return in the stock market. So, in a normal year, they can expect to give away their earnings without having to tap into their principal. However, during times of market upheaval, when share prices are plummeting, that 5% disbursement may disrupt the delicate balance that promises the foundation eternal life. Ironically, it is also during these times of economic turmoil that the need for grants is greatest.

In light of the devastation wrought by the pandemic, there have been calls to increase the payout rate in order to help struggling nonprofits, who have seen demand for their services surge and income drop. One such call was issued by a coalition represented by the Wallace Global Fund, Patriotic Millionaires, and the Institute for Policy Studies, which penned a memo to Joe Biden’s transition team urging them to increase the foundation payout rate from 5% to 10% over the next three years as part of the next coronavirus relief package. The memo stated, “U.S. private foundations and donor-advised funds at public foundations are currently sitting on $1.2 trillion in charitable assets. Yet current tax law requires private foundations to distribute a mere five percent of those assets each year, while donor-advised funds have no such minimum requirement.” By bumping up the payout rate to 10% for both, the coalition estimates that $200 billion in additional funds would be awarded to nonprofits over the next three years, with no profound threat to foundation longevity, as they could then reduce the rate back to 5% after the three-year period.

Another proponent of higher payout rates is the newly launched Initiative to Accelerate Charitable Giving, a coalition that includes the Ford Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and other prominent grantmakers and philanthropists. Citing the fact that “America’s charities are in a state of crisis” as they seek to address the pandemic and calls for racial justice, the Initiative aims to boost charitable giving and make it more accountable through tax law reform. Among the proposed reforms, the Initiative seeks to close loopholes surrounding the 5% payout rule, incentivize private foundations to donate 7% or more of their assets a year, and promote the creation of time-limited foundations which can exist for only up to 25 years.

It is that last proposal that raises an interesting question: Is it better for foundations to exist in perpetuity, benefiting multiple generations, or to be established as time-limited in order to amplify their impact in the here and now?

Even before the pandemic hit, the idea of time-limited foundations was gaining in popularity. The report Strategic Time Horizons: A Global Snapshot of Foundation Approaches reveals that, of the foundations created in the 2010s, 44% were established as time-limited, compared to just 16% of those established in the 2000s. In addition, nearly a third of foundations surveyed reported that they were either actively looking into switching from a perpetual entity to a time-limited one (8%) or that they had debated such a switch but decided against it (20%).

What accounts for the growing popularity of time-limited foundations? Top reasons cited by the report include the founders’ desire to expedite charitable donations, to see an impact in their lifetime, and to amplify their impact by limiting their focus. Founders also voiced concerns about whether future generations would be dedicated to philanthropic activities and whether the foundation’s activities would continue to reflect the founder’s intent into the future.

There also seems to be a correlation between a foundation’s mission and their decision to become time-limited. Of limited-life respondents, over 50% reported environment/conservation as their biggest program area. It may be that foundations working on time-sensitive issues that demand immediate attention, such as climate change, are more likely to be time-limited. For example, the Brainerd Foundation, which operated from 1995 to 2020 in the Pacific Northwest, offered the following reflections on its decision to sunset. “We recognized that the ecological challenges our funding region and the planet faced were urgent, and so we made the decision to spend out our endowment. We believed our dollars could have a greater impact if we didn't hold back.”

However, arguments can also be made against tapping into foundation endowments. In response to recent calls to increase payout rates, the Council on Foundations (COF) noted that the philanthropic sector had already voluntarily mobilized vast resources to address COVID-19, and that raising the payout rate would constrain foundations in the future. Interestingly, they also pointed out that, despite the fact that there is no annual payout requirement for donor-advised funds, the aggregate payout rate for these funds is usually over 20%.

The COF stated, “Increasing the payout requirement for private foundations and creating a new mandate for donor-advised funds would unnecessarily limit philanthropy’s ability to respond to future crises and would have a deleterious effect on foundation assets and longer-term donations. If similar proposals had been adopted following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, or the Great Recession of 2008, philanthropy would now have fewer resources and a significantly reduced ability to respond to COVID-19.” They went on to assert that if the payout rate was permanently raised to 10 percent, it would cause large numbers of foundations to close shop prematurely, thus arguing in favor of the value of perpetual foundations. To illustrate the benefits of the in-perpetuity model, the COF cited the example of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, which was established with $40 million in 1970, and which now gives away that same amount every three to four years thanks to an endowment that has grown in value to $267 million.

Another proponent of the in-perpetuity foundation model is Joel L. Fleishman, author of Putting Wealth to Work: Philanthropy for Today or Investing for Tomorrow?. He argues that the benefits of the perpetual model far outweigh those of “giving while living” philanthropy and time-limited foundations which spend down their endowment over a specified number of years. Fleishman writes, “[W]hile I admire the quest of wealthy individuals to put their money to work in trying to solve pressing social problems during their lifetimes, I have great concern about the likelihood that spending even the vast wealth they promise to deploy over a comparatively short period of time can achieve their ambition for impact on the scale to which they aspire.”

He points out that one of the ways in which perpetual foundations help to solve complex social problems is by doing so over time, testing out innovative approaches to see which ones work and which do not. He notes that “experience, discernment, and a willingness to persevere and learn all depend on a time frame unrushed by some fast-approaching day of reckoning.” He goes on to ask, “If the goal is to expend all of one’s charitable wealth in a few years or decades and then depart the field, is there time enough to master philanthropy’s subtler and slower arts?” Fleishman also raises the concern that time-limited philanthropy might lead to a focus on funding “big bets” rather than nurturing a healthy nonprofit sector capable of solving intractable problems.

In the Strategic Time Horizons report, representatives of foundations that considered switching to time-limited but ultimately remained perpetual shared similar sentiments. One respondent wrote, “While today’s problems may seem dire, tomorrow’s are likely worse. Our structure and process allow us to provide more than just grants. If we spend down the funds, we no longer exist.” Another reflected that the in-perpetuity model “means we can take a long view of our grantmaking and accept that complex situations take time and resources to resolve.”

So, which is foundation model is preferable: time-limited or in-perpetuity? Is it better to dip into a foundation’s endowment during times of acute need or save those resources to benefit future generations? Ultimately, there may be no easy answers to these questions. Even those with strong views on the issue may find themselves confronted with uncomfortable realities. Andrew Carnegie famously wrote in his 1889 essay, “The Gospel of Wealth,” “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” As Fleishman points out in his book, despite being a vocal proponent of “giving while living,” Carnegie nonetheless struggled to give away his own fortune during his lifetime. After establishing institutions such as Carnegie Hall, the Carnegie Libraries, and what was to become Carnegie-Mellon University, towards the end of his life he created an in-perpetuity foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, so that “even after I pass away the [wealth] that came to me to administer as a sacred trust for the good of my fellow men is to continue to benefit humanity for generations untold.”

A Message of HOPE


This past fall the folks at TechSoup asked me if I would help judge their annual Storymakers contest. I truly admire TechSoup as an organization and appreciate the resources they provide for the nonprofit sector, so I happily volunteered to help judge this contest. It sounded like fun, and I was sure it would be interesting. 

And then I forgot about it.

A month or two went by. And one day I received an email with the criteria for judging the contestants, and links to 15 videos that I needed to watch and judge. I set aside a block of time to do this work, sitting down one morning, coffee in hand, to review these submissions.

“Review these submissions.” That’s how I was thinking about these 15 stories when I started. It is not how I thought about them when I finished.

Some of the stories made me laugh. Some made me cry. But they all gave me hope. Hope that in this time of darkness throughout the world there are individual souls out there doing good work against all odds.

According to scientists, the bumblebee's body is too heavy and its wingspan too small. Aerodynamically, the bumblebee cannot fly. But the bumblebee doesn't know that and it keeps flying.

That’s what these 15 groups, and all of you working at nonprofit organizations, represent to me. Tens of thousands of bumblebees changing the world for the better, completely unaware of your limitations.

The Indomitable Human Spirit

I have always been enamored with Dr. Jane Goodall (who isn’t?), and I love this quote from her: “We could change the world tomorrow if all of the millions of people around the world acted the way they believe.” She believes, and has often stated, that our greatest tool for creating change is the “indomitable human spirit.”

After viewing those 15 YouTube videos, I have to agree. And I think hope – not to be confused with optimism – is the primary signature of each story. I’d like to share a few of these stories with you, simply because they are NOT extraordinary. These stories reflect the work that each of you does, every day. The work driven by your passion and your sense of what is right.

Three of these videos I felt were very inspiring:

  • Gardens for Health International is working to provide sustainable agricultural solutions to address childhood malnutrition in Rwanda.
  • Hope to Walk brings freedom and hope to individuals and families by providing prosthetic legs to amputees who do not have access or cannot afford them.
  • The Wild Animal Sanctuary rescues abused or abandoned animals.

The work of these groups, and the other 12 nonprofits whose videos I reviewed, are incredibly varied. Some focus on the local community while others are working globally. Some have budgets under $500,000, while other budgets are in the millions. But they all have that one ingredient in common: hope that they can change the world.

Perhaps, after viewing a few of these videos, you will feel as I do - that there is still hope for our beautiful Earth and for the humans who inhabit it.

Here’s to changing the world in 2018!

Action steps you can take today

View the Winners and learn more about Storymakers 2017

My Boomerang Won’t Come Back


Sometimes, no matter how many trainings you take, no matter how many articles you read, no matter how many times you polish your proposal, you simply aren’t successful in your grantwriting efforts. In short, your boomerang just won’t come back.

I thought it would be helpful to share a checklist of issues that may be sending your application to the ‘no go’ pile. This isn’t by any means a comprehensive list, but it highlights a number of problems that often block the path to funding.

A Few Basics

Let’s start with some basics. For example, your by-laws may dictate that you have seven or more board members at any one time, and you almost always operate with fewer. A small issue like this can raise eyebrows during the pre-screening phase often done by program staff and cause your proposal to be set aside. Another potential problem is not updating your Guidestar profile. That may seem somewhat irrelevant in the larger scheme of the proposal, but many program officers now look at an organization’s Guidestar profile before sending the proposal on to the review committee. Small things like these can trigger a ‘warning’ with the grantmaker.

Another basic issue is simply not following the guidelines. Nothing frustrates a reviewer more than having the applicant add information that was not requested, or provide the correct information but not in the order requested. Grantmakers actually have reasons for establishing specific guidelines so it is important to always follow them to the T.

Opinion Words Are Poison

Poison Words

Within the proposal itself there are a number of reasons you might be sending out warning signals. For example, peppering your request with opinion words can turn the request into a lecture. Be very careful about expressing your own opinion. What you want to do is state the facts and paint a picture, then let the reader draw their own conclusions.

A statement like this can be off-putting: The current administration’s outrageous tactic of separating children from their parents has created a national outcry for more humane treatment of those attempting to enter the U.S. from Mexico. Not because it isn’t true, but because you are labeling it “outrageous.”

In this case, you might be better served by stating the issue this way: The current administration’s policy of separating children from their parents has captured headlines across media:

  • U.S. to split families crossing border (Reuters, June 12, 2018)
  • Tent camp built near border to house migrant children (NBC, June 15, 2018)
  • Pope joins calls to end family separations (NPR, June 20, 2018)
  • Can they find their way home? (CNN, June 21, 2018)

Now you are using headlines to state the facts for you, letting the readers come to their own conclusions. They will likely be the conclusions you’re after, but you aren’t lecturing to them.

Just keep in mind that using phrases laced with your own opinions will alienate the reader. Watch for phrases such as:

  • In our experience . . .
  • We think/believe/ suppose . . .
  • It is obvious that . . .
  • There is no doubt that . .  .

At the end of this article I’ve noted a good resource you can use to identify opinion statements.

Articulate a True Need

Of course, there is often the problem of not providing relevant and timely documentation around your stated problem or need. Clearly articulating the issue that you want to address in your proposal is paramount to the success of your request. You may be launching the most exceptional program ever, but if the grantmaker doesn’t buy into the urgency of the problem you’re addressing, the likelihood of receiving funding goes way down.

You want the grantmaker to feel as if they are investing in an approach that has been thoughtfully considered and is based on an analysis of the situation, and that their support will make a difference.

Evidence and data are essential tools for your success in writing proposals, and the data that is collected must be objective. And, of course, the solution to the problem or issue has to be clearly driven by this data.

Your overall goal is to convince the grantmaker that the information you are presenting in your statement of need is both accurate and credible, and that the resulting program is the best way to address this need.

A Few Other Issues

There are likely a number of reasons why a grant request wasn’t funded, so identifying what those issues might be is always a smart move. But it is not an easy task since analyzing a “failure” is never fun. However, if you want to be successful in your grantwriting it is important to figure out what you’re doing wrong.

I encourage you to ask the grantmaker for his or her feedback on proposals that have been submitted but not funded. You won’t always get a helpful response, nonetheless it is wise to ask because occasionally you will get a worthwhile answer that could be useful when you develop your next proposal.

One last piece of advice is to establish a grantwriting team, which can be made up of a few staff members, several folks from your fundraising committee, or perhaps one or two volunteers. This team takes the time to review a proposal before submission to look for weaknesses in the case for support that you’re presenting. The same group reviews denied requests in order to spot problems. This team can help you throw that boomerang out into the void with just the right curve so that it comes back with funding attached!

Action steps you can take today
  • Review a list of opinion words and phrases at Scholastic.
  • Establish a grantwriting team. Consider attending the Building a Stellar Grantwriting Team webinar on October 3rd. Learn more here.
  • Review one or two of the proposals you have submitted with your team to identify the weaknesses.
  • Join GrantStation. Your Membership includes tutorials on grantwriting and “unloading” the language you use in your proposals.

Just Say No... to Donations?


Recently, New York's Guggenheim Museum and London's National Portrait Gallery and Tate group of galleries all declared that they would no longer be accepting charitable gifts from the Sackler family, some of who are owners of Purdue Pharma, which makes the opioid OxyContin. Other well-known organizations are being pressured to follow suit.

While most organizations won't have donors who are being castigated in the national news, similar situations can happen on a more local level. Let's imagine that you live in The Simpsons' fictional hamlet of Springfield, where the most well-known businessman is C. Montgomery Burns, owner of the local nuclear facility. While he has been known to "release the hounds" on anyone coming to his door to ask for a donation, he seems to have taken a liking to your charity. How will that play in the local gossip mill? Should you accept his charitable offer?

In a recent Washington Post editorial, David Allyn, visiting scholar at the New School for Social Research and vice president at Graham-Pelton, a fundraising and management consulting firm for nonprofit organizations, points out that turning down donations from people like the Sackler family or Mr. Burns would be "noble. Or, at the very least, savvy public relations."

But Allyn then shifts gears to make the case that maybe nonprofits should consider accepting these donations: "... the rush to reject funds from tainted donors is often shortsighted. Nonprofit organizations serve the public interest and should not readily cave in to pressure to return gifts from controversial sources." Is it better to let these donors send their money elsewhere (or just keep it for themselves), or to take the money and use it for genuinely good purposes?

We've all heard the old adage, "Any publicity is good publicity." But is that necessarily true when it comes to nonprofit organizations? You've built a reputation on doing good works; can that reputation survive a cycle of bad publicity? There is a certain calculus you'll need to apply to these types of donations. On a purely monetary level, will the amount of a notorious donation be more than the potential loss of other donors?

The moral math is much trickier, though. Allyn uses the example of Harvey Weinstein. He pledged $5 million to the University of Southern California to support female filmmakers. Given the national fallout of Weinstein's now public interactions with women, the donation seemed like a craven and hypocritical attempt at reputation recovery. And the outcry was enough to make USC reject the donation. But how many women could have been helped by that $5 million? Is there a point where the ends justifies the means? In cases like this, there are no easy answers.

As our public discourse becomes more and more polarized—on both political and social issues—these questions rise even more to the forefront. How important will it be that your donors all ideologically agree with each other?

In some cases, it might benefit your organization to immediately take your case to the media. Tell them exactly why you are accepting or not accepting a controversial donation. If you let the news come out organically, you will already be behind the eight ball when it comes to managing the public narrative.

"Just Say No" emerged as part of the anti-drug campaign in 1982. Almost four decades later, the war on drugs has still not been won, but the faces have changed; we've seen this with the Sacklers and the opioid epidemic.

Likewise, the nonprofit field has changed. Most of us never thought we'd see a time where we'd have to say no to a donor, but here we are. When the time comes, when C. Montgomery Burns arrives waving his nuclear dollars in your direction, will you just say no, or just say yes?

Action steps you can take today
  • Do the math! Does the notorious donation outweigh any potential lost donors?
  • Control the narrative! Can you get your side of the story out to the local media?
  • Keep your current donors happy! Check out five ways to show donor appreciation. 

Funding for Women Lags but May Soon Gain Ground


In October the Women's Philanthropy Institute released its first Women and Girls Index, a study containing the startling information that in 2016 charitable organizations dedicated to women and girls received a mere 1.6% of the total funds given. In addition, while more than 45,000 charitable organizations dedicated to women and girls exist, they make up only 3.3% of the total.

To put it into further perspective, women's and girls' nonprofits received about one fifth the amount of money dedicated to arts programs, and one tenth the amount spent on higher education. In a New York Times article, Vanessa Daniel, executive director of the Groundswell Foundation, revealed that only 0.6% of all foundation giving was directed to women of color in 2016. In addition, 90% of the money dedicated to women and girls went to one area: reproductive health.

With those facts in mind, it seems like a good moment to highlight several funders focused on grantmaking to organizations working with women and girls. Since nine out of ten such funders direct their money toward reproductive health, I selected organizations that focus on other areas and came up with a cross section of groups, large and small, working in women's empowerment, entrepreneurship, art, and more. Most of these have open application processes. The few that don't were ones I thought were worth highlighting due to their focus or impact.

Nine Funders of Note

Anonymous Was a Woman: As suggested by its name, this organization was established by an unknown person. She later revealed herself to be famed photographer Susan Unterberg, who formed Anonymous Was a Woman in 1996 in response to the National Endowment of the Arts' decision to stop supporting individual artists. Her organization gives $25,000 awards to ten women each year, and so far has awarded over $6 million to 240 artists. While many funders funnel their giving toward young recipients, Anonymous Was a Woman's awards are restricted to applicants over age 40.

Adobe Foundation: This funder gave away more than $7 million in grants in 2017 in areas that included higher education, professional development, and housing, in amounts averaging $20,000 to $100,000. One of its notable grants that year was $750,000 to Iridescent (now Technovation) for a program designed to empower the next generation of women technology entrepreneurs.

Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice: With giving that neared $5 million in 2018, this foundation funds lesbian organizations and cultural/media projects that address lesbian and trans issues. It also supports LGBTQI organizations, women's organizations, and progressive organizations that have lesbians and trans people in leadership roles, and include lesbian and trans issues as an integral part of their work.

Cartier Women's Initiative: This funder maintains an international business plan competition, created in 2006, that aims to identify, support, and encourage projects by women entrepreneurs. Seven winners receive $100,000 each in prize money, and fourteen finalists receive $30,000. Since its inception, awards have been made to more than 200 women in 50 countries.

Dress for Success: This unique funder has an anti-poverty focus, but addresses its goal of helping women achieve financial independence by providing professional attire for the workplace, as well as maintaining support networks, offering mentoring services, and providing development tools. Since its founding in 1996 the organization's reach has expanded to 30 countries, with 154 offices and 12,000 volunteers serving more than a million women.

Frida Young Feminist Fund: The name of this organization is derived from an anagram for flexibility, resources, inclusivity, diversity, and action. Run entirely by young feminists in order to build the resilience of young women, girls, and trans youth, the broad focus is on supporting feminist causes and creating a more just and sustainable world.

Global Fund for Women: With a focus on gender equality, this organization assists groups advancing human rights for women, girls, and LBTQI people, and gave more than $10 million in 2017. Close to 30% of its money goes to organizations with budgets of less than $50,000 a year, and more than 90% goes to organizations working in countries where civil society is rated obstructed, repressed, or closed by the civil society network and advocacy organization CIVICUS.

National Indigenous Women's Resource Center: A tiny proportion of overall charitable funding goes toward indigenous women. The NIWRC prioritizes the women and children of American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, Native Hawaiians, and Tribal and Native Hawaiian organizations, and focuses primarily on ending gender-based violence.

National Women's Law Center: NWLA was founded in 1972 and focuses on the rights of working women and low-income women, dealing with issues ranging from equal to pay to Title IX issues on college campuses to sexual harassment. The organization also works on the front lines of LGBTQ rights and the #MeToo movement.

Gates Releases Flood of Funds

In addition to the above, philanthropist Melinda Gates in October pledged to spend $1 billion over the next decade on gender equality issues. In an op-ed published by Time magazine, she explained, “I want to see more women in the position to make decisions, control resources, and shape policies and perspectives. I believe that women’s potential is worth investing in—and the people and organizations working to improve women’s lives are too.”

Gates intends to funnel her dollars into three areas. She plans to work toward fast-tracking women in sectors with outsized impacts on society, such as technology, media, and public office, to dismantle the barriers to women’s professional advancement, and to mobilize shareholders, consumers, and employees in order to amplify external pressure on companies and organizations in need of reform.

According to the Women's Philanthropy Institute, in 2016 approximately $6.3 billion in charitable contributions was given to organizations dedicated to helping women and girls. Gates' $1 billion contribution, when divided over ten years, won't push the share of cash given annually to women and girls organizations anywhere near where advocates say it should be, but even so her pledge represents a tremendous boost.

Public awareness of women's issues has skyrocketed in recent years. That awareness represents an opportunity to dramatically shift the charitable giving landscape toward a more equitable distribution of donated funds. But as Gates points out in her op-ed, awareness doesn't always last forever. The world could be in the midst of permanent social shift, but perhaps not. Which is why it's crucial that the current window of opportunity be fully leveraged.

Action steps you can take today
  • Conduct research using GrantStation’s funder database, which currently has more than 70 pages of results for funders that partly or wholly focus on women and girls.
  • Read the Women and Girls Index for a detailed examination of the gender funding gap.

A Mantra for Leading a Nonprofit Organization During the Pandemic


Don’t Panic, Adjust

One of my former clients was a basketball coach for over twenty years before he became the executive director of one of the largest youth service organizations in Washington D.C. Managing a nonprofit with a multi-million-dollar budget without prior management experience is not easy. Each month in our coaching sessions, I listened to Kevin’s horror stories. As a biracial male, he had become the inadvertent intermediary between a predominately conservative, white board of directors and the African-American and Latino youth in his programs.

What most impressed me about Kevin was his steadiness. When two of his staff quit a month before the organization’s annual fundraising event over what they felt was an unfair level of discipline from the board toward youth they were completely disconnected from, Kevin was left with the work of three positions, which he managed to complete with remarkable composure.

“You are always doing so much, and yet you always manage to maintain your poise,” I said to him during one of our sessions. “How do you pull it off?”

Kevin looked at me and, in his usual, calm manner, replied “I learned my most important lesson for leading this organization on the basketball court. When my players were messing up plays, or when the other team was gaining ground, I used to pull them into a huddle, and share three words with them: ‘Don’t panic, adjust.’”

Making Our Comeback

Kevin’s three words helped his teams stage numerous successful comebacks and can also help us lead our nonprofit organizations through the largest public health crisis of most of our lifetimes. We need to staunch not only the pandemic, but the pandemic panic. How can we help ourselves and our staff, volunteers and board members to not panic, but to adjust? Here are three strategies you can try out:

Focus on facts rather than feeds. Emotion regulation has been defined by Stanford psychologist James Gross as “the processes by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express these emotions.” By reading up on the facts, you can reframe how you perceive the current situation and, consequently, the emotions you experience in association with it. Share what you learn with your team members and use it as a launching pad for more realistic, sober discussions about what’s happening based on facts rather than feeds. As I highlight in my new book, Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age, keep in mind that social media is neither.

Model emotion complexity. A 2016 study led by Naomi Rothman and another study I published in 2018 highlight the importance of being able to healthily express the wide variety of positive and negative emotions we feel. Fear is one of those emotions. Similar to grief or trauma, we move forward not in spite of, but with, our fear. Conflate the thoughts from which your fear arises—such as “How can our staff serve our clients without putting their health at risk?” and “How will I meet payroll?”—with thoughts of the sources of beauty in your life (e.g., the people you love and care for) that generate positive emotions such as gratitude and joy. As the Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura discovered, each one of us influences others through our behaviors, and never has this modeling been more important.

Let a focus on facts over fear evolve into a “healthy fear.” Add to the cognitive mix hard-nosed, rational thoughts that cut through the media deluge that preys on uncertainty and piques our fear. Instead of wading through the umpteenth details of the health, economic, political and social effects of the pandemic, determine how many times per week you will update yourself on the news so you can devote most of your energy to the positive social change you are fostering through your organizational efforts.

By so doing, you will avoid the continual injections of cortisol into your bloodstream that result from feeling constantly under threat that impair your immune system and reduce your internal defenses in the event that you were to contract the virus. The outcome of a more balanced approach to how you consume information is likely to be not a sense of panic, but a healthy fear that induces active preparation without reducing your well-being.

Kevin’s mantra, which can help us through this public health crisis, reminds me of an old proverb: “Pray to God and row to shore.” To not panic is to instead have faith in your God, whoever She or He is, to watch over us as we navigate these difficult times. To adjust is to row to shore—and move your organization forward—with more informed, steadfast strokes.

“Don’t panic, adjust” is also reminiscent of the old saying that God helps those who help themselves—and, I might add, those who help others. Model appropriate emotion responses to this public health crisis to the people you lead and share your life with and you will do both.

What is your mantra for managing yourself and your team members during the pandemic? Share your experience in the comments so others can benefit.

Action steps you can take today