Wellspring Consulting

One Reason Why I Love the Nonprofit Sector

Image: Maayan Ohayon

Image: Maayan Ohayon

At Wellspring Consulting, we work entirely with nonprofits. I am often deeply moved by the leaders in our client organizations, their selfless approach, and the missions they are serving.

I vividly remember one day when we were helping the leadership team at Open Circle rethink their pricing. Open Circle trains grade-school teachers in methods to help their students learn how to get along interpersonally. To assess Open Circle’s pricing, we studied their competitors, interviewed their customers, and built an economic model of their costs and revenues. We found that Open Circle could charge more for their services, and we suggested that they do so.  But Lisa Sankowski, Associate Director at Open Circle, pushed back, saying, “We wouldn’t want to charge the schools more. They’re already under enough economic hardship, and higher prices would only make it harder for them.”  So we chose not to increase prices to the schools. Instead, we presented funders and donors with a clear depiction of Open Circle’s economic model to demonstrate why additional support was needed. This worked. Open Circle raised more money and met their economic needs.

To me, Lisa’s response crystallizes something I love about the nonprofit sector, and which I have seen many times over. Leaders of nonprofit organizations care deeply about the ultimate wellbeing of their customers. Laura Walker, President and CEO of New York Public Radio stayed at the radio station through the terror of 9/11, keeping it open while the frightening chaos rained about their offices. Thanks to her bravery, listeners all over the city were helped in their response to the crisis. Debbie Bial, Executive Director at Posse Foundation – which supports low-income youth in going to top colleges – communicates an infectious enthusiasm about Posse’s kids, their talents and their potential. Through her leadership Posse now operates in ten cities across the country, and she has personally taken scores of photos of radiant young adults on their college graduation day, which now hang on the walls and website pages of the Foundation. And Kathy Douglass, who left a lucrative career as a partner at one of the top law firms in New York City, founded In Motion, an organization providing free legal services to victims of domestic violence. Over 20 years under her guidance, the organization has served thousands of women.

Daily, I am touched by such leaders’ caring, vision and tenacity. I believe in them, and what they are doing. I am stirred by the amazing ways they are making change happen. And through them, I am able to be a part of something much larger than myself.

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.