Being new is never easy. This is true in many situations, like being the new kid in class or new hire at your first job (acquired via Idealist, of course). But this is especially true for nonprofit organizations that have just opened up shop and are seeking funds for the first time. While identifying the right funders and crafting a great proposal are important, before you even submit your materials, you need clarity around your purpose and a strong network to increase your chances of landing funding.
As a program officer at a foundation, I have come across quite a few organizations in their nascent stages of life and noticed good practices high-performing new nonprofits exhibit. Below are tips and actionable ideas that will help you connect with funders. These tips aim to put new nonprofits on the radar of foundations, and by using them, your new nonprofit will be better equipped to gain funding.
Before you begin reaching out, make sure you have the following in place:
Know what makes you unique
Are there 10 other organizations doing work strikingly similar to yours? If yes, proceed with caution. Avoid cliché remarks on how “innovative” and “creative” your new nonprofit is in favor of demonstrating why your organization possesses truly inventive qualities. For funders, it’s heartening to see a new nonprofit boldly tackling a problem from a different angle than others. It shows gusto and is more marketable. Differentiation will make your new nonprofit an interesting prospect for funding. If you have a similar model to other programs, foundation professionals will ultimately see more established organizations as the benchmark and not give you as much attention.
Do right now: Use Charity Navigator to canvass your program area to see what others are doing and how they are doing it.
Make sure your message is clear
Have you tested the communicability of your mission? Of course the ambitions of your organization make sense to you – it’s your idea after all – but more importantly it must make sense to the public and potential funders. A clear and concise message, even when the subject matter is complicated, is important in attracting funders to your project. If you need an exorbitant amount of time to persuade people to understand and adopt your mission – you’re doing it wrong. Well thought out goals will come across simply, making it easier for funders to ingest information. Think charity: water, an organization that prides itself on straightforward messaging.
Do right now: Craft, refine, and practice your pitch. Share your message to friends, neighbors, and people in your community and solicit feedback. If they don’t understand it, how am I?
Think strategically: short-term & long-term
Sure, you want to end hunger in New York City and think you can do so in 20 years, but what about the next few years? How is your new organization going to operate in the near future to help bolster your long-term goal? More importantly, what kind of budget will you need to operate within to fulfill these goals? Foundations care deeply about their investments and allocating funds to a new organization is a bit of a risk. Thus, it is important to have a strategic plan and monetary expectations laid out as simply and clearly as possible so those you pitch can easily envision how your goals will be met.
Do right now: Sign up for free courses at your local Foundation Center.
Once you have a good handle on your pitch, purpose, and focus, you’re ready to catch the eye of foundations:
Network until you drop! Finding champions for your organization who have the ability to make crucial introductions to foundations is of utmost importance for leaders of new nonprofits. To get in touch with potential funders, you must start by making friends all across the spectrum: those in your field and those interested in your work. By building a web of connections, most times, you will intersect with those capable of connecting you to funders. Although one person might not be in a position to provide funding, they might be able to connect you with colleagues who are.
To be clear: there is no one venue to corral funders and pitch your organization. However, by actively participating in your cause outside of your office, your new nonprofit will end up in a foundation office or out to lunch with someone like me. Make friends, tell your story and be willing and eager to meet with anyone for even a second to help advance your mission.
Do right now: Commit time in your calendar to meet with anyone available, attend social networking events at places like your local Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, or conferences like Mashable’s Social Good Summit.
Build a public presence
As a foundation professional, I am often curious what message organizations send out to the public. This information conveys the organization’s affinity to adapt to modern practices and speaks volumes about the tone and culture of the nonprofit.
When a new nonprofit approaches me, I usually take a few minutes to review their website, Facebook page and/or Twitter account to gauge how they operate. A few things I take note of: how they respond to constituents or colleagues in the field; how often they post; what content they share; how they relate plans / events / solicitations to their audience. These are important. If your messaging is positive and has a good tone, I will have a good initial impression of your new nonprofit – which is exactly what you want.
Do right now: Identify a social media channel that you can commit to investing time in. Connect with friends, professionals doing similar things and individuals interested in your cause. More importantly, take note of how other organizations use these mediums and look for foundations supporting similar organizations.
And finally, one thing to remember:
Learn from rejection
As a new nonprofit, chances are you will here more no’s than yes’s in your initial contact with foundations. Rather than see this as a failure, utilize these instances to learn. Ask funders to give feedback on the conversation, proposal or your idea as a whole. Furthermore, most foundation professionals like myself have colleagues in the field and know their interests. More often than not, meeting with one foundation could result in a meaningful connection with another that is more aligned with your interests. Always ask those you are meeting with if they can refer you to any foundations supporting similar work.
By creating a solid base for your new nonprofit and making the right connections, you can align your organization with foundations who are eager to support your cause.
Michael V. Paul is the Program Officer of the Rita J. & Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation. He is an appreciator and practitioner of efficient operation, strategic thinking and hard work, and an avid reader and soccer enthusiast. Follow Michael on Twitter: @Michael_V_Paul
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by Allison Jones