April 11, 2018

When asking donors to give their money, volunteers or staff to give their time, and even constituents to participate in your programs – it is particularly important to know why they should volunteer, give, and engage with your organization as opposed to another similar nonprofit.

Therefore, you must know the other organizations in your space, and clearly understand and communicate how you are performing different activities, or performing similar activities in different ways.

One of your most important roles as a nonprofit leader is to see the broader context and communicate it both internally and externally.  Here is an example: Elevate once worked with a charter school who was seeking to raise national funding for its work. When we were brainstorming why the funders should support their work, a school leader explained with enthusiasm about all the learning that was happening in their classroom every single day.

But students learning could not be their differentiating factor, we explained: that is why the local school district funds their work in the first place. That is the bare minimum; it is what they have in common with (most) other schools, not what makes them different or better amid a crowded field.

So how can your organization set itself apart from others doing similar work in your field?

Your Unique Approach

Your unique approach is something you have probably thought about. A lot. But your position is also something that is dynamic, and shifting as the ecosystem around it does and as you learn more about what works and what does not. When building new programs or approaching new stakeholders, it will be critical that your organizational strategy is in step with the broader context of what’s happening around you.

Differentiation must be your strategy!

Not only does this benefit the most people and prevent duplication of efforts, but it improves your sustainability by ensuring donors and grantmakers do not believe there is a good substitute for your work, and stay loyal to you!

How might your organization or program be different? Factors to consider:

Are you the only service provider in a certain region? Do you have a nation-wide reach compared to organizations with just a local footprint?  Elevate works with many different Jewish social service agencies – but the one in Seattle is not competing with the one in Philadelphia or Miami.

Size or Reach

Are you the largest service provider of a particular demographic – like middle school students? Or do you reach all the senior centers in a certain county?

Theory of Change

Does your theory of change (which we will discuss more at length!) distinguish your work? One of Elevate’s former clients developed their own inquiry-based method of teacher professional development. Do you have a similar method for change that you’ve refined over time?

Program Design

Do you use best practices in delivering your programs, or a promising new model that makes your program different in exciting ways? Are there features of your programs that others do not offer?


Does your program have a track record that is proven and deep? Does the change because of your program highlight a more effective program?

Stakeholder Engagement

Does your organization bring unique stakeholder perspectives to the table or ‘uncommon bedfellows’ to work on a common issue. For example, a former Elevate client was committed to bringing evangelical Christians into the progressive movement by highlighting common areas of interest – like care for creation and peace.  Another brings military leaders to advice on progressive foreign policy issues.

Comprehensive or Linked Services

Do you offer a broader array of services than others or a more holistic or comprehensive experience for participants? Are you a one-stop-shop for a variety of needs?


Do you have long-standing or particularly deep partnerships that make your program more effective or legitimate in the community?

Broader Contribution to the Field

Are you helping to organize other actors in your space? Do you provide some other mechanism for thought leadership?  Do others look to you to galvanize a collective response? For example, one of Elevate’s clients is the national leader in the creative aging space and presents at conferences on their work.

Funding Mix

Do you have earned revenue or government support, when it is not common in your space? Do you have support from the most prominent foundations or donors, who have invested in your interventions and programs?

Leadership and Authenticity

Is your Board of Directors, leadership, or staff led by former or current program participants? Does it have people who have first-hand experience with your issue?  For example, an Elevate client is the only national organization against torture led by torture survivors.

Momentum or Growth

Has your organization been the fastest growing, or entered new schools, regions, or cities in the past year?

Timeliness or Relevance

Are there external factors that make your issue particularly pressing? A change in conversation or a world event that makes your work particularly distinctive? For example, Elevate works with a client who is the leading organization working on climate change from a Catholic perspective, and the Pope’s landmark Encyclical letter, Laudato Si’ in 2014, about the care for our common home helped to differentiate their work from other climate organizations at that time.

Agenda Setting

Are you addressing an issue that others have not tackled before? For example, Elevate worked with a client raising awareness and developing responses to street harassment, which was largely an untapped issue area.

Download Elevate’s free Differentiation worksheets!

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This Matters the most for Nonprofits

Because there are always limited resources, it is important that you legitimately do not spend your time and money duplicating efforts that are already working elsewhere.  This is more important in the social and nonprofit sector than in the business and for-profit space. If individual investors want to try to compete with an existing enterprise, it is the investors who lose if it does not work out.

However, if your nonprofit wants to duplicate efforts that are already being done, the opportunity cost of other interventions that could be benefiting society in some other way are a public loss, not just a private one.

As an added bonus: clear and meaningful differentiation is essential to a strong fundraising program, and will ensure you raise more funding than if you are competing with similar organizations.

March 22, 2018

Having a thoughtful grants strategy is essential to achieving results efficiently. While you might think the term ‘strategy’ is jargony and overused – and we won’t disagree! – it has an actual, limited meaning, and an interesting history.

A strategy is a high-level plan to achieve your goals under conditions of uncertainty. The term ‘strategy’ comes from Greek and initially referred to a ‘generalship’ or the art of commanding troops in war. When it entered the Western languages in the 1700s, its meaning was broadened to incorporate any way people used to pursue their goals, especially their political goals.

One of the key confusions today is that nonprofits often engage in some version of strategic planning, which can take a lot of different forms or final products. For example:

A Strategic Plan

is a plan that outlines your overall organizational goals for a certain time period (generally one to five years) and outlines how your organization will achieve those goals. Your strategic plan will incorporate the full organization – not only programs, outcomes, and new initiatives, but also operations, infrastructure, and staffing.

A Strategic Planning Process

is the process by which the staff and Board of Directors create this plan. It usually includes conducting external research, analyzing and committing to measurable goals, and approving priorities.

While these examples of strategy play an important role in any nonprofits’ success, your grants program needs also needs its own basic, high-level strategy that has a distinct meaning and goal separate from the above.


Your grants strategy should include your fundraising goals and priorities, the strategic thinking you have done about how to achieve those goals, and your recommendations or plan about what to actually do throughout the year.

As a nonprofit, with limited resources, you do not want to spend your time and energy moving in the wrong direction. Creating a brief grants strategy plan and memo can help you clarify what to do and what to not do.

While you might think that your grants strategy is “to find everything that possibly aligns and pursue it” – and it just might be – there are a few questions we want you to also think about first! They include:

Goals & Priorities
  • What are your goals for your grants program? What are those goals based on, and are they reasonable? No matter how good your strategy if your goals are unreasonable, you will not achieve them. Learn how to create an appropriate forecast here.
  • What are your top priorities for the year or 18 months?
Your Plan & Focus
  • What type of activities do you initially plan to emphasize: prospect research and cultivation, upgrading existing funders or improving existing proposal language, developing new language, organizational’ capacity building or some mix of these?
  • Regarding prospects and cultivation, where do you plan to look for funders? What other organizations or programs will you start with?  What type of priorities are you seeking in those funders?
  • What is your plan for cultivation and approaching new funders? Do you have a lot of stakeholders, and are those stakeholders engaged? Will you naturally be able to cultivate or will you need training and support?
  • Regarding how to divide the proposals you write, will you:
    • Focus on organizational support, or highlight specific programs or initiatives? If relevant, why did you select those specific programs?
    • Focus on national funders or state or local? Family foundations? Corporate? Public opportunities? Why did you select these?
Strategy for your Case Statement & Putting it all together

Once you can answer the questions above, you will be able to pull together a brief high-level strategy for the year. But you also need to do some strategic thinking about how to present your organization to funders. When it comes time to actually apply, you should also be able to answer the following:

  • Briefly, what are the top 2-5 reasons funders should support your organization or program? What are its strengths and how is it different?
  • What new language do you need to develop? Is there anything you are doing now that you can re-package for a different audience?
  • What are your greatest weaknesses or key programs’ weaknesses? How will you message or frame these?
  • Why should funders give now? What is the broader context? What trends do you see that are relevant for a context?
  • What is the future vision or strategy for your organization? Is it clear how you will get there? Do you need more details from the organization?


When you put all these pieces together, you should have all the components of a focused grants strategy for your organization that reflects your priorities, gives you a focused sense of direction, and ultimately delivers results.

March 1, 2018

I didn’t always like logic models: I thought they were just another attachment-hoop funders wanted us to jump through on our way to Grantland.  But I’ve become a true believer and hope that by the end of this post, you’ll be one too!

Logic models help nonprofit leaders run better programs – and over the lifetime of an organization, well-designed programs are needed to win grants (Plus, logic models help grant writers understand new programs before they start writing… saving us all some valuable time and effort!)

So let’s start off with what a logic model is, why your organization needs one for every program, and how you can create one.

What is a Logic model?

Logic models are tools that help you understand how effective programs are designed.

The Kellogg Foundation defines a logic model as, “a systematic and visual way to present and share your understanding of the relationships among the resources you have to operate your program, the activities you plan, and the changes or results you hope to achieve.”

At Elevate, we typically incorporate a theory of change in our logic models, to show how Activities and Changes directly relate to each other. We’ll talk more about what that means a little later in this post.

  • You’ll want to use your logic model during program planning to clarify strategy, identify appropriate outcome targets, set priorities for your resources, and to identify necessary partnerships to achieve your goals.
  • You can use it when fundraising to justify why the program will work and explain how investments will be used.
  • You can use it during stakeholder orientation to show how different organizations will work together.
  • You can use it during evaluation to document your accomplishments and identify differences between the ideal program and its implementation.

To help you get started, you can download Elevate’s Logic Model template below:


When putting together your own logic model, you can use either forward logic or reverse logic.

With forward logic:

  • You begin with the activities on the left side. 
  • This approach is driven by But Why? questions or If-Then logic, which will help you move forward from left to right.
  • This approach explores the rationale for activities that are proposed or currently under way.

With reverse logic:

  • You begin with the outcomes you hope to achieve on the right side. 
  • By asking a series of But How? questions, you’ll start with a clearly identified change that you and your colleagues would definitely like to see occur on the right side, and move backwards.
  • This approach begins with the end in mind.

These are your resources; what you have. Examples might include: time, money, reputation, board, expertise. These are resources you will always have, regardless of the specifics of your programs.


These are the key elements of your program, what you do and how you do it.  So, for a mentoring program this might be that students meet with their mentor once a week, talk with their mentor twice a week and come to an entire org event once a month.  It is what defines your program, the things you do!


This is the quantitative evidence of your program and the activities you implement.  So, for a mentoring program this might be that the organization has 20 mentees, 25 mentors and 5 whole organization activities. These are quantitative and detail what are actually doing.

Theory of Change

The theory of change is not necessarily part of your logic model – though we think incorporating the ideas behind a theory of change can help strengthen the content of your logic model.

Put simply, a theory of change is a researched-based, tested explanation for how your inputs lead to your outputs.  How your program design will lead to the change you want. An effective theory of change relies on tested assumptions and an effective strategy.

The reason we added theory of change in our logic model is because it gives you a clear representation of where theory of change happens.  Specifically, it occurs right on that line that divides Outputs from Outcomes; here, you’re illustrating your belief that your activities and outputs will lead to the outcomes (change) you want to see.

As explained by the Catholic relief services, “When theories of change are well captured in logical or results frameworks, program managers can use them to articulate what programs are trying to achieve and what they think needs to happen to get there.” Laying your logic model out using this framework this really explains how your program is designed to work. It also makes it very easy to change if something isn’t working.  If you don’t achieve the outcomes you want, you need to understand if your theory of change is flawed or if you lack fidelity to your model.

Ideally, your theory of change is based on evidence that your activities will lead to the results you want.  For example, if mentoring a student, you could have the mentor meet with the student once a month or once a week. To decide you would have to research the best practices to achieve the greatest results. This of course comes from a lot of research! You need to stay up to date about your issue area and the best practices in the field.


Finally, this section illustrates the change that comes about because of your work.  It is what you achieve.  It is really important that these are measurable.  If they aren’t, there is no way to prove your impact.

Outcomes are split into three different levels.

First are short-term outcomes that are changes in knowledge, attitude or skills.  For a mentoring organization an example of this would be 75% of students increase their reading scores by 2 points (as measured by the reading scores provided by the school).

Second are mid-term outcomes, which are changes in behavior or actions.  For a mentoring organization an example of this would be 75% of students showing increased promotion and graduation rates relative to peers; improved self-efficacy (as measured by General Self-Efficacy Inventory).

Third and finally are long-term outcomes, which are changes in quality of life.  For a mentoring organization an example of this would be 50% college enrollment or post-graduate training.

Now that we’ve reviewed all the parts of a logic model, you can use a logic model as a tool to improve and fine-tune your program design, and highlight these changes in your grant proposals!

  • More than any other components of a logic model, you have the most control over your activities. They’re what you choose to do!  Therefore, the best programs are based on a deep understanding of what works and has worked in the past to bring about the change they want to see.
  • Research, research, research to ensure that both your theory of change and specific program design elements rely on best practices.
  • Select strong evaluation tools and instruments to make your logic model as compelling and clear as possible.

Download your free Logic Model template!

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February 8, 2018

The sustainability section of a grant proposal is always somewhat tricky, if not slightly ironic. You must make the case that your organization or program will be fine if you do not win the grant, but that you do still need the funding.

In general, this section should be an explanation of where other funding will come from to support your work as an organization. Foundations will rarely be your sole funding source; you will need to demonstrate money is coming from other sources and that your program can sustain itself over the long term.

To paint a full and accurate picture of your organization or program’s sustainability, you should provide details about your strategic plan, fundraising plan, fundraising streams, and program expansion and changes. And because it can be difficult to know exactly where to start or what to include, we’ve listed some key phrases and concepts below that can help you tackle this tricky section of your proposal with confidence.

Diversified Funding

Your organization supports its work through some combination of earned income, individual contributions, government contracts, and philanthropic support. In some cases, this is even a consistent ratio. The strongest case for diversified funding provides some specific percentages and comments on the stability of each funding stream.

Multi-Year Funding

Multi-year funding is a nonprofit holy grail. If you have it, be sure to tell your funders that at least a portion of your revenue is committed for multiple years!

Renewed Funding

Does your organization renew a significant proportion of its funding every year? If so, you will want to provide those stats.

For example:

“The organization has received renewed funding from 15 long-time organizational supporters for each of the last three years.”

Annual/Strategic Planning

If you’ve already established that your organization has strong planning processes in the Leadership section of the grant, then mentioning that a particular program or initiative is included in the annual or strategic plan is an indicator of sustainability.

For example:

“Doubling the number of children served through our program is a key goal in our 2012-2016 strategic plan and therefore a focus of our fundraising.”

Development Capacity

For those organizations who rely heavily on institutional fundraising or individual giving (i.e. they do not have government contracts or earned income streams), it is important to emphasize their capacity for fundraising. This is particularly important for organizations proposing a programmatic expansion or another change that will increase the fundraising burden.

With organizations who are working with Elevate, we emphasize that they have dedicated development staff that research and apply to new funding sources. If your organization has had a lot of success identifying new funding, provide that information; for example, development staff have successfully applied to 10 new funders in the last year.

November 17, 2017


Hopefully, we have already convinced you to create a forecasting document. Now it is time to go into more detail about how not to create one. We also provide some tips and tricks to make your forecast more accurate and useful.

Tip 1: Use a template so you don’t reinvent the wheel!

In the previous post, we talked about creating probabilities based on the type, tier, and history of the funder. But we do not want you to reinvent the wheel when doing this work. A template can make this process a lot easier, and we’ve provided one that you can download at the end of this post.

Type of Funder

You should classify your funders as either public, corporate, or foundation. Depending on your circumstances, it might also make sense to have a category for family foundation, major donor, or local v. national foundation. In general, public agencies are going to have a lower funding probability than corporate foundations and both will be lower than private foundations. National foundations are going to be much lower than local or regional funders.

Tier or Alignment

Tier should be used to classify funders by how well aligned you are. Obviously, you are more likely to be funded by organizations with which you closely align. Some nonprofits also benefit by classifying funders by which program they support. They know that one of their programs is able to win new funders 10% of the time, while another might only win funding 5% of the time.

History or Relationship

Your probability should obviously be MUCH higher among existing funders. In fact, if you are not renewing over 90% of your existing funders, at least among those who fund annually, you need to examine your stewardship efforts. History can also help you classify funders by your cultivation efforts and how long you have been building a real relationship with them.

Tip 2: All your funders must be named. Prospects AND ‘TBD’ ARE not funderS!

A major problem we see with forecasts is that many people want their projections to yield more money than they do. They frequently add a line for prospects that are not yet identified. Whether you call this TBD or ‘unidentified funders’ or ‘prospects’ — it does not belong on your forecasting chart, and you need to immediately delete that row.

Of course, there is an exception to this rule and it depends on timing. If you’re creating a projections chart for next year just a few months into your current fiscal year, you can have a line for unidentified prospects. If you have included this, you or your development team should ensure your team is actively bringing a lot of prospects to you every few weeks.

However, if you are approving an official projections chart for the upcoming year, there is a small probability that you are going to find new prospects, cultivate them, apply to them, and win first-time funding during that same year.

Tip 3: Expand your list or increase your renewal amounts (NOT your percentages)

If you have elected to set a fundraising goal before looking at your revenue projections, we recommend that you revise your goal after seeing what is possible from your projections.

In particular, please do not arbitrarily fiddle with your projections, percentages, or ask amount to get to your desired fundraising goal. Instead, create a low and high version of your projections, with riskier percentages. (To see a real example of how we did this, make sure to download the free template at the end of this post!)

If your projections still do not reach your goals—again—please do not adjust your projections arbitrarily. Instead, this is your opportunity to see what is missing from your projections and if you need to expand “the top of the funnel” by adding more prospects. You can also look at your renewals and increase the ask amount in order to upgrade them to larger amounts.

Finally, if your projections still are not where you need them to be, you need to adjust your goal downward. It is MUCH better to do the difficult work of limiting expenses now, before you have spent the money, than it is to be mid-way through the year looking at an expense budget that surpasses your revenue projections. You will have less time to cut those expenses, and so the shortfall will actually feel more significant if you wait for six months.

Tip 4: Examine your assumptions and learn as you go!

The goal of your forecast is to predict reality given all the uncertainty there is – so even if you raise a LOT more than you thought you would, your forecast was not as helpful as it should have been.

Much worse, and more common, is if you have projected that you will raise much more than you did. You are likely stressed already and will have to cut major planned expenses.

If you’re new to forecasting, and this has happened, you have to fully examine your assumptions:

  • Are you better or worse at cultivating than thought? You can determine this by noticing if what you projected as very unlikely—5% or 10% possibilities—turned out to be funded closer to 20% of the time.
  • Were there external things you did not predict but could have – i.e. new government opportunities that became available or former funding streams that were shut down? To predict these better, you can make sure you’re on the right listservs, attending the right coalition or association meetings, and networking with your colleagues to stay in the loop about local and federal funding opportunities.
forecasting isn’t an exact science, but it is a necessary practice.

Estimate on the conservative side, be realistic about your probabilities, and adjust your assumptions as you become more comfortable with your organization’s probabilities for success.

AUGUST 10, 2017

Whether it is called governance, leadership, organizational structure, or qualifications and experience, as a grant writer you are going to be asked to explain who leads your organization and why they are qualified to do so. Your response should describe the role of the board of directors in advancing the mission of the organization.

The argument in any leadership section is that your organization has the right people and processes in place to achieve its mission. As you draft this section, think about ways to differentiate your organization from others:

  • Do your board members bring unique benefits, like connections to professional development opportunities for nonprofit staff or to potential organizational partners?

  • Is your board giving rate particularly impressive?

  • Is your organization particularly thoughtful about who it nominates as new board members? 

Information you’LL need to know
Board Committees

How is the board structured? Foundations are looking for information that indicates a well-organized board. Best-practices for nonprofits indicate that all organizations should have some kind of committee structure, but that the number of committees should be limited.

Common committees include:

Finance – This committee supports the development of the annual expense budget, tracks the actual spending vs. budget, watches monthly cash flow, and interprets the overall financial health of the organization on behalf of the board. This committee supports the development of the longer-term strategic plan as well as next year’s annual plan. All of the financial policies of your organization should be reviewed by the finance committee prior to board approval. Some organizations establish a separate Audit Committee.

Governanceensure that policies are created and periodically reviewed which define: the roles and responsibilities of the board. duties and responsibilities of directors and officers; conflict of interest procedures; procedures for nomination, selection, and removal of directors.

FundraisingWhile the Executive Director is responsible for the organization’s fundraising, well-run organizations engage the support of the board in various part of their fundraising plan. This committee oversees the development of the Annual Fundraising Plan – and tracks the planned vs. actual results during the year. They encourage, train, and thank other board members for their involvement in the fundraising activities. They explore potential new fundraising activities as part of the strategic planning process.

Executive Committee – includes the chairs of the other board committees and the board chair. This committee is often empowered to make decisions between board meetings and works closely with the Executive Director.


Alternatively, Blue Avocado recommends that organizations limit themselves to the following three committees:

Internal Affairs Committee – All internal and operational issues-including those related to finance, human resources, and facilities-are handled by this committee which is staffed by the CFO and the Director of HR (or the ED where these positions do not exist).

External Affairs Committee – All external issues-including fundraising, public relations, and marketing — are the responsibility of this committee, which is staffed by the Development Director (or by the ED).

Governance Committee – This committee is responsible for the health and functioning of the board. It recruits new members, conducts orientation, produces board materials, and evaluates the performance of the board itself. This committee, staffed by the ED, is arguably the most important of the three. It is responsible for ensuring the effectiveness of the current board and for recruiting tomorrow’s leaders.

Board Expertise

Who serves on your board and why? Funders are looking for evidence that your board has expertise in nonprofit governance, finance, and fundraising. They will also want to see that you have members with expertise in your sector. Common board officers include:

President – Heads up the board and supervises all of the business and affairs of the board. While the President can also serve as the CEO of the organization, keep in mind that these two roles are separate; an individual cannot be compensated to hold an officer position.

Secretary – Keeps the minutes of the board of directors. Additionally, the Secretary is responsible for keeping track of the organization’s activities to make sure the actions of the organization are in accordance to the organization’s Bylaws. The Secretary usually keeps track of the board members’ contact information in order to inform the board about meetings and updates on the organization.

Treasurer – Keeps account of the receipts and disbursements in the organization’s books. Additionally, the Treasurer is responsible for keeping track of the organization’s financial condition. This is an important role because it keeps the other officers and board members informed about the financials. This person should have a financial background!

Best-practices suggest that there is no right size for a nonprofit board. The average board size is 16 members. Funders may start to question your organization’s governance if it has a large, multi-million dollar budget and a board with less than 5-10 members.

Frequency of Board Meetings

Funders will want to know how often the entire board meets as well as how often individual board committees meet. According to the IRS, boards must meet at least once a year. Beyond that, there is a lot of debate about the best-practices around frequency of board meetings.

Typically, organizations will have monthly, bi-monthly, or quarterly board meetings. The longer the time between full board meetings, the more likely that the organization relies on an executive committee to make decisions between meetings.

TIP: If your organization’s board meets infrequently, be sure to note if board members are attending committee meetings between full board meetings.

Board Term Limits and Contributions

Small, emerging organizations tend not to have board term limits because they lack capacity to continually add new members. However, it is a best-practice to establish term limits for all members, so be sure to mention them if your organization has them.

It is also a best-practice to have a “give or get” policy for board members that requires all members to directly contribute or solicit a minimum donation to the organization. Always include your organization’s give or get policy in the leadership section, but use your best judgement about including the actual minimum donation. A $500 give or get is fine because it ensures 100% board giving, but it’s not nearly as impressive as a $2,500 minimum.

Even if your organization doesn’t have a formal “give or get” policy, you can communicate how committed your board members are by including what percentage contributed to the organization in the previous year. Most funders are looking for 100% board giving. Include the total amount contributed by the board if it is an impressive number!


In short, your objective for the leadership section of a grant application should be to clearly illustrate that your organization’s board of directors is thoughtfully-structured, and comprised of qualified leaders committed to advancing the mission of your organization.

Did you enjoy this post? We have even more to share!

The content in this blog post is a great introduction to what we cover in our workshops, all of which are designed specifically for nonprofit professionals. We design our trainings to be hands-on, interactive, and efficient — all to make sure you get the most out of your time and walk away with practical skills you can put into use immediately.

See the full schedule of our upcoming trainings to learn more and register today. We hope to see you  at a workshop soon!


JULY 7, 2017

What is the difference between the world as it is today and the world as your organization works for it to be? The gap between the two is the problem you’re solving, or the underlying issue your organization seeks to address – and clearly articulating this problem is the best way to garner support for your cause.

As we mentioned in this post, your job as a fundraiser is to become a translator. Your supporters – whether they are individual donors, volunteers, Board members, mentors, or funders – have to believe your organization is doing something important if they’re going to continue supporting with your work. Specifically, according to Community Tool Box, your stakeholders need to understand:

  • Why your project should be done: how it is significant, meaningful, and relevant.

  • The support you have in the community: without having deep buy-in from all your stakeholders, your program will be paternalistic, unwanted, or ineffective.

  • The impact that you can have, and its proportionality to the problem; if your organization’s capacity does not match the problem you’re addressing, you lose credibility and it can be harder to garner support.

  • The context and timeliness of your response; given the many other organizations needing support – why is it the right time to support your organization?

With this in mind, it becomes your job to gather accurate and convincing evidence and make a case for why your project merits funding; a well-written need statement does exactly that, Writing a persuasive need statement involves thoroughly understanding the problem your organization seeks to solve, gathering the right data, and leveraging it to build your argument.  Below, we walk through each of these steps in a bit more detail, as well as how to avoid commonly-made mistakes as you build your case.

1.  start WITH A thorough understanding of the problem

We know, gathering data can be expensive in terms of time and focus, and in all likelihood, you already have too much on your plate.  So why invest in understanding the problem with such rigor?

First: because for your program to be effective, you must base your program design in reality. You cannot assume that you know the community you are serving without compiling real data from credible sources. Making the wrong assumptions can lead you to design an ineffective intervention; you don’t want to end up 2,000 away from your destination because you started down the wrong path.

Second, because being a credible spokesperson is essential to garnering support. A nuanced understanding of the problem gives you credibility when talking to potential funders, partners, and constituents – and that credibility only strengthens your cultivation efforts.


Once you’ve done the research necessary to develop a thorough understanding of the problem you’re working to solve, your next task to is to collect and present the right data to convey the need with urgency and clarity. There are two types of evidence you’ll need to leverage to explain the problem: qualitative and quantitative.

Quantitative information focuses on numerical data and analysis; it helps you define your problem in the language that decision makers typically understand and care about – from demographic statistics to changes in survey data to estimated costs. Qualitative evidence, on the other hand, focuses on the experience of individuals and their stories. They give life to your work.

Some supporters will be particularly moved by stories in a way they are not by numbers, while others assign more value to data and statistics; to cover your bases and present the strongest case possible, use a balance of both to provide the full picture of the importance of your work.


As you begin crafting your argument using the data you’ve gathered, be aware that using circular reasoning is an easy trap to fall into and one that will weaken your case substantially. Circular reasoning is a logical fallacy in which the writer or speaker begins their argument with the assumption that what they’re trying to prove is already true. Circular reasoning often takes the form: “A is true because of B; B is true because of A.”  

For example, the argument “You should let me stay out until 10pm because I deserve to have a later curfew” is circular in nature.  

While this type of flawed reasoning can sound convincing and even be difficult to detect, it is unlikely to persuade those who do not already believe in the validity of your argument. For this reason, your need statement cannot be that “the community lacks a park, and therefore it needs a park.” Instead, using a blend of quantitative and qualitative data to illustrate the benefits of community parks, the obstacles in accessing the nearest existing park, and/or the urgency of adding a park in the community you serve would make a much more effective argument,


Finally, we know that one of the biggest challenges in gather quality, credible data is knowing where to look. The following are reliable sources for gathering quantitative data to support your case and help you craft your argument:

Also, the Association for Research on Nonprofits and Voluntary Action connects individuals in the sector who are interested in research; and the International Society for Third-Sector Research promotes research and education for the nonprofit sector.

Did you enjoy this post? We have even more to share!

The content in this blog post is a great introduction to what we cover in our workshops, all of which are designed specifically for nonprofit professionals. We design our trainings to be hands-on, interactive, and efficient — all to make sure you get the most out of your time and walk away with practical skills you can put into use immediately.

See the full schedule of our upcoming trainings to learn more and register today. We hope to see you  at a workshop soon!

January 26, 2017

While most of Elevate’s work and blog posts focus on how to win grants, it’s also important to understand how grants are lost.

Losing a grant is not uncommon, and in fact, there are times when it even makes sense to pursue a grant that you are likely to lose. For example, if you hope to win a large public grant next year, you might apply just to get reviewer feedback on your program. Or, you might submit to a foundation that will be cultivated over time, in order to begin a relationship with them.

The reasons organizations lose grants are typically specific to the organization and proposal, so a generalized list can only be so helpful. (But we’re going to try!) This list is adapted from a comprehensive version by the United Way, which is available here. We’ve boiled it down to this.


1. YOU Gloss over the details

Strong requests are built around specifics. Funders are unlikely to approve requests with unclear implementation plans. You need to clearly articulate: what specifically is being done, the day-to-day, month-to-month, and annual timeline by which its being done, and the specific person(s) responsible for executing.

2. YOU ARE an unknown entity

Funders are much, much more likely to invest in organizations they know and trust. But the good news is that there are a lot of ways to become known—build your brand in the community, reach out well in advance of submitting the proposal, or have someone else do the same on your behalf.

3. YOU Forget to include an expense in your budget that’s in your narrative

Oops! You developed a new program, or made adjustments to your existing program, but you forgot to adjust your budget to reflect that change. Whether you left out a new position, cut a workshop, or mentioned supplies without a line item, these mistakes can immediately kill your legitimacy to a funder. It is essential that your budget and budget narrative align precisely.

4. Write or format your request in a way that does not inspire confidence

You must write with confidence and expertise. This is actually one of Elevate’s biggest secrets for small nonprofits just starting out. Sometimes, simply by sounding professional and presenting your materials in an organized way, you can inspire outsized confidence in your organization—especially when you do not have a long track record of results.

5. YOU Use jargon unnecessarily

At Elevate, we actually believe there is a place for some forms of jargon; not using the technical term when it is expected might indicate that you are out of your depth. At the same time, jargon can prevent a reader from easily understanding what and why you do the work that you do. Instead, we recommend that you tailor your writing to your audience: sophisticated foundations with subject-matter experts are going to expect a more technical proposal than a giving circle or family foundation without paid staff.

6. YOU ARE good but not great

Funders are looking for impact. If your organization has unfocused programs, or does something pretty well, but not exceptionally well, you have to be prepared to lose funding to more specialized or higher-impact organizations. Unfortunately, this is one of the hardest areas to improve—and nearly impossible if you do not have the support of your executive leadership. Organizations can improve their programs and results over time—but it is not frequently a quick process.

7. YOU Ignore the elephant in the room

Do not avoid what needs to be said; frame it, yes, but do not avoid it. If you have had a major staff transition on your leadership team, if you lost a key partnership, or if your program outcomes just are not promising—you have to address the issue directly. If you’re struggling with what to include or not, review our post on transparency.

8. YOU Ask for too much money…or not enough

Your request amount has to be right—not only because you do not want to leave money on the table by asking for too little, but because you do not want to appear uninformed (at best) or offensive (at worse) to your funder. The best way to ensure your request amount is in line with the funder’s expectations is to do your research on other grants they have given or to ask them directly.

9 .YOU ARE TOO similar to other organizations in your space

You must put in the hard work to know your peers, know their programs, and know your points of divergence. Differentiation can be tricky and is always nuanced. For example, Elevate works with multiple theatre organizations in Washington, DC that are within blocks of each other and have similar budget sizes. But no one would think their artistic or community engagement work is similar. On the other hand, DC has dozens of youth development or mentoring programs that have to work hard to clarify how their program design is more effective than others with similar models.

10 YOU DON’T Stick to your values

There are funders who will not support your commitment to providing options counseling to pregnant youth. And there are millions of dollars to be won from corporate funders, if you do not care where or how they made their money. And for some organizations, these revenue sources are perfectly valid and welcome. For others, they are not. Remember: it is always better to lose a grant then to concede your values.

Are you surprised that “typos” didn’t make the list? Well, proofreading does make most of the Internet’s top ten lists for how to win a grant and of course you should proofread. But one small mistake is NOT going to lose your grant. (Twenty maybe, but not one.) This is because funders care about substance first. Substance! If your programs, leadership, and financials are not in place—a perfect grant will not win funding.

Good businesses and nonprofits are both designed to create value for their customers and constituents.

In business, we create value and then we capture it directly in the form of fees. For example, at Elevate, our clients pay us to provide a good grant writing service. If we stop delivering that value, or if there is some other company who provides a better value, our clients would end their work with us. There is a direct relationship between a business and its customers – the business creates value and then captures it directly.

However, for a nonprofit, there is an indirect relationship. The beneficiaries of the organization are typically not the same as those who pay for the costs of the services they receive. That is the whole point of a lot of nonprofits: people who need their support are not in a position to pay for it. That benefit requires a subsidy in the form of philanthropy.

Becoming a Translator

Nonprofits do not capture the value from their constituents – instead, they turn to their supporters and ask for it. This is why YOU play a really important role as a translator. You translate the impact and importance of your organization to funders, donors, partners, volunteers, and other stakeholders.  To be a successful fundraiser, you must translate how your organization’s work and impact relates to their priorities and interests and values.

Unfortunately, this structure essentially creates an inefficiency, in that sometimes your organization is delivering a great value to your constituents, but not able to capture it from funders and donors.  Other times, organizations can be excellent at fundraising and messaging to their donors, but not necessarily have the programs and impact to back it up.

So how can you ensure you succeed?


Have you ever had to explain what your organization does to someone you just met?  Whether it is the classic elevator pitch or a quick intro at a crowded conference, capturing the essentials of your organization quickly is a key part of your role as a translator and spokesperson.

If you start with something along the lines of “We’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, with multiple programs that…”, then you’re starting with the what of your organization: what you are.

That’s not going to quickly grab the attention of your potential volunteers and donors: there are lots of nonprofits with good programs starting their elevator pitch with that same line. Instead, you have to focus on the why of your organization: “We bring joyful experiences to children with cancer. We do this through…”

This is not Elevate’s theory. It’s based on the research by Simon Sinek and this TED talk:

We spend most of our time explaining the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of our ideas, while most ideas get spread because of the ‘why’.

-Simon Sinek

Creating a Compelling Why

While you might think that your WHY is your organization mission, it is not just that. For nonprofits, we believe there are three pieces to a compelling WHY statement: an important problem, a clear gap in services, and an appropriate response to that gap.

The Problem

You need to tackle an important, significant, relevant problem.

The response

You need to understand the other nonprofits and interventions already in your space.

The Gap

You need to address the problem in a way others do not.

The best way to understand what is compelling is to contrast it with what is not compelling.

The Problem

First, sometimes people will not resonate with the problem you are working on: not everyone is moved by the same issues. Moreover, some issues have less public support than others. For example, you might want to improve the services or quality of life in prisons, which is undoubtedly needed and important, but many people might care more about programs reaching ‘innocent’ youth than incarcerated adults.

In general, in the United States, programs that we view as competing directly with the ‘role of the government’ are less supported by philanthropy than issues that do not have a direct government response. For example: teacher training programs are harder to fund than after-school activities.

Other times you might have to do a great deal of public education in order to convince your community that the issue truly is of importance. For example, you might want to tackle public and street harassment. However, the understanding of this issue, how it impacts people who are harassed, and the complexities regarding behavior standards in the public sphere make it a much harder issue to explain to someone who has not thought about these topics before or not experienced street harassment.

As your organization’s voice, you must be an effective translator. You will need to bring real facts and effective stories to compel a wide audience.

The Response

The second way you can fail to compel others is by being the same or similar to an existing organization. People will ask: Why should I support you instead of the other organization already in this space?

A more nuanced question might be: why doesn’t your nonprofit join forces with the other organizations in your community, and save resources by merging with them, rather than being your own organization?  You’ll need a response to both of these questions.

The Gap

Finally, you can fail to compel people with a vague mission or imprecise goals that do not clearly and concisely communicate exactly what you do and how the world will be better as a result of your work.

There is a fierce ecosystem of organizations out there – all doing good work on behalf of meaningful causes – and they are vying for our time, attention, and resources. A clear, appropriately defined mission, vision, and goals will ensure you address a real need and fill a real gap in services. They will also help you cut through the noise of other organizations to effectively communicate the impact you are making and attract funding and supporters.

December 29, 2016

For many organizations, winning a grant might seem like one of those obviously good things. The choice of whether or not to accept the funding might seem indulgent or even absurd. But you should know that you do have a choice, and that the choice of whether or not to accept funding can be a difficult one.

Grants are binding contracts, and you must be able to deliver on your promises. Moreover, your funder list is frequently public and if any donors conflict with your values as an organization – or even the very aims you are working so hard to advance – you can tarnish your image or credibility with other donors or stakeholders.

Below, we are going to dive into what a giving policy is, why you should have one, and how to create one. But before we do, we are going to share four true scenarios of when organizations we know found themselves questioning whether or not to accept funding.

an unacceptable commitment or restriction

Some grants come with strings attached, and while most funders stick to a pretty basic restriction on advocacy or spending funds as allocated in your request, they are allowed to have others. For example, there are a few funders that require abortion disclosure forms and require grantees not to discuss abortion with pregnant women or refer women to clinics that perform abortions.  Elevate knows of an organization that did not know of this required commitment, was awarded a grant, and had to make the difficult decision to turn down the funding because they were committed to providing all options to young women facing this decision.

A potential conflict with values and a negative public image

A few classic scenarios here are youth organizations that do not accept funding from tobacco or alcohol-related corporations, or environmental organizations who do not accept funding from oil-related corporations. In both such instances, organizations must determine first whether or not accepting funding contradicts their mission to advance the welfare of children or environmental initiatives. Second, they must determine if accepting such funding would harm their brand, or their supporters image of them.

From our own experience comes a more nuanced example: While many nonprofits benefit from the Wal-Mart Foundation’s generosity, they were a strong opponent of raising the minimum wage here in Washington, DC. Many nonprofits working to advance the well-being of low-income residents chose not to accept funding from them as a result of their stance on the issue.

A conflict of interest or the perception of one

A client of ours won a grant from an energy supplier, while at the same time running programs that helped low-income communities and nonprofits contract with energy suppliers.  While the process for selecting a supplier itself was fair and merit-based, it just so happened that the corporation that donated through their foundation was also the one selected.  When considering potential conflicts of interest, perception matters. For example, a large donation to your capital campaign from a construction company that bid on your new building will raise questions. If your organization is ever in the position of awarding contracts, be careful when you are also soliciting donors and funders.

A really expensive gift

Certain types of gifts – like personal property and real estate – can be very expensive and considered in your policy before you accept them.  A quick scan of Google can reveal some horror stories, like a donation of two paint factories to a nonprofit. The factories became Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites and cost the organization roughly $2 million.

Closer to home, Elevate has a client that received over $1M in personal property – everything from luxury cars to silverware. While it is an impressive gift for a small organization, it was an incredibly expensive endeavor to catalogue, value, store, and sell all of this property. Moreover, explaining the difference in the initial value and the sale price – and the thousands of dollars in ‘paper losses’ consistently complicated communicating the real financial position of our client to funders.

What is a gift acceptance policy?

A gift acceptance policy will help you decide whether to accept charitable or in-kind gifts. Policies also provide guidance to donors, so that they give in a way that is useful to you.

According to the Nonprofit Standards for Excellence, an organization should have the following policies in place:

  • Procedures to determine any limits on individuals or entities from which the organization will accept a gift;
  • The purposes for which donations will be accepted;
  • The type of property which will be accepted; and
  • Whether to accept an unusual or unanticipated gift in light of the organization’s mission and organizational capacity.

Your policy should include how you make decisions about non-standard gifts. For example, you might choose to refer the decision to a fast-acting Board committee. You should also identify key advisors, such as a real estate appraiser and legal advisor, in advance. Your Board should approve and adopt the policy officially, with an effective date, and a plan to revisit it regularly.

Why should you have a GIVING policy?

You do not want to create a policy about your values or public brand when there is already real money being offered to your organization. Such a scenario could cloud even the best judgement, as long-term trade-offs about values and reputation should not be made on short-term horizons or when financial pressures are palpable. Having a policy in place, which your Board has careful considered over time and in advance helps create discipline and empowers your staff to turn money down.

How should you create a giving policy?

Policies are best developed collaboratively with all the relevant stakeholders in the room; this might include your executive director, director of development, grant writer, planned giving staff, Board of Director’s fundraising or policy committee, and professional development advisors.


Below are two samples we share with clients: