What is a foundation? The definition appears obvious at first.
A foundation is a nonprofit entity that awards grants to organizations.
Thinking about a foundation's objectives, however, makes the definition fuzzier.
Some are driven mainly by social impact (helping communities, improving lives...), fewer by economic impact & innovation (investing in science, education...), a few by the desire to boost brand equity; i.e. improving CSR for a corporation or building the reputation for a high-net-worth family name.
This makes for a wide web of giving strategies to take into account.
Keys, Malnight, and Van der Graaf write in the McKinsey Quarterly
"as customers, employees, and suppliers —and, indeed, society more broadly, place increasing importance on CSR, some leaders have started to look at it as ... central to their overall strategies... The big challenge for executives is how to develop an approach that can truly deliver on these lofty ambitions—and, as of yet, few have found the way."
So even foundations and charitable trusts, who are in the business of doing good, always want to bet on a winning team.
This has nothing to do with cynical intentions on their part. Betting on winning teams implies that a foundation's investment will be robust and longlived. Thoughtful decisions lead to a virtuous circle for any charitable foundation; enduring investments allow for lasting impact, increased exposure and additional fundraising opportunities.
In late 2018, following our longest dry spell in grant seeking, we decided to run a 360 review on our grant research & grant writing procedures.We brought in four industry veterans with over 100 years of combined experience under their belt. We ended up overhauling our methods and innovating in the process.
The activity that gave us the most insight was our in-depth 'Empathy Workshops' for 47 foundations in the education space.
We were taught how to suspend belief, restrain our biases and fully immerse ourselves into the mindset of the grant giver...
- What is it like to sit on a foundation's board?
- What is her routine like?
- How does she measure the foundation's success?
- How does she go to sleep with a clear conscience knowing that she has allocated the trust's funds appropriately - both meaningfully and with limited downside risk?
- How does she navigate internal politics and competing viewpoints?
Following this four-week deep-dive, we ended up with a hybrid model that combined two-parts school-branding and two-parts grant-seeking.
The underlying theme of our new playbook? Turning our client schools into fearless champions of their communities BEFORE making the 'ask' to the respective foundation.
1. Grant Research: We start with our typical in-depth matchmaking research where we
- Use boolean search across the best fundraising databases
- Filter all research databases through the school's needs
- Optimize our list of grants based on funders’ historical grant giving (quality national & regional funders who have donated to comparable schools in the past)
- Align our school's needs with the prospective funders' priorities
- Foundation outreach to get a “soft yes”!
2. School Branding Phase I -> Community Buy-in
We then advertise the initiative with the objective of collecting social signals from the community. This includes:
- Reframing the school's need statement into a funder story
- Seeding the community with PR and social media posts that bring to life the school's challenges and intended outcomes
- Generating buzz about the initiative and getting the community excited!
3. Proposal Writing & Submission: We revert back to our typical grant seeking process to write and submit the proposals. The secret sauce at this stage?
- Compiling and including all community social signals (likes, shares, and comments) into the submission
- Inform the prospective foundation of our intention to communicate the grant's impact post-completion
4. School Branding Phase II -> Communicate Results
We end our four-step process by broadcasting the program's results to the entire community. Our objective at this stage is to:
- Make the community proud
- Boost the foundation’s brand recognition so they feel appreciated
- Spread the word about the great things happening at our school
Since Q3 2018 we are proud to say that our award rate has shot up to 63% and is still rising.
As our new process matures, we are deepening the connection between our grant writing and our school branding processes.
This month alone our client schools have been awarded a total of 622k in grants.
The learning from this experience?
A foundation's interactions and interdependencies with society are diverse and complex.
So, when it comes to grant seeking, focusing on the foundation's priorities first and then finding creative ways to tie them back to the school's needs will often supercharge your success rate.
But this will demand a shift in mindset: the smart partnering view is that grant seeking is about addressing the foundation's need for both outcomes and positive exposure. Following the hybrid model outlined here offers school leaders a way to identify and drive mutual value creation through the grants.