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.