Funders want to know who they’re being asked to support. In their guidelines they will generally ask for a section called “About the Applicant,” “Organizational History,” or something similar.
The reason for this is simple and goes to the heart of the grants process: Funders want successful projects, and one indicator of future success is past accomplishment. A grant is a joint project shared by a funder (grantor) and the organization (grantee), and funders want to know who their partners will be. Many fundraising books call this the “credibility” section, because it’s where you convince the funder that your organization is able to carry out your project.
Create a History Document
One of the first steps in preparing for effective fundraising is to write a clear history of your organization. This needn’t be long; two or three pages will do. This document will be your basic resource for developing grant proposals. A written history is also important for creating direct mail letters, talking to donors, speaking to new audiences, celebrating your accomplishments, and educating new staff and volunteers about your group.
Unfortunately, many nonprofits have never created a written history, so you may have to start from scratch. In addition, most organizations haven’t kept good records, so you’ll probably have to dig up information. Here are some techniques for researching a group’s history:
- Gather materials such as newsletters, brochures, old budgets, annual reports, reports to funders, and program evaluations. See if the local historical society or public library has copies—you might get lucky.
- Check the local newspaper archives—not just the daily paper, but alternative, neighborhood, and special interest papers as well. Look for clippings you can use and note any positive quotes.
- Talk to long-time staff and past staff, board members, and founders; take copious notes or ask to tape your conversations. What was significant to them? Do they have any good stories about the group?
Develop a Timeline Form
Information on the organization won’t come to you sequentially, so this form helps you organize it. Put years for the organization’s whole history on it. Depending on how old your group is, this may be in one-, five-, or ten-year increments. Then fill in data as you get it. I like to use an 11-by-17-inch sheet of blank paper, mark in the years, and then add data, like
Look for Patterns
Once you have a timeline organized, you can use it to find patterns. Look for events and accomplishments, such as “Won open housing case,” “First statewide fair housing conference,” “Merged with other group,” or “Moved to present offices.” Also, look for growth patterns in membership, numbers of people served, budgets, numbers of volunteers, housing units built, and so on. Note whatever is significant to your group and its constituency. Consider whether these patterns can be shown as graphs and inserted into your proposal narrative.
Develop Your Strategy
Now it’s time to sit back and think about how you want to present your organization to this funder. Remember your organization’s purpose and how your history relates to it. This should be the basic theme of your written history. Some funders ask for your mission statement. Even if they don’t, it’s a good place to start.
Your strategy will depend on the age, size, and mission of your organization. A startup with a small bank account needs to introduce
itself and establish its credibility. A large, well-known organization may need no introduction, but might want to use this section to shape its image. The local branch of a national organization might want to emphasize its local accomplishments.
Your narrative history should also show how you fit into the community. Who else is doing similar work, and how are you different? Are you involved in partnerships or collaborations? Why is your organization the best one to do this project, and why is it a priority for you? How will this project fit into your existing programs and help strengthen your organization? If you have a strategic plan, where does this project fit
For example, one of my early clients was a local performing arts organization, the Portland Baroque Orchestra (PBO). PBO had grown out of the Early Music Guild as a group of friends who got together to play music on period instruments—basically, a pickup band. At the time it was five years old. It had been giving public concerts to small audiences and had gathered a devoted following. The group had no paid staff, the business operation was three drawers in a file cabinet in a board member’s office, and it didn’t pay its musicians. This was a perfectly accurate way to describe the group, and the proposal didn’t hide it, but that’s not what we chose to emphasize. Instead, we built credibility by emphasizing its musical quality and association with better-known organizations, and by focusing on audience growth.
PBO was applying for a grant for marketing and audience development. We built the case that the quality was there—it just needed the means to let people know about it. As a result, it got the grant and was able to quintuple its audience and subscribers in three years. The complete PBO proposal, with annotations, is the Appendix at the end of my book, Strategic Grantsmanship: It’s Time to Raise Your Game (2015, CharityChannel Press). These were some of the points we stressed:
PBO had gotten rave reviews by the daily paper’s music reviewer. We included these clippings as attachments.
PBO had recruited the internationally known Dutch harpsichordist Ton Koopman as its music director. He didn’t work for them full-time. He talked with them on the phone occasionally and included extra days in Portland in his American tours. But he was a big name with a great reputation, so we featured him as a key person in the narrative.
A recording engineer for the local public radio station was a fan of the orchestra and began recording its concerts on professional equipment on his own time. He sent a sample tape to National Public Radio’s “Performance Today” (the most popular classical radio program in America), and it featured PBO in a couple of broadcasts. We made sure to mention those national broadcasts in the proposal.
PBO had also accompanied a couple of well-known choruses in performance, and we included them in the proposal as well.
Other Sources of Your Story
In addition to the formal organizational history, the information you include in other proposal sections and attachments will tell foundations a lot about you.
Attachments and Enclosures
Don’t make the mistake of treating the attachments and enclosures lightly. If it’s appropriate, refer to them in your organizational description. (For more detail, see Chapter Ten, “Using Attachments Effectively,” of my book.)
Here are some typical attachments that help funders to develop a full picture of your group:
Who’s involved in your governing body? What else have they done? Are they capable of overseeing a large grant project? Local foundation trustees may look to see if they know any of your board members. Some will ask how often your board meets.
How large and stable is your organization? Where does your funding come from, and how is it spent? Are you in debt or do you have a healthy fund balance? Do you have an annual budget surplus? How much do you spend on administration? It’s impressive if you can say something like “(Organization name) uses a computerized, automated, accrual-based fund accounting system” and “(Organization name) has had five years of clean audits.”
Staff and Project Personnel
What are your staff members’ qualifications to run your organization and carry out this project? How long have they worked for you? (This addresses staff stability.) Local foundations may know some staff personally or by reputation. Some funders will ask about gender balance and ethnic diversity. If they don’t and it’s relevant, point it out; for example, if your organization serves African Americans or Native Americans, how many of these people are on your staff and at what levels?
As you decide which attachments or enclosures to provide, think about how well they serve your strategy for presenting an attractive image to the funder. Do the newspaper clippings relate to what you’ve said in your narrative? Does the annual report show a dynamic organization whose mission relates to your project?
As you tell your story, everything you provide to a funder needs to support your case. Does the overall presentation of your package, including the written proposal itself, your letterhead, and your printed materials, make a unified statement? For a grassroots community organization, a splashy, twenty-four-page, four-color glossy brochure may raise questions about how wisely you would spend the funder’s money. On the other hand, a major art museum would want to have great graphic art and high-class collateral materials.
The organizational description is generally the first thing a reader sees. Its job is to set the tone for the rest of your proposal. Your narrative should show how the grant project fits with your history and mission. The credibility you’ve established here can help sell the reader on your project and get you funded.