When I worked for a large asset, national Foundation, our staff developed an acronym which we used to evaluate all prospective nonprofit organizations. The same criteria was applied to any letter of inquiry or full grant proposal that came to our desks, no matter the cause, or the category of service.
That acronym is VISION+.
It stands for the following.
- Visionary Leadership. Leadership is all about the Executive Director and the Board. What is the reputation of the Executive Director? A strong leader is the single most effective tool for attracting funders. That goes the same for an active board, that is engaged in fund raising, and represents the community. This is at the top of the VISION+ model for a reason.
- Impact. An organization must demonstrate effectiveness of the program, project, or service model. Is there potential for systemic change? Impact may be defined as direct, indirect (leverages the effectiveness of other programs and projects), immediate, long-term, best practices. It is important to demonstrate impact.
- Sustainability. This is important to Foundations. They will look at 990’s, P&L Statements, and Balance Sheets. Are the finances strong and stable? Is there a diverse funding base?
- Innovation. This is a rather nebulous concept that can be hard to define. It could mean an organization has the potential to change the field, establish a new practice, or simply improve how a specific population is being served. Innovation may also apply to organizational structure and/or partnerships.
- Organizational Strength. Is there strong management & communication systems? Does the staff reflect the diversity of the community it serves?
- Network of Partnerships.This is all about collaboration. Is collaboration ongoing part of service delivery? Are there public-private partnerships in place? Is there a network of providers that is integrated into the community? And how instrumental is this organization within the greater network of providers?
- + Population Served. Is the population being served one that does not have many resources or options available to it? Is the organization serving economically disadvantaged and under-served communities?
I hope this serves as helpful insight for nonprofit organizations who have no clue how Foundations work. Often they seem like Ivy Towers with fortress walls, impossible to penetrate and even harder to figure out. And the truth is that every Foundation is different, with their own values and priorities, their own founders and Board members. So every funder looks for different things, and has their own reasons for supporting different causes.
But on the whole, I can tell you that these values and criteria are universal. If you can demonstrate impact, effectiveness, and innovation, you will rise above the competition for limited funding dollars. And let me know if you have experiences with Foundations that can help inform this post.
Lots of criteria to weigh
When visiting with an individual who may be a potential contributor to your organization, it is important to put yourself in their mindset, to walk in their shoes, so to speak. And when writing a grant proposal, it is important to yourself in the mindset of that grant making organization. What are they looking for? What do they consider to be strengths of a nonprofit? What are the values and strategic priorities that they hold dear?.
The Kresge Foundation is large and prominent national funder. On their website, they lay out the nine core values that they look for in all applicants (Source here). These are the core values that they hold dear as an institution, and what they want other organizations to reflect:
- Creating opportunity – How does your organization’s work expand opportunities and support for low-income people in order to improve their quality of life and enable them to participate more fully in the economic mainstream?
- Community impact – How will your organization and the proposed project benefit the larger community?
- Institutional transformation – Does your proposed project have the capacity to profoundly influence the overall organization and its operations? How?
- Risk – Tell us how your organization is using new and possibly untested approaches for addressing the needs or tensions of communities in flux. For example, have you developed new ways to broaden access to new immigrant communities?
- Environmental conservation – Describe how your project incorporates sustainable building practices, embodies the principles of sound land-use planning, and promotes environmental stewardship and/or historic preservation.
- Innovation – How might your project advance best practices in a particular field?
- Collaboration – Describe your organization’s promise for bringing multi-party, interdisciplinary approaches to problems that defy solution by a single sector.
- Under served geography – How has your project addressed locations with high concentrations of need and low financial capacity, such as poor rural areas or cities with a minimal tax base?
- Diversity – Describe how your organization’s staff and board reflect the racial, ethnic and gender composition of the population they serve.
These nine values ought to be universal to all nonprofits, no matter what industry or issues you focus on. One theme that I see common among the nine values is a sense of creativity, or innovation. What makes your group stand out from the pack? The other value is impact. How well do you serve the community that you purport to serve? How are you making a difference?
Source: Kresge Foundation
Building a foundation for success
Jan. 12, 2011 marked the one year anniversary of the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti. Since then, American organizations have been working tirelessly with the Haitian people to provide basic services like clean water, food, and basic shelter from the weather.
Groups like the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and the International Medical Corps have been out on the front lines, as well as the media headlines, helpeing hundreds of thousands of Haitian survivors.
The American Red Cross has issued a one-year report on the relief and recovery efforts in Haiti, which summarizes the Red Cross response in Haiti and plans for the years ahead to support Haiti’s recovery. The Red Cross currently has 24 international staff and more than 320 Haitian staff and paid workers at its headquarters in Port-au-Prince.
Steve McAndrew is the Head of Operations for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. McAndrew has lived in Haiti for the past 12 months. “The people are so resilient. When I see them, I have hope for the future,” said McAndrew.
It is important to think about Haiti now, in light of the one year anniversary. Things there are still bad. There is no real Government to speak of, there is very little to no permanent housing, and there are constant threats of cholera breakout and unrest. However, the people are still alive, and working to make things better.
In the United States, things are not good. The recent State of the Nonprofit Sector reports reveal a sector of public services in decline. And yet a country like Haiti has been in decline for a lot longer, with no respite in sight. That is when we Americans realize how good things still are. We are still blessed to live in a country that is stable and provides services that enable our well-being.
It is always good to reflect upon the fortunes that we are afforded, while also considering those that don’t have our fortunes. And I don’t have the answers for the best way to improve their situation. I just think we always need a reminder of what compassion means, what resiliency means, and what life means.
The Haiti recovery is slow, but still going
The UCLA State of the Nonprofit Sector for 2010 was released in December. It is titled “Hard Times: Impacts, Actions, Prospects — The State of the Nonprofit Sector in Los Angeles 2010” (Source Here). As the title would suggest, the report, released by the Center for Civil Society at the UCLA School of Public Affairs, paints a picture of nonprofit organizations in decline. As the economy suffers, so does the services sector. Most nonprofits are losing revenue and failing in their fund raising efforts.
The report is bleak.
“For the second year in a row, more than 60 percent of local nonprofits experienced an increased need for their services, particularly among low-income and vulnerable populations. More than 50 percent reported a significant decline in funding.” (source here)
The report discusses the possibility of organizations shutting down, with the possibility of consolidations and mergers, and at the very least a re-evaluation of practices and the possibility for new business models…that preach a tighter bottom line.
With all the bleak forecasts and disheartening statistics, it would seem like all is lost. But I believe there is some optimism that should be taken away from the report. Because despite the decline in revenue, most services are still being accomplished. Not that many nonprofit groups (that I know of) have shut down their services to date. I think it is more a case of nonprofit leaders becoming innovative and thrifty, and learning to make due with the resources they currently have. And truth be told, that is not a new story. The history of charitable services involves leaders who want to make a difference in their communities, and learn how to do more with less.
Los Angeles County has 18,622 active public charities and private foundations. Together they accounted for nearly $38 billion in economic activity in 2008 (the most recent year for which data is available). (Source Here)
Things are bad right now, we all know that already. And when the economy is hurting the way it is now, it is the time when more people need these charitable services more than ever. This is the time when people need to step up and support their groups, but it’s hard to do that. But hope should not be lost. We need to believe that we can weather the storm, and Los Angeles county can eventually emerge stronger. That may not always seem pragmatic or logical, but really it’s the only way to think. And it beats the alternative, which would be giving up.
UCLA State of the Nonprofit Sector in L.A. County
The Nonprofit Finance Fund also released their annual State of the Nonprofit Sector 2010 (Source here). It’s different from the UCLA School of Public Affair’s “Hard Times: Impacts, Actions, Prospects — The State of the Nonprofit Sector in Los Angeles 2010” It focuses on the global view as opposed to the local view of Los Angeles County. However, the message and the general outlook are still the same: not good.
So much so that the report even led their front page with a rather telling quote from Clara Miller, CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund: “We expect 2011 to be another treacherous year for many nonprofits that routinely take heroic measures to meet demand for services. The ‘recovery’ has not yet reached people in need, or the organizations that serve them”
The nonprofit sector typically lags two to three years behind the private sector when recovering from a “normal” recession. But this recovery is more likely to be in the four- to five-year range, given all the circumstances. The likelihood of a full return to pre-recession economic conditions is doubtful.
The report tells the same story: a large increase in need for services, coupled with a sharp decline in revenues and fund raising efforts. Even worse are the expectations from the Government, federal support, and United Way support. There are statistics and hard data, and there are no punches pulled.
It’s tough news to take. But as I mentioned before, you can look at all of the statistics at a macro level, and everything looks bleak. But when you get down to an individual level, there are still personal stories occurring everyday of people receiving services, receiving hope, and relief. It would be naive to ignore the big picture, but I still believe we need to focus on the stories of hope. We can still talk about the good things that happen everyday, and look forward to a day when more good things happen. If we can shine a light on the bright spots, then everything else will become brighter sooner. That’s just a thought.
Nonprofit Finance Fund State of the Nonprofit Sector