A surprise

A newly hired executive director discovered upon being hired, that there was no money for existing expenses.  This already insolvent agency would additionally have to fund maintenance services previously provided by a federal government program that was itself shutting down. It was an inauspicious but not a prophetic start to his career.

Politics and perception

The agency was meant to ease the arrival of unwelcome, low-income housing in an upscale neighborhood.  Fundraising from private entities was limited by the agency’s location in a wealthy community which perceived that the community had enough wealth to take care of its own.  A common problem among nonprofits serving low-income people who happen to have an upscale zip code, this is particularly true in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification.  “It’s not where you are but who you serve that matters,” the associate director said.

Restructuring image to attract funding

The executive director and the Board developed a four-pronged strategy to build funding; first, do well with what they have; then, provide what the community needed; third, make funders aware of whom the agency really served; and finally, network with other nonprofits, as colleagues, mentors and references.  They set out to implement the strategy and began to:

  • Build on what you have – They built small but impressive programs that overcame the politically charged history of the agency to give funders confidence that new grants would be used well.  Using money from the borough youth bureau, they developed an after-school program that succeeded where a prior program had failed.  Programs for seniors were a priority at the borough president’s office, so the agency appropriated existing funding.  They created programs to keep older adults in the community and out of nursing homes.  It was a ground-breaking concept at the time, one that built the reputation of the organization and manifested potential new constituencies.
  • Respond to the community – The success of the programs was due to the committed involvement of the executive director, Board members and staff in all aspects of the community.   “We try to be visible and smart,” the executive director said.  By listening at many venues, the organization knew what the community needed in both new and existing programs.  Often the agency provided management training and mentoring to groups having trouble.  Assisting members of the community also helped the agency to gain an understanding and knowledge of how the community functioned.

New programs succeeded because they met a need and each then became a selling point for grants from new sources, including once uninterested foundations.  “As needs change, as the community changes, they offer new programs,” one multi-year funder said.  It was a philosophy that attracted and retained funders.

  • Bring funders to the site and Board members to the funders – Funders were invited to program sites, to see and talk to those being helped.  “Once they came and saw us and the organization, they had a better idea of what we were doing,” the associate director said.  Part of the strategy was to include program participants and Board members who were community residents, who could speak to how the program benefited them.  One of our Board members is also on the community board and another was formerly a participant in our youth program.  These one-on-one discussions with potential funders dispelled the idea that the high-end address meant no help was needed, she said.
  • Network and help nonprofits providing similar services: – The agency had focused on improving its own quality.  Its members collaborated with colleagues in similar areas, worked in coalition and advocacy programs, and mentored others.  These efforts greatly improved their reputation.  Outside organizations came to the agency for guidance in managing their programs.  In some cases, they were asked to run outside programs.  In others, they cooperated in joint-venture projects that might not have been possible if attempted by one organization alone.  They expanded in scope and increased their locations.  Moreover, the people who funded the collaborating organizations soon knew and respected the growing agency. Approaching these funders for grants was much easier when the agency’s reputation and references were already known to the foundations. 

Resetting first impressions

Funding, once barely cobbled together, was now provided by a long list of government agencies, foundations, businesses, and individuals.  The Board is fully engaged in fundraising and has a plan in place.  The agency is well-known, respected, and still growing in new directions as community changes inspire program changes.  And the challenge continues every day!