Brittany Kelleher

Fundraising Starter Kit

Funding: it’s a tireless chase that can exhaust a nonprofit, sucking up resources for insufficient financial gain and limiting the organization’s ability to achieve social good. It’s no wonder, then, that Executive Directors and Board members alike often approach Wellspring for answers to their funding challenges. Our approaches vary and depend upon their needs. They can range from in-depth analysis of government sources to identifying program outcomes that are most attractive to foundations.

While an organization’s development strategy is, by definition, client-specific and non-transferable, through our client work at Wellspring, we have come to realize that there are certain practices that are noteworthy. For example, as part of our recent work with a longstanding, youth development organization, we generated a list of best practices for attracting foundation dollars. These practices, developed through conversations with organization leaders with strong fundraising records, apply to many different organization.

So, without further ado, the list of suggestions:

  • It’s all about the data: Organization leaders were clear: without strong demonstration of impact, you’re risking chances of funding. Like all savvy shoppers, foundations, and donors and corporations too, want to know that their dollars are going to good use. Identifying clear metrics and building robust technology systems to track performance are critical. Without them, many foundations won’t entertain the idea of supporting your organizations. And so, while these efforts may be time consuming and expensive, the upfront cost and hassle will pay off in the end.
  • Make friends: One Executive Director put it best: “Don’t treat foundations like ATMs.” Winning grants is not transactional. It’s about building relationships. It’s about spending time in funders’ offices and bringing them along in your vision to affect the world. As a result of these efforts, you will have someone to turn to – someone who understands your organization and values its impact – when you need funding in two years’ time. 
  • Welcome them into your home: No matter how good of a storyteller you are, nothing illustrates a program’s power better than seeing it in action. So invite funders to watch the magic happen. Let them see what drives your organization. Let them see what compels you to show up at their door, asking for money – and they’ll be more likely to oblige. 
  • Be innovative: What’s new is always attractive – and this can be particularly frustrating for longstanding, even if high-impact, organizations. While acknowledging this frustration, experts noted that you can appease funders’ desire for novelty by injecting elements of innovation into the regular update of programs. Some also advocated for being strategic about program growth, incorporating areas of foundation interest. At the same time, they warn against bending to the every whim of foundations. Doing so could leave you with incoherent growth and programs that are not mission aligned – and, consequently, with an organization that is less appealing to funders.

To be sure, these suggestions are not a panacea; they won’t cure your every funding woe. But it is a strong starter kit that will put a new “oomph” in your development efforts, even those that are already strong.

Don’t Forget the Community: the Role of Stakeholder Input in Reforming Public Education

On December 10th of 2015, President Obama signed a new bipartisan education bill into law, calling it a “Christmas miracle.” Formally known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the bill maintains the central aims of No Child Left Behind, which include holding schools accountable to higher standards and closing the achievement gap. However, ESSA also recognizes that the path to realizing the goals laid out by No Child Left Behind led to limited change. The bill is a tacit admission that education reform has been stalled by federal oversight.

No Child Left Behind “didn’t always consider the specific needs of each community,” said President Obama. “It often forced schools and school districts into cookie-cutter reforms.” Most Democrats and Republicans now agree that education reform is a local matter, specific to the context in which schools operate. This new law works to implement such thinking, allowing states to set their own performance goals, systems for measuring school performance, and processes for improving underperforming schools.

With its call for localized implementation, ESSA recognizes what my Wellspring team has observed in our work with a recent client – the importance of constituent involvement. This client, a mid-sized, private high school, cited having only moderate success with prior strategic plans, which they attributed to limited stakeholder input and buy-in. Consequently, we took a different approach, conducting nearly one hundred interviews, hosting four focus groups and administering a survey to approximately 1,500 individuals within the school’s community. Additionally, we facilitated monthly discussions with a diverse group of constituents that included Board members, school leaders and teaching faculty.

Bringing together such a diverse set of perspectives was critical to surfacing the needs of the community and developing a plan that could be feasibly implemented. Doing so was not without challenge. But, due to the circumscribed setting of a single, independently run school, it was possible to acknowledge, if not address, the concerns of many.

The question then becomes, “Can the state do so on its larger stage?” Or, to ask the more essential question, “Will the state understand the value in involving its various constituents when improving its education systems?”  Just as was true for our work, involving experts across a variety of fields, as well as administrators, teachers, parents, and students will be critical to developing state-wide plans that incorporate both community needs and wants. Equally important is that this will encourage stakeholder buy-in, something which No Child Left Behind sorely lacked and was a key reason for its problematic implementation.

At these early stages, experts are wary about the implication of ESSA. They say that only time will tell us if it will provide an equitable education for all kids, especially the minority, poor, disabled, and marginalized.  For now, states and districts have one year – until the 2017-2018 school year – to determine how to best support their schools and ensure that all kids receive a quality education.