Lindsay Nichols, on 1/27/10 11:39 AM
Bob Ottenhoff, on 1/20/10 10:23 PM
It seems that everyone—including GuideStar—has a list of organizations helping in Haiti. And with these lists come questions. From donors: Which organization(s) should I support? From nonprofits: How does my organization get the public’s attention?
The U.S. Office of Management and Budget has established Partner4Solutions.gov to gather solutions and best practices to improve service delivery, payment accuracy, and administrative efficiency and reduce access barriers in federally funded assistance programs.
Jason Hall, on 1/1/10 8:00 AM
Oh, yes, times are tough for all sources of funding, and they'll stay that way for a while because of the lag effect (see below). That you knew. What you may not know is that getting money from the government, whether at the local, state, or federal level, is a lot like gambling, and more like gambling than getting money from your donors, foundations, members, and users of your nonprofit's services. But there are things you can do to increase your odds, once you think it through and decide that you're ready to play, and which casinos and which games to play.
Here are some things that can make going for government money at best a waste of time and at worst a danger:
OK, your eyes are open, you've considered all of the above (and other drawbacks specific to your situation), and you've decided you are, indeed, ready to play. And why not? The above notwithstanding, lots of people play and win. Here's the next question:
You've three main places to place your bets: local, state, and federal sources. Unless you've got a pretty big operation, you probably can't play in all of those venues at once. Where's the most money likely to be? Depends on what you do. For museums, which I know best, the answer is pretty easy: about 95 percent of the government money that museums get is from state and local sources. That's in part because, rightly or wrongly, they are seen as primarily serving local, or perhaps state, but not national audiences. One of my non-museum clients, on the other hand, regularly gets the vast majority of its funding from federal grants, because the work it does directly furthers the national and international agendas of its funding agencies.
Here are some points to consider as you think about where to apply for government funds:
OK, you're ready to play and you've figured out at which level (local, state, or federal) you are going to concentrate your efforts this time. What do you need to know to help you make a rational decision about where to risk your limited resources? Let's look at the two main kinds of government funds:
Earmarks are roulette, which is the game with the highest odds favoring the gambling house. An earmark is provision in legislation that sets aside government funds for a specific entity, thus bypassing the competitive grant process found at many government agencies. You see them described in the newspapers, right? As a citizen, you may cringe; as a nonprofit leader, one of whose chief responsibilities is to raise money to further the mission, you may say, "I want one!" (After all, you think, your nonprofit has the kind of mission that deserves some noncompetitive support, especially if other, less worthy entities are getting their shares.)
OK, fine, but be aware that a variety of moons have to align for you to get an earmark.
Sounds like it's a fool's game, right? Actually, it's not. Earmarks have been around in the United States since the beginning of the Republic, and a lot longer elsewhere. They aren't about to disappear, because they help politicians get constituents to love (and therefore reelect) them. So somebody's going to get some even in tough times. And there are things you can do to increase your odds. Just be aware that in the best of situations, they are long shots. In addition, lobbyists, who are the expert help you need here if you don't want to do this on your own, don't operate on contingency, like some lawyers, so you could pay some serious money that may or may not produce a return even with the best practitioners. In short, pay for the seeking of earmarks with money you can afford to lose.
Note: One way to get expert help at a much reduced rate is to be willing to do a good part of the work yourself and then finding a lobbyist who is willing to coach you initially and along the way so that you make the right steps. Aside from its being a lot cheaper, thus minimizing your risk, this approach has two other significant advantages: YOU now have permanent knowledge of how to seek earmarks, and YOU now have contacts with your legislators, rather than paying the lobbyist to improve his or her contacts for the lobbyist's own purposes.
Grants are card counting ... with three accomplices. As you know, card counting is a way to increase your percentages in blackjack and related games; it's legal, it works, and it drives the casinos nuts. (If you're curious, see the movie 21, based on the true story of one of the MIT teams that made some serious money until the casinos started to muscle and ban them.) And team card counting, using a main player and accomplices who gather information and advise, produces some of the best results.
The funding ratio for most competitive government grants is less than 50/50, and many are more like 1 in 10. But by knowing how the system works—and as a former grants officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities and a former senior staffer at both NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts, I do—you can significantly raise your chances of success. Team play increases them further. Your team players here are a good lobbyist, a good grant writer (these first two, of course, could be you), and a grants officer inside the target agency. Here are some things you can do to improve your changes of receiving a government grant:
Here are six suggestions:
Finally, have fun. Government people, whether career agency folks or politicians, usually have the public interest at heart, even if they can't express that perfectly every day, and they often know interesting and timely things that can be important to your nonprofit. Besides, they're sitting on piles of money, and now you're better equipped to get them to part with some it.
Jason Hall, Public Trust Strategies
© 2010, Public Trust Strategies
Jason Hall is principal of Public Trust Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in helping nonprofits with government relations and government funding, and a professor at George Mason University. A former Senate staffer, he was both a grants officer and later the Congressional relations director at the National Endowment for the Humanities, a Federal grantmaking agency, and acting director of Publications and of Public Affairs at the National Endowment for the Arts.
My family has been going to the same dental practice for years.
Last month, GuideStar’s partner GreatNonprofits published the first-ever "top charities" lists based on user ratings and reviews. (Most charity review systems rely on financial measurements to evaluate nonprofits.) The lists identify the highest-rated charities in 13 cities and 7 subject areas:
It’s that time again—for turning over a new leaf, for reexamining our work and lives, for refocusing on what we really want, and for refreshing our commitment to good works.
Suzanne Coffman, on 1/1/10 8:00 AM
The IRS has published tables of the due dates for Form 990 and other returns nonprofits must file, released the governance check sheet that agents will use in exempt organization examinations, and announced the schedule for its spring workshops for 501(c)(3) organizations.
Reprinted from Contributions Magazine
With all the media we're exposed to—print and electronic—does it matter terribly when you mail to donors? Not really.
In watching the mail for more than two decades, I haven't found a time when it makes sense not to mail.
Indeed, one of the values of direct mail fundraising—especially for organizations receiving lots of grants or that have government contracts—is that it provides cash flow, that steady stream of unrestricted revenue that pays salaries and rent.
To be sure, there are times of the year when the flow of contributions ebbs and when donors and prospective donors seem less responsive. But in my experience these periods vary from organization to organization and from region to region. For some groups, the July-August summer vacation period does spell a slow down. Others I'm familiar with have their second-most productive giving season in July.
The prime reason to send out mailings throughout the year is that you don't really know when your donors or prospective donors are disposed to give. Or even when they're going to be home. The overwhelming majority of your donors are older; a narrower majority are retired or semi-retired. They often plan their travel to avoid the summer months when families are clogging the highways and byways. And who can predict when they might just pick up and go visit the grandchildren for two weeks?
One of the terrible truths of direct mail is that someone has to open your mail, so you have to mail often enough to catch someone at home.
Another terrible truth is that charitable contributions come last in financial priorities. Almost all Americans give what they perceive to be discretionary income—what's left over after food, shelter, and health care are covered. The good news is that millions of Americans—especially those whose children are grown and those with homes and other assets—do have discretionary income. The even better news is that they enjoy using that income to support causes and projects they care about.
But that good news still puts you in a bind, because many factors affect an individual's perception of their discretionary capacity. The "revenue river" widens and narrows throughout the year, as real expenses make their demands and as pension checks, dividends, and other income sources fluctuate.
Even more challenging to the fundraiser is that surprise factors have an even greater influence. For example, illness could prompt anxiety about whether discretionary income should be saved for a long-term convalescence. Or a rise in the stock market could lead a donor to feel suddenly wealthier and more willing to write your organization a $100 check.
To account for this variability in your donors' discretionary income, it's important to provide opportunities throughout the year for them to make contributions.
Sending mailings at least six times a year has an additional benefit. Many people—at least 10 percent and perhaps as many as 20 percent—prefer to make more than one contribution to your organization. They derive real satisfaction from supporting your work, and like to express that support more than once a year. They may also have "limits" to what they'll contribute at any one time; they'll gladly send four checks of $250, but never a single gift of $500.
So, it's true you don't have to worry about which months to mail. In fact, you should look at every month as a mailing opportunity. Of course, you don't want to send mailings to donors who have requested to receive a mailing only once a year. And you certainly don't want to send more than two or three mailings to those who haven't given for some time or to those who make very small gifts.
It's important to say, too, that even though there probably aren't months of the year you should avoid, there are times when you absolutely should send out mailings. Americans do give throughout the year, but a larger percentage make contributions and make bigger contributions in November and December. January is a time when many gifts are sent—perhaps to express hope and commitment for the New Year. It's ideal to mail all year round, but if you're forced to make a choice, early November, early December, and mid-January are the times when donors need to receive your mailings the most.
© 2009, Stephen Hitchcock. Reprinted from Contributions Magazine, vol. 23, no. 3; reprinted with permission of Emerson & Church, publishers.
Stephen Hitchcock is the author of Open Immediately! Straight Talk on Direct Mail Fundraising: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why.