Wade has 15 years of experience working with nonprofits, corporate trusts and government-affiliated organizations. His career in the nonprofit sector began at Children’s Hospital Boston. He was the founding executive director of two smaller nonprofits and the Co-Director of the Addis Clinic, a nonprofit focused on extending access to healthcare in communities throughout Africa. Wade is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, where he studied under such luminaries as civil rights icon Reverend James Lawson. He credits his time at Vanderbilt with helping to shape his strong social justice orientation.
My conversation below with Wade includes an exploration of his current corporate philanthropy role, guidance for nonprofits seeking institutional funding, and how he has centered Diversity Equity & Inclusion principles in his own work.
Johnisha Levi: Can you share with us a bit about the lead up to creating this new Corporate Philanthropy and Social Impact role at Bridgestone? Before you came, what was the structure for making decisions and awarding support?
Wade Munday: In the 1980s, Bridgestone, the largest rubber manufacturer in the world, acquired Firestone, along with all of the companies associated with it. And within those companies was a trust fund that was seeded initially with a $1.5 million endowment. The trust fund was originally established to benefit the Akron, Ohio community. With Bridgestone, this was extended to supporting communities around the country. With this change, the decision-making became very diffuse and guided by team members’ and executives’ interests.
We were and still remain the largest contributor to the United Way of Greater Nashville. That relationship goes back 30 years, because our CEO at the time was very invested in social services and strengthening the social safety net of Nashville. We have also prioritized investing in athletes with different abilities through Adaptive Sports Ohio because it aligns with our sports partnerships (Bridgetone sponsors both the Olympics and the Paralympics). We have given money to many other nonprofit organizations, but it is fair to say our reach was broad, not deep.
JL: What are your current priorities in your new role?
WM: Going forward, Bridgestone is looking to co-create impact and co-create value with partners in the nonprofit sector that we work with, and deepen those relationships. Through alignment of our business interests and our giving priorities, we will apply Bridgestone’s company ethos— to serve society with quality products, services, and solutions in the mobility space—to the work of creating meaningful change in society.
Specifically, Bridgestone is especially interested in increasing the number of women in the auto tech workforce, which right now is abysmally low. We see supporting organizations such as Play Like a Girl and TechForce Foundation as a means of narrowing this gap.
We’ve started partnership discussions with Play Like A Girl, which in the last twenty years has encouraged girls to be more involved in team sports as a means to engage them in STEM activities and prepare for executive careers, including at corporations such as Bridgestone. This is an organization that focuses on not only young girls, confidence, and mental health, but also diversity in team sports, the classroom, and C-Suite offices throughout the country. We’ll be working with them to enroll girls in Nashville and the Cleveland area (where we have another corporate presence) in mentorship circles with Bridgestone teammates. Likewise, Bridgestone is working with TechForce Foundation, a nonprofit committed to the career exploration and workforce development of professional technicians, on closing the gender gap in the autotech workforce.
JL: Tell us about your background in healthy equity and nonprofits and some of the strengths and insights that you feel you bring to the world of corporate philanthropy? How do you think your experiences shaped your conceptions of philanthropy?
WM: I think philanthropy is extremely limited in its ability to address our healthcare system. However, it can be a catalyst for what I think most solutions to our greatest social problems are, which is greater government involvement. Big government, when effective, can achieve significant impact. My own family history is an example of this; when the federal government intervened to bring electricity to the Tennessee Valley, many people were lifted out of poverty.
I think inasmuch as corporate philanthropy can be involved and build relationships with organizations that are engaged in health equity, they can and should also support advocacy work and not shy away from what the actual solutions are, which is that we can’t keep making this piecemeal approach that is doing nothing to really cut costs on our public systems or for individuals. Ultimately we need to find a government solution that is going to be fair and equitable to everyone involved.
JL: What is a piece of advice you can give to nonprofits seeking institutional funding from a corporate partner like Bridgestone ?
WM: Know your value and that your time is just as valuable as a corporate funder’s time, and it’s not worth trying to change your program to fit the corporate interests, because we do have a corporate interest. We do want to move our business forward, and if that is going to hinder your work as a nonprofit, if that’s going to drain your time as a leader in a nonprofit, then don’t do it. It will be much better to find another partner.
I think as a fundraiser you often look at the field of foundations and you look at their assets, and you think, “ohh this organization has X amount of money, they can definitely spare some money for us.”
But with corporate giving, and many foundations, funding determinations are often driven by answers to questions like, “Where are we contextually relevant? Where do we have expertise and experience?” For instance at Bridgestone, we have scientists and researchers. We have an environment and health department. We’ve got a legal department, and so all these areas where we have valuable experience should be leveraged to further our grantmaking. We’re not just giving money, but we’re also leveraging our talent and skills to go that much further, which means that we can’t give to everyone, but instead we give in a way that is going to leverage our resources. And I think that’s going to make for a better relationship with our nonprofit partners.
JL: What has centering DEI in your career looked like?
WM: At The Addis Clinic, we worked with state departments and other organizations to deliver telemedicine services in underserved areas in East Africa, refugee camps, and other areas where primary care was not readily available. I was a white male providing direct services to refugee communities. While I recognized that my white privilege conferred certain advantages when it came to fundraising and other aspects of the executive director role, I felt the responsibility to create opportunities for others to lead. As a result, I worked to create a succession plan so that I would be co-director alongside a female healthcare provider.
Prior to the Addis Clinic, I was at Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors, which provided legal assistance to people seeking asylum and other humanitarian forms of legal relief, and supported victims of violent crimes who needed mental health services and trauma counseling. There, we observed a gross inequity in the number of people of color who were judges and lawyers. In response, we created a six-week summer program to give young BIPOC college students access to judges and lawyers as mentors. We admitted students to the summer program by taking the inverse of what law school currently looks like, which is approximately 3% Latino, 10% African American, and 30% women. It was a refreshing way of looking at entrenched systems of society. I would like to see that in more areas of my work going forward.
Now at Bridgestone Americas, I inherited the current committee that manages the trust fund. Fortunately our leaders were really thoughtful about the composition of the committee, but I think there’s still some work to do in terms of diversity. We want to articulate our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion through a simple statement of our values and principles. We want to encourage participation from the next generation of leaders at the company, include more voices from underrepresented groups within the company, and be champions for our employee resource groups. We are democratizing grantmaking within the company through employee matching gifts and empowering employee resource groups to provide unrestricted operating grants to nonprofits.
You can learn more about the Bridgestone Americas Trust Fund here. If you found this conversation thought-provoking, keep your eye on this space for new Elevate Q&As in the coming months.
Some interesting trends have emerged in 2023, which hint at AI’s potential while also raising significant ethical and information security considerations. A recent Forbes Advisor survey reports that:
Accordingly, Elevate is treading optimistically – yet cautiously – when it comes to AI! While we are exploring how AI can create efficiencies in our work, we are also committed to maintaining the highest quality and privacy standards for our clients.
I recently spoke with a handful of my most forward-thinking and tech-savvy Elevate colleagues, who offered their thoughts on what AI applications are and aren’t helpful in aspects of their work advising nonprofit clients. We share their insights here for your consideration as we all navigate this brave new world.
Because many of the questions Elevate receives about AI are about ChatGPT specifically, we begin with the 411 on this tool.
Even if you haven’t yet used it yourself, you’ve undoubtedly heard the buzz about ChatGPT. ChatGPT is a free, natural language processing tool that can answer questions and support users with tasks such as composing emails, essays, and code. It can spew out responses in a matter of seconds. It does this by analyzing your question or prompt, then – using the dataset it was trained on – predicting the next word or series of words based on what you’ve entered.
But is it savvy enough to write sophisticated, nuanced, and winning grants?
Our colleagues were unequivocal in their response: Not even close.
This is because ChatGPT lacks the context, experience and judgment to handle such complex work. Even when I asked ChatGPT “What are the Pros and Cons of Using ChatGPT for grant writing?” it didn’t disagree! While ChatGPT praised its speed and ability to maintain consistency in “tone, language, and messaging” across various sections of a grant proposal and to polish language, it cautioned that it may not fully appreciate the “nuances” of grant guidelines, that it has limitations in understanding the context of an organization’s work and history, and that it could also produce plagiarizing text.
The text that ChatGPT generates in response to a question or prompt might not even be factual – there are absolutely no assurances that the information is accurate or true.
What’s more, because ChatGPT and other AI models draw upon existing content, AI can reflect underlying societal biases, perpetuating stereotypes and white supremacist notions. At Elevate, we know that historically marginalized communities are not “vulnerable” objects of charity, but agents and partners of the social change that they desire to see. This level of social context is far too complex for an AI-powered language model to appropriately reflect.
So, what are the appropriate uses of ChatGPT?
If you do want to experiment with ChatGPT in your writing tasks, we suggest using it for simpler, less analytical tasks, such as condensing word count, identifying alternative phrasing to avoid repetition, or summarizing the main points of your research into more readable language.
ChatGPT also has the potential to provide administrative support for your work, and can be harnessed to:
I know what you are thinking: It’s no surprise that a grant writing firm is telling me not to use an AI tool to write grants! But we are not just saying this because we want to be your grant writers. (Though we DO want to be your grant writers!)
At Elevate, we firmly believe that good grant writing is a thoughtful, strategic exercise that requires skill, nuance, and informed decision making. ChatGPT – like other AI tools – is neither thoughtful nor strategic. It lacks discernment of nuance, and is incapable of making reasoned choices about how to present an organization’s work to a funding partner.
Simply producing large volumes of content – that may or may not be factual! – is NOT the point of grant writing. And this is truly all that ChatGPT is doing: generating text.
At Elevate, some of our staff are experimenting with the use of AI-powered tools such as Simon Says AI and Fathom Notetaker to capture meeting notes and provide summaries of important conversations that they need to refer back to later or share with colleagues who couldn’t attend meetings. By using AI tools for more administrative tasks, you can free up some of your own time and energy for tasks that require thought and strategy – something AI can’t do!
As a tool developed by Google, Bard can interface with Google Workspace tools, if you choose to connect these. This means, you can ask Bard to find dates, taks, or other information in gmail, or to summarize a report a colleague shared via Google docs.
Interested in exploring more options for what you can do with AI tools? Check out FutureTools.io, which aggregates AI tools suited for different purposes.
If you take only one thing away from this article, I hope it is this: get informed about the privacy of the information you share with AI tools, and take precautions to protect your information.
When using any cloud-based technology platform, it is imperative that consideration be given to the way these tools use, store, and share information. Depending on your privacy settings, information you share with tools like Bard and ChatGPT may be used to improve its own language model. This means your data may not only be available to its creators (OpenAI), but also to others who use the platform.
For instance, when first accessing Bard, users are notified that Google will collect conversations and other information like the user’s location, store this data for a period of time, and use it to refine the tool. Furthermore, users are informed that “human reviewers read, annotate, and process your Bard conversations,” and they are warned to not share confidential information.
For these reasons, think carefully about what information you share with AI tools. Remember that a grant application may include information about your organization, programs, staff, and future plans that might be considered private. A good rule of thumb is, if you wouldn’t want a piece of data or information on your public website for anyone to find, you should not share that information with an AI tool.
How is your organization using AI powered tools, and what have you found useful, scary, hopeful, or exciting about these tools? We invite you to share!
Are you still feeling overwhelmed, or do you want to learn more? Here are a few sources the team at Elevate is using to stay informed:
Diversified revenues are crucial for just about any organization, creating sustainability and resilience when a funding source runs dry. While human services organizations may have a substantial public funding portfolio, and many government grants require a private funding match, this does not mean that other sources of revenue – including earned income and philanthropic funds – should take a back seat in your funding strategy. In fact, I encourage you to think differently about philanthropy and its role in supporting human services providers.
Imagine you’re on the leadership team of a service provider that implements a highly effective program for returning citizens; clients successfully maintain housing and jobs, and avoid further justice-system involvement. A contract with the state Department of Justice makes up the majority of the program budget, with the balance coming from a Master Leasing initiative and one wealthy individual donor who gives annually. For the most part, the program is meeting the needs of the population it currently reaches, but there is zero capacity for expansion, innovation, or outreach.
The Board and leadership team is concerned with the long-term sustainability for the program, and next steps involve developing a strategy to diversify revenues for the organization. A discussion ensues around pursuing foundation grants as a key tactic for diversification. The leadership team considers which aspects of the program may be well-suited to private grant opportunities. Should you seek grant opportunities for direct program expenses like rent and food assistance? Or are foundations more likely to support a new outreach component focused on engaging those who are incarcerated before their release? Perhaps you should seek General Operating Support?
If invited to that debate, I would argue that public funds can and should be used for direct programmatic expenses, whereas there may be a unique role for private foundations to provide the funding needed to build capacity, test new ideas, and establish the evidence for what works.
My advice to the leadership and development teams at human services organizations: Do not primarily think of private foundation grants and other philanthropic contributions as a budget gap-filler. Consider where public funds can and should be used, and where private philanthropy can have a unique impact.
For example, social services organizations might focus philanthropic asks on:
Above all, the grant request most likely to be funded is the one that is aligned with the foundation’s own priorities, adheres to its proposal guidelines, and for which you have the encouragement of foundation program officers, Board members, or other decision makers to apply.
Is your organization ready to establish (or grow) a private grants program? The team at Elevate can help! Reach out to us at email@example.com to learn more about our work with nonprofits throughout the U.S. to build smart and strategic grants programs.
A few months ago, we published a Q&A with April Walker of Philanthropy for the People, in which April provided her perspective on centering equity and inclusion in nonprofits, and the limitations of institutional philanthropy in the pursuit of equity. As promised, we are back with more ideas and strategies from April for our readers!
Centering equity and inclusion in any manner of organization is a long-term effort that requires financial resources and buy-in from both staff and leadership. Unfortunately, equity has become a co-opted term, and the work so jargonized, that it is often difficult to tell what efforts are substantive and which are performative.
For this reason, we bring you four practical tips for meaningfully centering equity in your nonprofit. We hope that these tips help you in navigating the complex yet essential process of resetting your organization’s culture with a focus on equity.
Tip 1: Embrace Discomfort. April says: “You can’t gold star or checklist your way through [equity work]. You’re looking to exist in a very messy, uncomfortable space where you have to get comfortable not having the right answers and saying the wrong thing.”
Centering equity in your organization is not linear work. You will need to get used to engaging in uncomfortable conversations, grappling with hard truths about where your organization is falling short, and examining your biases, both explicit and implicit.
As Dr. Ella Washington, an organizational psychologist, explains, this work is about “making cultural changes, finding new ways to influence people, and making difficult decisions,” which requires an “intentional, nuanced approach.” It is impossible to change a culture, with all its systems, values, and traditions overnight, so be prepared to roll up your sleeves and embrace the uncertainty and challenge!
Tip 2: Pay Employees a Living Wage. April says: “I urge people to ask, ‘What does our organizational budget look like with everybody at this organization earning a living wage? What does our budget look like with everybody at this organization having quality healthcare benefits? What does our budget look like with everybody having access to professional development?’”
A nonprofit’s most valuable resource is its staff—without their day-to-day efforts, it would be impossible to achieve any funded outputs or outcomes. Yet, workers in the nonprofit sector remain vastly undercompensated, and many of them identify as members of the most marginalized communities. Boards and funders have also enabled this disparity by focusing on the bottom-line of financials and failing to treat the people who do the work as part of the work itself. But this need not be the case! What if funders played a bigger role in helping nonprofits to better invest in the talent that drives them?
Some funders are starting to wake up to the implications of supporting nonprofits that undercompensate their staff. Dr. Adriane Johnson-Williams, a program officer at the Pyramid Peak Foundation, noted an inconsistency inherent in this approach to philanthropy:
I took it upon myself to tell agency heads I could not in good conscience support a budget that didn’t pay people appropriately, and I backed that up with funding recommendations to support those budgets . . . We would need far less philanthropy in Memphis if we had higher wages. In deciding which programs to fund, if I had taken their board-approved budgets as presented, I would reinforce an expectation that people working in the nonprofit sector deserve less. I would have co-signed the myth that work in the nonprofit sector feeds the soul, so it doesn’t have to feed or clothe or house the body.”
Likewise, nonprofit governance can play an important role in changing compensation practices. The Center for Progressive Reform is an example of a nonprofit that committed to a multi-step process to reach the goal of paying its staff more than a living wage. To do so certainly took advance planning and didn’t happen overnight. First they worked with their board to establish a contingency fund to augment salaries to mitigate inflation; they also upgraded benefits packages, and partnered with Living Wage for US to conduct an individual assessment and achieve certification.
Beyond pay, it is also imperative to provide equitable opportunities for professional development, as well as more intangible measures such as mentorship and networking for staff.
Tip 3: Hold Leadership and Governance Accountable. April says: “Equity and inclusion also need to be baked into everyone’s performance evaluation, including the executive director’s and board members.”
We hold organizational leaders accountable for other job performance measures, so why should helping to shift workplace culture to advance equity be treated any differently? While we want to be careful not to equate progress with overly-simplified metrics, there are ways to thoughtfully gauge and measure progress over time. Doing so also reinforces the message that everyone at the organization is tasked with this work (see more on this point below).
Creating a culture of accountability in leadership and governance is key to sustaining momentum for long-range, deep-seated work. In the absence of such a culture, “any effort to prevent racial harm or provide proper redress when it occurs will fall short . . . and deepen distrust and disconnection among staff”; it can also impact employee retention and team performance.
Tip 4: Avoid Tokenization. April says: “Everyone at the organization should be doing equity work so that they can figure out what being an active ally actually looks like.”
There are a number of reasons why an organization should ensure that everyone shares in the work of centering equity. First, this work involves transforming workplace culture—if large segments of your organization aren’t engaged, how can a true shift take place?
Additionally, those who experience the most inequity should not disproportionately bear the brunt of these endeavors, both for practical and fairness reasons. Often, the voices of those who are most marginalized are numerically underrepresented in the organization. It is also necessary for those who enjoy the most advantages to learn to leverage their influence to support their colleagues in effecting change. This allyship can take different forms – it does not always look like being front and center.
Finally, you might want to consider a team-based approach to equity work that convenes communities of practice for staff and board members from different organizations to engage in learning sessions, peer sharing, relationship building and coaching. Check out ProInsipre for more tips on this type of team-based model for building equity, as well as other helpful resources and training opportunities.
If your organization has embarked on an equity journey, we’d love to hear what you have learned through this important and challenging work!
Interested in learning more from organizations who have successfully implemented these tips? Stay tuned to this blog for further discussion in our Elevate Q&A series with nonprofits and funders, or join our email list to be the first to know when new content is published.
Nightmare 1: Imagine, you are the Director of a nonprofit’s small but mighty Development Team. Everything is going swimmingly…until the day your indispensable grant writer sheepishly asks to schedule some catch-up time on your calendar. It turns out they have secured an exciting new career opportunity! You smile winsomely and wish them well, but inside, you just died a little bit. You keep thinking about that overflowing grants calendar and the extra work that is going to fall to you or your other colleagues while things get sorted.
Hiring and training a replacement grant writer is a process. It took you 4 months to find the last one, who stayed with the organization for just over one year. During the last grant writer search, you missed deadlines for important grant reports and renewals. And one long-time funder became irritated with the lack of coordination and pulled their support… Your mind is spinning with all of the worst-case scenarios that simply cannot happen again.
Nightmare 2: Now imagine you are the Development Director for a nonprofit entering into an exciting transitional period. Program staff is in tune with emergent needs of the community and developing exciting and impactful new programs that are resulting in tons of new interest in the organization. The proverbial phone is ringing off the hook with new funders and partners who want to support the organization’s work. The Executive Director and the Board are looking to the Development team to increase revenues in line with program growth. Up until now, you’ve been keeping all those fundraising balls in the air — managing major donors, overseeing the grants calendar, prospecting new funding leads, and planning successful events. But now, you’re starting to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat!
You know that soon, something’s gotta give, whether it is long-term planning, maintaining corporate relationships, or wooing major donors.
What would you do if you were the Development Director in one of these nightmare scenarios?
A – Text a friend and plan a coffee date to vent about your to-do list.
B – Roll up your sleeves and get to work.
C – Call Elevate!
D – Both A and C
The correct answer is D, which also stands for “Don’t despair!” That’s because Elevate has got you covered with our Ongoing Writing Retainer Service (OWR)!
Our signature service at Elevate is Comprehensive Grant Writing Services, which offers you a suite of grant program strategy advice and planning, grant calendar and data tracking, project management, prospect research, cultivation support, and full-service grant writing.
While for many organizations this is the solution they need, we’ve learned in our ten years of work with nonprofit clients that, from time to time, organizations simply need a boost in grant writing capacity. In response, we launched a streamlined retainer package in 2022 to help nonprofits through capacity challenges such as the ones described above. We call this service an Ongoing Writing Retainer (OWR).
The OWR matches an organization with a professional grant writer that works to focus exclusively on drafting, editing, and submitting written deliverables – grants, LOIs, and reports – thereby freeing up your internal team’s capacity for other important tasks.
The OWR might be the right Elevate service for you if you already:
Cavalry Women’s Services, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that ensures women have access to the proper trauma-informed healthcare and educational support they need to take positive steps toward independence, engaged Elevate for an Ongoing Writing Retainer in early 2023.
Calvary came to Elevate with a solid grants program, at a time when they were planning ahead for their Director of Institutional Advancement to step away from work for a period of leave and a temporary need for capacity to their internal grant writer planned to be away for personal leave. With a strong grants program and a clear calendar of opportunities in place, they sought Elevate’s support to write and submit their grants.
We paired Calvary with one of our expert grant writers who quickly acquainted themselves with the organization and its programming. Calvary assigned up to four deliverables per month to their Elevate grant writer, including proposals and grant reports.
The Elevate writer met with our point of contact at Calvary briefly on a biweekly or as-needed basis to confirm details and deadlines, receive assignments, and discuss what information was needed to prepare the grants. Elevate handled each step of the drafting process—from planning, drafting, editing, attachment gathering, through to submission. Meanwhile, the team at Calvary was free to focus on other development responsibilities while knowing that their grants submissions could rest in Elevate’s capable hands.
When asked about her experience working with Elevate on an Ongoing Writing Retainer, Heather Laing, Chief Development Officer and our main Point of Contact at Calvary, shared:
“When we had a temporary vacancy on our team, Elevate’s Ongoing Writer Retainer service met our grant writing capacity needs. Elevate was invested in our success in a genuine way, and it was a gift to have a fresh perspective on our grant language.”
Interested in what an Ongoing Writing Retainer or one of Elevate’s other services can do for you? Get in touch so that we can answer your questions, and you can spend more time where your energy is needed most, whether that’s building relationships with your funding partners, implementing your programs, or enjoying more coffee dates with your BFF.
Every day, nonprofits navigate the uncomfortable realities of power dynamics and disparities inherent in grantmaking. I asked some questions that explore these tension points and how it is possible to embrace an alternative value system while attempting to meet an organization’s budgetary needs.
Johnisha Levi: Institutional philanthropy is an imperfect solution to societal need, in part because it is the product of inequitable wealth transfers. Given this reality, what do we do to challenge and disrupt this system while society has yet to undertake the necessary systemic and structural reform to replace this entrenched system?
April Walker: When I started in the field, folks were not quite as bold as they are now. Now they are starting to say, “Hey, you over there with all that wealth that you amassed in a problematic way, or that you inherited, we see a problem with that. And not only do we see a problem with that, we’re challenging that because we don’t trust exactly where the money came from, or we see that you’re limiting how you actually show up inside of the values you purport to have. We see that you’re asking us questions that you yourself don’t live by.”
So with the big players in the philanthropic space, it is getting harder and harder to celebrate the ways in which those dollars are exchanged. They’re not actually losing much, and the demands on celebrating and recognizing them are creating an additional strain for those of us who see the truth of what’s happening. It’s not necessarily an indictment of individual wealthy people or of all foundations of all sizes. but it is a request and growing demand for transparency. I think one of the biggest things that we can do is speak truth to power and not just placate, laud, and celebrate people for having huge amounts of resources at their behest—and with that act of calling out comes incredible amounts of power.
JL: When do you think the tide started to change in terms of calling out problems inherent in Philanthropy?
AW: I think within the past five years things have shifted. We’ve seen this as funders invite more conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion by asking related questions of grantees. As a grant writer or grant professional, if you’re continually having to answer questions about how diverse or not a nonprofit’s board is, or how inclusive or not a program is from a funding entity that is none of those things, it is going to continue to expose these inequities.
JL: What is giving as its most ideal? What other models of giving do you recommend we look to for inspiration in our work and in our own lives as givers?
AW: In proportion to what we have as a community and in proportion to what we have been able to amass on a large scale in terms of wealth, Black people are deeply generous. Sometimes it shows up financially, but there is also a generosity of time, of connection, of resources. Members of my family would likely never call themselves philanthropists, but have they put money into a pot to ensure a certain relative can achieve XY and Z dream? Absolutely. Is that a giving circle by the sector’s terms? Absolutely.
I trust in the power of our ability to show up because you can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to show up, whether that means showing up with a plate of food or showing up with $20 or just to lend a hand, and not even needing a thank you. All of that to me counts as generosity where I come from, and there’s a different type of connection in that than when money is at the center and you have to perform a certain way in order to even be in relationship.
JL: In a recent Cocktails, Conversations & Lessons in Philanthropy episode, you discussed funders’ need for public recognition and celebration and how that is frequently integrated into proposals. How do you recommend that grantees (and the fundraising consultants who work with them) respond to the common (and frankly uncomfortable) question of “How will you publicize our donation?”
AW: There are two applicable buckets. The first bucket is name recognition, or the literal benefits the funder receives for donating—what I call the five star treatment. The other bucket is a funder taking credit for stuff that they didn’t really do—meaning that funding an initiative through-and-through looks very different from making a non-profit apply every year. The former takes a long-term, sustained investment where people do not have to question if this money is going to run out. I wish quite frankly someone would do a case study of how much funders, especially corporate foundations or businesses in general, spend on ensuring that their investments look a certain way versus actually ensuring that their dollars are impactful.
Some grantees may decide that this recognition costs too much emotionally or mentally; other times, this may extend to telling the foundation this truth. It really comes down to being clear on how much risk your organization can assume. I’m also a huge advocate of telling other funders about their peers. I think at the end of the day, when you have a relationship with a funder who is deeply understanding—who does show up inside of their application in a way that’s not making you and your vision feel small—that it’s an opportunity to say, “Hey, I really appreciate your process for all of these reasons, and here’s how we also are engaging with other folks differently.”
JL: Funders are fixated on the idea of metrics and measurements, often to the detriment of smaller, less resourced organizations that are doing great work that is not necessarily measurable in the way that they demand. How do we evolve from this need to quantify? What have you seen other funders doing as an alternative? And how do we move away from the status quo?
AW: There are funders that will ask for anecdotes in lieu of metrics or measurements, including asking for successes and challenges encountered. I quite prefer those questions. My personal and ever-growing feeling is that funders who want metrics should collect them themselves. Nonprofits need not be experts in all things. You want someone that’s really skilled in data analysis and measurement, if you as a funder have a specific focus on funding poverty in this local community, is it not incumbent upon you to collect the data that you need to prove that you are funding it in the right way? I don’t know many nonprofits that can pay a data expert what they’re worth.
Nonprofits are interested in the data too—we want to know that we are doing the “thing”—but we are also interested in the reality of the thing and data doesn’t give us all of that narrative. The question is really one for funders to start asking themselves. Given you as the funder have set your own focus areas and funding priorities, how do you plan to go about getting that information from nonprofits that you can see are under-resourced? And even what funders do get from nonprofits is not always the most accurate, most comprehensive, complete story.
I’m also not sure what all these reports are telling people. As someone that used to be a program officer and received grant reports, even I had the question of, “What do we do now?” And if an organization didn’t meet the metrics, are we using that reality that they fell short of the metrics to determine whether or not we fund them again, rather than to determine how we can help improve the situation?
JL: Sometimes as individuals and organizations, we feel powerless to effect change when the problems are so massive. What are some steps or some work that you recommend we can still do to make a difference in our day-to-day work?
AW: Giving into hopelessness and giving up is not a path that we can choose. You have days that are challenging and demoralizing, but you can look up any number of leaders in the sector that remind us to be hopeful. Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson is a great example. And we do have wins along the way!
I’m also finding the people that I can link arms with. I’m not going to spend a huge amount of time on the people that are committed to moving slowly or delaying. I think your day-to-day has to find a balance between, “I have this capacity to fight, but when I feel like I’m at my wits end, I can turn back to the community that I know is bolstering me and take some strength from them.”
I also use my own philanthropy for this purpose. I support the organizations that I believe in and I know are doing good work and that I can trust, and that’s where I designate as much support as I can. I can also show up as a volunteer, I can show up as a board member, or I can just lend time to make an introduction. All of those things still matter inside of a system that is working to save itself, inside of whiteness as a construct that only knows how to defend itself. I have no qualms and no Illusions about how powerful the systems are, but I also won’t doubt my capacity for change and my capacity for impact.
Interested in learning more about alternative models of fundraising that are more community-centered? Check out the 10 principles of Community-Centric Funding developed by fundraisers of color that are grounded in racial and economic justice.
Keep your eye on this space for more ideas and strategies from April in the coming months as well as other Elevate Q&As.
April Walker, Philanthropy for the People
In February, we kicked off a year-long partnership with Philanthropy for the People, and its founder April Walker. April’s expertise centers specifically on racial equity and justice in fundraising and grantmaking,
April is facilitating conversations and workshops for Elevate staff about wealth, philanthropy, and fundraising justice throughout 2023. Our aim for this portion of our work is to build a shared vocabulary and understanding among Elevate staff about these topics so that we can be better partners to our clients and drive meaningful change in the nonprofit sector.
April’s unique focus on equity in philanthropy is particularly important to Elevate, given the nature of our work to support nonprofit fundraising in an inherently inequitable philanthropic sector. This context has major consequences for our nonprofit partners, and Elevate is committed to hastening change in the sector.
Interested in hearing more about April’s expertise and her advice on what it will take to transform the philanthropic sector? Look for our next blog installment!
Dominique Hollins, WĒ360: 360° of Workplace Equity
We have likewise engaged Dominique Hollins, Founder and Connector-in-Chief of WĒ360, to conduct a company-wide equity audit. Our work with Dominique is internally-focused and designed as the primary information-gathering step in developing Elevate’s long-term IDEA+J strategy.
Dominique will conduct a company-wide IDEA+J assessment that highlights strengths and areas of development for sustainable IDEA+J implementation in the years to come. Her assessment will include surveys of Elevate staff and a review of relevant internal policies and procedures. This information will inform the design of our long-term IDEA+J strategy. We intend to repeat this assessment every two to three years to measure and evaluate progress.
Dominique is a sought-after consultant, coach and speaker who has been quoted in the Washington Post and recognized by Fortune for her work. She develops customized strategies that bridge the gap between corporate responsibility and organizational accountability to enable equitable and inclusive business practices.
Why Two Partners?
Elevate strives to be an inclusive and equitable workplace where all members of staff are accepted and recognized for their contributions. It is therefore critical that any work we do to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion is inclusive of our company operations and practices.
At the same time, Elevate operates within the larger context of the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, as we support our clients in their pursuit of funding from institutional donors. Our clients are in part dependent on the largesse of donors, and we are cognizant that philanthropy itself is inherently imperfect. Philanthropy writ large is a product of the income inequality and disparity rooted in a capitalist system – a system in which much of this country’s wealth is and always has been generated by Black, Brown, and immigrant laborers.
So, when tasked with identifying the right partners to support Elevate’s journey, the IDEA+J working group identified the need for two partners with distinct expertise who could support our work with both an internal and an external focus. While it took some time to lay the foundation for these two partnerships, we are optimistic that our collaborations with April and Dominique will facilitate the holistic and multidimensional approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion that we’ve been looking for.
Laying the Groundwork
At Elevate, we believe that to build a workplace that is inclusive and equitable requires a values alignment, an invested leadership team, financial resources, and staff capacity for a sustained, long-term commitment, as the work is quite simply never finished if it is substantive rather than performative.
Individual Elevate staff members have consistently expressed enthusiasm and demand for the company to invest more in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work. While wanting very much to heed this call to action, founder, President and CEO Alayna Buckner, wanted to enter into this undertaking responsibly with sufficient internal assets in place. Equally important to Alayna was for Elevate to do its due diligence to avoid engaging in DEI that was superficial, counterproductive, or harmful. This was especially true in light of the proliferation of ill-conceived DEI pledges and initiatives in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. We also did not want a disproportionate amount of emotional labor to fall on staff belonging to marginalized communities, as often happens when initiatives are entirely staff-directed. Finally, we wanted to look both inward at ourselves and our organization and outward to our sector to better understand how intrinsic injustice and power imbalances are to the core of fundraising.
Accordingly, we made certain we had the financial resources that would allow Elevate to invest in the necessary expertise to guide this journey. We hired Vice President of Personnel, Letese Lamb, to act as the executive sponsor of our DEI initiative. We also reduced staff workloads so that they would have the space to participate in IDEA+J working groups and committees. Then, we undertook a thoughtful year-long partner selection process as an IDEA+J Committee.
Now that we are here, we know that this transformative work will challenge us in ways we may not expect. All the same, we are eager to begin this collective learning journey and to share our progress with you!
Check out a few of our previous blogs for more on how philanthropy is changing and why it is critical that grant writers use empowering language in their funding requests. We also offer a webinar on Power Dynamics in Grant Writing as part of our Learning Collection on How to Prepare Expert Grant Applications. Join us on May 25, 2023 for a session that will explore the role of fundraising in creating equitable partnerships among communities, the social sector, and philanthropy.
Every year, we review the data related to our work and examine trends and highlights. Our year-end infographic, Elevate 2022 by the Numbers, offers a data snapshot of the preceding 12 months. Our mighty staff of 82 served 162 clients, submitted 2,901 deliverables, (i.e., grants, letters of intent, and reports), and won over $132 million for our clients! Last year, we had a 65% win rate for grants prepared by Elevate.
There is much to celebrate about our clients’ significant grant wins last year! But at Elevate, we do more than acknowledge our client’s triumphs: we also look for significant trends and lessons that can better inform our work with both new and long-time partners in the years to come.
Our 2022 Win Rate: 65%
Last year, our clients won 65% of the grants that Elevate wrote on their behalf. This is an extraordinary success rate – we win two-thirds of all grants submitted, more than three times the national average.
This win rate is a conservative calculation. It only includes opportunities that were drafted and submitted by Elevate on behalf of our clients. However, Elevate also provides advice and language on a client’s own submissions, as well as “softer-touch” aspects of support that may ultimately lead to funding wins, including helping clients cultivate new funders and steward relationships with current funders.
We have searched for a comparable national statistic to gauge our 65% win rate. Based on nonprofit self-reporting, information from Foundation Directory, and raw data, Candid estimates a national average win rate of 17%. Other sources place the average win rate somewhere between 10 and 30%. (We wholeheartedly welcome any alternative sources for national win rate data if you wish to reach out to us!)
Stepping back so that we may assess the bigger picture, our own data set reveals that win rates vary based on factors such as a nonprofit’s tenure with Elevate as well as their budget size.
For instance, there is a bit of a ramp-up in building a new grants program: it can take anywhere from nine to 18 months from the point at which an organization first begins researching grant opportunities to the point when they secure their first grants.
When many partners begin working with Elevate, especially if they are new to grants, the first several months are spent getting to know the organization’s needs, collaborating on a suitable grant strategy, identifying funding opportunities, and building a grants calendar.
For this reason, it is really not until these clients enter year 3 with Elevate when win rates start to consistently approach the 65% mark. This is also why our very long standing clients (those who have partnered with us for 7 years or more) have even higher win rates. In collaboration with these organizations, we have systematically built efficient and sustainable grants programs!
Interestingly, Elevate has witnessed a steady uptick in our overall win rate as our organization has matured. We moved from a 55.6% win rate in 2018 to a 60.7% win rate in 2020 to our current rate of 65%. This progression reflects an increased investment in our staff as well as a high-quality operations team to better support them and our clients. (For more on our organizational investments, check out our Founder’s Elevate is Ten! blog post celebrating our decade milestone.)
Our 2022 Total Dollars Won: $132,835,761
In addition to our team’s impressive win rate, we are very proud to share that we won over $132 million for our clients’ work last year!
There are a lot of ways to parse this nine-figure sum secured by Elevate clients. For our Comprehensive Grant Writing Services clients, Elevate and our clients work collaboratively to decide which opportunities to pursue based on their customized grant strategy for a given year. Other clients may opt to utilize one of our project-based services such as our Writing Capacity Projects to add extra grant capacity for a limited time or to apply for a large grant. Clients’ needs also differ based on numerous factors, including their sector (we partner with organizations working in the areas of arts & culture, education, health & human services, advocacy, and international issues, for example), their mix of local and national funders, their budget size (we work with organizations with budgets under $500,000 to those with annual budgets over $50 million).
Therefore, whether it is a $250 award (our smallest in 2022) or a $7.8 million grant (the largest grant we secured last year), all of our wins are vitally important in helping to sustain our clients’ good works. Between these polar extremes, we calculated an average award of $151,000 and a median award of $25,000 among the grants secured in 2022.
Interested in learning more about how Elevate uses data to serve our clients? Check out our blog on how general operating requests have a higher win rate than program-restricted proposals. Also look out for the “March of Project Coordinators” series next month (we also like puns!) that will illustrate the value of data and project management on our client teams.
Elevate uses Salesforce to log thousands of grant opportunities each year across our nearly 100 nonprofit partners. We track information related to which grants are secured and which are lost, how much funding is requested and awarded, whether each grant is for a specific program area or for operating support, and much much more. The results described here come from thousands of data points across all of Elevate’s nonprofit partners. We love data!
January 12, 2023
TEN YEARS! I started formulating the idea for Elevate in late 2012, after grant writing for and consulting with nonprofits on my own for a few years. And I officially filed the paperwork in December 2012 so that I could launch the company on January 1, 2013.
First, I am very proud of what we have accomplished. About 20% of private sector businesses in the United States fail within the first year; 50% after five years; and 65% after ten years, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. In contrast, ten years in, Elevate continues to grow and invest in services and our staff. We have exciting plans for the years ahead!
Moreover, per the National Women’s Business Council, we’re in the top 1% of women-owned businesses in the United States in both revenues and staff size – although, to be honest, this may say more about the state of gender equality in our country and business than anything else.
In fact, there is one experience that I remember very clearly from my early days building Elevate: I was in a cohort of other business executives that were working on scaling their companies. There was a panel of three CEOs who were talking about failure, and the role it has in taking risks and experimenting. One man proudly shared that he had started four companies and all of them had failed before his current venture. I remember turning to my colleague (in mild horror!) and saying, “I don’t want to start four companies and watch them fail: I want to start ONE company and make sure it succeeds.”
I know that his intent was to normalize failure; and we all have projects or ideas that do not work out – I certainly have. But from Day 1 of Elevate, I viscerally understood that YOU – our clients – were placing your trust in us: to develop high-quality proposals; to submit them on time and accurately; and to literally raise their budgets and staff salaries. I was in my twenties when I started Elevate, but I knew that this was a profound responsibility and I never took it lightly. I still do not.
In building Elevate, I have worked to ensure we offer high-quality services that meet our clients needs and that we have hired excellent staff to deliver those services. Over the years, we have developed strong training programs (which is still ongoing)! We invested in a management layer that supports staff one-on-one and a Client Services department that moves quickly when clients have concerns. We have reduced workloads so that all staff have more time to focus on each client. We also continue to invest in a high-quality operations team to support staff and clients day-to-day. And most importantly: I have made sure we have a competent and professional executive team of leaders with exceptional judgment.
I bring all of this up because the news is heavy with stories of atrocious corporate governance and irresponsible business leaders: from the collapse of FTX and its grotesque lack of internal accountability; to the decades-long criminal tax fraud of the Trump Organization; to former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes being sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Leaders matter. The decisions we make for our organizations matter. And I have always looked to the nonprofit sector – rather than the corporate sector – for inspiration and guidance about how I wanted to lead Elevate. On this point, I’ll share one final story from Elevate’s founding.
Early on, a colleague and I were meeting with a potential client and explaining our three-person team model. (Yes, we do think it is distinctive and an important part of our value proposition to clients!) However, this person innocently said, “Oh, how innovative…!”
My eyes got wide and I was about to begin my multi-part thesis on why innovation is overvalued and effectiveness is much more important – when, thankfully, my colleague just said, “Don’t get her started…”
But it is true that after a decade of seeing funders prioritize the new and the shiny over the tried and true, I had developed a strong opinion on the matter. My staff who have worked with me long enough know that my favorite poem is To be of use by Marge Piercy (and my not-so-secret goal is for Elevate’s mascot to be the water buffalo).
That is because this poem encapsulates all that I love most about working with and for you – the nonprofit organizations that make people’s lives and communities better. It beautifully reflects how good people, doing hard work, day in and day out is what matters most. It is why I am so proud to have dedicated the last decade to serving you and your organizations. And it is why I am committed to ensuring that Elevate only improves in serving you over the next decade.
To be of use
BY MARGE PIERCY
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
November 3, 2022
I have been a grant writer pretty much my entire career. I always loved the work because it let me write professionally. (Who says a philosophy degree isn’t marketable?!) But more importantly, I enjoyed it because good grant writing makes good things happen. I loved winning proposals for important community projects. As a consultant grant writer, I loved working with nonprofit leaders to identify programming gaps, and find funding to address those gaps.
But having worked in-house at nonprofits, and then as an independent consultant to a handful of organizations, I felt that there were challenges with both models. Too often, I saw early career grant writers hop from organization to organization in order to grow their skills, advance their careers, and be exposed to different types of grants and organizations. (And, yes, I was guilty of this myself!) These nonprofits were likewise spending six or nine months training a relatively inexperienced grant writer, and then losing them after a year or so, only to re-start the expensive hiring, onboarding, and training process. And in the meantime, their grants programs stalled.
Later, as an independent contractor, I got to work with a lot of nonprofits and gain expertise on diverse topics quickly – but I missed having a team of other people to work with. I wanted to share advice, cultivation strategies, program ideas, and trends in the sector. I wanted to invest in the best research tools and have a robust grants database that would benefit all of my clients! And, I noticed that nonprofits were stuck in an inefficient position by paying me hourly. It is expensive to pay independent contractors who have high-level development expertise to also do a lot of the day-to-day work like managing the grant calendar and submitting proposals.
So I started Elevate with a clear purpose, a distinctive team model – and MANY questions.
Our purpose, which has never waived, is to ensure nonprofits have access to the best grants expertise in the country.
Our team model has been refined over the years, but remains the foundation on which Elevate is built. It is also how we stand apart from other firms. Simply put, when you work with Elevate, you get a whole team of people with distinct roles, training, and expertise. You get access to a high-level strategist and team manager; the dedicated support of a highly skilled grant writer based on how big your grant calendar is; and you get a data professional to manage your calendar and ensure all of the details are captured. Instead of hiring three people with these distinct skill sets, you can work with Elevate. Instead of trying to find a “unicorn” who can do it all, we hire, train, and support excellent fundraisers – and assign you a team based on your needs.
So, we had a clear purpose and a unique model,but the rest of Elevate was up for discussion, iteration, and improvement. I won’t detail the (literally) thousands of questions that I had – and the hundreds which we have systematically asked and answered over the past decade.
But I will tell you one question I had back then, sitting on my couch, planning Elevate’s future: I did not know if nonprofits would want to work with a firm like Elevate. Or if they would want to keep working with us over time. My clients at that time only knew me; they had hired me; they trusted me. I wasn’t sure if we would be able to translate that expertise over to people they did not know.
But year after year, our nonprofit partners have answered that question with a resounding YES!
YES! They want to work with our amazing staff. Our clients appreciate the diverse professional skill sets, past work experiences, and personal perspectives and backgrounds our staff bring to their work.
YES! They will stay with Elevate for years and years. Even as nonprofits have a growing option set of other firms, individual consultants, or in-house staffing, they continue to choose to partner with us to grow and sustain their grants program. They value our consistently high-quality work, our industry-leading win rates and ROI, and the stability we bring to their development departments.
YES! They will stay with Elevate as their needs evolve. Over the years, we have dedicated increasing staff time and leadership to working with clients to make sure they are in the right contract and scope of work to ensure their needs are met even as these needs shift over time.
YES! They trust us – and hold us accountable – to continue to improve our services. This past decade has had its ups and downs: as we have grown, we have improved the quality of our services and increased the consistency of our work. We have worked hard to respond promptly and thoughtfully to client feedback so that we consistently improve our work and the service we provide.
YES! They see the benefits of Elevate’s shared expertise, insight, and resources. Not as competition and scarcity – but as a mutual benefit that supports all of our nonprofit clients. They appreciate that we have a deep bench of expert staff and a long roster of clients.
A particular part of Elevate’s growth that I am most proud of is that with Elevate’s own expansion, our clients actually get more personalized attention and support than ever before.
As we have grown, we have not cut corners for clients – in fact, we have invested a lot in ensuring that our staff can focus on client work. In 2021, after a long COVID year that hugely impacted the sector, we adopted a priority of providing our team with the “Space to Succeed.” We reduced staff workloads by 20% for Grant Writers and over 10% for Team Directors, meaning our staff have more time and space for each client.
We also built out a stellar team of trained supervisors who support each member of the staff in navigating their work with their clients and teams. And, our excellent Data Team continues to grow and excel, bringing new insights to our work with clients and to the sector as a whole! (See their most recent blog post here.)
As we look ahead to 2023 – our 10th Anniversary Year! – we look forward to continuing to be a trusted partner to over 100 nonprofit partners every day. Thank you to everyone who continues to support us on this journey!