June 11, 2012

How to Get Grants in a Down Economy

Companies and foundations are seeking to transform how they work with charities, no longer simply writing checks to good causes, said philanthropy leaders at Friday's Fundraising Day in New York.

For example, Bank of America now seeks out organizations that help demonstrate it is a sound and caring business, said Andrew Plepler, the bank's head of global corporate social responsibility in a keynote speech.

Once the "the image of overpaid, irresponsible bankers unfairly treating foreclosure victims" spread across America, he said the company's leaders realized they had to focus grant making on strengthening the economy, responsible business practices, and other causes that the public cares about, such as feeding and housing the needy and curbing climate change.

For example, today it announced a 10-year $50-bilion effort to make its own operations environmentally friendly, plus set a goal to provide $100-million in grants, loans, and other aid to nonprofits that work to reduce carbon and take other steps to help the environment.

The bank's struggles with its image have also led it to reach out to grantees for advice, he said.

For example, he added, the bank might consult with the NAACP and other charities about ways it can promote fair lending practices. "It is the concept of a partnership as opposed to the funder-supplicant dynamic," he said.

In sessions throughout the day, business and foundation leaders offered suggestions on how to navigate the changes in grant making. Among them:

Recruit corporate employees as volunteers. Lina Klebanov, deputy director of corporate social responsibility at Marsh & McLennan, an insurance and consulting company, said companies like hers have made a priority of getting employees involved in work to improve their communities. For that reason, she said that she's more likely to channel money to charities that have attracted company workers as volunteers.

"Don't e-mail me on LinkedIn," Ms. Klebanov told fundraisers. "Have employees who volunteer with you approach me."

Prove that the charity can further the business's goals. Soon after Bluewolf, a cloud-computing company, started working with New York Needs You, a charity that helps young people who are the first in their families to go to college, it offered the company's chief executive access to business leaders who founded the group, including the chief of staff at Goldman Sachs.

Melissa Kinckle, director of corporate social responsibility at Bluewolf, said the charity has also been creative in showing corporate executives that their giving matters.

For example, at a workshop for college students in its program, New York Needs You organized a special luncheon so Bluewolf's leaders could meet the students.

"Invite corporate partners to special events and show them what their gifts have done," advised Ms. Kinckle.

Don't just go after money. Corporate- and private-foundation officials say they want to be asked for help that goes beyond money. "We don't want to be viewed as dollar signs," Ms. Klebanov said. "We like to be thought of as thought leaders."

"Think of foundations as bundles of resources, not just dollars" advised Phillip Henderson, president of the Surdna Foundation, a private fund that distributes $35-million in grants annually. "We have other resources," he said, including loan and access to experts and influence with other grant makers.

"You think you are seeking a grant, but what you really want is 'grants plus,' " said Mr. Henderson. "You want the foundation to be so excited that they tell their friends at other foundations."

Send an e-mail to Holly Hall.