Successful development means building relationships with a variety of constituencies, including foundations. Nonprofit organizations, some with no development staff or one person handling development as well as marketing and public relations, address this challenge with a variety of strategies ranging from outsourcing to recruiting volunteers to involving more staff members in the grants process.
Those organizations opting to work with volunteers often establish a grants committee and recruit individuals to work on grant research and writing. If the organization is conducting a special project or even a capital campaign, the nonprofit will seek well-connected, influential committee members to “open doors” to foundations by talking with trustees or program staff or to participate in a site visit. We’ve worked with both groups and share these two examples of organizations building successful grants teams with volunteers.
‘Passionate about libraries and the community. Developed project ideas, found prospective funders, wrote and submitted proposals.’
Two women, both retired school teachers, served as the grants committee for a rural library. Mary Jo and Sue, both volunteers and passionate about libraries and their community, had virtually single-handedly developed project ideas, found prospective funders and wrote and submitted proposals for library funding for more than two years. And, they wrote the thank-you letters and prepared reports. When they weren’t working on grants, they were attending workshops on foundations, grant writing and any other related topics.
On a capital campaign for a new women’s shelter, we facilitated the organization’s recruitment of an energetic, community volunteer as chair of the Foundations Division of the campaign. Elizabeth serves on the school board and is active in several school, community and church organizations. She knows almost everyone in her community and in the towns nearby. As part of her work in this campaign, she has personally contacted members of the board of trustees of several area foundations on behalf of the shelter and the campaign, signed cover letters to accompany campaign proposals and hand-delivered proposals to foundation representatives with whom she is acquainted.
‘Volunteers can provide valuable assistance and become important contributors to the overall development program’
Now, we have a name for these volunteers--“inside” as Mary Jo and Sue and “outside” similar to the work of Elizabeth. These foundation and grants volunteers can provide valuable assistance in your overall grants process and become important contributors to your overall development program.
“Inside” grant volunteers frequently form a Grants Committee for an organization and their roles and responsibilities can range from help in identifying potential funding sources, giving feedback on grant proposals, and writing grant proposals. “Outside” volunteers often serve on an organization’s board of directors, a capital campaign leadership committee or a resource development group. They have community connections, are passionate about the mission of the nonprofit they serve and actively seek ways they can help.
Key positions on a Grants Committee often include a grant researcher and a grant writer, although in many cases, each person on the committee can accomplish both tasks. What qualifications should you be looking for as you recruit members for a grants committee?
‘Seek individuals self-motivated to peruse the Internet and other sources for potential donors’
For grant research, seek individuals with a background in online research who are self-motivated to peruse the Internet and other sources in search of donors whose philanthropic interests and funding criteria fit well with your organization and its programs. Internet proficiency should be a required skill.
Research volunteers should be able to assess the alignment between the prospect’s interest and the mission of the organization so that they can recommend next steps for that prospect. They must also be able to overcome “hurdles” through follow-up communication such as emails or phone calls. These hurdles can range from technical ones (a website link may not work) or clarification of the grant process (what are the funding priorities or who is the correct contact).
Volunteer grant writers should have a writing background and enjoy and value a team environment in which other team members provide feedback. Writers with an almost uncanny ability to utilize a variety of styles, wording and content to align grants with a donor’s philanthropic interests, needs and funding priorities are best suited for this work. Seek dedicated, tenacious individuals with an “as soon as possible” mindset, because you will want someone who can complete proposals and applications by due dates with little or no follow-up from a staff member.
‘Opening the door to foundations whose guidelines say ‘applications not accepted’ or ‘contributes only to pre-selected organizations’
“Outside” volunteers tell the story of the organization to prospects, in many cases, members of a foundation’s board of trustees. Their tasks may range from calling, visiting or writing an acquaintance who also serves on a foundation board or “opening the door” for the submission of a proposal to a foundation whose guidelines stipulate that “unsolicited proposals not accepted” or “contributes only to pre-selected organizations”. When a foundation makes a site visit, these volunteers can be particularly helpful by sharing why they are involved with the organization.
Are there any great secrets to success in working with volunteers in your grants program? The bottom line is that your organization can make the program work with the right volunteers and the right leadership. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind.
1. Develop job descriptions. Whether you’re forming a Grants Committee or the Foundation Division of a campaign, you should clearly outline the roles and responsibilities of the position.
2. Maintain regular contact. Remember that saying, “out of sight, out of mind”? Keep in touch with volunteers, establish deadlines and don’t waver from them and have meetings as needed. Communicate in person, by phone or by email frequently.
3. Assign a staff member to oversee the committee and follow up on assignments. Having a staff liaison to work with volunteers will help ensure that tasks and action items are completed by the necessary deadlines.
4. Celebrate success. When you get the news that your project will be funded and you recall that two grant writers stayed up late three nights in a row to complete the proposal, make sure those two grant writers know that their efforts were successful. Share the news with everyone, call or email them, invite them for coffee or lunch or grab some noisemakers from the local discount store and have a celebration band at your next meeting.
5. Thank them. Acknowledge and recognize the time and efforts of your grants volunteers. Let them know you appreciate the work they do for your organization in conversations with them or in a note or email.
Lastly, the grants team, both staff members and volunteers, need to have an overall understanding of your organization’s work including projects and programs happening now and those planned for the future. Those with a general knowledge about fundraising and a dedication to following up and completing the grants process will be effective and successful in winning grants for your nonprofit.