How we got the grant. Part 1

Back in the 80s, I was director of development and communications for the US affiliate of an international child sponsorship organization.

Keeping the advertising, invoicing, fundraising, and donor stewardship running was an expensive investment for an organization that relied primarily on monthly giving from tens of thousands of donors.

While that funding model was clearly our strength, it also lost us donors who determined which organization they chose to support solely on the basis of  overhead ratios. Overhead costs were lower at colleague agencies that had lots of low-fundraising-cost government grants and commodities passing through their books.

(Note: Why overhead ratios tell only a tiny part of the story).

Which is one reason why we were interested in increasing our revenue from grants (in addition to the good work that we could do with more money.)

In particular, we had our eye on “development education” grants awarded by the US Agency for International Development  (USAID). Those funds supported programs that taught US audiences about global issues, especially issues facing the world’s most poor and vulnerable people.

We also knew that those agencies that received USAID development education grants seemed to have a “more favored” status within the development community than those who didn’t. AID funding was like a seal of approval that our development education would be recognized by our peers.

Yes, we wanted to be in the “in crowd.”  Being “in” often led to more media exposure, more opportunity for partnerships with our colleagues, and, ultimately, more donors and more funding to support our programs overseas.

But year after year (before I arrived), our proposals kept getting rejected. And we couldn’t understand why.

And to put the frosting on the cake, we kept hearing funders and our non-sponsorship colleagues advocate for personalizing international development to US citizens by sharing the stories of real people, families and communities overseas.

But but but… each and every day, we were sending very real and personalized stories about those very same communities and families to tens of thousands of donors in the US.

What were we doing wrong?

Lesson One: Get involved with your colleagues

Luckily, my boss was determined to shift the perception of our agency in the eyes of his international colleagues. So he became very active in the US international development community. He joined committees in strategic networks. He lobbied our  international program staff to participate in the US as well. He brought onto our Board of Directors  individuals with international development expertise and got them involved in those networks as well.

Through those activities, he also got to work with and come to know the staff in the development education division at USAID. And that’s how we learned what was wrong with us.

Lesson Two: Find out what funders think about you.

Without getting into too much detail, suffice it to say that child sponsorship organizations like ours — the  ones that invested in active communications between donors here in the US and their sponsored families overseas — were not seen by many of their colleagues as serious international development organizations.Yep. It didn’t matter so much about our programming on the ground.  Our donor communications were seen as purely “marketing” or “fundraising” and thus we not credible.

While this stung us terribly, finally, we had an opportunity for a breakthrough.

Lesson Three: You have to have and discuss a THEORY OF CHANGE

So, we decided we needed our USAID colleagues to understand better the what and why’s of our donor communications program. We were sure if they did, they would have a different opinion of us.

You see, one of the reasons that USAID was funding development education was to build more support for international aid. Leaving government aid aside, individual giving overseas rarely reaches 3% of all philanthropic dollars contributed in the US.

Yet, among the 400 largest US charities, you’ll find many child sponsorship organizations.

Why is that?

Remember that cliche that readers are only interested in local news? (Sadly, you only have to look at the very first news stories coming from the Haitian earthquake to find the truth in this).

Over 50 years of experience demonstrated the power of child sponsorship to motivate people to give by connecting them with images and stories of real people that they could learn about and maybe even communicate with.

So we had invested pretty heavily in our communications program. It included:

  • an annual photo of the sponsored child and his or her family
  • an annual profile of that child and family and their local community
  • a description of the country, economy, and culture of the regional and country in which the family lived
  • quarterly updates from our field staff describing their programs or interesting challenges in that community
  • four to six updates from the child and/or family, written with the help of dedicated field staff, an offering a glimpse of daily life.  (This was the most controversial part, but a story for another forum)
  • the ability of donors in the US to send correspondence back to their sponsored family, sharing a glimpse of life in the US.
  • Specialty information, particularly about the world’s religions and their practices.

We had also just discovered academic research that outlined a five stage model of how individuals became more culturally aware.  That research supported many of our practices and offered a platform to explain our communications to our potential funders.

Which we did. We took a “dog and pony” show down to the development staff at USAID and walked them through our communications program step by step. We answered all of their questions. We presented our challenges very truthfully.

Did we completely convince them? No. But we could see the cracks in their skepticism.

Which was a significant step forward to winning the grant.

For next time … lessons we learned about program development, target audiences and donor portfolios.

Continued at: How we got the grant, part II

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