When we talk to nonprofit staff, one commonly recurring question is “How can we do better at grant funding?” We’ve decided to leverage our history and experience in the sector to gather materials for a series of articles on this topic. Our in-depth conversations with foundation and corporate program officers and a wider survey of their peers form the basis of the series. In this article, Powering Nonprofits focuses on the perspective of a corporate foundation program officer.
The Corporate Foundation
Cracking the corporate foundation is the dream of many nonprofits. It may feel like a quest for the Holy Grail—or one that has chances similar to that of a snowball-in-a-warm-place. But if what your organization’s programs are addressing aligns with what a corporation has prioritized for charitable giving, securing corporate funding partners is possible.
Powering Nonprofits had a chance to speak to Michael Devlin, Director of Grants and Initiatives at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation about his thoughts on how nonprofits and corporate foundation program officers can make it work.
When Everyone Gets What They Need
"First and foremost, the corporate funder wants their dollars to have a measurable impact. They want their brand to be equated with good citizenship."—Michael Devlin, Director of Grants, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation
Consider how your organization’s values match up with a corporation’s. In a world where an organization has embraced best practices for nonprofits, the board and leadership should have adopted a policy to clarify what kind of funding they will and won’t seek or accept.
The importance of a corporation prioritizing excellent brand ambassadorship and high exposure shouldn’t be a surprise. This may be a new approach for a nonprofit, and it might feel more like a business transaction than does a gift from a private donor advised fund or a public foundation—but in some ways, it’s exactly the same. Stephanie Eglington, Senior Program Officer at the Maine Community Foundation, encourages grantees to, “think about a grant as a match between the particular interests of a funder/donor and the nonprofit.”
The opportunity to be trusted with a multi-year funding award provides a nonprofit with the breathing room to do the work of the organization and cuts down on the administrative costs of seeking and working with more funders. Many grant-makers got on board with this thinking a long time ago, though perhaps for different reasons, as noted by Andrea Berry, Director of Communications and Engagement with Maine Initiatives: “Part of our mission is changing philanthropy, pushing other foundations to give up some of the power they hold in order to build a more equitable and higher functioning sector.” Regardless of their motivation, more grant-making organizations are taking the need for multi-year funding seriously, as a tool that helps get nonprofits off the hamster wheel of proposal writing and the danger of mission drift in an effort to chase the funding. Harvard Pilgrim Foundation subscribes to this kind of thinking and its efficiency, currently operating with a three-year funding cycle for the lion’s share of their grants.
I suggested that a three-year funding cycle sounded like a “long-term relationship,” but Mike went so far as to use the word “marriage.” In any case, the relationship is an actual contract based on agreements, deliverables, and trust, with the quality of the partnership at the core of its success. According to Mike, Harvard Pilgrim Foundation holds the belief “that they are in a partnership with their grantees. Making a good partnership means a shared commitment to ‘you do your part and we’ll do ours.’”
How Do We Know If We’re Doing Our Part?
Mike used another weighty word: Metrics. Metrics are data points that can help weigh impact, cost, and sustainability. Harvard Pilgrim Foundation places such a strong value on metrics that they provide technical assistance for their grantees, offering professional support in establishing assessment and evaluation tools. This is an enviable offering, as not everyone went into nonprofit work because of their innate skill in defining and measuring metrics.
Managing expectations about data points is important and goes both ways. Nonprofits need reporting requirements that are do-able and on scale with the amount of funding; how many people hours go into creating, deploying, and analyzing data, and is the funder willing to pay for that? Using metrics shouldn’t be like inventing the wheel; professional technical assistance that fills the gaps in an organization’s capacity to gather meaningful data about impact and efficiencies is a dream come true.
Sometimes metrics can make a case for why more funding is needed, and sometimes they highlight the need to change course. A quadrant analysis can help plot out high/low impact, but having specific metrics can more precisely clarify to what extent programs deliver on mission.
Relationships Need Nurturing And Lots Of Communication
One of Harvard Pilgrim Foundation’s strategies in support of their grantees is hosting an active listserv, posting information on funding resources and best practices. It’s also a tool for grantees to connect with and support each other—to ask questions, share ideas, and alert people to events. Annual conferences, quarterly meetings, and listening sessions also help keep everyone on track.
Confidence builds in a partnership when there’s evidence that the funder believes in you enough to make an investment. Mike said, “We know some organizations are fragile. If there’s a problem, we really need to know about it—it’s so much better when our grantees tell us so we can sit down and help them out. We want to see what it is they need because we want them to be successful and to be able to continue getting funding.”
Be honest. Don't sugarcoat the things that didn't go as planned. It's obvious when the situation is presented in a less than candid way. Be as clear as possible about the things that were in your control and the things that were out of your control, and what you would have done differently, in hindsight, about the things that were in your control. ~Anonymous Respondent, Powering Nonprofits Survey
When asked about partnerships that stood out for Mike, he referenced a grantee in Newburyport, MA. “They are so resourceful in securing local support and building their work within the community. We took a chance on them—they didn’t have their 501c3 status yet and were working with a fiscal sponsor—and we have been so happy to be a part of a fair amount of growth for a small organization in such a short time.”
Sometimes, you just know it’s going to work—it can be like love at first sight. And trust is a two-way street.
If you’ve got a stellar relationship with a program officer please share, and Powering Nonprofits may include your story in this series. Previous articles have covered how to cultivate the program officer relationship, top tips to get grants, and what not to do. Please subscribe to our RSS feed or check back over the next few weeks for updates.
Kara has a lifetime of success in patron engagement and fundraising in North America, and spent two years recently at Birmingham Royal Ballet building systems for engagement.