Funding from the Grantor’s Perspective

by Susan Merrill O’Connor

Funder Panel: Lenora Green, Marion O'Neill, Jeffrey Vega, Kelly Ingram
(l-r) Lenora Green, Marion O’Neill, Jeffrey Vega, Kelly Ingram

What do you get when you put four savvy grantmakers in front of a room of willing and passionate non-profits? No, not something resembling ABC’s reality TV show Shark Tank, but a friendly and supportive exchange of useful and honest insight.

Last month, staff and volunteers from New Jersey non-profits attended Grant Giving from the Grantor’s Perspective, a breakout session at the Princeton Community Works conference. The impressive panel was a balance of corporate and community foundation funders:

The session was moderated by Linda Czipo, Executive Director of the Center for Non-Profits.

Here are just a few highlights from this engaging conversation:

Partnerships are important.

  • Kelly emphasized the importance of relationships between non-profits. Collaborating not only benefits the community, but can also make your organization more attractive to foundations.
  • Jeffrey added that it is “music to a funder’s ears” when two strong non-profits come together.” It’s a competitive field and better branded organizations often get the attention, but they need the grass roots organizations to implement the program – “and then often what happens is someone from the grass roots non-profit gets hired by the bigger organization.”

 “How should non-profits approach your organization?”

Non-profits can start by learning about a funder’s priorities and philosophy.

  • Princeton Area Community Foundation’sgrantmaking is responsive,” noted Jeffrey, “serving the under privileged and helping non-profits to advance the well-being of our communities.”
  • I Am Trenton provides seed money and learning opportunities so that small organizations can eventually approach larger funders like Princeton Area Community Foundation and the others on the panel.
  • PSEG has a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), supporting programs that reflect the company’s commitment to sustainability and also safety and preparedness because they are proud to be considered a first responder for our state. Marion O’Neill added that she will also push for funding for programs that “speak to me about under-served populations in my space.” She was particularly moved recently by a disaster simulation program designed to train participants on meeting the specific needs of the disabled.
  • The ETS Center for Advocacy and Philanthropy helps to advance ETS’ mission by connecting ETS’s philanthropic giving to education advocacy for disadvantaged groups in the United States.

What kind of specific advice can you give non-profits to make themselves more attractive to you?

  • The board at I Am Trenton wants non-profits to “tell us a compelling story,” said Kelly. “What difference will your work make? Why did you get involved? Tell us the stories of the people you serve.”
  • Addressing a question about boards, Jeffrey noted that PACF “dives deep” into learning about an organization’s board as “part of the service we owe to the contributors of our community foundation. We always want to know the percentage of your board that donates to your organization.” Being represented by the right people is important; Jeffrey recommended that non-profits have all their board members read Good to Great and the Social Sector by Jim Collins.
  • According to Marion,  “In addition to a strong board chair, the leadership of the executive director or CEO can really make the difference.” Referencing a well-known non-profit leader in Central New Jersey, she noted that some leaders are iconic, and make an especially passionate case for their organizations.
  • Lenora: “Having a succession plan is extremely important. I’m surprised at how many non-profits, even the big ones, don’t have one.”
  • For those organizations that do get funded, all panelists agreed that keeping the lines of communications open year-round is important. As Lenora put it, “Please, once you get that check, don’t be a stranger until the next time you’re making the ask.”

Thoughts about general operating support?

  • Jeffrey said that PACF provides general support and also applauded the Center’s work in support of ending the “overhead myth” and supporting non-profit infrastructure.
  • Lenora explained that ETS prefers to fund programs: “While we understand non-profits need to have expenses, we want to know they’re self-sufficient.”
  • Marion pleased the crowd by announcing PSEG does fund operating expenses since “we’re part of your overhead – non-profits have to pay the energy bill!”

More than grants:

Panelists discussed a variety of ways that their organizations work with and support non-profits in addition to grants:

  • According to Jeffrey, only about 1/3 of the applications received by PACF actually get funded, but PACF staff are happy to provide feedback and suggestions to organizations that aren’t chosen. He encouraged organizations to take the staff up on this opportunity to gain feedback or gain tips to improve their chances for next time by attending their grant information sessions.
  • Lenora noted that if your program is not aligned with her foundation’s mission, she will often help you find a funder who may be a better fit. As a member of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, she knows many other funders. ETS also offers in-kind support and welcomes all Princeton area non-profits, not just education-based, to use their spacious facility for meetings, banquets, galas, etc.
  • PSEG has a robust employee volunteer program, and sometimes makes its facilities available for workshops.
  • I Am Trenton provides regular technical workshops for grass roots funding such as the Trenton Historic Development Collaborative; Kelly said they makes a point to build in networking time for organizations.
Panelists talk with attendees following breakout session
Panelists talk with attendees following breakout session

Panelists graciously stayed after the program to answer individual questions and provide their contact information. Some attendees came away with specific tips for their next grant appeal, and we know everyone left feeling like they had new friends in philanthropy.

For general grantseeking information, the Center for Non-Profits’ website includes links to fund raising resources and select Funding Opportunities. Other resources include the New Jersey State Library’s Foundation and Corporate Grants and the Foundation Center’s Guide to Funding Research.

Susan Merrill O’Connor is communications specialist at the Center for Non-Profits, New Jersey’s statewide umbrella organization for the charitable community. Through advocacy, public education, technical assistance and cost-saving member services, the Center works to build the power of New Jersey’s non-profit community to improve the quality of life for the people of our state. 


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