The Citizens Handbook
Foundation funding of grassroots groups


Robert O. Bothwell
National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (US)

These recommendations for grassoots groups are a summary of interviews of both grassroots groups and foundations. The recommendations are part of a much larger study.

Grassroots groups should market themselves more effectively

This is the most important recommendation from foundations.

What's strange here is that only a few grassroots organizations comprehend this loud recommendation from foundations. And remember, this recommendation is not just from any foundations, but from those with solid histories of funding grassroots social movement activities.

Often grassroots groups do little or no marketing of themselves. Why is this? Because they are doing "good" things for the benefit of the community, they think that other organizations, the media, and funders should recognize this by according them due respect, attention and funding. This is unbelievably naive considering that there are millions of other grassroots groups also doing "good" things who also want respect, attention and funding, and that funders, being scarce as well as human, have only limited time and energy in which to identify and learn about who is doing what particularly well out in the world.

How do grassroots groups market themselves more effectively? Grassroots organizations need to develop public identities (i.e., become publicly known for something important), use the media, construct more attractive funding packets, and not the least, document what they've done and tell their stories better.

Grassroots organizations should commit more resources to fundraising

The grassroots groups believe they need to do this even more than foundations.

They say their executive directors or other staff need to commit more time to fund raising, they need to hire part-time or full-time development staff, and to hire someone to teach them how to do fund raising.

Grassroots leaders often think of this situation as a double-edged sword. With one side you cut your program to provide more resources for fund raising; with the other side you cut your fund raising potential by spending more on program. We are not dealing with swords, however, but with pies! Once I finally made a decision as executive director of a small advocacy organization to spend less of my time on (exciting) program work, and more of my time on (boring) fund raising and to hire a part-time development professional, our organization ultimately trebled its annual revenues (mostly from foundations). The pie can be bigger than it is now. My work, by the way, became much more exciting with a trebled budget.


Grassroots groups should do their homework to identify more foundation funding possibilities, then submit more proposals

Foundations and grassroots leaders agree on this recommendation.

It is a fact that grassroots groups do not submit an adequate number of proposals. Of the 26 grassroots organizations interviewed, 23 submitted only 375 proposals last year, for which they received funding for 235 (a 63% success rate).

Yet a rule of thumb of professional fund raisers is to submit 6-10 proposals for every one they expect to be funded, which is only a 10-17% success rate. Grassroots organizations wanting more foundation funding must submit a lot more proposals than they currently do.

In thinking about how to identify more foundation funding possibilities and submit more proposals, the grassroots groups suggest two things: using the internet more to obtain foundation guidelines and setting goals, such as submitting two proposals a month.

Grassroots organizations should contact the foundations interested in their work, do follow-up telephone calls and office visits, and generally build relationships with foundation staff

Both foundation and grassroots leaders agree on this.

On how to do this, grassroots leaders understand that pedestrian things have to be done: make follow-up phone calls, meet with possible foundation donors, cultivate these contacts, get out of their hometowns to talk with the foundations, and seek to build relationships over time. There is nothing new here, but necessary actions to raise new grant monies.

The key is to set a goal of building relationships with individual foundation staff and trustees who indicate an y interest in one's work.


Grassrnoots organizations should contact people other than foundations who can be helpful

Again both foundation and grassroots leaders agree on this.

Who else could be helpful? Grassroots leaders think that they should join and participate in regional associations of grant-makers, participate in existing networks of like-minded community organizations, and organize training for other grassroots organizations to enable creation of networks where they don't now exist.

Real estate people say that the key to selling homes for good prices is "Location, Location, Location." Well, what we should understand about fund raising is, "Contacts, Contacts, Contacts." They open doors that permit one to tell one's (great!) story.


Grassroots organizations should work in consortium coalitions to amplify their work and visibility

Foundations stand alone in making this recommendation. No grassroots leader voices it.
Partly foundations are trying to limit the number of proposals they get by telling people to work together in consortia and coalitions. But foundations are also saying that those grassroots leaders who want to accomplish big things need to think about working closely with others so they can become more visible to the world one is trying to influence, and so one truly can make things happen in a big way.

Some grassroots leaders might worry that working in consortia and coalitions could highlight their competitors for funds more than it would showcase their own organizations, particularly if they are smaller or more limited in scope than their consortia and coalition partners. The author's own experience in coalitions is that this is a fear based on reality, but that if one continues to build the relationships with foundations that are necessary to obtain grants, and tells one's story effectively, then the money will continue to flow. And coalition leaders from other organizations, who value one's organizational contribution to the coaltion, can often put in good words at crucial times during grant proposal reviews.

Grassroots organizations should reorganize internally

This is the second most important grassroots recommendation on how to get more money out of foundations.
What do the grassroots leaders mean? Those unincorporated or not registered as tax exempt charities with the IRS say they should incorporate and register, to make them more eligible for foundation grants. Others say they need to "develop a lot more system," expand their organization's geographical scope, design funder-friendly programs, restructure to reflect their new activities, teach other staff to do fund raising, and modify internal staff processes so staff will better understand the fund raising process, therefore, the need for better reports and accountability.

Grassroots organizations should publicly challenge foundations to provide more funding for grassroots organizations and what they do

A few grassroots organizations recommend this aggressive thought. Not surprisingly, only one foundation voices it. The whole mission of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy is similar: to challenge foundations (and United Ways and corporate grant-making programs) to provide more funding for social and economic justice. It is a hard road to go. Or, as some would say, it's a dirty job. But someone needs to do it.


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