Monday, March 30, 2009

Boards in a Bubble

The question was should the board be allowed to have direct contact with the staff of the organization. I confess I was amazed that there was even a sliver of a doubt. Does anything really think we must keep our Boards in a Bubble, as if letting them talk directly with those doing the work was something bad?

Free-flow of information is vital. Damming up that raises the question: What are you trying to hide? More to the point, think of the closed-information systems we’ve recently seen (think the Bush administration or the Wall Street debacle) and what they have wrought. Making wise choices and running organizations well is where diversity really counts. Hearing different points of view always helps to make better decisions.

Yes, of course, the CEO is the primary contact with the Board. He or she should be in regular contact with every member, especially committee chairs. Frequent meetings with the executive committee should be part of the standard operating procedure. Together they should be agreeing on strategic directions and discussing in detail what is going on at the organization.

The Board and the CEO should be partners. If this is so, then there will be respect and an understanding of who is the day-to-day leader and ultimate decision maker at the organization. Steven Sample, President of USC, writes in The Contrarian Guide to Guide to Leadership writes that he will meet and listen to everyone, but decisions are made only in a strict hierarchical fashion. That means he never goes over any of his managers’ heads. That’s good advice for any leader, including board members.

But that should not mean that the Board only interacts with the CEO. This is how poor decisions get made. The Board must hear from those on the ground who are working directly with our clients and must have first-hand knowledge of how our programs are run. This is especially but not exclusively important as it relates to development.

Just as I want my major donors to have as many touch points within the organization as possible—and this always turns into a stronger relationship and, yes, more money—I want my board to have as broad a picture of the organization as possible. Otherwise they cannot either govern well or be passionate and honest ambassadors of our organizations to the public at large. Nor can they be effective fundraisers if they only see what the CEO tells them to see.

Yes, it’s messier if the board and staff talk freely with others. Yes, there is a possibility that an angry staff member may cause some problems (but let’s get real here—angry staff will always find a way to connect with board members; better you should know this is happening), and yes, it means more transparency. But that, I think, is a good thing.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Looking a Gift Horse....

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of grant work. That’s unusual for me. I do teach grant writing and occasionally I critique grants. But it’s been years since I actually spent much time writing and researching grants. It’s been good for me, and good for my students. I feel more confident that I am what I am teaching is current and reality based. Of course, I’ve always had an ace in the hole—a co-teacher who is a director of grants and so lives and breathes the topic.

What is of most interest to me, however, is the fact that so many nonprofits still think first of grants and events when they think of resource development. No matter how many times I tell clients or classes that 76% of all charitable monies come from individuals, no matter how many times they express surprise and say, “wow, we should look in that direction,” most still go back to relying on events and grants. And most of them never quite get out of financial crisis.

On the event side, it’s because no matter what most nonprofits think they net, they haven’t really considered all the true costs. Most importantly, they don’t act on the fact the event itself is not the end of a process, but rather the beginning. If, once the event is over you aren’t individually cultivating every last attendee, you aren’t working an event.

On the grant side, the issues are a more complex. The truth is that most grants are not moneymakers for an organization. Indeed, oftentimes grants cost more than bring in. What grants do best is to provide the wherewithal to implement a program or project that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to start. That’s the good.

The bad and the ugly is that while most funders expect that the project will then become institutionalized, or supported by the organization or other funding mechanisms, that seems to rarely happen. Especially in the case of multi-year, seven figure projects. They grow and sometimes thrive for 3 to 5 years, then as the grant disappears, the pieces get dismantled and it’s as if that program never even existed.

To be sure, there are good grants. Or more to the point, there are organizations that use their grants well. But they are the ones who understand that a grant is not really a gift.

A gift is something that someone gives you without any strings attached--or at least not the kinds that yank back the gift if you don’t do exactly as requested. In the nonprofit world, a gift with strings is called a restricted gift; ones without strings are unrestricted. In the former, the donor says that the gift is to be used for a particular purpose or at a particular time. Most grants are a form of restricted gift, but they go further. Grants have deliverables. And it is these that up the price.

Let’s imagine that some nice person gives me a gift to buy a stove. I cannot use it for a sink, a refrigerator, to go out to dinner. I can only use it for a stove. The gift is restricted. But typically, I can put that money toward whatever stove I want and buy it when I am ready.

If, on the other hand, I get a grant to buy a stove, I can expect that the type and even model of the stove will be proscribed, as will the timeframe in which I have to buy it. The deliverable will be the proof I must supply the grantor that I complied with the restrictions of my grant.

Now let’s say that the grant I request is to fund a cooking course for which I will have to buy a stove. This is a program grant and it is the most typical kind of grant made. Then I will have had to describe exactly how I will be using that stove. I will need to document what I will cook on it, how many people will be using the stove, what the results of what we cook will be. And I will have to track my results and write reports for the grantor.

Some organizations have whole departments dedicated to managing the spending and reporting side of grants. There is nothing wrong with this, except it does add a layer of cost that may be at the expense of the core programs of the organization. Of more concern is that too many organizations contort their missions to meet the requirements of a grant, thus spending more money to do things that don’t always serve their clients well.

Go after grants, sure. They can be an incredible boon to an organization. But make sure that you are looking for funding for a program or project that truly moves your mission forward. Don’t be grant seeking as much as seeking funding for a needed project.

There are, of course, unrestricted (or pretty unrestricted) grants that in effect pay for you to continue doing the good works you are already doing. Those are the best, and as with charitable gifts they are the hardest to get. The one good news of this horrible economy is that more and more foundations are discovering the value of these unrestricted operating grants.

This is good news for well-run nonprofits. My one hope here is that the new deliverable for these unrestricted grants be proof by the organization that it is, indeed, well run and that the clientele served get what is needed in a timely, respectful and helpful way.

If I were given these grants, I’d want to see that there is adequate and trained staff to accomplish the mission and that the staff is appropriately paid. And I’d want to know that the board is engaged, and all members support the organization with their actions and their wallets and not just their mouths. I would also want some proof that the board is strategically overseeing the work of the organization, regularly evaluating the CEO and themselves, and that they understand and follow the laws of nonprofit organizations.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at

Monday, March 2, 2009

Keeping it Simple

A lot of my time in spent thinking about and helping my clients become more productive in their approaches to fundraising. I call this blog Too Busy to Fundraise because I’ve found that many people who have development responsibilities never seem to find the time to do the things that fundraising requires. I know. I’ve been there.

Oftentimes—and especially at times like now where the economic outlook is anything but good—we look for quick fixes to fundraising, as if some special technique will painlessly raise funds. We want something that will work, as if that something could do it without any help from us.

Making the time to fundraise, therefore, is the first step to actually bringing in gifts. The second step is to use your time and your resources wisely. That means keeping things simple.

That should be easy enough, but somehow too often, what should be a productive way to raise funds and increase your prospect pool gets turned into something that takes more time and effort than it warrants.

Like many consultants, I often remind my clients that the Board is their best fundraising magic bullet. This is especially true for smaller nonprofits with one or no dedicated fund development staff person. But most board members do not feel comfortable asking their friends for gifts. Since the actual solicitation is the last step and only one part of fundraising, I encourage board members to be actively involved in the beginning part of the process. I believe that board members are most effective at identifying potential donors and in introducing those prospects to the organization (and vice versa).

One really nice and easy way to do that is for the board member to host a small gathering, either at the organization or in his or her home. And by hosting I mean that the board member draws up the invite list from his or her personal or business rolodex, sends out the invitations and pays for whatever refreshments will be on tap. I also recommend that we, yes, keep this simple. A wine and cheese, coffee and cake, finger sandwiches. Nothing elaborate; nothing expensive.

Ditto the event itself. It’s meant to be intimate, where the board member can tell friends and colleagues why this organization is near and dear to his or her heart. The executive director or another staff member tells—briefly—what the organization does and shares some success stories. And either the host or someone else asks the attendees to “Join with me in supporting this wonderful organization.” Pledge cards are handed out, and the event is essentially over. Appropriate follow up with every person invited, of course, is necessary.

Simple, right? Doesn’t cost the organization much. And brings new people to the table. Except that I see too many folks turning this simple and effective event into a major production.

Suddenly, centerpieces or a particular color tablecloth with matching napkins are deemed necessary to the success of the gathering. The host decides that the attendees need “favors” or that a drawing would be a good idea, and now the scramble is on to find the goodies (and who is going to ask for them?). And rapidly this becomes a big deal and not particularly productive at all.

Once again, we find ourselves Too Busy To Fundraise. Too involved in turning a simple idea into a time-consuming monster. So, STOP! Re-think. Go back to the basics. Keeping it simple will—I can guarantee it if you actually do it—make your fundraising more successful and all those involved, more productive.

Janet Levine is a fundraising consultant. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at