Why We Invest in Nonprofit Talent—and the Grant Program We Created From the Ground Up

By Stephen Alexander, Exponent Philanthropy

In its third year, the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network’s (YNPN) Atlanta chapter launched an Opportunity Grant program to support Atlanta’s young nonprofit professionals. YNPN Atlanta awards individual grants up to $750 to current members for professional development opportunities such as conferences, classes, or association memberships. The following is an excerpt from a conversation with Lindsey Hardegree and Kate Naylor who have run the grants program since its inception in 2014.

What motivated you to create YNPN Atlanta’s Opportunity Grants program?

There’s little funding for professional development for young professionals in Atlanta, and it’s frustrating to them. Many organizations, big and small, don’t budget for professional development, and the ones that do typically reserve funds for senior level professionals. We saw this grant program as an opportunity to provide a service that few employers are offering in Atlanta.

We believe the lack of professional development funding impedes young professionals from growing their careers. Your first job in the nonprofit world doesn’t necessarily line up with your long-term ambitions. As nonprofit organizations, we’re oftentimes so focused on operating on our shoestring budgets that we’re unable to properly prepare staff (or ourselves) for the future.

YNPN Atlanta has always strived to provide affordable and accessible professional development opportunities. When we realized we had more money for the year than we needed, we recognized an opportunity to steward our money in a creative way while addressing this obvious need. The answer was clear: give the money back to members in support of their professional development.

Describe your grant program for us.

We’re a tiny organization, and for us this program makes up a massive piece of our $25,000 budget. Our plan is to give away $7,500 over the course of a year, with a maximum of $750 to any single individual. A quarterly grant cycle seemed like a good start, because it offers us flexibility in case we receive more strong applications in any given quarter than we can fund. This last cycle was easily our most competitive!

  • Application—We see the application process itself as a professional development opportunity for members. We want them to be able to spell out why this opportunity is so critical to them, and our questions are aimed at helping applicants think through their big-picture career goals.

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Is Playing It Cool Holding Us Back in Philanthropy?

By Andy Carroll, Exponent Philanthropy

We have all heard the warning: In philanthropy, following the heart will lead you astray.

Hunger, homelessness, children who lack opportunity, disasters, pollution, forsaken animals—these touch us deeply. And we give to organizations that have served us—our schools and colleges; hospitals that cared for us; arts groups that enriched our lives. But before long, our dollars and attention get used up. Year after year we give, and the needs don’t seem to go away; some only get bigger.

The prevailing advice in philanthropy is to use our intellect to focus on the most important problems, educate yourself on the best approaches, and find nonprofits that truly make impact. Demand data to show proof of effectiveness.

The message to donors: Be smart, tough, discerning. You raised families and sent children into the world; you built successful businesses. Don’t check your intellect and savvy at the door when you do philanthropy; follow through and be strategic.

I could not agree more. The counsel to do smarter, more educated giving is rock-solid. But are we also limiting ourselves?

By banning passion, by burying the heart, we may be undermining our ability to transform giving into changemaking. The issues and challenges we seek to address are so complex, so enormous, that money alone won’t solve them.

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Reducing the Burden on Our Grantseekers and Ourselves

By Dr. Stacy Van Gorp, R. J. McElroy Trust

Our goal is to make the McElroy Trust the easiest place to seek funding for good ideas. It’s not the easiest place to get a “yes,” because we see a lot of proposals, ask hard questions, and have high standards. But we try to never make a grantseeker jump through hoops.

I estimate that changes we have made in recent years to streamline our grant application and reporting process save our grantseekers (in total) about 840 hours each year, increase our net grant size—the dollars received after subtracting the cost of applying for and reporting on a grant, and save time for our staff and board.

Our changes were driven by several factors:

  1. Our approval rate moved from about 6/10 approved proposals in 2005 to 3/10 during the depth of the recession in 2009.
  2. Our trustees were interested in ways to enhance our support of youth-serving organizations, even as our assets had decreased.
  3. For a few years we asked our applicants how long it took to apply. The average response was 10 hours for a 4- to 6-page application. Time spent writing our application ranged from one hour to 80 hours! We discovered there was no relationship between the amount of time spent and our decision to fund. People who spent more time writing were no more or less likely to be approved.
  4. I was ready for change internally. We had been using staff time to summarize proposals for the board, which seemed cumbersome for us and the seekers.
  5. We were also asking questions we knew the answers to! For example, we asked the Boys and Girls Club to describe its mission and organization every year, even though we had funded them several times.

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The Holistic World of Human Rights

By Jaune Evans, Tamalpais Trust

This post is the second in a series curated by our colleagues at the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG), a global network of donors and grantmakers committed to advancing human rights around the world. The series will explore the ins and outs of supporting human rights as a funder with few or no staff. Read the first post in the series 

Myrna Cunningham, Indigenous rights activist and advisor to Tamalpais Trust

Myrna Cunningham, Indigenous rights activist and advisor to Tamalpais Trust

When Myrna Cunningham smiles, the whole world lights up—shining her compassion, insight, and expertise into the dark corners where human rights’ abuses are often hidden or buried. For the past five decades, she has dedicated her life to the world of human rights. Among her many roles, Myrna works as a consultant to Tamalpais Trust, which was created in 2012 as a 20-year grantmaking initiative to benefit Indigenous-led organizations.

Rooted in her Miskito culture and land-base which spans the Atlantic-Caribbean coast of Nicaragua and Honduras, Myrna’s journey began with an academic scholarship to a Catholic school along with two other “disadvantaged” girls. “There was nothing else to do but study,” she says, “and the nuns gave me special attention.” Ever since, she has been studying and giving special attention to the fields of education and international human rights.

Myrna first became a grade school teacher, then the first Miskita woman doctor in Nicaragua. Her everyday humility belies a demanding career in which she holds several high-level public positions at once. In her home city of Porto Cabezas, nearly every person she meets on the street greets her with a warm hug and family news. More often than not she will acknowledge that she birthed this person or their daughter or son. She has six children of her own and many grandchildren at home now too.

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Taking Small Risks, Then Taking the Leap

By Sara Beggs, Exponent Philanthropy

Before co-founding Arbor Brothers, which offers nonprofits 3-year unrestricted grants and extensive capacity building support, Sammy Politziner and Scott Thomas were living parallel lives: from University of Michigan to Teach for America to Wall Street. When they met up at a Michigan football game, both were questioning whether their Wall Street careers offered enough meaning.

Would they be more satisfied being part of the solution in a more direct way?

They knew several friends running nonprofits—friends with lots of passion but less know-how for managing an entire organization. Could these nonprofits benefit from learning and applying the finance and operations skills Sammy and Scott were using on Wall Street? Could Sammy and Scott translate this idea into a job?

Arbor Brothers co-founder Scott Thomas working with GirlTrek

Arbor Brothers co-founder Scott Thomas working with GirlTrek

Heading back to New York City, each agreed to plan weekly dinners with an individual who intersected with the nonprofit world. To ensure they would gather consistent information, they developed a set of questions to ask each dinner guest:

  • What do you do, so we understand the context of your responses?
  • From where you sit (e.g., academia, grantmaking, nonprofit consulting, nonprofit leadership), what do you think is missing in the industry?
  • What do you wish you had access to but don’t?
  • What would you (or the industry) need to improve nonprofit performance?
  • For two people who want to be helpful, what would you recommend we do?
  • Are there one or two other people you recommend we speak with? If so, do you think they would be open to an introduction, and would you be willing to make it?

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9 Ways to Make a Difference: Strategies From Small-Staffed Foundations

In our 30-page primer Twenty Ways to Make a Difference: Stories From Small Foundations, author Andy Carroll describes 20 strategies that draw upon the unique assets small-staffed foundations hold. Here are 9 of the 20 strategies—just a sample of the many ways Exponent Philanthropy member foundations are making a difference through their philanthropy. Do any intrigue you? Fit easily into your existing work?

1. Choose a focus. A focus allows funders to accumulate experience, knowledge, and contacts; align activities toward a common goal; spend time working on what is meaningful to them; and better assess progress, make adjustments, stay on track, and see impact. See the post Five Barriers to Focus and Ways to Push Past Them >>

2. Fill important gaps. Funders often keep a watchful eye on needs not met in their communities—a vigilance that springs from a commitment to their hometowns and involvement there as volunteers, parents, employers, and employees. They also accumulate knowledge over time as they review proposals and talk with community agencies. Sometimes they are the first to identify a problem yet unnoticed or to signal the alarm about a trend that threatens to harm, if ignored.

3. Provide emergency loan funds. Some foundations operate revolving loan funds to provide emergency loans to nonprofits. The nonprofits are often waiting for checks to arrive from the government or other sources, and the emergency loans keep critical services available. As program related investments (PRIs), these loan funds are repaid to the foundation so it may make more emergency loans.

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Nimble Champions for Children

Earlier this fall, Exponent Philanthropy released Outsized Impact 2015, our annual publication illustrating the power of individual, family, and small-staffed foundation donors. The report centers around 7 funder stories that demonstrate characteristics we believe put philanthropy on a path toward outsized impact. We will share the stories here in the coming months, and we invite you to download the full Outsized Impact 2015 report now. 

On a balmy Monday afternoon this past spring, Denise Mayotte sat in her office anticipating good news. “It’s a big day here in Minnesota, because our legislature is due to wrap up. We’ve been doing so much work around early childhood issues,” she says of The Sheltering Arms Foundation. “There are some differences of opinion with our governor, who wants to do universal pre-K, but we believe low-income families need to be the first to get resources.”

The Sheltering Arms Foundation focuses on advocacy for vulnerable children in Minnesota, and Denise uses her leadership as executive director to support policies that, in turn, support those children. She funds direct service work and engages with grantees, which she enjoys, and she also digs into legislation, translating constituents’ experiences into broader policymaking. It’s the on-the-ground, grassroots tangibility that she loves.

“We’ve helped to ensure $27 million a year in the Minnesota state budget for scholarships for low-income kids to go to quality early childhood programs. We’re hoping this year there’ll be an extra $30 million a year. What’s needed is $150 million a year, so we’ve got a ways to go,” she acknowledges. “But we feel we’ve been part of changing the discussion around what kids need and the opportunities at the statewide level to fund it.”

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The Attitude, and What We Can Learn From Funders Who Possess It

By Mark Larimer, Foundant Technologies

one-plus-oneAt Foundant, we are fortunate to work with many grantmakers of different geographies, sizes, areas of interest, and grantmaking styles. Yet, the vast majority share a similar trait. They view their responsibility as maximizing the impact their philanthropic assets will have today and in the future. This perspective fuels their passion, and it is tangible. Around our office, we call it “The Attitude,” and we purposely search out these types of organizations as clients.

Here’s some of what we mean by “The Attitude” and what we can all learn from the funders who possess it.

Focus on collaboration, not directives.

Foundant, in general, does not work with the world’s biggest grantmakers. Instead, most of our clients are constrained by their staff size and rely heavily on grantees and nonprofits as the experts within their communities or focus areas. Due to this reliance, our clients end up fostering a more collaborative relationship with their grantees. They rely on them for resources, information, and expertise. Our clients tend to consider their grantees as partners, in the truest sense of the word. The resulting relationships end up being stronger than the traditional funder–nonprofit relationship, and typical power dynamics are less of an issue. The payback is more truthful, collaborative interactions with their grantees.

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The Pulse: Nonprofit Sustainability Plans, New Investments in Civic Participation

By Andy Carroll, Exponent Philanthropy

I regularly explore trends influencing philanthropy by spotlighting articles, reports, and essays in the media. I cast a wide net, venturing beyond philanthropy and traditional topics to consider a variety of ideas, innovations, debates, and critiques. Read previous posts in the series  

Nonprofits Struggle to Endure 

The results of a study commissioned by several funders in New England underscore once again that many nonprofit organizations are stressed, and face an uncertain future.

“While nonprofits have proven to be resilient in the face of an economic downturn, many rely on operating models that are not sustainable, according to the report, based on surveys taken from 1,200 nonprofit leaders and board members throughout New England. The survey results show: leaders are overworked and stressed about cash flow; staff is underpaid and not given adequate professional development; and directors and boards do not share an understanding of their roles and responsibilities. A lack of planning for a new generation of leadership is one of the biggest issues facing the nonprofit sector, according to the report.“

Hez Norton, a co-author of the report, proposes “shifting the framework for the discussion away from succession planning, which focuses on an individual, and toward creating a sustainability plan that examines the vulnerabilities of the organization and its choices for the future.”

A Way to Strengthen Civic Participation by Young People

Writing in The Atlantic, Alia Wong reports how low voter turnout by young people in recent elections may be undermining America’s democracy. “Only one in five Americans aged 18 through 29 cast a ballot in last year’s elections, marking 2014 as having the lowest youth voter-turnout in 40 years.” Some experts blame a lack of civics education in the schools. “Just about a fourth of high-school seniors in 2014 scored ‘proficient’ on the federal-government’s civics exam. Proficiency levels were equally lousy for eighth-graders. It seems that the country’s public schools are failing to fulfill one of their core founding missions: to foster and maintain a thriving democracy.”

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Is Your Story Newsworthy? Six Elements to Help You Spot One, or Create One

NewspapersThis is the second of a 3-part blog series to help funders leverage relationships with traditional media. Our thanks to Patti Giglio of PSG Communications, LLC, for her contributions to our new media toolkit for Exponent Philanthropy members, the basis for this blog series.

See other posts in this series

Journalists of all stripes are always looking for stories. The stress of ever-shrinking newsrooms and the constant pressure to publish on social media create an insatiable demand for story ideas. Philanthropists who can provide reporters with editorially viable story ideas will quickly become trusted sources.

What makes something newsworthy—or editorially viable—follows a time-tested formula. Six simple elements create the framework for how journalists gauge the merit of a news story. Understanding these elements can help you identify when you have a good story or how to create one.

1. Statistics. Statistics are the single most important thing reporters need. When you are considering statistics, look for the “-EST” factor: biggest, fastest growing, or even lowest or smallest, which can represent a challenge you face.

Consider doing an original survey, or partnering with others to commission a study. Identify academic researchers studying the issues you care about and perhaps fund new research, or a survey or analysis of existing data. Also consider your own organizational data or that of your grantees. Look for data that is counterintuitive and illustrates something particularly relevant to the work you are doing.

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