How would Robin Hood write a grant proposal?

I recently read Katya Andresen's book Robin Hood Marketing: Stealing Corporate Savvy to Sell Just Causes. Ms. Andresen is a thought-leader in the nonprofit scene -- you can learn so, so much by following Katya's Nonprofit Marketing Blog.

Robin Hood Marketing is about "approaching social good with a marketing mentality borrowed from the business world."

This book has a lot to offer for those of us who are looking for new ways to engage grantmakers.

Are you ready for some great ideas inspired by the story of Robin Hood?

  • "In thinking about partners, instead of asking who is like us, ask who wins when we win. Look for partners with a compatible agenda with respect for our audience." -- Chapter 5, "Building a Merry Band: Partnering Around Mutual Benefits"
  • "The closer we align with our audiences' values, the higher our chances of motivating them to take action." -- Chapter 2, "Robin Hood Reconnaissance: Appeal to Your Audiences' Values, Not Your Own"
  • "It is the reward, and not our own mission, that most effectively makes the case to our audience to take action." -- Chapter 6, "The Heart of the Good Archer's Arrow: Put the Case First and the Cause Second"

So how would Robin Hood put these principles to work in developing grant applications?

Let's pretend that Robin Hood had the patience for grant proposals, along with a subscription to Foundation Directory Online, a decent computer and a large supply of fair-trade coffee to keep him alert.

These are two things that I think he would do:

1) When Robin Hood went prospecting for potential new grant funders, he wouldn't rule out the foundations that may seem on the surface to have little in common with his nonprofit. He would dig deeper, looking at the organizations they fund and their true motivations for giving, rather than just at their board list, location or assets. 

For example, a foundation may have been founded by a Jewish family with the primary purpose of supporting Jewish causes, but it will still fund a Catholic social service organization -- because both entities care about helping vulnerable immigrants.

2) Robin Hood wouldn't open his grant proposal with the sentence, "Founded in 1392, the Friends of the Sherwood Forest has the mission of robbing from the rich in order to promote yeoman empowerment and foster well-being of the poor." This is a snooze fest! Yes, your proposals must include clear information about what your organization aims to do and how long it has been in operation, but you should engage the funder by starting the proposal with a concept or vignette that resonates directly with them.

The first sentences of your proposal set the tone for the whole document. Is your organization donor-centric -- is it able to step back from its own identity to connect with and truly engage its supporters? Or is it so obsessed with itself and its needs that it doesn't understand that donors care more about impacts than organizations?

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Grantwriting business coach Betsy Baker recommended Robin Hood Marketing to me. If you're interested in learning more about grantwriting to help your nonprofit succeed, or if you want to strike out on your own as a grantwriting consultant, check out Betsy's teaching tools, including her blog!

Nonprofits usually treat marketing and fundraising as separate efforts, and Robin Hood Marketing is not a primer on working with donors. Principles explained in the book mainly apply to reaching a nonprofit's target audience -- its clients -- in ways that will resonate with them. As a former journalist, the author also explains how to work with the media in her "Robin Hood Media Savvy" chapter.

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What about you? Do you have a grantwriting alter ego such as Robin Hood? Tell us about it in the comments!

Four ways to keep grant applications to corporations on target

Building on the three truths about corporate giving shared yesterday, our (imaginary friend the) corporate philanthropy director has four additional things to tell you!

1. Remember that in grantmaking, she has to play it safe.

Many corporate philanthropy programs are about serving the largest numbers of people across the broadest regions in the least controversial ways.

If corporate giving was a painting in a museum, it would be a Norman Rockwell. Corporations like to fund projects that are about puppies and kittens and children and literacy and Thanksgiving turkeys.

So, if appropriate for your organization, pitch projects that are easy to understand and that serve the maximum numbers of people. Save the policy-developing, envelope-pushing projects for your individual donors and private foundations that care about social change.

Also, most corporations are leery of being the first corporate funder of a nonprofit. “It's not a good business practice,” the corporate philanthropy director says.

For that reason, she is likely to include a question on the grant application asking you to list the top corporate funders of your nonprofit. In looking at your other corporate donors, she will ask herself, “Are these the organizations we want to be associated with? What is the appropriate level for us to give based on what the organization is getting from other corporations?”

2. Do your very best to directly and completely answer every question on the corporation’s grant application form (even when the questions don't seem that important to you).

All the questions in the application form are there for a reason. You need to do the research to answer them well.

For example, a corporate grant application may ask how many of their employees volunteer with your organization.

You could look at this as a softball question – something to fill space in the application and for which your answer doesn’t really matter. Or you could look at it as an unfair question – maybe your nonprofit doesn’t have a constituent relationship management database that captures tons of information about volunteers, donors and clients, and cross-references all this information, and so the question would be administratively difficult to answer.

But it doesn’t matter what you think of the question. Your response to the question is what matters.

If you respond to the question about the number of volunteers by writing, “unknown,” you are sending a message that your organization does not value its volunteers or can’t manage information about its operation.

3. Listen to the corporate philanthropy director when she tells you about secret pots of money that no one else is applying for.

I sometimes go to “meet the funders” events (in which foundation and corporate philanthropy program officers speak to a group of nonprofits about their programs) – these events are typically organized by nonprofit support centers such as DC’s Center for Nonprofit Advancement, Philadelphia’s Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University, and New York’s Support Center for Nonprofit Management.

At every such event I’ve gone to, the corporate philanthropy representative on the panel has told us about some greatly undersubscribed pool of money that they have – funding that they’d like to give to nonprofits, if the nonprofits would only ask for it.

Though the “secret” programs aren’t a secret at all (typically they’re publicized on the company’s website right alongside information about its main grant program), grantseekers overlook these additional programs or think they’re not qualified for or interested in them. Because few organizations apply for these special grant programs, competition is lower and your odds of success are higher.

For example, one national corporation has a capital/building projects fund available for nonprofits in specific geographic regions of the country. With the depressed economy, few nonprofits are engaged in building new program facilities. This leaves a lot of money on the table for the corporation’s special fund. They’d love to see more applications for it.

Another national corporation has a special fund for training of nonprofit staffers – the grants can be used to pay for professional development classes and workshops. The corporation always has surplus grant money in this pool because they get few applicants.

When you call a corporate funder to introduce yourself and your organization, you should always politely inquire about whether they have any special grant funds outside of their main grantmaking program. And If there are “meet the funder” events in your region where corporate foundation officers will candidly share information about their programs, go to those events and take notes!

By the way, I’ve seen the same pattern with some federal agencies. If you talk to a federal grant program officer, you can learn about which programs get fewer applications and therefore are less competitive. On the other hand, I haven't experienced this very much with family foundations, which often hold their cards closer to their chest in terms of undersubscribed grant programs and discretionary funding available.

4. If you’re trying to get a donation of product or “in-kind” service, talk about this donation in ways that demonstrate you value it.

A corporate giving officer’s pet peeve is when grantseekers don’t give enough respect to an “in-kind” donation of the company’s product or commodity. Often a product donation is like cash out the door to them. (This can vary based on how the company’s business model works.)

Don’t de-value a product donation.

Don’t call her and say, “I’m only asking for (two airline tickets, a case of office supplies, or whatever the company’s product is).” As one corporate giving officer said, “Especially when it's the company's commodity, it's very uncomfortable for me when you downgrade an in-kind gift.”

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I didn’t write this post after having drinks with a corporate giving officer. But I have attended several “meet the funders” events convened by nonprofit development centers in different east coast cities. The ideas above are a composite of what I’ve heard from different corporate giving officers.

Not all of the information shared here is accurate for each and every corporate giving program – because they’re all a little bit different!

In your experience seeking grants from corporate grantmaking programs, what have you learned?  Please share your stories in the comments!

What the world's great novelists would have to say about writing online grant applications

For the overall art of grant proposal writing, I think that Mark Twain said it all by saying, "when in doubt, tell the truth."  For the special area of online applications, I think that E.M. Forster, George Eliot and Charles Dickens have something to add!

E.M. Forster would say, "Only connect." (That's what he said in Howard's End.)

In a previous post, I wrote about how online applications make it possible to research guidelines and submit a proposal--all without first having a phone conversation or email exchange with a program officer to learn how to best target the proposal to the funder’s interests.

But just because you can submit the application with no contact with the funder, it doesn't mean you should!

Before hitting the "submit" button on that online grant application, I suggest you do your very best to call, email or meet with a representative of the funder.

Make the purpose of your outreach substantive. You can ask clarifying questions about the guidelines, or informally present two priority projects that both fit the guidelines, and ask which may be more appealing to the funder.

Unless the guidelines specifically request no contact with the funder, it is always advisable to try to reach out. 

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Charles Dickens would say, "Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else." (That's what he said in Hard Times, though I don't think he really meant it.)

Chances are that the reviewers of your online applications are looking at hundreds of submissions. Get to the point right away!

In her article "Responding in the Twitter Age: Proposal Writing for Electronic Applications," published in the Journal of the Grant Professionals Association, Betsy Northrup recommends that you use the "pyramid style" of writing that you may have learned about in high school English or journalism class. Provide the detail and nuance at the end of the response, not the beginning. Don't assume that the reviewers will be reading every word--they may only scan your responses, paying the most attention to the first line of each section.

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George Eliot would say, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” (That's what she said in Middlemarch.)

There are ways to make online applications less difficult to deal with, both for your nonprofit organization and for the grantmaker that will receive them.

Here's how to make online applications easier for you and your organization to create: One of the challenges with online applications is that each question comes with its own word limits and even specific directions. Also, it can be difficult to have different staffers log in and out to review and edit the text. Finally, you run the risk of losing your work if the application system is not sophisticated or if you make an error in saving it.

To avoid these problems, I suggest that you build your own application template with which you will create a complete, final draft of the application. Several weeks before the deadline, visit the funder's website to access the online application (you may need to create a log-in name and password and pass an eligibility quiz just to view the questions). Copy and paste all of the questions and directions into your own Microsoft Word document (or other tool such as Evernote or Google Docs). This will be the document that you use to draft the application. It is better to circulate this document for editing than to give different people access to the online application. Then, when you have completed the text to everyone's liking, simply cut and paste the final text into the online application.

For an example of what your template should look like, download the Grant Planning Worksheet that the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation created for their prospective applicants. As they explain it, their "worksheet includes instructions, plus all the information required by the Online Grant Proposal. Please note that the worksheet is for planning purposes only. You must complete your Online Grant Proposal via this website."

Here's how to make online applications easier for your funder to read: Keep text formatting as simple as possible. Don't use fancy formatting and special symbols. Avoid creating charts, bulleted lists, and even italics and bold text. The funder's online application management system may translate these symbols into unreadable gibberish after you hit the "submit" button.

To create engaging online applications, another handy tip offered by Betsy Northrup is to use statistics and write the numbers as digits, not words (35, not thirty-five). As she writes, "eye-tracking studies revealed numerals stop the wandering eye, even when they're embedded within a mass of words that users otherwise ignore."

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