The Reach

The name on birth certificate is Janet Anne Hirst.  So, when we were walking up Portobello Road in London this June, my husband thought this would make an appropriate picture:

And because research shows that blogs with pictures get more readers, I figured, why not?  Of course, now I have to think of a way to connect this to a great posting (or what’s the point in having more readers?).

Thinking about that made me think about the reach that so many nonprofits make when they are going for a gift and, especially, a grant.

Often my clients and those taking my workshops (particularly those in my online grants class) get really excited about a funder—generally one who has recently made a significant gift to an organization known to my client, et al.  And then they cast about, looking for a project or program that maybe, perhaps could be of interest to that funder.

Seems like a horrible waste of time to me.

A far better way—more effective, productive, and more sustainable—is to have a clear notion of programs and directions, right now and two to three years in the future.

It’s astounding to me how few organizations seem to have a really good handle on that.  And those that do often are unable to articulate it to anyone not already in the know.

I call that navel-gazing, and think it is the most egregious of nonprofit sins.  After all, if I already know who you are and what you do and are intimately involved with it all, I am not the person you need to talk with about plans and dreams.  I’m there. It is the person who isn’t in the know who needs to be addressed.  Along with this comes a caveat—does the person you think is in the know really understand what your strategic directions are?

OK, I’ve used the word:  Strategic.  As in planning--Strategic Planning.  About which I have a lot of ambivalence.  I see to many consultants pushing strategic planning “processes” which go on forever and at the end the organization has a lovely document that no one seems able to use.

I’m actually more in favor of more directed plans—one for programs, perhaps one for the Board, and certainly one for resource development.

This one is sometimes the case or the case for giving.  I think it is a must for every organization who intends to raise funds from private sources.

I’m not talking here about the sales-like document organizations produce for external consumption.  This document is an internal one.  It ensures that all involved on the inside understand where the organization is, where it comes from, and where it intends to go.  It is a document with words and numbers, and it is above all realistic.

A good way to start this is with your history.  How did you start?  Why were you founded?  What were early successes (or failures—that is, after all, the best way to learn)?  What path(s) did your organization take to get where you are now?

And where is that?  Spell it out as if you are explaining it to someone who knows nothing about you, your field, your organization.  Although I strive to be a minimalist, this is one place where more really is more.

Don’t forget to put in your numbers—how much does it take for you to do what you do? From where are you getting this money and/or resources?  If you have shortfalls, talk about them.  This document, above all, needs to be an honest and transparent reflection of your organization.

Finally, look out two or three years.  Where do you want to go?  If nowhere, say that. Bigger is not always better.  Whatever your goal, how much will that cost?  And how do you think you will get these funds?

Once you know these answers, you can actually begin to define needs.  Not as in what you lack, but what it is that you are impacting, changing, solving.  This requires that you ask two very hard questions of everything you do and everything you want to do.  The first is why?  The second, so what?

Once you have the answers to all these questions, you can approach funders and donors from your strengths.  You can actually look for grants that will fund the things you want funded rather than being contortionists, trying to fit into someone else’s vision.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits and educational organizations, helping them to increase their fundraising capacity and to build better, more involved and engaged boards.  She is the co-teacher of the online Get Grants class, and co-author of Get Ready, Get Set, Get Grants.  Learn more about Janet’s consulting and training at