Lessons from the Robin Hood Foundation’s fundraising “boot camp”

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Attention, engagement and motor planning skills are taught during therapy time at the Kennedy Child Study Center, one of the organizations that participated in the GRIT program. (Tina Buckman)

Fundraising pros know there is an art to the so-called “elevator pitch:” keep it short and interesting, and get to the point fast.

But some nonprofits have trouble distilling their message into a succinct pitch, said Suzi Epstein, managing director of the Robin Hood Foundation. To help promising organizations become better fundraisers, Robin Hood – which bills itself as New York’s largest poverty-fighting organization – launched a program to teach leaders about everything from tracking outcomes to pitching a potential funder.

“Many groups had a very charming pitch that might have gone on for too long,” said Epstein, who directed the pilot Grants-Ready Insights and Training (GRIT) program. “Or they might have buried the lede.”

Eight New York-area nonprofits were selected for the six-week program, which began on Oct. 6 and consisted of weekly four-hour sessions, including training on mission and program model design, fundraising, budgets, governance and data tracking. Only organizations that had a budget range of between $1.5 million and $5 million and had been operational for at least three years were eligible to participate.

“What we are trying to do is help groups really rivet on impact,” Epstein said.

Epstein, who has been at Robin Hood for more than two decades, said she and other staff members decided to develop the pilot training program after noticing many nonprofits that appealed to the organization for funding consistently struggled with the same problems in their grant proposals. Although many of the nonprofits had collected detailed “input” data – such as how many people use their program – they had trouble connecting the dots to reveal how their work makes a difference. They had trouble describing their costs and articulating their outcomes, and they had issues with governance – weaknesses that made it harder for the groups to diversify their funding.

To find potential applicants who needed to strengthen their proposals, Epstein said Robin Hood reached out to other philanthropies and asked: “Where did you get an interesting proposal that you couldn’t fund for some reason?”

Jeanne Alter, executive director of the Kennedy Child Study Center, which provides specialized education to pre-kindergarten children with language and cognitive delays, said the GRIT program gave her “laser focus” on things that she would not have time to think about during a regular workweek.

“I called it boot camp,” Alter said. She learned how and when to communicate with potential funders and what she will need to do in order to define the outcomes of the organization’s education program.

“The challenge for us has been that we can tell 386 individual stories,” Alter said, referring to the number of children the organization reaches per year. “The problem is learning how to aggregate your data to tell your story.”

Thanks to the testing that the nonprofit’s teachers do four times per year, Alter said she knows that the education provided by her nonprofit helps children gain the communication skills and motor skills they will need to better integrate into a school setting. But she didn’t know how to translate that data into outcomes that can be shared with funders, or use it to help guide her in setting goals and deliverables.

“We’re definitely looking at our fundraising plan and we’re going to revamp it,” Alter said. “We would love to get funded for a data analysis manager.”

David Brownstein said he knew he had “hit on a nerve in society” after he founded the nonprofit Wild Earth in 2004 and started taking youth on overnight trips into the woods around New Paltz in Ulster County. He saw that the young people in the program learned teamwork, gained confidence and went on to become leaders in their schools and communities.

But Brownstein still struggled to define exactly what the nonprofit was about – until the first session of the GRIT program.

“Ultimately, what we’re working on is character, is building the character of today’s youth,” he said. “That was kind of an ‘aha’ moment.”

Brownstein said that clarifying the organization’s mission helped him and his team focus on the message they wanted to convey to funders, and how to tell that story.

Before participating in the GRIT program, he might have been in a hurry to ask for a donation during his first meeting with a potential funder, but now he takes time to build the relationship.

“It’s less desperate and ‘starvation mentality,’ and more peer-to-peer,” Brownstein said.

For Jackie Baillargeon, director of The Guardianship Project at the Vera Institute of Justice, the challenge was not only figuring out how to track data and allocate funding, but how to build a 501(c)3 organization almost entirely from scratch. She was hired specifically to determine if Vera’s project, which for 10 years has been providing legal guardianship services to elderly, mentally ill or developmentally disabled New Yorkers, can spin off into a self-sustaining organization.

Baillargeon said the GRIT program, and especially the one-on-one advice from a mentor assigned to work with her, helped her map out a plan for the transition and define criteria to measure her progress.

One question the program helped her identify, she said, is “what’s the gold standard for how I should be approaching fundraising?” She also learned how to select board members and explain to potential donors that she will need multi-year funding to sustain the organization.

“It allowed me to really understand what it is that I want to put in place,” Baillargeon said.

The GRIT sessions included group exercises on building a budget, lectures led by Robin Hood staff members and outside consultants and role-playing exercises including a “mock ask,” Epstein said.

“We were trying to help the groups get a lot of bang for the buck.”

Asked if the program will be repeated next year, Epstein said Robin Hood will make the determination after it receives feedback from the eight participant organizations. Initial feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, she added, with some organizations requesting additional time for the fundraising, governance and budgeting sessions.

But the overall success of the program may not be determined until the nonprofits complete their long-term homework assignment, due in a year and a half, Epstein said.

Will they be able to raise $100,000 in new funding? The clock is ticking. 

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