Program officers Carrie Harlow from the Ahmanson Foundation and Piper Kamins of the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation visited our offices for a Meet the Funders event for leaders of Community Partners projects. Here are key takeaways from Harlow’s and Kamins’ conversation facilitated by Senior Program Associate, Otha Cole.
What advice do you have for organizations approaching your foundation for the first time?
Kamins: Go to our website. There’s a great grantee database of organization’s that have been funded before, and that’s really helpful to assess whether your organization is a good fit for us. Just last week, Parsons launched an online application, and that is where you should start your process. Apply when you are ready to talk about the head and the heart of what you do. I say that because with individual donors, you might go with the heart—you’re telling the compelling stories of the vulnerable population you serve and how their lives were changed with your program. As program officers, our job is to vet a whole organization. The heart is part of it, understanding the impact of what you do but there’s also the head part—which means, we check if your financials are in order. Are you ready for someone to comb through your 990s, comb through your audit and any of your other financials and some analysis of it? Is your program at a point where you can talk about outcomes? Or do you have a board that is strategically put together that can advise on certain points? Is your program in a state of development where you can talk about somebody that has completed your program and can talk about the outcomes of it?
Harlow: Ahmanson also has a grant search function on our website so we also provide that kind of information to help you in your research. Parsons has an open door policy, meaning you can call anyone at the foundation at any time during office hours and ask to speak to a program associate or a program officer. Tell them a little about your organization and what your needs are, and we will help you determine what your best ask would be. I do it all the time where I listen to your three priority needs and give you your best asks. We invite that and think it’s a really good use of your time so that you’re not writing a whole proposal and then immediately get declined. Along with that heart and head theory, some advice that I would give is that when you apply, a program officer is going to have to explain your service to someone else. They’re not going to experience it at the depth of which you know it and giving them the details can sometime seem silly, because you have a lot of other things to talk about like the impact, philosophy and mission, but arming us with those details can be really helpful. Knowing how your program works and the number of people you’ve helped and where your other funding is coming from helps us when we advocate for you.
Do you see common proposal mistakes in new organizations?
Harlow: While it’s important to distinguish yourself among your peers, it’s a mistake to use really universal language (i.e. “We are the first organization to do…We are the only organization that…etc.) because by way of the universe, another organization doing the same thing as you will submit a proposal that same week. It always happens! Even if you believe it to be true, it’s not best to use broad statements like that unless you can prove it. Another mistake that happens more often than you’d think, is that many LOIs are submitted with no contact information –so make sure you provide a person’s name, phone number and email address so that we can follow-up with them. When seeking funding for a project, it’s worth it to submit timeline information: Explain steps and when they will be taken and any factors that will determine completing the project, when/if you will be receiving other funding for the project and what outcomes that money will effect, and any other fine elements. This kind of information gets left out often and that’s a big piece of our decision-making process. We will only move forward if we think you’re really ready, and the timeline is important to determine that.
Kamins: On the language piece, the more specific you can be, the better (how many people you serve etc.). Also, make what you do really tangible for us. At the LOI stage you typically have less to write, sometimes LOIs say: “We develop youth to their highest potential,” which is great, but HOW do you do it and how do you SEE that? What makes you different from all of the other youth development organizations out there? Understanding what you do is at the core of our decision-making. Find what makes you unique: it might be that geographically, you are the only organization that does what you do in your area. We’re not expecting that you are doing something that no one has ever thought of, but especially if you are an organization that is new to us, find your niche/geographic niche, or if you are filling some sort of gap that others are not able to fill.
What characteristics do you look for in a nonprofit you are choosing to support? What makes a proposal stand out from the rest?
Harlow: We’re looking for strong, stabilized leadership, diverse sources of funding, that the initiative you’re requesting funds for is well thought out and planned and that you know your capacity. I’ve found that sometimes organizations think that foundations only want to hear stories of growth which is not always the case. If you’re providing a really good service and you know your capacity, but you’re just not ready to grow, we’d still want to invest in you. Just because you aren’t necessarily expanding, doesn’t mean that you aren’t serving a need incredibly well, and your consistent service to that population is just as valid as a growing organization. We also like to see your full financial narrative, otherwise we wonder whether if you know it or if you just don’t want to share it with us.
Kamins: More on growth: Parson’s sweet spot is providing general operating support. We still provide project and capital grants but we fund a lot of general operating, unrestricted support. To go off of what Carrie said, we also don’t dismiss projects that aren’t necessarily growing but with that in mind, we’d like to know why you’ve made that decision and what is your strategy for providing quality programs? That decision/strategy might be leading you to more sites or more programs, but hopefully they are leading you to be increasingly effective.
Why do you say no to a proposal and/or a letter of interest?
Harlow: We get about over 1000 LOIs a year, of those about 550 are reviewed and the rest are immediately declined. Of those 550, about 450 are approved for a grant but maybe not for the full amount. The initial step is the biggest hurdle and you’re probably getting declined because you’re just not a good fit with our guidelines. Be sure to check our website or any foundation for that matter to determine whether your organization is a good fit before you apply because it will save you a lot of work! If you’ve been declined you can always call us and ask if the organization wasn’t a good fit or if the program wasn’t a good fit. Most of our funding is for general operating support and less for capital, and you can always ask us if you should apply for one or the other the next time around.
Kamins: We have similar statistics, we have less LOIs coming to us so I would say that we have about 600 coming to us and about 50-60% are declined in the LOI phase. That is mostly because of our geographic or program guidelines. Some organizations that fit within our guidelines can be rejected because their proposal doesn’t fit on a competitive level. An area we do consider is an organization’s capacity level. If we see that an organization is mostly run by volunteers and is a little more fragile we do consider that and make sure it has strong leadership and a proven track record but it’s not necessarily an automatic decline because every LOI is contextual. We tend to go with organizations we have a relationship with.
What advice do you have for organizations that you turn down or are not a good fit?
Harlow: Follow up as to why is was declined and whether or not you should apply next year.
How do you want grantees or partners to measure success? What information is important?
Kamins: Thoughtfully. We expect that you’ve thought of the impacts of what you’re doing. For any service that you provide, what is the end goal of that service? We understand there’s constrained resources on your part for evaluation, but measure outcomes to the greatest extent possible. Do it in a way that makes sense for you and in a way that is part of your ongoing conversations. A lot the time, organizations may start with a program and figure out the outcomes along the way, rather than starting with hypothetical outcomes to work at finding the end goal of your program. Distill each part of the process. You should always measure your inputs and your outputs and how those effected your outcomes. The impact is known over time as you learn the outcomes of your services for your population. If you can get some of that long-return data, wonderful. If you can’t, we understand that too.
Harlow: I echo that thoughtful piece. We want you to share with us your process and your conversations around that.
What tips can you give to organizations to help them maintain a good relationship with your foundation after a grant is awarded.
Kamins: Typically, we are pretty hands off as a funder. We’re not offended if you don’t reach out to us but at the end of the year, we do expect that final report and that you’re managing deadlines. In between I would say that if you have a huge change in leadership, mainly in your executive director, that is something we would like to know.
Harlow: 30% of our grants don’t get reported and we have to chase some people down for it, oftentimes because of staff turnover and other legitimate reasons and we get it, but it happens so frequently, and it’s literally the only thing we’re asking out of the relationship so it should be the one you really prioritize. Let us know if things change. For project-based grants, we expect things to shift a bit but if there is a great change, please keep us in the loop, otherwise in the final report it can be a shock to leadership and could impact the relationship. Also, if there’s a balance at the end, we’d like for it to be returned; that does not reflect poorly on the project at all, we’d just like the opportunity to re-grant that money. It also strengthens the relationship if there’s that transparency. Another thing that happens that damages the relationship is re-allocating the funds without asking for permission. It happens so often and when we receive notice in the final report, the trust is broken. If things do change come and talk to us and we’ll work through a solution together to avoid surprises at the end.
Any closing thoughts about your foundation that you’d like to share?
Kamins: Parsons values transparency and customer service. Every step of the way we like to have that open door policy and transparency. We try to be of service and a partner to organizations, so please give us a call. We are also members of the Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative, where foundations have joined together and contributed a pool of funds to be used toward all levels of what we call ‘strategic restructuring,’ which means those funds can be used toward jointly managed programs and partnerships among two or more nonprofits. Think of it not as one project taking over the other, but rather as two puzzle pieces coming together to fill a need in a much more sustainable way than if they were to go it alone. Keep this in mind as another option for you.
Harlow: Just to add on the Nonprofit Sustainability Initiative as Ahmanson is a member as well, we do not expect a formal partnership in the end result and the NSI is not measured only as a success if a formal partnership does result. We think the conversation itself is the outcome, so we’re investing in that facilitation. The organization’s report of having grown and experienced that conversation is the outcome and the success. We think it’s an important investment whether or not anything comes of it.