The SDGs, Dobby and the Deathly Hallows

23 Sep

Just two days to go for the Quidditch World Cup 2015, oops, er.. the UN meeting in New York to announce the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the successor to the Millennium Development Goals. The SDGs have been accused of being bloated, some of them impossible to measure, and my favourite, “higgledy-piggledy.” The SDGs number 17, and have 169 associated targets. Did they just pull all that out of the Sorting Hat, was my first reaction. A grant-seeker’s nightmare, was my second.

First and second instincts apart, global goals do have their pluses. For one, as The Economist article points out, it has the whole world looking in the same direction, allowing for focused investment and deeper impact. Think of all three houses coming together to fight Voldemort (T silent). Measurability brings with it greater transparency, and boosts confidence that investments will bring rewards, thereby attracting corporates and wealthy philanthropists. And sure, technology (the modern-day equivalent of tessomancy, or reading tea leaves) makes it possible to accurately assess both the extent of the problem and the effectiveness of the solution.

But there are pitfalls. And the pitfalls lie not with the SDGs, but the grants that will follow them.

None of the following is an original argument – it has been made countless times by advocates of local resource mobilisation, also known as the Order of the Phoenix. But since we are on the threshold of a new global order led by wise and powerful witches and wizards, it’s worthwhile to repeat them. (Those who don’t learn from history… and all that.)

The emphasis on making every knut count implies that even more of the money is earmarked for actuals on the ground – syringes, life-saving drugs, food… This puts pressure on the money that’s available for human resources. Not among the large primary recipients of grants, but among the recipient organisations at the end of the line. No, not Dobby. The grassroots non-profit (the jargon we in the sector like to use is CBO – community-based organisation) that is granted a “project” to run, does so with minimal staff (and house elves) just about qualified to implement task ‘x.’

In an ideal world, a CBO would have its own larger vision of what it must do to benefit the community it serves. It would then raise funds from local and other sources to do what it must do. But seldom is that the case. Most small organisations have their eyes fixed on the project – and the project alone. Suddenly, usually at the time when the grant is coming to an end, they are exhorted to diversify income sources, find the Philosopher’s Stone of Sustainability and basically produce a fourth name out of the Triwizard Cup.

Would they have done things differently if they’d been told that one day the grant would come to end? That’s a bit like saying would Harry Potter have done things differently had he known “neither can live while the other survives”?

Usually, once the grant ends, once the success of the programme leads to its logical close, priorities shift. The CBO either scrambles for existence, closes down or what’s most common, waits for the next project.

And here’s where grant-makers can learn from The Deathly Hallows, and do things differently this time around.

For those not tuned into Potterwatch (oh, but you’ve stopped reading a long while ago), a quick and dirty guide to the Deathly Hallows. To defeat death, a wizard has to be master of three magical objects known as the Deathly Hallows, comprising the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone and the Invisibility Cloak.

Here’s our version of the Hallows for grant-making.

  • The Elder Wand: Build a strong core. In other words, strengthen the organisation by helping build a strong core team, a powerful vision and solid systems.
  • The Resurrection Stone: Strengthen communication, to bring back to life forgotten, dead or non-existent supporters.
  • The Invisibility Cloak: Wear the cloak of invisibility. Enable the organisation to have such a diversified portfolio of supporters that your project is but a small part of the whole.

For more tips on how not to be a Muggle with grant-making, see

Let the fun and games begin, at the World Quidditch Cup 2015, in New York!

Grant, not grunt

24 Aug

Vu’s post in Nonprofit with Balls this Monday, “Funders, your grant application process may be perpetuating inequity,” couldn’t have been more well-timed. (Link to the post at the end of this one.)

Over the past few weeks, we have been working with community-based and led organisations working with men who have sex with men and transgender people. Most of these organisations have just been registered or are in the process of doing so. Most are in desperate need of resources to meet the immediate challenges of the community. The annual amounts to be raised are comparable to the monthly spend on biscuits in the nutritional programme of a large non-profit. The organisations are staffed by well-meaning and committed community members who are – and rightly so – focused on getting their programme off the ground. They have some way to go before they move from the road of “we’ll do what we get funds for” to “how do we get the money to do what the community’s needs.”

The story of these CBOs is no different from those we’ve seen hundreds of times in the past 15 years that we’ve been doing this.

Small organisations aim for the mirage-like oasis of self-sustainability, which is an intrinsically noble goal. But the quest often means that such small CBOs have to somehow transform into expert grant writers and makers of spiffy presentations that wow high net worth and corporate audiences. The other option is to raise resources by building avenues for generating income, in other words, by setting up business ventures. But this too requires business development skills if returns are to justify investment. And that’s something that again, most CBOs don’t have.

Grant-makers could make this quest just a bit easier – and infinitely more meaningful, especially for small community-led CBOs – by doing these four things.

  1. Go for function, not form. Typically, at the workshops we conduct, we drill into participants the basics of good communication – often running the risk of oversimplification. We’re happy if participants leave having understood just one thing well – how to tell a good story or how to talk about your achievements, rather than activities. But come Monday morning, as they fill out the next 14-page format to please the grant-maker, all the understanding comes undone.

Grant-makers, review your reporting requirements and ask for stories or for achievements – things that the CBO can actually use in their next presentation or elevator speech. The skills they develop in writing and sending you a good story of change are skills they can use with other donors, including individuals and corporates. This would be a much better way to build the capacity of the CBO for real.

  1. Help them through the language barrier. We find that once they learn the basic elements of good communication, most CBOs can write strong concept notes in their local language. But the ordeal of expressing themselves in English wrings out any poetry or power that the story might hold.

Grant-makers, either evaluate concept notes in the local language (you can afford to hire someone to do the job) – or fund the cost of a skilled communicator who can recast it into English BEFORE you make the grant. Including the cost of these skills in the grant budget, if it’s offered at all, doesn’t help.

  1. Don’t bury them with bureaucracy. It looks like monitoring and evaluation will soon be elevated to the status of a legit science (just kidding; fingers crossed). While the principle of monitoring indicators of success is fine, it makes drudgery of work. Recording attendance sheets in triplicate, before and after psych evaluations, auto-rickshaw bills and Instagram photos of every meal consumed (okay, I’m exaggerating now, maybe not the Instagram food shots) turns up the heat on an already wilting-under-the-pressure CBO.

Grant-makers, dump the excessive paperwork. If your donor asks for it, then please educate your donor.

  1. Pay for staff, not elves. The task of raising resources involves submitting proposals, concept notes, presentations, budgets and sundry attachments, all to be done by the already overworked and extremely underpaid CBO staff who are not qualified to do all of this in the first place. The desire of grant-makers to keep management budgets low means that very soon, all non-profits will be staffed by elves who creep in at night and do the work of men and women.

Grant-makers, provide core funding to hire skilled staff or paid volunteers who will actually show up. And this might sound like an unabashed plug – but pay for consultants who will actually implement, and not just give advice.

And here’s the inspiration for this post – Vu’s post: Funders, your grant application process may be perpetuating inequity

Look up now: Your donor is leaving!

20 Jan

161142__icebop_lYour donor is walking out of the door. And you’re so busy turning cartwheels for a potential donor that you don’t even notice.

In the absence of donor attrition studies in India (if anyone is doing them, I’d love to hear all about it), here are some findings from the 2013 Fundraising Effectiveness Survey conducted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and The Urban Institute in the US:

  1. Every $100 gained in 2012 was offset by $96 in losses due to donation attrition.
    This means that for every Rs 100 raised, not-for-profits lost Rs 96 because of a drop in other donations. In other words, you think you have Rs 196 in the pot, but you have only Rs 4!
  2. Every 100 donors gained in 2012 was offset by 105 in lost donors through attrition.
    This is even more shocking. For every 100 new donors recruited, 105 donors were lost because they just stopped giving.

Last week we talked about how donor retention had finally jumped ahead of acquisition as a priority for not-for-profits. This is in the US. At home, it’s business as usual.

While not-for-profits are willing to earmark budgets for donor acquisition, very few see donor retention as a priority. It’s time to wake up to the stampede of the departing donors’ feet.

Plan for donor retention, the very minute that you make plans to acquire the donor, and not long after the donor has been acquired.

Finally! Retaining donors comes first

9 Jan

Donor retention jumps ahead of acquisition as a priority for non-profits, according to the just-released Nonprofit Communications Report 2015. The report, which surveyed more than 1,500 non-profits primarily in the US (a few in Canada and fewer still in the rest of the world) is indicative that non-profits are finally heading in the right direction.

I’m kicked about this enough to consider printing out a placard and carrying it with me on meetings to non-profits in India. Many of the NGOs we talk to see acquisition as the main basket for investment – and communication to retain donors as a soft – and secondary – option. Sure, you need to have donors in the first place to retain them, but I’ve also seen scores of examples of donors coming when you spread the word – and ask. I’d therefore argue that both need to be done simultaneously. The truly visionary ones are those that build their brand, communicate consistently, and ask clearly – till the donors come – and the donors do come.

Going back to the report, the top priorities of the non-profits surveyed were as follows;

  1. Engaging community
  2. Retaining current donors
  3. General brand awareness
  4. Acquiring new donors, and
  5. Thought leadership.

The top four communications channels that non-profits most preferred are website, email marketing, traditional social media and in-person events, in that order. The top three social media sites turned out to be Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Interestingly, the report shows the differences in priorities in the same non-profit between the communications director and the development director. To know what these areas of conflict were, get your copy of the report at

What is your donor’s creative impulse directed towards? And how does that affect your fundraising?

22 Aug

Most human beings think of themselves as being creative. Paul Arden’s book, “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be” takes a look at a human life’s creative cycle through this diagram.


Let’s take a look at the years from the age of 15, right up to wherever you’d like to. Imagine your donor as a person situated somewhere on this circle of life. Which stage of life is she in? What is his creative impulse directed towards? Is she consumed by a need to change the world, in the throes of political awareness, hell bent on success or in a state of reinventing herself?

And then, take a look at the piece of communication that you’ve just put together for this donor. Does it speak to that impulse?

Are you thinking about bringing out a generic brochure? A word of advice: Don’t!

21 Aug

It hard, it’s cruel, but the No. 1 destination of most generic brochures is – I’ll say it out loud – the dustbin.

A generic brochure – also called an information brochure – is usually an A4/A5 sized brochure spilling over with information and stamp-sized photos. These are handed out by the armsful at conferences and workshops, and they are left behind – except by the most inveterate brochure collector – in the hotel room. (They’d have left it behind at the breakfast table, except that you had your beady eye on them!)

And that’s because it’s a generic brochure.

The dictionary defines generic as thus:

generic /dʒɪˈnɛrɪk/

adjective: characteristic of or relating to a class or group of things; not specific.

The noun is even more damning: a consumer product having no brand name or registered trademark (as in generic drugs).

Oops – did you see what just happened? The brochure, that very thing that you thought would sear your brand into the minds and hearts of people – could end up doing the very opposite.

You could have your logo on it in the biggest size possible, but it will still be unread and unloved.

And that’s because we sent it out into the world without an audience, a purpose, a message or an ask.


How to solve the problem of generic brochures

  1. Every brochure must have an audience in mind.

Who is the brochure for? And it has to be specific – individual donors who give up to Rs 5,000, large donors who give upwards of Rs 25,000, companies, and so on. It cannot be “the public at large.” If we wanted to address the public at large, we would call a rally and not print a brochure.

The target audience of the brochure determines the case for support that you make. It dictates the kind of language you use. And it determines the ask you make.

  1. Every brochure must have a purpose and message.

Why are you producing this brochure? What is your main message? And how will it be used?

You could say something like,

“The purpose of this brochure is to attract the attention of the 15 donors who fund reproductive health and rights, among the 100 who will be at the conference.

I want to let them know that we have pioneered an innovative way of engaging local religious leaders in family planning. I plan to talk to each of them face to face for five minutes, and leave this brochure behind as a reminder of the key points of our conversation.”

Ah-ha! Here’s a clue to planning the content of your brochure.

Instead of looking at it as the definitive A-Z guide to everything that you do, look at the brochure as a reminder to the reader of key points. And if that grabs their attention, they will go to your website for more information – or better still – call you!

The more well defined your target audience segment is, the more effective your brochure will be.

  1. Every brochure must tell the reader what to do.

So now that the reader has read your beautifully designed brochure with just the right amount of content, what do you want her to do? “Hmm. Nice” is not an acceptable answer. That’s the equivalent of “Whatever!” with the accompanying shoulder shrug.

You want the reader to do something for you, while they are basking in the afterglow of your awesome brochure. Something like:

  • Like our page on Facebook
  • Visit our website and check out this campaign
  • Fill in this response coupon and write out a cheque
  • Call the office to volunteer or drop of school supplies

A lot of small not-for-profit organisations might say, “We don’t have the money to produce different brochures for different audiences.” Then produce just one, for your most important target segment. For the others, use your annual report!

I remember years ago, Tribal Health Initiative in Sittilingi using copies of an article on them that appeared in The Reader’s Digest as a brochure for the longest time.

Tell us about the challenges you face when bringing out your brochure. Till tomorrow, then.

A cold, hard look at the Ice Bucket Challenge #icebucketchallenge

20 Aug

Two weeks ago, I hadn’t heard of the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Three days ago, I stared goggle-eyed at the tweets piling up on #icebucketchallenge.

Two days ago, YouTube went crazy with vids of famous people dunking buckets of ice water on themselves.

Yesterday, I watched every single one of them.

Well, almost. Awww, wasn’t Bill Gates the best? Wasn’t Tim Cook’s the most boring IBC (ice bucket challenge for the uninitiated)? WTF was Melinda Gates thinking, wearing that top hat from Toyland? And Satya Nadella, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Conan O’Brien, Sania Mirza… how sporting of them! Not to mention the scores of lonely hopefuls who dunked themselves in their living rooms, shot it on a shaky handycam balanced on the TV, set to the sound of canned applause (they must have had to do the cleaning up afterwards, unlike Nadella, Bezos and the others).

This morning, as I crawled into work suffering the chilly after-effects of my IBC Youtubathon, sense returned. I asked some questions. Was the IBC a brilliant campaign that would forever change the face of ALS research and care? Or was it a one-trick-pony that would go the way of #nomakeupselfie and others?

But first, what is it?

The Ice Bucket Challenge is a fundraiser to raise money for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease in the US). Most people are unlikely to know the full form, but most do know that Stephen Hawking has lived with it for most of his life.

What the Ice Bucket Challenge has done is capture the public imagination, catapult ALS from being an unknown (and unpronounceable) disease to one that’s widely recognised (the acronym, not the full form) – at least among netheads. And it has raised tons of money.

There are some professional doubters quibbling about the punctuation, of course.

Their No. 1 quibble is:

The IBC is not really raising awareness on ALS – people are doing it as a fad, and will forget all about it when it dies down. It’s a fake campaign.

Sure, Thomas, but the money is very real. And that will support research into this disease that has a life expectancy of two to five years, and ensure better care for people living with ALS.

While numbers are mounting day to day, an August 19 report said that the IBC has raised more than $15 million since three weeks ago, when Pete Frales, former Boston College baseball captain who has ALS, posted the challenge video. 

In the same period last year, the charity raised $1.8 million.

Go figure.

Quibble No. 2:

It thrives on peer pressure.

Peer pressure. One of the first lessons we learn in fundraising class. Tell us fundraising folks something new.

Quibble No. 3:

It feeds the narcissistic side of people.

Hmmm. If people are doing something to raise money for a cause, why deny them their moment in the sun (or in ice water, in this case)? Be generous with giving donors the credit and the glory. And take a deep breath.

I do have some worries, though.

One, the Ice Bucket Challenge is raising more money than ever before raised in a campaign by the ALS association and related charities, but is it enough? Research into life-threatening diseases needs a bottomless bucket. I hope all these $100 donations (except the likes of Charlie Sheen who gave $10,000) add up to enough and more money to support path-breaking research on ALS.

Two, I hope the recipient charities are holding emergency meetings and staying up late at night inking their donor relationship and communication plans.

That’s the only way to make sure that long after all this ice has melted, there will still be a steady trickle coming in.

%d bloggers like this: