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And More Q&A from Executive Directors and JVA’s Grants Team

By Sandy Wiegand, Copyeditor and Writer at Joining Vision and Action

Nonprofit leaders talked funding with JVA’s grantwriters earlier this month as JVA held the second session of our remote, three-part Executive Directors in a Changing World networking and conversation series.

Among themes that came up: the state of EDs’ relationships with funders; fresh ideas for raising money in the time of COVID-19; and how/whether funders are promoting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) through their work.

JVA grants team members Erin Shaver, Katalin Wishart and Lisa Cirincione helped guide the discussion.

Relationships with funders

Participants were asked about their rapport with funders amid the pandemic. Though they acknowledged seeing cut budgets and reduced funding impacting grant support available at the state and local government levels, the group also discussed how foundations have fared pretty well during the pandemic—with some even still posting record profits.

This has translated into organizations looking toward foundations even more to cover the gaps in 2020—and seeing more adaptability in foundations than they saw prior to COVID-19. Here are some of their observations:

  • “There has been a lot more flexibility in letting organizations do what they feel is best. I think that’s a good thing to come out of it. Instead of people being so boxed in, there has been a lot less rigidity and more flexibility.”
  • “They have reached out and said ‘do what you need to do.’ Some are able to be more generous than others.”
  • “I have had foundations reach out to me and invite me to apply, without me initiating anything.”
  • “We got a surprise check in the mail from a foundation that’s been a partner for a number of years.”
  • COVID has given us something in common (with donors and funders)—how people are dealing with it, with their kids stuck at home; they are all things we have all dealt with in different ways.”

Raising money in a pandemic

A common concern expressed not only at JVA’s ED session but in nonprofit sector articles and other conversations these days is the fear that it may be insensitive to ask for money when it’s unclear how the pandemic may be affecting a past or potential donor.

One participant described the feeling this way: “It’s uncomfortable. I don’t know if they are having (pandemic-related) issues, family issues, so I find I am hesitating more.”

Along with attention to tone, one key to having such a conversation with funders, as JVA’s grants team often highlights, is having nurtured a solid relationship with them in the past. (Good relationships can even beget surprise checks and unsolicited grant application invitations, it seems.)

Another ED described an entry into the ask this way: “We did contact our donors and funders, and had board members contacting funders, just to let them know we could continue providing services. We were able to get some additional funding from doing some reassurance calls and such.”

Group members also shared the following notes on how their organizations have been successful (or hope to be) in raising funds:

  • Holding small events online, for just a few people: “We are not going to do a big online event, where not many show up and it’s not a great way to get new donors. There are other, less stressful ways to keep donors engaged. So we have been doing little activities” led by one person.
  • Talking directly to the program officer when seeking a grant. One participant described listening closely to the program officer’s language to discern how best to frame an appeal to them: “I take copious notes, and I have done my research … (I aim for) incorporating in their specific way of talking about the same thing. … So many times I am sure we are a 100% fit, but it’s how they spin it.”
  • Diversify your sources: “Apart from COVID, we are already trying to expand that—we do get grants from foundations, but it has decreased over the past few years. … and increase our individual donors. So that’s something we are trying to look at and expand—the types of funding we receive.”

A reliance on a single funding stream can be problematic anytime, notes Erin, JVA’s director of grantwriting & resource development, but that it’s especially so now, as funder priorities may be shifting. Furthermore, government funding in particular is at risk of being reduced or drying up amid pandemic-related budget issues.

Lisa, JVA’s senior resource development associate, encouraged the executive directors to reach out to the foundations they work with, noting that overall, foundations’ assets have grown tremendously over the past year.

Now is an extraordinarily good time to be making calls to the foundations you deal with and explaining why COVID has affected your operations,” she shared. “Less than a third has gone to health care organizations. The money is getting divvied out to a much wider range.”

So if you can frame your request as working toward economic recovery, employing people, or supporting people’s stability so they can get back into the workforce, that seems to be a winning argument with some foundations.”

Funders and DEI

Participants reported differing levels of interest in and commitment to DEI among the funders they work with, although most or all indicated that their own organizations were taking at least some steps to promote diversity, equity and inclusion internally.

Here are some of their remarks:

  • “We have been trying to add new board members, with DEI in mind. … It has proven to be difficult, but that isn’t something new. It’s not because of COVID.”
  • “I don’t think we have had a lot of these conversations with funders. Most of the applications we have completed, they don’t ask those questions. That might change. When we have the follow-up meetings, they do interviews before they grant. It hasn’t really come up. I am kind of surprised.”
  • “We have an inclusion committee. The board got more activated. The staff has been invested. We have made policy around it; our (contract staff) has become much more culturally diverse. … We have really been trying to build equity (into our work). … We have DEI questions on our board application now. There seems to be an opening for real systemic change.”
  • “I have definitely had a lot of in-depth conversations with funders about inclusion for a couple of years now… It might just be the arts sector.”

Got something to add to the conversation? The team would love to hear your thoughts on any of the topics in the series. Drop us a note!

And if you missed the blog on Part 1 of our Executive Directors in a Changing World series, focusing on staff, check it out here. Otherwise, stay tuned for a blog on our third session, on nonprofit boards of directors, taking place this week!