ask an expert

Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a grant writer who isn’t sure whether they should share their input on the types of programs that could further their mission and meet a funder’s objectives/focus. 

Dear Charity Clairity,

I am just a grant writer. I am not generally involved in the strategic planning of our organization, but do have input into the types of programs we might include to further our mission and meet a funder’s objectives/focus; I often suggest ideas. While I know we are largely focused on staying afloat these days, we have been in a fortunate financial state, unlike many other child care providers. How do I encourage leadership to set some priorities that help our organization address current issues of social unrest and racial equity?  It is not addressed in our current mission. We serve children of all colors and a large low-income population – while there are not many protests in our local streets (yet), these issues are felt by our children, their families and our staff.

— Just a Grant Writer

Dear ‘Just,’

Please never describe yourself as ‘just’ anything. Grant writers are mission essential! And you seem to have a true handle on what’s important — to both your clients and your donors.

Before I answer your question, please allow me a sentence or two on the unique role of grant writers.  In one of my early fundraising jobs I was asked by both the executive and associate executive directors why folks in ‘your profession’ think you can write grant proposals: “You’re not program people, so what makes you think you can understand programs well enough to write about them? We’ve always had program staff do that.” I explained the role of grant writer as decoder (simplifier of insider jargon and assumptions) and broker (matchmaker between industry and funder values). Here’s what I told them:

“Because a grant writer is objective and independent – i.e., not a program staffer – they can serve an essential role in translating the importance of the program to outsiders who also will not fully understand the program. Foundation professionals will likely have the same questions as the grant writer, whose job is to pepper program staff with questions ahead of time; then answer these questions on behalf of the funder.

Here are a dozen questions a grant writer will typically pose to program staff in their role as investigative reporter, translator and values broker: 

(1) Why do you think this is a problem? 

(2) Do you have data, quantitative or qualitative, demonstrating you’re not the only one who thinks this is a problem? 

(3) Why do you think this program is the best solution? 

(4) Why do you think our organization is the best to address this problem/develop this solution?

(5) What are others doing to address this problem, and how is what we’re proposing different? 

(6) What are the specific strategies and tactics we’ll employ? 

(7) Who will be in charge, and what are their qualifications?

(8) How will we monitor progress? 

(9) How will we track outcomes? 

(10) What’s the budget? 

(11) Who else will we apply to for funds? 

(12) What will we do if we don’t secure sufficient funding?

Your question about helping your organization address current issues that may be top-of-mind for your constituents falls squarely into your role as decoder and values broker. All of fundraising is a value-for-value exchange. Essentially, you’re trying to translate what your organization is doing in such a way it resonates with issues that may be top priority for your constituents, funders included. This is a good instinct!

I find it interesting you say issues of social unrest and racial equity are not addressed in your current mission – yet you serve children of all colors and a large low-income population. I would say you do address these issues, whether you’ve made this explicit or not. Now is a good time to be explicit. 

It’s always a good idea to try to get inside the minds and hearts of your supporters, and then unambiguously share what you’re doing in any of the areas that may be hot button topics for them. Almost every organization in the ‘social benefit’ sector – by definition — is involved in equity and racial justice work in some way, whether directly/indirectly. Be explicit about your guiding principles in this area and specific actions you’re taking to advance equity. Statements of solidarity were good through last summer; donors are going to demand action steps as we move into year end. 

By the way, there’s research from the National Council of Nonprofits showing when board members, employees, donors, and others who shape the values and activities of a nonprofit come from a wide array of backgrounds, they bring unique perspectives that influence how the nonprofit approaches its mission in more inclusive and innovative ways. 

“We believe that embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion as organizational values is a way to intentionally make space for positive outcomes to flourish, whether in direct services or in the nonprofit capacity building or public policy spheres. We urge each nonprofit to articulate its own values and be guided by them.”

— National Council of Nonprofits

You may want to share this with your leadership.

I hope this helps, and thank you for being a true philanthropy facilitator,

— Charity Clairity

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Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.
Claire Axelrad