There’s nothing stodgy in and around nonprofits these days. Sector dynamics are vivid — from COVID not so long ago to the onrush of Artificial Intelligence (AI) now. Through all this, the combination of seeking resources to support organizations’ operations, along with writing proposals to secure such resources remains constant. It is to this ever-present imperative that I’d like to suggest the usefulness of an additional element of strategy for any nonprofit: the development of its core funding proposal and all this entails.
With this backdrop, I want to share how a convergence of two social media events has come to allow me to fill in details about the importance of this core document even in the face of the allure of AI’s applications in our sector. This, along with describing a case study-in-the-making and offering enough information to inspire anyone to consider building their own such proposal.
To start, a former participant in a proposal development workshop I had conducted a while back contacted me on LinkedIn. She is highly placed in a large nonprofit delivering a range of social service programs to diverse populations in two contiguous counties.
She proposed — and we held — a video meeting where several of her staff and I spent an hour discussing how their work was going and their ideas and questions about writing proposals and seeking grants.
On the heels of that hour-long session, the individual largely responsible for generating grant proposals for that nonprofit and I started to converse via email. Curious after I had questioned how her organization pursues resources, having looked over its website, she wanted to see if it was possible to integrate responses to my concerns into her work. We now get together weekly via Zoom.
Bear with me as I veer away to interject the second social media adventure that serendipitously reinforces the value of building the core funding proposal — and leads back to where my correspondent and I have changed our dialogue to focus on doing just that.
I make it my business to read a blog by Vu Le that goes by the handle Nonprofit AF. His work in support of grassroots nonprofits is superior, provocatively empowering and flies in the face of a lot of so-called conventional wisdom — especially when it comes to the back and forth between organizations seeking financial support and those with money to give.
Recently he published a piece on AI and Nonprofits https://nonprofitaf.com/2023/03/the-ethics-and-opportunities-of-artificial-intelligence-in-the-nonprofit-sector/
As with all his articles, comments are invited and mine was to be among several others, all managed through Disqus, described as a comment plug-in service. Disqus labeled what I wrote Spam, and it remains unpublished on the site. I took one unsuccessful stab at protesting, thought better of persisting, and have chosen instead to add more details to the censored document here and now.
As wryly valuable as it is in its entirety, I’m largely sticking to one aspect of what Vu Le’s given us in this article — such being his assertion that every organization should have one proposal they use for every funder. To borrow from the well-known adage, his words were music to my eyes!
I have for years in our sector when active as a workshop trainer, proposal writer, program officer, consultant, volunteer — and now author — contended that it is not only possible but practical to use the never-ending necessity to pursue assets as an opportunity for any nonprofit to tell its story of a mission-focused organization proposing a partnership with those with money, be they organizations or individuals. And, to use building proposals to do such storytelling as a way of strengthening the organization going through the process.
I suggest this is possible by questioning and challenging the often-mentioned use of a grantwriter, so-called, as an external operative of sorts whose task is to produce funding proposals on behalf of an organization paying for such a service.
The preferable alternative I’m proposing is that this outlier be replaced by an onboard staff member who interacts with others — including grassroots community members for whom the nonprofit has been created in the first place — as a convener, communicator, facilitator, researcher and writer — all in service to pursuing diversified resources, but now in particular to oversee the creation of the organization’s core funding proposal — the “one proposal” Vu Le sagely plugged in the linked article. Let us call this necessarily highly skilled practitioner your nonprofit organization’s Resource Coordinator.
In other words, I am humbly proposing replacing the grantwriting Vu Le described as only available to organizations that can afford to hire and employ professionals with a process any nonprofit can undertake. Think of it as democratizing the proposal building process where the Resource Coordinator in your organization engages others in the process of building this proposal.
Vu refers to one of the benefits of AI as “freeing up time to focus on what matters” including the repetitious aspects of going after grants thereby allowing staff to focus on service delivery and other tasks. As appealing as it may be to supplant the human-as-grantwriter (except to those many advertising their services to nonprofits) with the AI version, this calls into question the nature of the “other tasks” he mentions.
And we are back to what I am advocating wherein at the very least some of such tasks could and should involve a range of personal interactions orchestrated by the Resource Coordinator as essential to and while building this core funding proposal. I would also suggest that such interpersonal connections are valuable in and of themselves, AI notwithstanding.
As for such a proposal, it will be created, periodically updated, and used repeatedly to seek support for an organization's overall operations rather than the often-found situation where grant proposals are categorized and pitched to conform to a prospective funder's stipulations. Its versatility will also be apparent since the core proposal forms the basis for direct mail appeals and face-to-face meetings — bearing in mind that far more money to support nonprofits comes from individuals than through grants.
Finally, what makes this so practical for any nonprofit are my suggested format and steps by which the core proposal is built, both of which are steeped in common sense and intended to assure that the proposal reflects an ongoing concern for the quality of life among the people for whom the organization was created at its inception.
As you know this is a tough sell, given the weight of the, I’ll call it, grantwriting cartel and so-called conventional wisdom of acceding to funders’ requirements. And now, the blandishments of Artificial Intelligence.
Nonetheless, let me circle back to the original entry point of this article, the communication between my institutional counterpart and me, as previously mentioned, in the form of weekly recorded Zoom sessions for the last couple of months.
Her job now largely involves responding to Requests for Proposals (RFPs) and churning out what we agree are siloed applications that deal with one aspect of her organization's work irrespective of any connection to other equally urgent issues. These often come from public sector agencies brandishing legislatively generated dollars, the use of which is usually tied up by regulations. She also makes it her business to root around for funding opportunities that might fit the various program areas within the organization.
While maintaining such chores, she has agreed to take on the challenge of creating her organization's core funding proposal, emblematic of her eagerness to undertake a creative process that she is convinced will add to her considerable but tamped down skill set.
We’ve agreed to use our weekly recorded Zooms to go over what and how she’s doing to reach into her organization to generate input from others, using the mutually agreed-upon format for building a funding proposal in my book discussed in another Zoom meeting. These sessions will also allow us to see how practical our experiment is given her already considerable workload.
We’re looking into the possibility of changing the way an active nonprofit presents itself and operates. The core funding proposal provides an alternative to the embedded practice of chasing after resources for bits and pieces of the organization’s operations. And does so by telling the story of a resilient, multifaceted organization that understands the scope of its interconnected operations— thereby presenting prospective investors of any stripe the opportunity to put their resources into a mutually beneficial partnership with a fully functioning outfit.
If nothing else, we will have learned about what makes sense or not when trying to craft a core funding proposal, the one proposal, as Vu Le puts it. At this point it will be impressive if my in-house partner is successful in creating one for her nonprofit, let alone putting it into play. Meantime, I’ll be part and parcel of her efforts.
Stay tuned. More to follow as events unfold. I welcome any comments or questions about what we are up to.
Many who visualize and hold forth about nonprofits, do so without fully appreciating the breadth of such organizations.