The rewards of challenge grants

In early December, an article in the Boulder Daily Camera reported that in a competition among 50 animal shelters across the United States to get the greatest number of homeless pets adopted within a three-month period, the Humane Society of Boulder Valley led the pack, and subsequently won a $100,000 challenge grant from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Strategies used by the shelter for boosting adoption rates included special promotions such as free adoption days and encouragement of multiple adoptions by a given individual or family. This was a win-win situation for both the recipient and the funder: the recipient received a sizable cash grant and positive publicity, while the funder achieved measurable impact by more effectively reducing the number of homeless pets.

Challenge grants take a variety of forms, ranging from achieving a specific programmatic objective defined by the funder (as was the case in this instance) to the more typical requirement of raising a sum of money equal to the challenge grant amount by a given deadline as a condition of receiving the grant, otherwise known as a matching grant. (March 2, 2011 update: Helpful examples of matching grants and strategies for pursuing them effectively can be found in the Animal Shelter Tips “Ideas for Setting Up Matching Grants” blog post.)

There are some in the fundraising field who may wonder why one would bother pursuing a grant that wouldn’t be awarded unless certain conditions were met when there are many opportunities to receive grants outright (assuming that the nature and work of the applicant organization are in direct alignment with the funder’s stated interests).

The short answer to this question is that challenge grants position an organization to raise more money over the long term than it might otherwise.

The time limitation and specific goal of a challenge grant lends a sense of urgency to an organization’s fundraising efforts that might otherwise be lacking in an open-ended appeal. If targeted recipients of a fundraising request are leaning favorably toward the applicant organization but are uncommitted to taking immediate action, the knowledge that their contribution will be matched by a third party if it is received by a certain deadline may provide them with the necessary incentive to give sooner rather than later, and to give more generously knowing that their contribution will help to leverage additional support. The donor then has the double satisfaction of having made its own contribution and having helped the benefitting organization to meet the conditions of receiving additional support from a meaningful source.

In the bigger picture, challenge grants provide an avenue for forging new and/or deeper relationships within the funding community by having the recipient organization’s efforts recognized and endorsed by another donor. This recognition and endorsement places grantseeking organizations in a position of greater strength when approaching prospective supporters, and can help lay the groundwork for fruitful conversations and engagement opportunities. If the challenge grant helps to attract new resources (whether in the form of monetary support, helpful guidance, or meaningful collaborations) to a given organization’s cause, those resource providers and partnes may continue to show a high level of interest in the organization’s ongoing efforts long after the grant has been awarded, provided that the relationships are nurtured accordingly.

To get the most mileage out of a challenge grant, it is important to develop a communications plan to spread the word as early and as widely as possible—use every publicity vehicle available to your organization to promote it, including your Web site, blog, Twitter feed, Facebook profile, etc. After verifying that the data in your mailing lists (whether print or e-mail) is up-to-date, issue a special press release. Mention the challenge grant in every request you send out, both well in advance of and during the challenge period. Create a promotional video and post it to YouTube. And make sure that any staff members within your organization who are regularly interacting with its constituents are armed with the necessary details of the challenge grant (the challenge goal, who issued it, and by when the conditions must be met) so that they can get the word out as well.

Ideally, a challenge grant is a gift that keeps on giving by helping the recipient organization to expand its community of ongoing supporters and partners.

Factoring awards into the fundraising equation

Good Programs + Good Fundraising = $$
Good Programs + Good Fundraising + Awards = More $$

Earlier this month, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) presented its Carole Noon Award for Sanctuary Excellence to Jill Robinson, founder and CEO of Animals Asia Foundation and Animals Asia’s Moon Bear Rescue Centres in China and Vietnam. As described in GFAS’s press release, this international award is made each year in recognition of an individual or organization whose animal care exemplifies the highest level of humane standards. One of Animals Asia Foundation’s major longstanding activities is its campaign against bear bile farming, a practice in which digestive bile is extracted from bears—who spend tortured lives suffering continuously in cramped “crush” cages designed to restrict their movement and provide easy access to their stomachs—for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Over the past 12 years, the organization has rescued close to 350 bears, has helped to shut down more than 40 bear farms, and is continuing to build global public awareness and cooperation around this issue.

There was a $5,000 monetary component to the award underwritten this year by the Pettus Crowe Foundation, the Humane Society of the United States, Born Free USA, and the American Anti-Vivisection Society. Over the longer term, though, the award’s value to Animals Asia Foundation is almost certain to exceed that amount due to the increased visibility and prestige that the award lends to the organization’s efforts.

As a busy fundraising professional or program director, it’s easy to pass up opportunities to pursue awards that involve relatively little or no cash return, but there are good reasons for carving out some extra time for this when possible:

  • If the award is made by a reputable agency and your organization receives it, it presents an ideal opportunity to strengthen relationships with your current and past donors. Reach out to thank them for their part in supporting the program(s) that merited the award—you couldn’t have won it without their help—and emphasize the importance of their continuing role in ensuring that your organization’s performance remains high. The excitement and interest that can be sparked by an award may inspire your existing donors to give more and/or your lapsed donors to return to the fold. Everybody wants to be part of a winning team.

  • Many grantmaking foundations do not accept unsolicited requests for funding; submission of applications is by invitation only. If executive staff members at such a foundation are unaware of your organization but then hear that it just received a prestigious award, their curiosity may be piqued—you may land squarely on their radar and have the chance to begin a dialogue that builds a new relationship, which may eventually lead to an invitiation to apply for funding. Additionally, your chances of a successful outcome in submitting first-time applications to funders who do accept them are increased.

  • An award can be a positive catalyst for building morale and team spirit among an organization’s employees. At a time in our economic history when good news is scarce, any encouraging sign is welcome. If employees feel re-energized and rewarded, they will be more productive…and ultimately bring in even more donations!

A good place to start in seeking out award opportunities is at the Web sites, blogs, and Twitter feeds of professional associations, coalitions, or collaboratives with which your organization is either currently associated or eligible for membership.

New animal grant opportunities…just in time for the holidays

Two animal-focused organizations recently announced that they are accepting requests for funding from qualified applicants:

  • The Animal Welfare Trust is offering internship awards of approximately $5,000 each to graduate students whose work can potentially advance animal welfare reform, either through an independent research project or via an otherwise unpaid internship at an animal-focused organization. The application deadline is March 1, 2011. The Trust’s internship application guidelines provide details about the program, qualifications for applicants, a list of required materials to be submitted, an award timeline, and a description of past grants. Winners will be announced in April.

  • The John Ball Zoo Society is awarding grants of up to $2,500 each for wildlife conservation and education projects conducted by academic institutions, accredited zoos, and other nonprofit organizations. The application deadline is March 1, 2011. The Society’s application guidelines include eligibility requirements, contact information, answers to frequently asked questions, application forms, and a description of past grants. Awards will be announced in June.

Money talks: Healthier animals mean healthier people

Just a few days ago, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen gave $26 million to his alma mater, Washington State University, specifically to benefit its School for Global Animal Health, which is planning significant expansion of research programs and laboratory capacity in Africa over the next ten years.  Allen’s gift to the school was preceded by a 2008 grant of $25 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support construction of the school’s research building in Pullman, Washington.

The school’s work to prevent the spread of dangerous diseases among animals has potentially far-reaching implications for humans as well.  A December 2 article in The Seattle Times reports that according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans—including anthrax, avian flu, Ebola, HIV, mad cow disease, swine flu, and West Nile virus—originate in animals.  Animal health and human health are therefore closely linked, particularly in developing countries.  Furthermore, many of the world’s poorest people depend on livestock for their income, so sick animals pose an economic threat as well.

The Seattle Times‘s “Business of Giving” section features a video commentary by Paul Allen in which he describes his reasons for making the gift:

There’s a valuable lesson to be learned here for all organizations that focus on helping animals: To the greatest extent possible in your communications with funders, try to illustrate the potential benefits of your work for people as well, emphasizing the interdependency between the well-being of animals and humans.  Include supporting statistics and/or testimonials from reputable sources.  This will help build a stronger case for the merit of your organization’s efforts.  For example, organizations whose work involves humane education programs can point to the well-established fact that many violent criminals have a history of abusing animals as children.  Therefore, cultivating empathy toward animals when children are young may help to reduce the incidence of human-on-human violence in the future.  (The web site of the humane education organization HEART provides links to some documentation of the human/animal violence connection).

One thing that donors greatly appreciate is knowing that their funds will be leveraged—in other words, that their gift will provide the maximum bang for their buck.

Welcome to the jungle…

The volatility of the global economy over the past two years has presented tremendous challenges in virtually every sphere of human endeavor, including the charitable work of the social sector.  While donations are starting to pick up for some U.S. nonprofit organizations as the economy inches toward recovery, increasing service demands are still largely outpacing the resources available to provide them.  According to a recent year-end fundraising survey of U. S. charities published by the Nonprofit Research Collaborative, 68 percent of participants reported increased demand for their organizations’ services, yet only about 46 percent expect to increase their 2011 budgets.

The ramifications of the fundraising challenges that nonprofits face extend beyond humankind, however.  Among the organizations struggling to stay afloat are those that devote their resources towards improving the lives of animals in need — animals who suffer at the hands of abusive or negligent owners or within the confines of factory farms, circuses, and laboratories, or whose existence in the wild is threatened.   Even in prosperous economic times, only a small pool of funds is available for these organizations, as the majority of charitable contributions in the U.S. are made to religious, educational, and health institutions.

So, people responsible for fundraising at animal-focused organizations are grappling with a tough market  no matter what — and when those organizations suffer, so do the animals.

My goal in creating and maintaining this blog is to provide information that helps nonprofits committed to fostering the well-being of animals to secure and leverage philanthropic support — particularly foundation grants — as effectively as possible.

I work in the development department at The Foundation Center, the leading source of information about philanthropy worldwide.  Through data, analysis, and training, it connects people who want to change the world to the resources they need to succeed.  I experience the rewards and challenges of foundation fundraising every day; the Center is supported by close to 550 foundations.  You will see a lot of its offerings—the vast majority of which are freely available—referenced throughout this blog.  Having said that, I should note that this blog reflects my own perspective as an individual providing a free service to the field, and is not representative of or endorsed by any specific organization(s).

My first piece of advice for organizations embarking on new projects is to see whether other organizations are already doing similar work that might be accomplished more effectively through a partnership.  A persistent problem within the social sector is that many groups engage in overlapping, duplicative efforts that compete for the same scarce grant dollars.  In fact, many nonprofits needn’t have been formed at all for that very reason, and in the aftermath of the economic crisis, some have been forced to close or to merge with others.  New nonprofits without a well-established track record and donor base tend to have a particularly difficult time garnering financial support.  

To address this issue and help organizations better coordinate their efforts, the Foundation Center has been working with the Lodestar Foundation to provide resources on nonprofit collaboration, including a collaboration database. One interesting example from the database relating to animal welfare was a partnership between the Animal Protective Foundation, Robin’s Nest Rescued Cat Adoptions, Guilderhaven, and the Montgomery County SPCA on a community spay/neuter program.

You can also find potential project and/or funding partners by searching the Center’s profiles of grantmakers and grants in The Foundation Directory Online, a database available for use free of charge at locations throughout the United States and internationally. (If you prefer the convenience of using it from your own office, you can purchase a subscription.)

The Foundation Center’s Philanthropy News Digest includes constantly updated requests for grant proposals and news stories relating to animal welfare, for which you can receive automatic e-mail alerts free of charge.

I also highly recommend exploring, the Foundation Center’s new free online learning platform for the nonprofit community that includes a section specifically for organizations whose work centers around the environment and animals.

I hope you find this blog helpful.  Thank you for all you do to improve the lives of animals.