I was pretty sure I was being pranked when I got the call.
“Do you guys do grants?”
No preamble. No Hello my name is such-and-such and I work with so-and-so. Nothing.
I answered in the affirmative. Yes, we work with organizations that need grant writing services.
“Do you charge for that? How much?”
I resisted the urge to respond with my best Dr. Evil impression: That would be one MILLION dollars.
The guy on the other end of the line wouldn’t be able to see my inverted pinkie pointing at the corner of my mouth, and might not get it. Instead, I told him I could put together a bid if I had a little more information. I asked him what organization he was with.
“I’m just with myself.”
Okay, then for what organization was he interested in raising money? What nonprofit?
“Well, I guess you could say I’m nonprofit.”
Turns out, the caller wanted to buy property for a salvage and wrecking yard, which he said would employ veterans and disabled people.
By this time, I realized I wasn’t being pranked. I was grateful I hadn’t pulled my Dr. Evil impression. That would have been awkward.
I talked to the guy briefly about what an actual IRS nonprofit designation meant, and directed him to where he could get information to help develop his idea, including setting up a bonafide nonprofit organization if that ended up the preferred route. Securing funding, through grants or any other resources, was not his first step.
This was not the first time I’ve had to explain this. Or even second. But, there are people who hear about what I do for a living and – bam – that’s where the conversation goes. They have some great project they’ve been noodling for a while. Do I think it could be attractive to donors?
And I run across people all the time who don’t realize the term “nonprofit” doesn’t necessarily just mean “I don’t make any money,” and that grants are not magical pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. For the later misconception, I blame those 1970s-era Consumer Information Center PSAs with the brochure from Pueblo, Colorado. Some of us apparently had too many commercials with our Saturday morning cartoons.
Sometimes I get queries like this from folks who really should know better. But an idea pops up that, no matter how vague, is just so exciting, they must act now, taking it to potential supporters while the iron is hot. They haven’t any schematics, no illustrations, no budget, no projections. They haven’t looked into whether the community need they’re addressing is being met in any other way, or even how pronounced that need may be.
They just know they’re excited by the project. Therefore, others will be too. Right?
You know the answer to this: Not necessarily. Fundraising is not the next step after the GREAT IDEA bubbles to the surface. Just like investors want a business plan and reasonable assurances they’re not pouring money down a black hole by backing a new venture, donors want to know you’ve done your homework. Where investors want to know that their contribution will yield payback some day, so too do donors (even though that yield doesn’t return to them directly, but benefits to the community).
Before you ask: will this project inspire people to give? There are other questions that come first:
- Is this project needed? By whom? How badly? How do we know?
- Is anyone else trying to solve this problem? Are we duplicating efforts? Providing an alternative solution? Filling a gap? Or coming up with something revolutionary?
- What kind of a difference will we be able to make and by when?
- What kinds of qualifications do we have to do this work? What kind of track record? What’s our reputation in the community?
- How much will this cost? Will these costs be ongoing? What resources are we willing to put up ourselves? How will we support the project long-term?
If the answer to any of these is we don’t know, or we’re not sure, it’s not time to ask for money. It’s time to find answers.
And then go find your millions.
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