Resurgens Impact Consulting

Activating potential for transformative social progress and healing

What Did You Call Me? Language, Identity, and Grant Seeking

Over the last few decades, there has been a remarkable shift in the way that we think and talk about one another. Leaders and advocates from under-represented, under-resourced communities have called for the public to be more mindful of their vocabulary and use of certain labels when discussing various groups. Some see this as a great and ultimately necessary step toward advancing our understanding of one another, while others feel that so-called “PC Culture” infringes on their own ability to express themselves, and that the important details of what is being discussed are passed over for how it is being discussed. The nonprofit sector is caught up in this tension. As human service organizations - and  the entities that fund them - it is important for us to interrogate our language and change our behaviors accordingly.

Grants and foundations have historically focused on advancing the lives of those in their community. As with many long-standing institutions, there has been a recent surge of awareness regarding the language that is being used, and the problems in how grantmakers and foundations talk about the communities they are aiming to help. Many industry-favorite descriptors have recently come under fire for their somewhat problematic way of categorizing groups and the implications that these phrases carry. These include terms such like  “at-risk”, “disenfranchised”, or “dysfunctional.” Take, for example, the term “at-risk.” Not only is it ambiguous (at risk of what?), but it implies imminent failure, a notion which can have a significant impact on the individual who receives this label. The very people who are labelled as such critique the use of these words, saying they do little, if anything, to acknowledge the origin of the problems in these communities. They seem to suggest that the problems are arbitrary and not connected to larger social dynamics. Because these terms do little to recognize the humans behind the statistics, they reveal - and inadvertently perpetuate - pre-existing prejudices.

Now, some might say in response that it’s not the intention of these words to make anyone uncomfortable, and that the language used isn’t as important as getting the help to the people who need it. Some argue that foundations and grantmakers should be able to classify their grant recipients in language that they choose. For example, if grantmakers can’t define terms to clarify who they want to help, it can make it difficult to create any kind of centralized focus for an organization. Labels can be useful, if uncomfortable, at creating a central focal point. Some grant professionals point out that we should use the funder’s language in proposals. “Speaking their language” and “knowing your audience” are key tenets of successful grant seeking, so even when the terms are problematic, we should use them so that we demonstrate alignment with each funder’s priorities.

While both sides of the argument make strong points, it’s paramount to remember that we’re ultimately on the same team. Grantmakers and foundations, nonprofits, and the populations served by these institutions all share the goal of creating positive change for individuals and in their communities. It is imperative that we find ways to discuss issues that acknowledge their origin and the systematic obstacles that prevent simple, cut and dry solutions. We take the position that sometimes our role as grant seekers is to help educate and influence grant makers to use more responsive language. We believe that if an individual or group wants to use certain labels, and explicitly asks others to stop using certain terms, we should respect their wishes. Even if funders use these terms in their guidelines, we can use our role as grant professionals to re-define them. In fact, it is our duty to do so, on behalf of the communities we are seeking to help!

While grantmakers and foundations are ultimately responsible for how they wish to address the communities they serve, treating the people who will benefit from their aid with dignity and respect should be a top priority. There is a need for language that goes beyond simply describing the current situations of groups, but also acknowledges the history that has created and maintains marginalization and exploitation. Grantmakers need to be sensitive to the groups that they serve and how they wish to be described, and its important to remember that change takes time. In order to facilitate more positive terminology, all those in the nonprofit sector will need to make a conscious effort to create better ways of characterizing individuals and their respective situations. How we label things is important, and pretending it isn’t ultimately does a diservices to both those who need help and those who want to help. 

This post was inspired and informed by a discussion thread on the Grant Professionals Association forum. For further reading, please see the following resources recommended by participants:

Are Federal Grants Right for My Nonprofit?

This past February, Betty took part in a panel discussing fundraising and federal grants through

The Association of Fundraising Professionals. AFP is a networking organization with chapters all over the world. It hosts networking events and other continuing education opportunities for professional fundraisers. The subject of the panel was federal grant funding and whether or not its right for your organization, and if it is a good fit, what makes a competitive application.

There are as many federal grants as there are nonprofits, and although federal grants often come with attractively large sums, they are notoriously tricky and it can be easy to bite off more than your organization can chew. Paramount to maintaining and developing an effective, sustainable nonprofit is consistent and realistic financial management. Federal institutions require that organizations demonstrate a proven track record not only of success in implementing programs, but also diverse and consistent funding and financial management.

So if your nonprofit is considering applying for federal funding, there are a few key questions you should ask to determine if you’re federal grant ready!

Does my organization have the capacity to manage a federal grant?

While your organization may not have to provide detailed reports for private foundation grants, federal funders will require detailed reports on how funding is spent, as well as how effective programs using that funding prove to be. It’s imperative to consider whether your organization realistically has the capacity to oversee and complete such reporting requirements, as they can often be time consuming and require the utmost attention to detail.

Also to consider regarding capacity, is whether your organization is truly equipped to manage the often large sums of money that federal grants provide.

While big numbers can seem like a great resource for your organization, if those grants are too large for your organization  to realistically manage, it’s going to cause a lot more stress than relief.

Applying for a federal special program grant the size of your organization’s entire annual budget might advance your organization, but what’s more likely to happen is that it will add an exorbitant amount of stress through the sheer amount of management such a grant requires.

To get a better understanding of the requirements of managing federal funding click the link below.

Is this project time sensitive?

Another thing to consider when deciding to apply for a federal grant is the timeline of the project. If you’re in need of money to quickly pull a project together, federal grants are not the place to look. It can be months before organizations can get their hands on money awarded from grants, and federal grants are no exception.

Furthermore, federal grants are extremely detailed and require quite a bit of time to create a solid application. Be extremely mindful of deadlines and work towards completing the application with adequate time for review and revision. Applying to a federal grant on the cuff isn’t likely to bring any benefit, so plan ahead if you’re plan on applying.

So you’re confident federal funding is a good step for your organization?

You’ve evaluated your organization and you feel ready to tackle federal grants, so what next? How can you insure your application is competitive? Although a lot goes into insuring your application can compete, these steps are a good place to start to evaluate your proposal’s chance of receiving funding.

Follow Directions

It sounds pretty obvious, but following the exact  instructions listed on the RFP is crucial. If they ask you to send a picture of three monkeys holding your proposal upside down on a boat along with your application, do it!

In all seriousness though, applications with missing or incomplete parts, or improperly presented information are likely to be screened out before they’re even read by a review board. Following instructions for each part as requested in the information is the most important step to ensuring your proposal is competitive. Regardless of how good the content of the application is, if it’s not packaged how the grant maker requests, it’s unlikely to be considered to receive funding.

Demonstrate Partnership

Federal grants often look to address large public issues and enable substantial improvements. The type of projects attractive to federal grant makers often require more than one organization’s participation. One way to improve your organization's likelihood of receiving federal funds is to demonstrate partnership with other organizations addressing the same issue. This type of cooperation is best demonstrated through concrete agreements like letters of commitment of memoranda of understanding.

Submit ON TIME!

It can’t be stressed enough - Federal grants are complex and time management is critical! Don’t leave anything to the last minute and always ensure enough to double and triple check the application before hitting the submit button. There’s no worse feeling than realizing you won’t meet the deadline despite having already put in so much work towards assembling your proposal.  Save yourself and everyone on your team any unnecessary grief and work towards meeting interim deadlines and setting yourself up for the best chance at success.

Federal grants can be a great source of funding for organizations equipped to deal with managing large grants. Before going through the effort of applying, insure that your organization could handle funds if awarded, both fiscally as well as in regards to reporting. If you do decide your organization is ready and capable of managing funds, make sure to complete the application exactly as requested and on time for the best chance of receiving funding.  Although they’re complex and time consuming to apply for, federal grants can enable a lot of change in communities and can be an invaluable resource for nonprofits.

Written by Margaret Peth

Pros-and-Cons: Donor Advised Funds

Pros-and-Cons: Donor Advised Funds

Philanthropy is changing and the landscape of funding options continues to shift from one whose primary source is foundations to more diverse and flexible options. One of these options is donor advised funds (DAFs). Donor advised funds are only becoming more and more popular, and this growth in popularity is important when considering what funding options to consider for your non-profit. So what are the benefits and what are the drawbacks, and how do you know that donor-advised funds are the right choice for your organization?

What are they?

Put simply, a donor advised fund is an account specifically for the purpose of charitable giving. Be it cash, stocks, or other gifts, the owner of the account is eligible for an immediate tax deduction for any assets put into the account. The assets in the account then belong to  either the charitable foundation or the financial management firm where the account is being supervised. While donor advised funds legally belong to their sponsoring organization, the contributors to the account influence where the funds go, hence the name. The tax benefits of creating such accounts are clear and make such mediums for giving very attractive to potential donors, and the growth of their popularity is likely to continue to grow.

So, what are the benefits?

There are some considerable benefits to donor-advised funds when considering these as a funding option for your organization.

One of these benefits is that there are a variety of types of donor-advised funds. Because they can come from donors of all types with various personal goals and issues of interest, it’s very probable that there is a donor-advised fund out there looking to support the cause that your non-profit serves.

Additionally, because of the immediate tax deduction, it’s appealing to both donors and nonprofits. Both parties benefit from these types of accounts. Nonprofits are able to access more funds, sometimes for generations, and donors are able to benefit through immediate tax deductions.

And, what are the drawbacks?

One of the most frustrating things about donor advised funds is that there is no real deadline for giving. DAFs can be created by donors without any immediate intention for spending or any clear indication of the type of organizations they are looking to sponsor. And while foundations or corporations are required to report where their previous donations went in their 990s, DAFs are exempt from this process, so researching who a DAF is likely to fund can end up leaving nonprofits scratching their head.  So, while there may be a lot of funds out there, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are accessible to the non-profits looking to access them, and the tax deductions are granted even before the money is given out to charity. Without payout demands, DAFs start to seem like a treasure chest of resources without a key.

Additionally, DAFs can vary greatly in size and amount of donation. There is no guarantee of consistency in the amount of money available from year to year.  Even if an organization manages to elicit funds from a DAF, because of the limited requirements for structure or consistency, there is no guarantee of continued donations or even that a DAF will be looking to donate money at all year to year.

The Takeaway

Donor advised funds are a rapidly growing area of funding for nonprofits. And, while they can be useful in their diversity and areas of interest, ultimately, to be more lucrative source of funding there will need to be a greater number of regulations around when and how money can be spent. Part of their appeal is the laid back structure, which although appealing to many donors, can prove frustrating. Donor advised funds are growing more popular, and nonprofits will need to develop the ability to convince donors to move money out of funds and into the world.

Written by Margaret Peth