Keep reading -- there are no spoilers in this post!
Have you caught the Downton Abbey craze? If you're in the U.S., have you been spending your Sunday nights this winter snuggled in front of PBS, watching each episode of season 3?
For the uninitiated, here's a quick primer. Downton Abbey is a British TV show about an aristocratic family and the staff of their house, and the first seasons have taken us through World War I and the dawn of the 1920s.
So, what does all this have to do with the profession of grants development in the 21st century? Allow me to explain the four principles that Downton Abbey teaches us about grant proposal writing.
1) Form has a function. Manners matter.
Downton Abbey is a symphony of manners and formality -- all the more beautiful to watch because we have lost so much of these graces in our own culture.
Just as in Downton Abbey, in fundraising, good manners make everyone more comfortable.
From following the classic 5-page proposal format, to asking the right kind of questions in a meeting with a foundation program officer, your adherence to the rules of grantseeking will put you at the front of the pack.
To start with, simply reading -- and then following -- the funder's guidelines sends the signal that you care about their standards.
Need more pointers for etiquette in interacting with funders? You must read Martin Teitel's new book, The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Winning Foundation Grants. It tells all! (And don't worry if you've made a gaffe or two in your time. It is highly unlikely that you're the rudest grantseeker that your funders have encountered. Sadly for them.)
2) The times, they are a-changin' -- and if your nonprofit doesn't keep pace with change, it will become irrelevant (and harder to fund).
Though there are multiple characters and plots, the unifying theme of Downton Abbey is that the world is changing.
Some people can adapt to the changes, while others can't keep up. This creates fascinating story lines and tension between characters that keep us watching.
Downton Abbey has captured our collective attention because our world is changing rapidly too. Our technology, our ways of making money, and how we communicate have undergone extreme transformation over the past ten years and the changes keep coming.
For success in grantseeking, your nonprofit needs to be able to demonstrate that it is enthusiastic about embracing change and making use of the best tools available.
There are good reasons to embrace technological change -- efficiency and open-mindedness are virtues. There's also a financial reason to keep up with change: your funders will like you better.
For grantmakers, investing in innovation is a very attractive thing.
This doesn't mean that your nonprofit has to be the earliest adopter of every new gadget and online program out there. (Though it would be fun to see more nonprofit-related Tumblr sites! So far, only "Ryan Gosling, Arts Administrator" has gotten on the Tumblr bandwagon. This site is a perfect read for Valentine's Day, by the way.)
I love the concept of "appropriate technology" as applied to nonprofit operations.
As our old friend Wikipedia explains it, appropriate technology is about choosing tools that are "small-scale, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, locally controlled... and people-centered."
Twitter is a great example of an appropriate technology for nonprofits.It's free, idea-driven, highly collaborative and transparent. When I research a nonprofit and notice that it's not on Twitter, I tend to think that it simply has less to say to the world. (And that's a negative.) The foundations that you're applying to are probably not on Twitter (though here's a list of funders who Tweet), but they want you to be.
This week, I read an RFP that lists use of Twitter as a required deliverable. The requirement: "Create and maintain a Twitter account. Must have 100 followers within the first year and 200 within the second year. Must connect to thought leaders in the industry sector." Mind you, getting 200 followers on Twitter over two years is setting the bar pretty low. If you're regularly posting reasonably interesting content, then you'll get all the followers you need.
3) Everything works out in the end. If it hasn't worked out yet, it is not the end.
Mr. Bates still stuck in jail? Edith still looking for a way to contribute to the world? Mrs. Patmore still yelling at Daisy?
It's all ultimately going to be OK, no matter what happens.
In grantseeking, rejection can be painful, and discouraging. It takes many hours for a nonprofit to write a good grant proposal, but it seems that it can take just a few minutes for a funder to scan that proposal then send a form rejection letter.
But sometimes, the first "no" is just the beginning. Some foundations and government funders (including the National Science Foundation for some of its programs) actively encourage multiple iterations of a proposal that it may turn down the first few times, with suggestions for refinements, before finally providing funding. So, "No, we won't give your nonprofit a grant" sometimes means, "Maybe we'll give your nonprofit a grant next year."
Stay in touch and persevere. You may be funded in a future round. And keep in mind that sometimes, the best resolution you can hope for is to know, with certainty, that a foundation isn't going to fund your nonprofit, like, ever (to quote Taylor Swift). With that certainty, you can stop spending energy trying to cultivate this funder, and move on to greener pastures.
4) No organization is infalliable.
In this season, we've been introduced to the idea that the estate of Downton Abbey may be suffering from mismanagement. Downton Abbey looks great from the outside, but what does the future hold?
In the nonprofit world, 501c3s and funders alike are also vulnerable to mismanagement and mistakes. We see lots of publicity in the nonprofit press about organizations taking what is perceived as the wrong turn.
The most striking example from 2012 is the Susan G. Komen Foundation fiasco. Even more interesting than the Komen case is the recent critique of the Public Welfare Foundation's change in funding guidelines has put their decisions in question as well.
In this era of increasing need and increasing transparency for nonprofits, everything is subject to change. Your challenge is to be a thoughtful, informed citizen of your own nonprofit in order to roll with the punches and take brave action, when it is needed, within your own area of responsibility.
And this gets us back to the second point -- the times, they are a-changin'.