Mastering the Art of Storytelling

I often say that writing grants isn’t rocket science. It’s a skill. Therefore, it’s something that most people can learn.

In my opinion, and in my experience, it all boils down to your ability to tell a story.

So often people get caught up in the logistics and the semantics of the grant announcement that they forget what the process is all about. You’re trying to win the heart of the funder by mesmerizing them with your story. You need to give them a compelling reason to invest in your program and your organization.

When I was in high school there was a defining moment that made me a great writer.  My English literature teacher assigned us to write a report on Macbeth. When I got my paper back I was disappointed with my grade. When I asked her to explain to me what I did wrong she mentioned several key things I left out of the story. To which my response was, “you know that already. You read the story.”

Her response was my aha moment and forever changed me as a writer.  She said, “you have to write as though I don’t know the story.”

That’s the exact same thing you have to remember when you’re writing a grant.  The reviewer of your grant doesn’t know your story. They can’t look it up on Google. So, if you want them to know the great things about your program you have to tell them.

Here are 3 key things you can do to master the art of storytelling.

1. Identify the story you want to tell. There maybe a lot your organization is doing, but what is that one story you want to tell and have the ability to tell effectively. Even in the midst of everything you’re doing there should be a central storyline at the core.

For example, Habitat for Humanity (HFH) is a nonprofit organization that builds homes for low-income families. The story isn’t that it builds houses, it’s the impact it’s having on families and communities around the world.

2. Pick three key points you want to make about that story. Provide supporting statements that make the point. These should be concrete examples.

Using the same example of HFH, an option is to highlight the before and after of a family that was the beneficiary of a new home. What was their life like before and how is it different now? Beyond the obvious of now they have a house whereas they didn’t before. You have to go deeper  by revealing something less obvious, but extremely impactful.

3. Demonstrate why your story matters to the donor. Why should they give to your organization? Ideally, your story and your work should align with the priorities and values of the donor you’re soliciting for help.  Also, be sure to demonstrate the direct impact of their donation by identifying the actual problem it will resolve.

If you can incorporate these three strategies you will significantly improve your ability to tell your story and to write successful grant proposals.

If you want to learn more ways to tell your story, I’m offering a course on this subject in October. I’d love to have you join us.

Until next time…

Peace & Blessings!

Five Reasons Faith-Based Organizations Fail to Get Federal Funds

When I started writing grants 16 years ago I was very intimidated. I wanted to do a good job for the organizations I worked for because I wanted them to get the funding.

In this industry, practice makes the difference. The more grants I wrote, the more confident I became. But what gave me the most confidence was reviewing grants. It taught me what to do and what not to do. It also gave me invaluable insights into the competition, which I used to help my clients.

Over the years, I noticed there was a disparity in the successful applications. In particular, among the faith-based organizations (FBO). It’s not that the federal government doesn’t want to fund faith-based organizations, they do. It had more to do with the quality of their proposals.

My initial motivation for entering the grant writing field was to help faith-based organizations, especially churches, gain the skill sets to obtain federal funding. So, I can’t overlook this teaching opportunity.

There are five common mistakes I find among the proposals from FBO.

  1. Lack Capacity –one of the fundamental things the Feds want to see is whether or not an applicant has the capacity to implement the programs at the level expected. They measure capacity from an organizational standpoint as well as a fiscal standpoint. Applicants need the human resources and financial resources, and many FBO lack both.
  1. No Structure – Feds want to ensure the organization is sound and has competent leadership in place. Many FBOs fail to demonstrate the competency and relevant experience of their board of directors. Whether the board is a governing board or an advisory board,  they need to possess the right skill sets and experience to ensure the success of the organization. Feds want to see executive level experience and the financial qualifications necessary to manage a substantial, and many times, multi-million dollar budget. Therefore, it’s important to demonstrate who is on your board and why, and their roles and responsibilities. Many FBO have a board of directors on paper only. They were only chosen to fill the mandated slots as recommended by the Secretary of State, not to have any key role in the decision making process.
  1. No Strategy – many FBO cannot demonstrate they have a strategy for the long term. Typically, they form out of necessity to meet an immediate need in their community. They operate from survival mode and rarely take the time to develop a viable strategy. Feds want to see your goals and objectives, which must lead to sustainable, measurable outcomes. If you don’t have a strategy, then it’s hard to ensure a positive outcome.
  1. No Funding – part of demonstrating fiscal capacity is the availability of multiple streams of revenue. If you’re solely dependent on the funding in which you’re applying, that doesn’t assure the feds of fiscal capacity. Grantees must be able to demonstrate that their programs can function as intended until the funding is available for drawing down. Federal grant funds are reimbursable, which means you have to perform the work first and then get paid.  It’s also not a good idea to be solely dependent on grant funds – fed money or otherwise- to operate your organization. It helps to consider other means for generating revenue. Many FBO don’t diversify their funding streams, so when the grant funds expire, so do their programs. No funder wants to invest in an organization that is not going to be able sustain itself beyond grant dollars.
  1. No Programming – Feds want to see that organizations are implementing programs that have been proven to work, especially among their proposed target population. They typically require their grantees to utilize evidenced based programs and strategies. Unfortunately, many FBO confuse ministries with programming. They’re not the same. Programs are strategic and structured. They also yield an expected, sustainable outcome. Ministries generally operate from a need-based approach, and often times their efforts aren’t evaluated.

Now, having identified these common mistakes, please know there is hope. There are many faith-based organizations getting federal funds. I just want to ensure that even more organizations can access those funds.

I’m opening registration this week for a new coaching program that specifically targets faith based organizations. I’ll work with 10 faith-based leaders who are ready to elevate their organization and programs to the next level.

Check out this link to get more information.

Until next time…

Peace & Blessings!

It Takes a Village to Run a Successful Nonprofit Organization

One of the most valuable lessons I learned while working in substance abuse prevention is that good prevention programs can’t operate in silos. What that means is you can’t work alone. You need others to be successful.

Yet, I’ve too often encountered nonprofit leaders who don’t want to work with other organizations. They don’t usually say that, but their actions do. This lack of cooperation becomes extremely detrimental when they pursue grant funding. Funders want you to play nice with others. The technical term they use is to “collaborate.” Every request for proposal you read will ask you to describe your community partners.

Community partnerships take on various forms. The most common form is the use of volunteers. They’re primarily used for programmatic and administrative purposes. Helping kids with homework, setting up for events, making calls, answering phones, making copies, etc.

Volunteers also function in more official capacities like serving on boards of directors. Unlike most for-profit corporations, nonprofit organization’s board of directors are comprised of volunteers. However, these roles require a greater depth of expertise and credentials.

You should also consider going a step further to form steering committees and advisory boards. These can work in conjunction with your board of directors. Many board of directors are for governing purposes, but advisory boards can help set guidelines for programmatic activities.

As the CEO or Executive Director of your nonprofit organization you want to set yourself up for success. There is no better way to do that than by recruiting the right people to help you.

Here are some suggestions to help you do this effectively:

  1. Set some goals. What are three to five key things you need to accomplish with the organization. Think big picture. Consider the long-term, not just immediate needs.
  2. Determine the expertise necessary to accomplish those goals. Who are the experts in your field that you will need to accomplish your goals?
  3. Identify key sectors that need to be involved. Which stakeholders must be at the table? (i.e. schools, law enforcement, churches, parents, etc.)
  4. Develop a recruitment strategy. Check your sphere of influence. What people do you know that can help attract the people needed from each sector?
  5. Articulate what’s in it for them. It could be a big picture appeal or an individual appeal. Some people care about service and making a difference, others are motivated by personal agendas. Find out what those reasons are for each person you approach.
  6. Set the expectations. Knowing what they will be asked to do and for how long will facilitate the decision-making process for them. Most people are already over committed to projects, so their time is valuable. Show the value of your program/organization.

Most people won’t pass up the opportunity to get involved in something worthwhile and that will yield a positive return. Your job is to make sure you demonstrate why your project is worthwhile. Give them a reason to want to help you.

Remember, when it comes to making an impact at the community level, it really does take a village.

A Thin Line Between Right & Wrong

Ethics for Nonprofit Organizations

No matter the industry you choose to work, they all have their share of good and bad. The nonprofit industry is no different. Just because nonprofit organizations are set up for charitable purposes, it doesn’t mean there aren’t people who run them with ill intentions.

There is a story that has been brewing here in Jacksonville, FL for the past year regarding a local nonprofit organization with national significance. The Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) was accused of misappropriating the funds raised for the programs they offer veterans.

I won’t get into the details of the story. Here’s the link to the article featured in the Nonprofit Quarterly –Senate Committee Finds Past Misrepresentation of Finances at the Wounded Warrior Project.  I’m simply using it as a reference.

This story struck a chord with me because it’s cases like this that make me so passionate about making sure nonprofit organizations are set up correctly and that they function with the highest of ethics. Everything from selecting board members to raising funds needs to be intentional and all actions should be beyond reproach.

The Senate Finance and Judicial Committee found that WWP was not guilty of any illegal acts, but they were cited for deliberately misrepresenting the allocation of funds. Technically, what they did wasn’t illegal, but it blurs the ethics lines. Despite the great work they do for veterans this scandal has tainted their organization. Inevitably, this will affect their donations and the ability for donors to trust them.

The reason the IRS makes it so cumbersome for nonprofit organizations to form is because they need to ensure the organizations are legitimate and actually set up for charitable purposes. Every time an organization is brought into question, it makes it that much more difficult for all the organizations that come after them.

As there are hundreds of nonprofit organizations forming every day, you want to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and that you do it right. So, here are some suggestions to help you:

  1. Do what is legal, but also do what’s right. In the case of the WWP, they were technically within the law to appropriate their donated funds the way they did, but the intentions were wrong. Therefore, it became an ethics issue.
  2. Be selective about your board of directors and make sure they share your values. Have an effective recruiting and retention process for your board members.
  3. Have a set of checks and balances. Make sure to inspect what you expect. If you want excellence in your programs and your finances, make sure you inspect your systems, processes, and the people providing oversight.
  4. Be transparent. Keep donors informed of how you’re spending their funds and ensure you have a Certified Public Accountant and Chief Financial Officer who are accurately and routinely reporting income and donations as required by the IRS. Nonprofits are required to make their financial statements of public knowledge.

These are some basic fundamentals that will ensure overall success. Running a nonprofit organization is no different than running a for profit business. If you keep that in mind then you will be ahead of most people who start a nonprofit.

For more information about how to start a nonprofit organization and run it effectively, then you may want to register for my upcoming class on Tuesday, June 20th – “So, You Want to Start a Nonprofit”. 

Two Problems Preventing Faith-Based Organizations From Getting Funding

When I decided to get into the grant writing field, my initial intention was to help faith-based organizations find funding to support their work.

I know a lot of faith-based organizations that do a lot of good work for the community. They offer after school programs for youth, they feed the homeless, they even work with ex-offenders to keep them out of prison and get them into the workforce.

These are all wonderful acts of service. Even better, they are all fundable activities. Faith-based organizations can get money from private donors as well as federal agencies. Yet, many are unsuccessful in securing funding.

Based on my experience, I believe there are two primary reasons for that:

  1. They aren’t telling their story effectively.
  2. They aren’t demonstrating their successes.

One of the downfalls of faith-based organizations, especially churches, is they don’t always operate their ministries as a business. Fortunately, most of them are aware they need to establish a separate nonprofit organization that operates independently from the church. That’s an important step, but there are still other business practices from which faith-based organizations can benefit.

The chief among those practices is marketing. Marketing beyond the walls of the church. It is important to invest the time in creating a marketing plan that is customized to your organization, and based on your community, access to resources, and your budget.

Sometimes marketing requires spending money on traditional outlets like TV, print, and radio. That’s only a part of it.

The other aspect to marketing is social media. Though social media marketing is key, it’s not everything. Too many organizations think this is all they need to do. So, they set up Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts and that’s their marketing strategy.

That one tactic is not enough. To be successful in fundraising you have to be able to tell your story comprehensively – through various mediums and formats. This includes attending community meetings, networking, distributing newsletters, etc.

The second reason many faith-based organizations aren’t able to get funding from major sources is they aren’t able to demonstrate their success. Major funders will need to see something more than just a good program. They need to see successful outcomes.

Those outcomes have to be based on more than anecdotal information. Funders want to see the data. Unfortunately, many faith-based organizations are not gathering data in a consistent, effective way. Some aren’t gathering it at all.

Major donors want to be assured they’re investing in a program that will be successful and will yield sustainable outcomes. Sustainable outcomes ensure a positive return on their investment.

The only way to demonstrate sustainable outcomes is to use evidenced-based practices and to consistently track the program’s success.