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from The NonProfit Times, April 15, 2001

Informal Venture Forums Bring Funders to Nonprofits
By Tom Pope

Everyone would like to speed up the rigors of the grant process. In San Francisco, the grassroots organization Women in Action capitalized on a new way of attracting funders.

The group participated in a forum, sponsored by Craigslist, a San Francisco-based community organization, that was filled with venture philanthropists seeking to find great causes for their money. As a direct result of the face-to-face meeting, the nonprofit received around $16,000 from two funders.

"I was able to meet with 60 people at once and engage them in my group's cause," said Karen Nemsick, director of Women in Action. "The hardest part of describing your organization is narrowing down the scope to show the most important aspect without the fluff."

The forum works to help nonprofits refine their approaches more effectively. Craigslist has conducted four forums, three in the San Francisco Bay Area and one in Boston, since last May. Of the 24 presenting nonprofits, 14 have obtained funds totaling $196,950. Some $65,000 in grants is still pending, along with numerous offers for probono aid.

"We're a third party in the process, more of a platform for getting people together," said Jane Leu, co-founder of the Nonprofit Venture Forum for Craigslist.

The forum invites venture philanthropists, including many individual donors, family foundations and corporate people, who are interested in doing more hands-on philanthropy with a partnership in mind.

Despite being in existence less than two years, Women in Action attracted the Three Guineas Fund and the Tara Fund for grants and received offers of assistance to cultivate board members.

The forum also gave Nemsick a chance to network so that she found other opportunities to submit proposals. One corporate writer in the audience even offered to do probono work.

Nemsick stimulated the audience with her drive to explain how her group helped women once on welfare to develop work skills. Her group uses outdoor learning activities to empower women to succeed through hiking and kayaking, challenges that push them to go a step further than expected.

The forum process gives nonprofits 10 minutes to present the picture of the organization, followed by a brief question-and-answer period. The goal is to help the nonprofit refine the mission and presentation strategy.

"The forum is an opportunity to get feedback," she said.

Nemsick gave a basic introduction that showed her background, which was followed by the mission of the program and some examples of success. She broke the timing down to almost two-minute segments. Nemsick advised others to cover the basics evenly without spending more time on one area than another.

"The crucial item for success is to show a passion for the work," she said. "That comes off as being more real than simply using a PowerPoint presentation of a business plan."

Nemsick carried off the important task of showing an outcome to the potential funders. She used quotes of a woman who was helped by the program. She showed a woman in a kayak who initially was afraid of simply entering the boat. That woman came away learning she could conquer something new.

Some nonprofits filled slide presentations with too many numbers, according to Nemsick. "You can read that in the proposal you send," she said. "People who come to the forum are interested in seeing the passion and conviction in the person they will fund."

The aspect of speaking to a handful of people in one place makes grant seeking easier to Nemsick. She spoke to around 15 people regarding possible future funding and called a few people who indicated they were not presently in the process of funding but remained available for brainstorming.

"It's nice to have contacts to share ideas," she said. "It's a more personal way of having contact with people."

While Nemsick asked for $100,000, which represented her entire budget, she indicated the value of the $16,000 she received was bolstered by the probono work of developing the board.

"A woman guided me on how to put a board together and what to look for in the type of person most likely to be interested," she said. "We had 12 candidates come over, and the woman helped point out the various strengths needed."

Several factors stand out with the 14 successful nonprofits in the grant-seeking effort. The venture philanthropists were seeking specific social change organizations. Winning proposals demonstrated some attempt at getting to root causes.

Also, some degree of innovation stands out in the minds of potential funders. They look for organizations to be responsive to the need of a community. Funders want to focus on one really sharp example of what the organization does.

"They are looking for results," Leu said. "They want people to show what they intend to accomplish."

To get to the forum, Nemsick filled out an online application that gave information similar to an executive summary. The details included the group's needs, proposed solutions, key advantages, track record, planning for the future and funding sources.

To be selected for the forum, the organization also has to have a budget less than $2 million. Ten such organizations are elected for a tryout, after which six are invited to give presentations.

Leu coached the presenters prior to the forum, so they fine-tuned the approach. She told them to lead off with the ask but pointed out that many nonprofits find an up-front ask hard to pull off. Most have not been in that position before, according to Leu.

A strong ask should be linked to milestones of reaching A, B or C. The ask should also include seeking expertise, equipment and legal guidance that could come as probono assistance.

"People are interested in numbers that show outcomes or improvements," she said. "Show how the income moves the group closer to a sustainability so the organization can avoid coming back each year for additional funds."

The presentation is not the time to get into the nitty gritty details about the business plan or the history of the organization. These longer conversations come after the forums. "Questions most often asked are about the competition or similar types of programs because funders want to find out how your model differs," she said.

Cassie Scott, project director for the Verde Partnership Community Gardens in North Richmond, Calif., handled her questions despite never before speaking in front of a group. Yet, her passion for the garden came across. She pitched her ask in green jeans and a garden tee shirt that showed a child's piece of artwork with a flower and butterfly.

"I wanted enough money to double the garden time for school children from 100 to 200 hours," she said. "We wanted the funds also for a long-term effort to work with a greenhouse operation next to us."

"Scott's program was found to be different enough from other such gardens because the garden was appreciated by immigrant residents. The area's ethnic Laotian hilltribe people of mien and Khmu maintain a gardening heritage.

"When they came here they brought their hoes with them," Scott said. "As they pass the garden, they applaud the effort and sometimes mention that a tomato plan could use more water."

The presentation of helping the community struck a chord with the Cloudview Foundation in Marin county, which decided to fund the organization.

If it sounds as though a certain charisma helps win over funders, it's true, according to David Dower, artistic director for the Z Space Studio in San Francisco. "If you're not passionate about what you're talking about, then you're not going to be successful," he said. "It's one reason we decided to host rehearsals to prepare for the ask so people could be confident."

Z Space acts as a theater development lab that provides services to individual artists and small theater companies. Dower credited the forum for helping him with four proposals adding up to $37,000. "The value of the forum is that we now have more than an ongoing dialogue with funders," he said. "These people didn't know about us before the presentation."

Think differently about your organization from the usual grant application, Dower said. "You have to think from a business perspective to discuss the types of outcomes from the dollars you request," he said. "Those dollars are seen as an investment because the funder wants some social return."

Dower stressed that the tone should focus on where the nonprofit is heading. Start with one sentence about the mission when talking to potential funders. Make it broad and punchy, he suggested.

"We're in the transition from a start-up to a cultural cornerstone and the investment would help us with a long-term sustainability," he said.

Stay away from the tone that, "our organization has done a good job - support us for the future," he warned. Avoid the use of tech-based equipment that you haven't had a chance to operate in a rehearsal.

"Usually we tend to stumble over the money issues or run out of time to fully develop the ask by waiting until the last minute," Dower said. "Also we tend to limit our ask to money when the audience could also donate valuable skills."

Look at the meeting as a steppingstone. The follow-up is crucial. "It's how you use the performance to leverage the next meeting," he said. "You need an immediate follow-up. You want to use the opportunity to build the relationship."

Craigslist's dress rehearsal with a drama coach goes over basics that include body language. Pause after making an important point or giving your name, is one example. Speak to a question by stepping up in the direction of the person rather than stepping back. This gives the feeling of confidence.

Engage the audience. Nemsick asked her audience, "How many of you are involved with outdoor experiences?" That brought a positive reaction, she said. "People could understand what the women were going through."

The forum process is only an alternative method for some grassroots groups to meet venture philanthropy, according to Leu.

"The forum gives more visibility to nonprofits and it would be good for other platforms to rise up and offer such opportunities," she said.

However, there's a lot of enthusiasm to change the ways of the funding process, according to Nemsick. "I don't think that foundations like Rockefeller and Ford will change, but here in Silicon Valley there is the desire by funders to get more involved."