Advancing Philanthropy

Fundraising Tools: Major What?

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Major Grants and Their Power to Propel Your Nonprofit

“I will never make another grant to your organization.”
“We will need that $3 million proposal by the end of the week. OK?”
“Increase that budget to include everything on your wish list.”

These statements from foundation leaders sum up my career securing private grants: full of maddening constraints and surreal possibilities.

If you are like many grant seekers, you are under tremendous pressure to fund critical societal needs, not to mention your salary, that of your fellow employees and overhead costs. It’s a grand task. It doesn’t help that few executives or board members fully understand what you do. “Can’t we just get the Gates Foundation to fund it?” is a musing I’ve heard more times than I’d like to recount.

And yet, someone is going to secure those Gates grants, along with the increasing number of other large awards. Why not you?

Major Potential

According to Giving USA 2022, foundation giving grew by 16% in 2020, while corporate foundation giving saw a 7% increase.* While individuals’ philanthropy still makes up the bulk of U.S. charitable contributions, private grantmaking accounts for a fifth of the total, a significant change from a decade or two ago.

Your reliable funders might fill your coffers with $10,000 at a time, or more. Just as you can mindlessly pick up the apples, milk and bread from your local grocery store (or app), you can likely churn out the goals, plans and expected outcomes for these modest investors.

While individuals’ philanthropy still makes up the bulk of U.S. charitable contributions, private grantmaking accounts for a fifth of the total, a significant change from a decade or two ago.

I’ve been part of development shops like this. Then suddenly, large opportunities sped into our office, leaving major wakes within the organization. Funders’ quick turnaround times and narrow interests would force an already busy staff to freeze other priorities in favor of long-shot windfalls. It was like clinging to a sailboat while a passing cruise ship tosses you around—a mix of exhilaration and nausea.

If you see yourself on an equivalent thrill ride, consider viewing your work like our individual giving colleagues do, by segmenting your largest foundation and corporate prospects. In doing so, you will develop tools that will appeal to many of them. You will view them as more than just a ratcheting-up of annual awards. You will plan for them year-round. Your efforts will benefit solicitations of all types and sizes.

Some development shops go after private funders with incredible intensity, and yet they rarely discuss the largest foundations as a category. They treat each solicitation as a narrow effort to court a single investor. That’s understandable, since foundations have wildly varying protocols. But in my experience, teams that think about their largest private grant makers collectively build out the range of assets that benefit their work with all of them. They are more prepared and more successful.

Major Grants

If you mention major gifts in the nonprofit sector, no one will question the reference to your most significant individual donations. Do the same for major grants, and you’re likely to get some puzzled looks. This framework can help you carve out a working definition for your organization:

  • Source. Private foundations fund the bulk of major grants. They include philanthropies funded by individuals, families and corporations. Many companies also award grants outside of their foundations.
  • Field. While there are plenty of exceptions, these grant makers skew toward supporting education, health, economic opportunity and social issues.
  • Activities. If your work includes systems innovations, advocacy, research or program expansion, you’re especially in luck.
  • Size. When I mention major grants to colleagues or clients, they often assume that I’m talking about million-dollar awards. That’s often not the case. As with gifts, what your nonprofit considers “major” is relative. I peg it at the largest 5–10% of the grants portfolio. At a community-based organization where I am a donor, a $50,000 check has been the largest to date, while some of my nationally-oriented clients secure multiple seven-figure awards annually.

When you dedicate yourself to building your income stream via major grants, the benefits are substantial:

  • Significant funding. Enough said.
  • Multiplier effect. A funder’s largest grantees not only reap significant dollars, they can also prompt multiple awards. One recent client won a high six-figure check for a program. The next year, that grant repeated, and spawned $100,000 for a conference and $175,000 for a research project.
  • Credibility. Major grants can be newsworthy, whether you’ve earned $25,000 for your startup or $2.5 million for your new building. The larger the grant, the more you can build public confidence that your work has been vetted and endorsed by experts. You stand to gain media coverage, new board members, donors and high-quality job applicants.
  • Leverage. Credibility perpetuates your cycle of success. Once you begin to secure grants of a certain size, each next prospect can see that others have invested generously in your mission. Foundations’ staff appreciates—and often acts upon—a peer’s seal of approval.
  • Catalyst. The sheer desire to compete for a top-tier prize can be a team motivator. An emphasis on major grants can launch more organizational planning, tighter program design, better data collection and more visionary thinking. Whether or not the dollars immediately roll in, your agency stands to grow healthier.

A major grants mindset allows you to create plans, strategies and tactics that speak to the same issues that your best prospects prioritize.

Major grants rarely improve income alone.

Major League

I see many foundation and corporate funders making outsized grants. If you want to be among the chosen few, these core values can propel your competitive position:

  • Focused. When requests for proposals emerge, you shouldn’t have to wonder whether your nonprofit’s priorities fit the guidelines. Ideally, you’ll have worked with your leadership to outline clear goals that allow you to move forward confidently, or confidently move onto other prospects.
  • Prepared. Every call, email or meeting with your foundation contact presents an opportunity. I’ve worked with CEOs who didn’t take these communications for granted no matter how well-known their organization. They employed various forms of briefings, talking points and meeting agendas for even the briefest exchanges. While it’s good to prepare for all funders, there are simply too few in your top tier to risk unforced errors.
  • Deliberate. Do you devote adequate time to major grant makers outside of imminent deadlines? The most successful grant seekers create space in their schedules to advance their major grants agenda. They build relationships, strengthen their budgets, and secure organizational priorities. The activities span from your desk to your department to your agency. You might start by committing an hour a day. Or Wednesday mornings.

A major grants mindset allows you to create plans, strategies and tactics that speak to the same issues that your best prospects prioritize. It lets your boss know that you are serious about upping your game. It enables you to advocate for the kind of cooperation you require from colleagues. In short, it sets you up for sustained success, as opposed to winning one award at a time.

You can begin by asking yourself and your colleagues these questions:

  • Are we dedicating ourselves to the major grants effort, or are we treating it as an extension of our more modest awards?
  • Do staff members who are not primarily responsible for this work understand their respective roles in the process?
  • If a major funder issues a request for proposals that seems ideal for our organization, how ready are we to submit an application that speaks to our highest organizational priorities?

If we are going to address the consequential problems that face our nation and our world, it’s going to take some big thinking—and some big funding. This moment calls for an all-out effort to maximize the work you do for the sake of the climate, democracy, youth, racial justice and public health. There’s no time for major grants like the present.

*The data included does not reflect the latest data from Giving USA, which was released after this story was written.

susan schaeferSusan Schaefer helps nonprofit leaders fund their priorities through major private grants. She is an author, speaker and consultant whose firm, Resource Partners, launches social change through foundation and corporate partnerships. She writes a regular series of articles called Major Grants (majorgrants.substack.com).

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