Finding Your Path Just Got Easier

This is a guest post by Cynthia Adams, CEO of GrantStation



About a year ago, I (virtually) sat down with my staff and told them I wanted to build an interactive program that would help individuals who are trying to develop their grantsmanship skills. I thought this concept might stimulate some interesting conversation. I had no idea how quickly the staff would latch on to it!

Why was their reaction to this idea so positive?

Because we had all been experiencing the same thing, over and over. GrantStation Members (about 25,000) were hungry to learn more. GrantStation Insider subscribers (about 250,000) were always asking about learning opportunities.

Grantsmanship is somewhat of a mystery to many individuals, and most people assigned with the task of grant research, writing, or management, not to mention strategic planning, are often looking for guidance.

So, the good news was we had identified a real need. Our challenge became, how do we build something that will actually help individuals improve their grant seeking skills?

After much contemplation, planning, testing and programming we launched, on June 18, a new, public website called the PathFinder.

The PathFinder is designed to help individuals develop their career path as grant professionals. The PathFinder library provides profiles of top quality resources that can strengthen an individuals ability to secure and manage grant awards. Each posting is vetted by our staff, so you are getting the 'cream of the crop'.

To get started, you can browse the library, search the resources, or use the Find Your Path tool to develop your own learning plan. You can get a full tour of how this site works by watching this short, introduction video posted on the home page.

Whether you consider yourself to be a novice, somewhat experienced or a professional, I believe you will find the resources to be of high quality and useful.

We've organized the resources into three categories: timely events, quick study, and deep dive. Timely events include live webinars, workshops and trainings, as well as conferences. Quick study items include articles, reports, blogs, and other items that take a little time to absorb. And, the deep dive resources all focus on interactive tools, books, certificate and master programs.

This site, like many sites nowadays, allows you to rate the resources, so once you’ve read a book or a report, taken a webinar or attended a training, please come back and rate the resource so others can learn from your experience!


Cynthia Adams has spent the past 40 years helping nonprofit organizations raise the money needed to do their good work. Many of her early efforts centered on raising funds to set aside wilderness areas in Alaska. In 1990 she started her first company, the Alaska Funding Exchange. This endeavor served as the testing ground for a national company, GrantStation, which opened its Internet doors in the fall of 2001. Cindy built this business because she believes that grantseeking requires a thorough understanding of the variety and scope of grantmakers and sound knowledge of the philanthropic playing field. Her life's work has been to level that playing field, creating an opportunity for all nonprofit organizations to access the wealth of grant opportunities across the U.S. and throughout the world. Cindy enjoys hiking, gardening, and "movie night" with friends. Her husband, John Luther Adams is a composer, so she also listens to a lot of 21st Century music

Author: Dahna Goldstein
June 22, 2015, 06:32 PM

Financial Ratios for Nonprofits - The Overhead Myth

The Overhead Myth

In a huge, positive step for the nonprofit sector, the leaders of GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance published a letter this week calling for an end to donors' obsession with "overhead" as the dominant measure of nonprofits' worthiness and effectiveness.

I suspect most people who read this blog are aware of the overhead ratio and how it has become a yardstick for donors.  Charity watchdogs, including Charity Navigator (which has signed onto the letter released this week) have popularized the notion that "good" nonprofits spend less than 30% of their budgets on overhead, and that "bad" nonprofits spend more than 30% of their budgets on overhead.

Rather than ranting about just how wrong this is (and how unfortunate it has been that various media outlets picked up on the notion enough that it became a commonplace misconception about the sector), allow me to quote from the letter:

"[M]any charities should spend more on overhead. Overhead costs include important investments charities make to improve their work: investments in training, planning, evaluation, and internal systems— as well as their efforts to raise money so they can operate their programs. These expenses allow a charity to sustain itself (the way a family has to pay the electric bill) or to improve itself (the way a family might invest in college tuition)."

Dan Pallotta's great TED talk addressed elements of this problem (and is worth watching, even if you don't entirely agree with either the message or the messenger).  If we want nonprofits to be successful in tackling the social and environmental issues they're working on, we (as donors and supporters) need to help them succeed.  They need to be able to effectively raise money, to invest in good technology to help them better serve their constituents, to develop their professional staff to better meet their missions.  All of those things - and more - would be considered overhead costs, but without being able to make those investments, many nonprofits are stunted.  They are not able to accomplish all that we want them to accomplish, because we are implicitly telling them that we do not value -- and therefore do not allow them to make -- investments in many of the things that will help them succeed.

We at PhilanTech have felt strongly that overhead was a poor measure of nonprofit performance for a long time, so much so that we developed a financial analysis tool in PhilanTrack for Foundations (our grantmaking software) that helps grantmakers not only evaluate the impact of their grants, but also produces a series of nonprofit financial analyses that goes much deeper into understanding how organizations are performing financials.

It's going to take a while to change public perception about overhead ratios and re-train donors to think not only about administrative costs (which are a valid thing to evaluate, just not the only thing) but also about impact, transparency, governance.  And we in the nonprofit sector owe it to ourselves to help change that perception by educating our donors, our supporters, our families, our friends.

I applaud GuideStar and the Overhead Myth for taking a lead in moving this conversation in the right direction.  I signed the Pledge to End the Overhead Myth.  I encourage you to sign it, too.

Foundations - we'd be happy to show you how PhilanTrack's financial analysis tool can help you get beyond overhead ratios in understanding your grantees' financial health and performance.  Let us know if you'd like a demo.

Author: Dahna Goldstein
June 21, 2013, 11:02 AM

Relationships are Key for Foundation Technology Funding

This is a guest post by David Krumlauf

People who work for nonprofit organizations know only too well that they need good technology to be successful. Unfortunately, many foundations don’t quite get it yet. The foundation staff members who review and recommend grants are often confused by what organizations are asking for and why they’d need such a thing.

I’ve been doing IT support and funding for the “Core Grantees” of The Pierce Family Charitable Foundation for over 5 years and have seen how they struggle with their IT needs. I’ve seen the whole range of needs from full network upgrades to just a few minor server tweaks.

If you’re in that group that needs a technology upgrade but are struggling to get those needs funded, here are a few tips to help you be more successful:

  • Create a workable technology plan – You may not have an IT person on staff, but it’s worth finding someone (either a staff member or consultant) to do a network, hardware and software inventory, needs assessment and timeline. The more you know about what you have and what you need, the easier time you’ll have conveying your needs to potential funders. Technology upgrades aren’t always huge requests. Often it’s a matter of training, or minor software and hardware updates. I’ve seen increasing workstation memory, adding a spam filter and reconfiguring existing servers do wonders.  Check out Steve Heye’s blog for some great technology planning resources.
  • Build good relationships with foundations – Get to know the locally-focused family foundations in your area. Be bold! Contact their development staff and ask them to come for a site visit. Once you have them onsite, you can describe your technology challenges and how much better you could fulfill your mission if those were solved.
  • Keep it simple - It’s easy to use tech terms that might be unfamiliar to foundation staff when applying for grants. Use simple, straightforward language that won’t confuse the reader. You won’t get funding if the foundation staff can’t understand what you’re asking for.
  • Be comfortable with the grant reporting requirements - Too often grants come with complex reporting requirements. To build a long-lasting relationship with a foundation, be sure you give them what they’re looking for when they want it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get clarification.
  • Bundle technology requests into program grants - If your program requires staff to be out in the field gathering data, adding a few mobile devices makes a lot of sense. Funders usually understand the need for the proper tools to do the job at hand.
  • Keep grant requests reasonable - Start small, meet the reporting requirements and build up to larger, more complex requests. Use your technology plan to determine what easy, not too costly solution works best for you.
  • Build trust - Once a foundation knows you, your work and sees your progress, larger tech grants will be a lot easier to obtain. Funders love working with grantees that they know will put their grant money to good use and be better prepared to fulfill their mission.
  • Give yourself time - Don’t feel like you have to fix everything all at once. This often creates more problems than good. Give staff the training and time they need to adapt to the changes you implement. “Baby Steps” is a good way to go.

So now you’re primed and ready to go. Don’t be shy about asking for what you need! Funders are always looking for good causes to help and more and more are getting the idea that nonprofits need good tools just like they do.


David Krumlauf

David Krumlauf is an old biology teacher, ISP owner and now Chief Technologist of a private Chicago-based foundation. He lives in a greenbuilt home in NW lower Michigan.

Author: Dahna Goldstein
March 20, 2013, 02:52 PM

The State of Grantseeking - Spring 2012

state of grantseeking spring 2012

PhilanTech and GrantStation are pleased to announce the release of the State of Grantseeking Spring 2012 Report.

Ongoing declines in government and other funding and the resulting decreases in fundraising staff and resources continue to challenge grantseekers.  The 812 survey respondents indicated that the size and number of grants awarded are not keeping pace with the increased demands for their services.

Other findings from the survey included:

  • Most organizations applied for the same number or more grants, and increased efforts resulted in more grants for 31% of respondents, an improvement of 5% since the last survey.
  • The average size of grants increased from the same period last year.
  • Larger organizations struggled more with economic conditions, whereas smaller organizations continue to struggle more with the mechanics of grantseeking.
  • Despite ongoing reductions in government grants and increased competition for all types of grants, 78% of respondents felt optimistic that their grant funding would increase or continue at the same level for the next six months.  This represents a slight decrease in optimistic responses since the Fall 2011 survey.

The survey was open in February and March 2012.  While nonprofit organizations of all sizes responded to the survey, the majority could be considered small to mid-sized organizations:

  • 43% had one to five staff members.
  • Over half (63%) had budgets under $1,000,000.

The next State of Grantseeking survey will be conducted starting in August 2012.

Download the full State of Grantseeking Report.
Author: Dahna Goldstein
May 10, 2012, 11:36 AM

The State of Grantseeking - Fall 2011

State of Grantseeking Fall 2011
PhilanTech and GrantStation are pleased to announce the release of the State of Grantseeking Fall 2011 Report.

Grantseeking activities seem to be stagnating as nonprofits try to find new sources of funding to replace reduced government and other funds.  The 928 survey respondents indicated that while they were still actively searching for grant funds, the state of the economy and increased competition for fewer grant dollars presented challenges.

Other findings from the survey included:

  • A majority of organizations applied for more grants, but increased efforts only resulted in more grant funds for 26% of respondents;
  • The average size of grants decreased from the same period last year;
  • Economic and organizational conditions present the greatest challenges to nonprofits’ grantseeking efforts.  Researching and finding grants was cited as the greatest challenge by 31% of nonprofits, while competition for a reduced amount of funding dollars was the greatest challenge for 23% of nonprofits;
  • And yet 81% of nonprofits think their grant funding will be consistent or better in the next 6 months.

The survey was open from August 18, 2011 until October 2, 2011, and received 928 complete responses.  While nonprofit organizations of all sizes responded to the survey, the majority could be considered small to mid-sized organizations:

  • One third (33%) had one to five staff members; and,
  • Over half (60%) had budgets under $1,000,000.

The next State of Grantseeking survey will be conducted starting in January 2012.

Download the full State of Grantseeking Report.

Author: Dahna Goldstein
December 05, 2011, 11:00 AM

Hot Weather Grantseeking Lessons - Conserve Energy and Stay Cool



It’s 97 degrees in DC right now.  The heat index is over 100.  In addition to making me appreciate air conditioning and wish that I had a swimming pool, days like this make me think about how best to expend energy.  Doing anything outside causes me to think about the most efficient ways to accomplish what I need to accomplish.  At the risk of sounding lazy (I’ll blame it on being Canadian and generally disliking temperatures over 80 degrees), I think there are some good lessons for nonprofits seeking grants.

  • Conserve energy by doing homework first. Before writing a letter of inquiry or a full proposal to a foundation, do some homework.  Use the foundation's website, the Foundation Center, and/or GrantStation to find out about its programs, its grantmaking priorities, and what types of organizations and programs it has funded in the past.  If the foundation's priorities and grantmaking history don’t relate to your organization or program, submitting a proposal (even an LOI) is not going to be a good use of your energy.  There are other funders out there that may have more of an interest in what you do.  Find them before expending energy on low-likelihood grant pursuits.
  • Stay cool. When talking to a prospective funder, whether on the phone, in a written inquiry, or in a proposal, stay cool and present your case, ensuring that you're taking the foundation's perspective into account.  If things don't go the way you want them to (if the program officer tells you that your program doesn't fit the bill, or if your proposal is declined), stay cool and try another avenue.  Doing your research ahead of time, and focusing your energy on the prospective funders that are the best match for your organization or program will also help on this front.
What are your tips for conserving energy and staying cool in grantseeking?


Photo credit:

Author: Dahna Goldstein
June 09, 2011, 05:23 PM

The State of Grantseeking - Spring 2011


PhilanTech and GrantStation are pleased to announce the release of The State of Grantseeking Spring 2011 Report.

Between January 17 and March 2, PhilanTech and GrantStation conducted an online survey to take a snapshot of the state of grantseeking in the U.S.  The 867 respondents ranged from volunteer-run grassroots organizations to large national nonprofits.  

While grantseeking and related activities are on the rise, they have not increased enough to return to pre-recession levels.

The findings suggest, though, that grantseeking activities are starting to stabilize, with grantseekers submitting requests and receiving awards at rates similar to the same time period last year, marking an improvement from the last State of Grantseeking Report, in which nonprofits indicated that fewer requests had been funded than in the previous year.

Other findings from the survey included:

  • Mid-sized organizations relied the most on grant awards as a steady source of revenue;
  • Government grants make up the bulk of the funds awarded, but private funders continue to play a significant role.
  • Grant writing consumes an inordinate amount of staff time, with many organizations using word processing and spreadsheet programs for these often repetitive tasks.

Other recent studies suggest that foundation giving will increase in both 2011 and 2012.  The next State of Grantseeking survey, to be conducted in August 2011, will ask grantseekers about that trend and other patterns, challenges, and opportunities for grantseeking in the U.S.

Download the full State of Grantseeking Report.

Author: Dahna Goldstein
April 26, 2011, 01:37 PM

Challenging Four Prevailing Wisdoms in the Nonprofit Sector

sharing in the nonprofit sector

In yesterday’s post, The Recession and Transforming the Nonprofit Sector, I wrote about Dr. Paul Light’s webinar about emerging trends in the nonprofit sector and my major takeaway that we need to challenge prevailing wisdoms in the nonprofit sector in order to transform the sector and emerge from the financial crisis as a strong, viable whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Here are four prevailing wisdoms and modus operandi that we need to challenge:

Low overhead = good organization.  

Charity Navigator, to its credit, is working to revamp its rating system to focus on things other than administrative versus program expenses, but the effects of years of promoting low overhead as a performance metric have taken their toll on the nonprofit sector.  What can we do?  Nonprofits can work to educate their donors.  Step one: stop promoting your organization’s overhead ratio in your marketing materials.

Restricted grants are the best/only way to meet donor intent

Despite numerous calls from nonprofits, associations of nonprofits, and other groups, foundations continue to mostly give restricted grants rather than general/operating support.  I find this, honestly, baffling.  While foundations are restricted themselves by donor intent, I don’t think many donors’ intents were to make operating difficult for the organizations they wanted to support.  To follow up on the previous prevailing wisdom, there are necessary and beneficial overhead expenses in nonprofit organizations.  Particularly in times of economic distress, funding to keep the lights on, pay the fundraising staff, and cover the rent is absolutely essential to organizations’ ability to perform their missions. 

What can we do?  Foundations can continue to move towards providing more general/operating support.  And nonprofits can ask for it.  Frame needs not in terms of deficits, but opportunity – not, “we need general/operating support so that we don’t have to lay off a staff person,” but, “we need general/operating support so that we can continue to grow a strong organization that delivers the valuable services that your funding dollars generously support.”

Competition for funding dollars means we can’t share information

Yes, nonprofits compete for funding.  And the competition is tough.  Foundations, governments, and individual donors have limited funds, and, filled with good intent, can only give them to a limited number of organizations.  And information is valuable in the fundraising process.  What makes your organization’s programs successful might be the very thing that differentiates you enough to get the grant or the large donation.  But information hoarding comes at a cost to the sector and to the constituents we’re trying to serve.  Organizations that operate in similar fields or geographic areas, or work with the same set of constituents end up reinventing wheels.  Constantly.  Funders then fund similar programs that result in similar knowledge that could be shared with significantly magnified impact.  But the incentives don’t exist for organizations to share information about impact and outcomes – except when funders require it (and then, frequently, the funders don’t share). 

What can we do?  Funders can ask for information about outcomes, impact, what works, what doesn’t (see talking about failure below), with the explicit intent to share that information broadly with related organizations (both funders and those organizations delivering related services).  Funders can do that in a way that doesn’t require nonprofits to adhere to an arbitrary (or funder-determined) set of outcomes measures that doesn’t align with the organization’s own evaluation and tracking mechanisms, but rather one that encourages grantees to track information, learn from it, and share it.  Nonprofits can think a bit more broadly about what information, shared with other organizations (even competitors) would ultimately best serve their constituents.  In other words, if sharing information about what’s working and what isn’t in your programs would help your constituents (and help you better meet your mission), shouldn’t you do it?  What if other organizations also shared more information?  Wouldn’t the ability to learn from their experiences help you serve your constituents better (and help you better meet your mission)?  What little steps can you take to start sharing information that will contribute to a rising tide to lift all constituent and mission boats?  Of course, you shouldn’t share everything, but think about what information truly needs to be kept, and what can be shared.

Talking about failure will hurt your organization

There was an episode of Family Ties where Alex P. Keaton went to interview at Princeton University, his dream school.  When asked about what unique qualities he possessed, he responded, “At the risk of sounding immodest, you see before you a young man without a flaw…unless, of course, you find me immodest, in which I have one flaw” (watch the video, starting at 7:39).  While the nonprofit sector generally doesn’t resemble an 80s sitcom, there is a prevailing notion in the nonprofit sector that organizations must present themselves the way Alex did in the interview – that they must be perceived to be perfect or else risk losing funding opportunities.  Discussing failed programs and initiatives, according to the prevailing wisdom, risks losing future funding opportunities.  The fear is very real – many funders would rather hear about successes, and worry that continuing to invest in an organization that has failed to deliver a program risks throwing good money after bad. 

This is a very difficult notion to combat.  Some funders are starting to discuss failures (recently an notably, the Northwest Area Foundation), and need to encourage their grantees to do so as well – but need to make it clear to grantees that they will not be penalized.  This is a cultural shift that needs to happen for the betterment of the sector – foundations (and individual donors) need to encourage, even reward, sharing and openly discussing failures and need to make it abundantly clear to grantees that they will not be penalized for their openness and self-reflection.  And it needs to go a step further.  The benefit of discussing failures is the ability to learn from them – and to have others learn from them so that we, as a sector, can build on collective wisdom and generated knowledge to better serve our constituents and our missions.


What do you think?  What are the prevailing wisdoms that foundations and nonprofits need to challenge in order to transform the sector and shape a strong emergence from the recession?



Author: Dahna Goldstein
February 24, 2011, 02:00 PM

The Recession and Transforming the Nonprofit Sector

I just attended a webinar hosted by the Nonprofit Quarterly that featured Dr. Paul Light, NYU Wagner's Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service, about emerging trends in the nonprofit sector.

Dr. Light is well known in the sector for, among other things, his gloomy 2008 prediction that up to 100,000 nonprofits would close as a result of the economic downturn.  While the number of nonprofits that have gone under in the intervening years is difficult to quantify (nonprofits do not necessarily report to the IRS when they close their doors), Dr. Light indicated that numerous sources have cited closures and mergers in the nonprofit sector.  In addition, the IRS is likely to revoke 501(c)(3) status from between 50,000 and 100,000 nonprofits as a result of their failure to file required reports with the IRS.  At the same time, though, the IRS approved 60,000 new exempt organizations last year.

In his 2008 article entitled, "Four Futures," Dr. Light explored four possible paths the nonprofit sector might take as a result of the economic downturn:

  1. The rescue fantasy (an idealistic scenario where the nonprofit sector is "saved" by the kindness of strangers and giving remains at high levels)
  2. A withering winterland (in which every nonprofit feels the financial and resource pain of an economic downturn)
  3. An arbitrary winnowing (in which those organizations that have the most resources continue to have the most resources, and others falter, purely based on size, scale, marketing, etc., rather than the quality of services provided)
  4. Transformation (in which the sector sees the economic downturn as an opportunity to reinvent itself)

While the rescue fantasy clearly hasn't occurred (though Dr. Light noted that for a limited number of organizations, the economic stimulus package provided a version of this fantasy), it seems a combination of the other three have – and will likely continue.

The silver lining to an otherwise sobering scenario is that the nonprofit sector continues to have an opportunity to transform itself.  Dr. Light specifically mentioned alliances and advocacy as areas where we can take more control of our own fate than we have been: the nonprofit sector, when speaking with a unified voice, is a powerful institution.  We need to mobilize that voice to urge legislators at both federal and state levels not to continue cutting nonprofits' funding and delaying payments.  We need to challenge the prevailing wisdom that appears rampant among legislators that nonprofits will always be around, regardless of how aggressively their budgets are impacted by legislation and the economy.

nonprofit sector transformation

The notion of challenging prevailing wisdom really struck me.  The nonprofit sector still has a ways to go in emerging from the financial crisis in which we’ve found ourselves for the last several years, and I think there are several prevailing wisdoms within our own sector and modus operandi that we need to challenge.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post – Challenging Four Prevailing Wisdoms.



Author: Dahna Goldstein
February 23, 2011, 04:06 PM

Philanthropy Statistics – The New Normal

donations welcome

In the post-economic-collapse nonprofit world, nonprofit leaders and fundraisers are increasingly talking about “the new normal,” getting used to the fact that fundraising as we knew it pre-Lehman Brothers and pre-housing bubble burst is no longer our reality.

(Sean Stannard-Stockton, writing in the Chronicle of Philanthropy this week, traces the root of the term “the new normal” to Mohamed El-Erian in his book When Markets Collide.  Mr. El-Erian uses the term to describe the post-recession economy; others in our sector, including Bob Ottenhoff of GuideStar, have applied it specifically to the nonprofit sector.)

Numerous studies have shown that the economic recovery is slow, and economic recoveries in the nonprofit sector have historically lagged behind the economy as a whole.  Many other studies, including the State of Grantseeking 2010 (published by PhilanTech and GrantStation), have pointed to distressing numbers that continue to emerge relating to levels of giving and the difficulties nonprofits face securing enough resources to deliver critical programs.

The Chronicle this week indicated that, despite the much-lauded Giving Pledge, America’s wealthiest donors gave the smallest collective amount to charity that they have given since the Chronicle started tracking these large gifts in 2000.  (At $3.3B, it’s nothing to sneeze at, but still a decrease from years past.)

The Blackbaud Index of Charitable Giving, which analyzed giving information from 1,468 nonprofits, indicated that giving was up in 2010 over 2009 (for Sept – Nov), but only by 0.3 percent.

The Chronicle was more optimistic, indicating that 24% of charities in a recent survey said that year-end giving had increased by 20% or more over 2009 levels.  Within that optimistic report, however, another 28% of charities reported that giving had dropped over the prior year, and 10% noted that giving had remained flat.

I think there’s another factor to consider in the new normal: online giving.  While online giving remains a small percentage of individual donations to nonprofits, it is on the rise.  Network for Good’s Online Giving Index demonstrates some positive trends in online giving:

  • The value of donations through charity websites increased 13% over 2009.  An interesting and valuable note: donations through branded charity sites (i.e., sites that look like the nonprofit’s website rather than a generic donation page) increased 14% versus a 9% increase for a generic donation page;
  • In the height of giving season (just before the holidays), donations increased 18% over 2009;
  • While giving portals are increasing in popularity and use (e.g., about a quarter of the donations in December were through a charity portal), the average size of those donations was $155 versus an average $172 through a nonprofit’s website.

While the stats above are specific to Network for Good, individuals are giving through other online giving platforms as well.  For example, giving through grew 70% in 2010 to $30 million.

This (along with other studies) suggests to me that more online donations – though possibly at a lower average value – are becoming part of the new normal, and that nonprofits need to continue to cultivate multiple channels for donations, even as the economy continues to recover and nonprofits deal with smaller budgets than their pre-recession standings.

What do you think?  Is giving likely to return to pre-recession levels?  Is online giving becoming the new normal in charitable giving?


image credit:

Author: Dahna Goldstein
February 09, 2011, 11:17 AM

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