By Rachel Mosher-Williams
How planning for transformational change can galvanize funding as well as impact
Benefits Data Trust (BDT) is a national nonprofit committed to transforming how individuals in need access public benefit programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, in order to avoid falling into poverty. By increasing the number of its funders, as well as partners who bring funding to the table, BDT has more than doubled its annual revenue – from $5 million to $11 million – in the past four years. Higher Achievement‘s after-school and summer academic program closes the opportunity gap for middle school youth in at-risk communities. In 2015, the organization won a prestigious $12 million Department of Education Investing in Innovation (i3) grant to expand its national presence, and has diversified other revenue sources by focusing on sharing best practices in the field.
Both organizations credit their growth – financial and programmatic – to their decision to focus first on how to achieve transformational change on the problems they seek to solve, and then leveraging that vision to raise funds, rather than the other way around. At Community Wealth Partners, we believe that developing a bold goal aimed at creating lasting, community-level impact and the strategies to achieve that goal, helps organizations articulate the specific value proposition of their work. This value statement can in turn help attract new funding and create new revenue models for long-term sustainability.
As Ginger Zielinskie, BDT president, explains: “In order to attract high-impact philanthropy, your goals, mission, and messages must evolve and become transformational. You must map out that transformation and methodically and incrementally deliver on those goals.”
How did “thinking big” help these organizations develop bigger and better funding strategies? Higher Achievement’s bold goal is, “By 2030, all students in Higher Achievement cities will graduate from high school, ready for college.” While being awarded the i3 grant was possible in part because randomized control trials showed their program worked, the tipping point was Higher Achievement’s identification – through the bold goal process – of schools as a delivery partner. “Before identifying our goal, vision, and outcomes, we wouldn’t have been able to make the case for the Department of Education’s investment in scaling Higher Achievement’s school-based model,” CEO Lynsey Wood Jeffries reports. Higher Achievement found an additional source of sustainable revenue in participating schools’ required contribution to program expenses. Currently at about $150,000 per year, school funding is not Higher Achievement’s largest source of funding, but it “is a signal of the deeper partnerships that grow as we add more schools,” says Jeffries.
In 2012, BDT selected as its bold goal, “By 2025, accessing benefits will be simple, comprehensive, and cost effective.” The goal helped the nonprofit think more creatively and expansively about its service provision, better understand its target “customers,” and ultimately better articulate the impact that funders sought to achieve in partnering with them. “We continually ask ourselves ‘who cares and who wins?’ Solidifying the value that we create helped us garner investment from diverse funders who seek the same outcomes we do.”
Their advice for nonprofits seeking new revenue models? Zielinskie recommends always being honest about the value of your work to diverse stakeholders and staying committed to quality and results.
“Marrying the ability to think big with the ability to consistently deliver high-quality results allows us to attract and sustain important funding relationships.”
Jeffries suggests that nonprofits can have more power in their relationship with funders by having a clear and measurable bold goal. “It’s easier to say ‘no’ to potential funding opportunities that might take you off-strategy if you’ve been clear all along about the strategies you’re using and the important outcomes they’re producing.”
Recently, BDT has secured investment to conduct outcomes-based research with four prestigious academic institutions. Higher Achievement has been able to attract new funders and partners who are just as critical to the growth of the organization and its impact.
“Strategy helps everyone sing from same songbook,” says Jeffries, “and repeating our bold goal with investors has not only helped us grow financially but has helped us make a bigger difference for our scholars and schools.”
Rachel Mosher-Williams is Director of Learning and Impact at Community Wealth Partners.