Brand Name Grants
When I was in fifth grade, classmates talked nonstop about who was wearing Guess jeans, and they loved showing off their own. Many years later, it’s clear that brands continue to mean a lot to people of all ages, from clothes to cars.
Private grants are no different. “Designer” awards feature regional, national, or international name recognition. My years as a consultant have made me especially attuned to leaders who pursue them for their status nearly as much as for the funding. These are some of the sentiments I’ve heard repeatedly:
“I’m determined to get a grant from the Gates Foundation.” -CEO
“Our goal is to secure funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.” -CDO
“What we need is an award from Google.” -Nonprofit board member
Fill in the above with the name of a known entity from your prospect list, and maybe you’ve heard, or even uttered, a similar statement. You may feel very real pressure—from your boss, your board, or even yourself—to secure a name-brand award. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, so long as you consider prestige among other factors.
Candid reports 118,000 corporate and independent foundations in the U.S. Those funders operate in nearly 118,000 different ways. It can take years of experience and months into a new job to understand whether a particular foundation suits your nonprofit. Among the topics you might need to consider:
Will you move forward if a program officer wants to fund your nonprofit’s advocacy work when your primary need is direct services?
Are you willing to accept a check from a corporate foundation that has ties to tobacco or another controversial industry?
If a foundation offers its experts to advise you post-award, will that ultimately be a perk or a power struggle?
These are germane questions for fund development professionals, but when you apply them to major grants, the potential for significant funding can muddy your ability to reason. It pays to answer these and other ethically-minded questions via written policies or checklists so that you reduce the temptation to say yes when the allure of funding stands to blur moral lines.
You might also encounter a funder whose oversight during the grant period surpasses your threshold for required check-ins and reporting. (Patience increases proportionately with grant size.) If a grant maker’s expectations are exceptional, attempt the hard conversations and gauge any leeway in reshaping how you work together. I’ve seen many nonprofits regret that they weren’t more proactive in molding the relationship early on.
It’s easy to assume that a well-known funder will present you with a sizable grant. Yet, submissions to the largest philanthropies don’t always translate into seven- or even six-figure awards. You might see $50,000 for a conference, a pilot program, or a research project. These can serve as test runs for more significant future partnerships, or they might supplement an existing grantee’s more substantial award. They can also signify a board member’s pet project, if not the right-sized total for the proposal at hand.
Nonprofits that suddenly leap into the grants stratosphere have something extraordinary to offer. The rest see revenue gradually increase, as determined by:
The foundation’s average grant size
The extent of your relationship with the funder
The size of your organization’s operating budget
The size of your nonprofit’s largest grant to date
Success comes when you don’t inflate your ask just because you know the funder can afford it. Why might you ask a renowned funder to spend $30,000 on your fall convening when there are many other foundations that can afford to do the same? The short answer comes back to…
“Such-and-Such got a grant from Primo Funder, so they must be doing good work.”
When your nonprofit receives $100,000 from the Bertha and Herman Wannamaker Foundation, how does that stand up to $100,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation? Or the Morgan Stanley Foundation? Your bank account benefits the same, but the intangibles are invaluable.
When you can tout a prominent philanthropy among your supporters, outsiders sense the degree to which your organization’s programs, people, and financials have been vetted. They know that brand names don’t invest in just any charity.
Fair or not, the more widely recognized your grant maker, the more credibility you gain in the eyes of individual donors, prospective employees, board members, community partners, and, yes, other foundations. They will view your organization differently, and you can help the process along.
My clients and I regularly find ways in which to leverage their major grants, and still, surprise perks almost always emerge. They come in views and clicks, buzz and access, time and dollars. The allure of designer grants rivals that of any other kind of label.
Commodity versus Compatibility
All you really need is denim that covers your legs.
Still, the cool kids will notice your Guess jeans. They will pay special attention when you get the size and fit right. They might even invite you to sit at their lunch table. If it’s their company you seek, then for you, the label has worked its magic.