Grants Can Transform Nonprofits and Leverage Impact

Kristen Engebretsen

For small and medium organizations, investing in grant writing can yield crucial resources that build capacity. Following the right strategy is the key to winning grant awards. “It’s helpful for nonprofits to really think about their strengths and look for funding opportunities that align with that,” says CP Consultant Kristen Engebretsen.

Barbara Wille

CP Consultant Barbara Wille has achieved grant success for small organizations. She advises, “Focus on your key competencies, and seek those funders interested – specifically – in what you do.” She notes that most funders are inundated with requests and must make hard choices. “The closer you can align your mission and programs with their specific guidelines and interests, the better chance you have of getting support.”

Here are more strategies:

    1. Identify the right funding sources to ensure mission alignment. But don’t be afraid to stretch if you have a strong case. See Communities in Schools’ successful pursuit of a health-oriented grant HERE.
    2. Highlight unique aspects of your organization and why it stands out. If you are a smaller nonprofit, look for funders who prioritize supporting organizations with more limited resources and demonstrate how you are doing more with less.
    3. Develop a compelling case for support that includes specific data points about your impact on the community. But be sure to include a story or two that also communicate your impact.
    4. Highlight collaboration and partnerships. This can demonstrate that you are part of a bigger movement working towards common goals. It also can help elevate your visibility while showing your organization “plays well with others.”
    5. Take the time (and it can take a while) to build relationships with funders to introduce your organization and its work, including by attending events.
    6. Evaluate and adjust. Regularly reassess your grant-seeking process and adjust based on what has worked and what has not.
    7. Consider contracting for outside help with grant writing. If your organization is small, working with a grant writer can be a valuable investment to help you build core capacity without diverting your focus from delivering on programming and services commitments.

For small and medium-sized organizations seeking to leverage their impact, investing in grant writing help can lead to strength and growth. “We want to help you grow so you outgrow us,” Wille says.

Learn more from these grant success stories:

Communities in Schools

American Muslim Senior Society

Other Resources:

Learn more about targeting the right grants for your nonprofit. The Stanford Social Innovation Review published a helpful article about funding sources for different types of nonprofits. Read 10 Nonprofit Funding Models.

 


Success Story: American Muslim Senior Society

Capacity Partners client the American Muslim Senior Society (AMSS) has been building its capacity and impact by winning significant grant support, with assistance from CP Partner Consultant Barbara Wille.

AMSS’ mission is to empower the diverse seniors and caregivers in Montgomery County, MD, by giving them access to culturally sensitive tools and resources to improve their quality of life and the opportunity to live with dignity. The organization is quite small. With just three staff members, AMSS is relying on grants to expand its reach and programming.

 

One of the keys to AMSS’ grant success is recognizing that its mission aligns closely with Montgomery County’s strategic goals and commitment to encouraging multicultural approaches to address health equity issues, creating new opportunities for support.

Another key has been recognizing its limited staff capabilities, pointing to the need to contract for grant research and writing services, rather than adding to core staff workload.

Barbara Wille

The results speak for themselves. The organization is punching above its weight in terms of outcomes and impact, said Wille, thanks to a process that works. Working with an experienced grant writer who can ask the right questions and synthesize the information needed to win grants frees up staff to focus and execute on core programs. "It's a very effective process.”

Through this collaboration, AMSS is winning both "tiny organization" grants and "big organization" grants that support a vital mission and expanding programming, she said.

This includes funding to address senior food insecurity, which was an intense need during the pandemic and unfortunately remains an issue today. The organization serves 500 meals a week thanks to gifts from Montgomery County as well as private foundations. Another key part of AMSS’s mission is expanding culturally competent delivery of caregiving for seniors in Montgomery County, especially for those who are low income.

Grant wins include:

  • An award of $80,000 to feed Afghan refugees in Montgomery County and offer wraparound services to the senior refugees among them. The grantor is Montgomery County’s Asian American Health Initiative, in partnership with the Primary Care Coalition, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the health of vulnerable individuals and families by building partnerships and strengthening systems.
  • A $50,000 grant from the Greater Washington Community Foundation’s Food for Montgomery Fund to purchase a delivery vehicle and help pay for a food storage and packaging space for food.
  • A major grant from WorkSource Montgomery, a County-supported program that links local and regional economic development and workforce efforts, with the support of the Primary Care Coalition and Nexus Montgomery, a consortium of hospitals that partners with community organizations on innovative projects to reduce hospital visits. This award is providing scholarships to expand the pool of culturally diverse students seeking their Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA) credential.
  • A Carl Freeman FACES (Freeman Assists Communities with Extra Support) grant, which prioritizes smaller nonprofits, and a generous award from the William S. Abell Foundation, both for AMSS’ work to feed more people in difficult times.

Thanks to these grants and others supporting AMSS initiatives, "they are doing amazing things” with a tiny staff, Wille said.


Success Story: Communities In Schools

Kristen Engebretsen

The mission of Communities in Schools (CIS) of the Nation’s Capital is to surround District of Columbia students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life. The organization places dedicated staff members inside partner schools to identify students at risk of dropping out.  

CIS was seeking to diversify its funding sources and needed more resources to cope with cutbacks by the District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) system and recover from pandemic challenges. CIS worked with CP Consultant Kristen Engebretsen to pursue a Healthy Equity grant opportunity from the Greater Washington Community Foundation’s historic Health Equity Fund. This high-visibility $95 million fund was created to improve the health outcomes and health equity of DC residents. The award will help the organization realign and transform service delivery. 

While CIS’ work may not seem particularly centered on health, it made sense to pursue the grant because there was clear alignment in objectives and impact of the nonprofit’s work with young people, especially factoring in equity issues. 

“CIS’ goals are aligned around the idea of improving social determinants of health (SDOH) – meaning education, health care access, food access, and the social and community context that surrounds our students, schools, and families,” Engebretsen said.  

“By improving health outcomes, students can increase their attendance at school, and by improving education outcomes, students can increase their socio-economic status,” she noted. It is about knocking down barriers to success, improving access to health care, food, and affordable housing. 

The Health Equity grant will enable CIS to establish partnerships with new schools and rebuild programs after the pandemic. The grant also supports CIS’ strategy to broaden sources of funding after being highly reliant on government funding.  

This large foundation grant is a concrete step towards adding in fresh resources,” Engebretsen said. 


Crafting Intimate, Mission-Driven Events

Some organizations are consciously moving away from the classic big gala fundraising event, embracing smaller events to expand supporters’ understanding of their core mission. While organizations still raise funds, these events have a more important goal: building a deeper connection with current donors through experiences that are interactive, intimate, enlightening, and fun. The events also can introduce new donors to the organizations, expanding the circle of support.

Capacity Partners’ client Montgomery Coalition for Adult English Literacy (MCAEL) in Rockville, MD, provides learning opportunities for multi-lingual adults for whom English is not their first language. MCAEL’s annual Adult Spelling Bee is a perfect vehicle to generate better understanding of the organization’s mission.

A Farm Less Ordinary (AFLO) provides employment, training, and a welcoming community to people ages 15-62 with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD). AFLO’s Feast in the Field is a multi-course dinner at one of AFLO’s locations. It provides a chance for supporters to meet the Growers (those employed by AFLO) and see the experience they are getting up close.

Capacity Partners Consultant Laura Cohen Apelbaum says, “There is a feeling of community and family. It is personal and hands-on.”

A Window into Challenges

MCAEL’s Adult Spelling Bee format “showcases the difficulties of the English language,” says Executive Director Kathy Stevens. Supporters get a clear window into the challenges faced by the thousands of people who benefit from MCAEL’s programming every day. MCAEL programs help adults learn a new language to support any and all of their life goals, including employment, education, speaking with a doctor, and helping children with schoolwork.

The Bee will be in its 7th year in 2023 (there was a COVID hiatus). Various bells and whistles have been added and subtracted over the years. In its current form, there are celebrity judges as well as contestant teams from the ranks of the Montgomery County, MD, business, nonprofit, and political communities.

The teams compete in a traditional, sometimes raucous, spelling bee in front of an audience of people who have purchased tickets. Businesses and individuals also can get involved via a range of sponsorship opportunities, including by sponsoring specific letters (in honor of someone if desired).

Spot On for Mission

Stevens says a key to success is keeping the event “very accessible and participatory,” including a new audience participation activity involving Twitter, which was introduced in the past few years. Audience members can try their hand at spelling a word that is given orally – the first person to spell it correctly with the right hashtag on the Twitter feed wins a prize.

She notes MCAEL plans to continue with the Bee while making adjustments. At some point down the road, the organization will assess if the event has run its natural course. For now, the Bee “continues to be spot on in terms of our mission.”

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The name says it all: A Farm Less Ordinary (AFLO), in Loudoun County, VA, is not your average farm. Founders Greg Masucci and his wife Maya Wechsler, self-described former city dwellers, have always been committed to finding meaningful work for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD), Masucci says.

Several years ago, they realized there was an absence of programs to help people like their son, who has autism gain job experience in a meaningful way as they grew into adulthood, as well as very few opportunities for social interaction. They created AFLO to address these gaps.

The organization’s mission is to provide employment, training, and a welcoming community. The organization employs about 25 people ages 15 to 62 with ID/DD, who are known as “Growers.” The program cultivates a sense of self-worth and independence for the Growers through a basic job skills training program, and through employment itself.

“We kill a lot of birds with one stone,” says Masucci: providing Growers with income, pride, and the opportunity to work; providing caregivers with some respite; and growing great produce that is donated to local food pantries and distributed through a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

In June, AFLO wrapped up its third annual Feast in the Field fundraiser, an evening farm-to-table gourmet meal served at AFLO’s farm in Leesburg, VA (a second farm site is in Lovettsville, VA). Every bit of the event is aimed at sharing an intimate AFLO experience with supporters. This includes keeping attendance to 100 – 125 people. Attendees can bring guests to introduce them to AFLO, which has expanded the organization’s support.

Much of the produce served at the meal was grown at the farm. Before the meal begins, Growers give small groups of attendees tours of the fields and other parts of the facility. These give guests a chance to interact with the people AFLO serves while getting a sense of the pride AFLO’s Growers take in their meaningful work on the farm.

Capacity Partners Consultant Laura Cohen Apelbaum notes, “It’s not a ballroom.” Having the event on-site “is the best way to showcase the mission.”

‘A Gala Doesn’t Connect’

Masucci echoes that. “A gala doesn’t connect to what we are doing.” The on-site feast gives supporters a much greater understanding of the many goals of the organization. There is something therapeutic and rejuvenating about getting your hands in the dirt, he observes. Being on-site helps supporters understand that the work done at the farm by the Growers is a viable therapy model.

He also notes that people like to feel they are supporting something essential, adding, “Where would we be without farming?”

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Here are six lessons from nonprofits who have created successful small events.