From the Field Toolbox: How to Work Successfully With Funders in Youth Work Programming

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While it might not be productive to try to rank youth employment stakeholders by their importance, there’s no doubt that funders are essential, if not critical, to the success of any youth employment venture. But working effectively with them, unlike some other stakeholders, is a skill area that leaves little room for error.

We talk of funding partnerships: Just like a sound marriage, this means not just cooperation for mutual benefit but accepting the good along with the not-so-good. This starts with perception, followed by a shift in attitude, leading to a new commitment, culminating in a strong execution. Taking a value-neutral attitude with funders corrects the take-it-or-leave-it perception we may have of many grant makers. In reality, funders not only help keep the lights on, but perhaps surprisingly, they can actually keep program management honest, mission-focused and results-oriented.

Success in real estate is said to be all about “location, location, location.” Success in youth employment fund-raising could be said to be all about “outcomes, outcomes, outcomes.” Gone are the days when grant-makers would lavish money on programs with warm touchy-feely descriptors, fuzzy rationales and vague results. Gone too are attempts to prove a negative, in which programs claim that they prevented negative circumstance, had their services not been available.

Today, those controlling the purse-strings want hard evidence to support any claims of success. This is more than collecting rudimentary statistics. There must be a clear and convincing demonstration of positive change. It is no longer acceptable to state that “services were provided.” Now we need to show how these services resulted in specific outcomes for youth.

In other words, how did the input of resources result in measureable changes over time? Demonstrate this effectively and the work of writing an application to an RFP (request for proposals) or grant is more than half done.

Change occurs in one or a combination of three domains; affective (emotional), cognitive (mental) and/or behavioral (performance). However, results alone are not enough. There must be a baseline from which to measure progress from beginning to end. Without a well-defined beginning point, there can be no meaningful ending. This, in turn, requires a test or assessment to determine what the current collective status is for the population being served, expressed in quantitative (mathematical) data.

There is a place for qualitative data, but this is less persuasive in our “show-me-the-money” world. Assessments can be observational (poor), self-reporting (better) or performance-based (best). The more objective the assessment (and hopefully free from unintended bias), the more likely a grant will be approved.

Converting raw data into percentages is essential to getting the message across, so do the math for them. Use both internal data and external studies/reports in making the case for funding. Some grant-makers ask grantees to take this a step further and calculate the cost-per-person as part of a general cost-to-benefit analysis.

In short, this means how much gain was achieved for the money invested. This may sound cold, but it’s not an altogether unreasonable requirement. We need to understand that funders are charged with the responsible stewardship of the funds they raise and distribute. Proving that limited resources were used to address the greatest needs, by the most effective and efficient means, is the mantra by which most funders live or die; accept or reject grant requests.

If it might be said that there are no perfect youth employment programs, then the same is probably true for funders. However, even personal influence can’t match the clout of money. So grantors have the upper hand when it comes to setting terms and conditions.

However, this inequity can be offset in a number of strategic ways. First, as mentioned above, gather the measurable data and translate that into comprehensible outcomes. Next, develop a strong communications network with the other stakeholders. Use electronic media, bulletin blasts, annual reports, public events and word-of-mouth to keep stakeholder attention focused on the program. Third, develop personal relationships with civic leaders and persons-of-influence in the community.

Remember: Out of sight is out of mind, and out of mind means out of money. This especially applies to political representatives, who vote on governmental budget allocations. Lastly, set up an internal review system whereby established policies, procedures and performance outcomes are evaluated in light of current needs and requirements. If it works, keep it. If not, modify it or throw it out altogether. This keeps programming relevant, flexible, beneficial and more prepared for the next paradigm shift in youth employment funding. Relying too heavily on a reputation earned from past success is a formula for complacency, inefficiency and ultimate extinction.

Over the past decade several trends have emerged that have proven challenging to nonprofits both large and small. Knowing how to accommodate these changes in the way funders decide who, how and how much can save wasted time and frustration with the grant-writing process.

As private and taxpayer funding has declined, many grant-makers have tried to stretch their dwindling dollars by expanding the scope of their service requirements. In some cases, these conditions are reasonable and can be accommodated within a flexible program. However, other grants may ask too much for too little. It’s never wise to chase the money if doing so results in ballooning overhead and mediocre outcomes. Try to stay mission-focused. Just because a requirement is written into an RFP doesn’t mean it’s well-founded or appropriate for every program.

Many grant-making organizations are overseen by business people coming from a for-profit background. While this isn’t an automatic disqualification when working with nonprofits, there are factors that can get “lost in translation.” Grantees need to help funders understand that the competitive marketplace is not always the best solution, nor the most responsive. Identifying where market solutions (if they exist) have been tried (or at least researched) and failed, can be persuasive.

Another trend in grant making has been to decline coverage for administrative costs. Do they think that programs just run themselves? Of course no one wants a bloated bureaucracy; however, many supervisors and some managers may still retain direct-service responsibilities. As in small single-proprietor businesses, nonprofit staffers often have to wear more than one hat, with their duties not falling neatly into one category or another. Additionally, inflation and costs for health insurance, physical overhead, salaries, operating equipment and supplies are continually rising fixed expenses, over which managers have only meager, if any, control.

Lastly, some funders seem to have lost sight of that fact that youth, although in their formative development, are not little cogs in the larger machinery of human maturation. This especially applies to disadvantaged and underserved youth, who may have personal challenges that don’t necessarily respond easily to programmatic solutions. This is where qualitative data like personal testimonials, participant surveys and anecdotal stories can supply the context for the hard quantitative data in a funding proposal. Use both as the “steak and the sizzle” in writing grant requests.

Even for youth employment programs that undertake for-profit activities in financial support of their nonprofit missions, funders will always be with us. We can see them as quasi-adversaries, necessary evils, or we can embrace them as potential allies. It all begins with perspective, followed by accommodation and culminating in responsive outcomes. Master this process and successful funding for badly needed youth employment programs looks decidedly brighter.

Michael Mitchell is a first vice president, online publications editor and membership services chair for the Association for Child and Youth Care Practice. He has worked with 2,000-plus juvenile court-supervised, at-risk, special ed teens and adolescents with clinical mental health issues and holds a master's degree in secondary education. He has won numerous awards for his work with youth, a major percentage of whom were youth of color. Write to him at propman46@gmail.com