Much Changes--and Much Remains

We (my co-teacher Bo Morton and I) in the process of rewriting my over a decade-old online grants class, and it’s interesting to think about what has changed—and what has not. Back then, everything was done on paper. Paid subscription databases were just coming on line, making grant searching easier—who else remembers those big clunky books that we poured over—but few if any foundations had websites. Nor was there a Instead, those who wrote federal grants scoured the Federal Registry daily, and then had to go to the individual agency sites to see which grants had actual funding attached.

During the past twelve or so years, the economy has gone up and down.   Funders have responded in kind. During the darkest days, many funders were only interested in grants that supported basic needs: food and shelter primarily. As things have eased, funding interests have again broadened, though the loosening of funding operations that started during the hard times seems to be continuing. It’s heartening to see that finally funders are understanding that all those “innovative” projects that are so near and dear to them can’t actually occur unless the lights are on, the salaries paid, and all those other truly basic needs (of the organization) are covered.

When we first developed the class, funders were beginning to talk about evaluations as the key. We spent a lot of class time talking about process and outcome evaluations, which didn’t bother students from large organizations but made our students who worked or volunteered for the much more numerous small nonprofits quail.

Evaluating your work—proving that you did indeed reach your outcomes—is still important, but most private foundations have recognized that one size does not fit all. For some groups, the evaluation really is just “We did it,” and it doesn’t get more sophisticated than that.

Outcomes are also a big deal in the individual giving sector. Unlike the greatest generation who wanted to do good, or us baby boomers who want to feel good, younger donors want to see that good is actually being done. So while you don’t have to talk about evaluations plans, you do have to connect the dots and show what their generosity has brought.

In actuality, you always should have done that. Donor attrition wouldn’t be so high if donors saw that their gifts actually made a difference—and that they were valued as more than a cash machine. What’s changed is that younger donors want to hear about impact and outcomes before they give a dime. You have to show how support from others made a difference before they will consider supporting you themselves.

And yet, for all this change, so much remains the same. Relationships still matter. It’s less good old boy than it was when I started fundraising in the 1980’s, but the more a funder or a supporter know you and your organization, the more connected they feel to the work you do, the greater the chances that your grant or your request will be successful. And the greater the chances that your success will be at a higher level than it would be if a strong relationship didn’t exist.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase fundraising capacity and building stronger boards. Talk with her at and find out how she can help turn your board into a fundraising powerhouse, and learn more about her other work at