Which Comes First the Program or the Money? A Quickstart Guide to Programs and Funding.
If only I had a quarter for every conversation I have ever had with organizations regarding “Which comes first, the program or the money?” I would be drinking Pina coladas on a beach somewhere! The typical response I get when I ask that question is either a) warrants no response (like it’s a rhetorical question.) or b) is responded to in a rapid fire response, somewhere between an elevator speech and a regurgitated monologue from a dusty professor from decades ago. It is very rare indeed to hear the answer indicating the program comes first. I am not disputing the fact that funding can come first, but that programming can happen without the funding, and ultimately makes the funding better spent as many of the unpredictable variables have been hashed out beforehand.
I accidentally fell into fundraising when I was a reading teacher and wanted to celebrate Dr. Suess’ birthday. Naturally, it was not in the budget, but filled with gusto and tenacity I managed to find enough money (from area businesses and private sponsors) for matching hats to be worn by school board members while reading books to the kids. I think 15 total? It was not a lot of money, but you would never have guessed the budget size on that day of celebration. The school board members were elated to be asked to be involved with the students, the students were excited to be having a day of partying, and I was just as ecstatic because it felt like the whole town was celebrating reading! It’s what I call a win-win-win.
After leaving teaching and going into nonprofit leadership, I used my teaching experience to speak with groups about programming and fundraising experience to learn more about the Art of the Ask. In my last 10 years and less, not counting fundraising, I have on a part-time/contracted basis written almost $2.5M for programming, managed accounts over $4m, and still believe the program must come first. Ironically, I have had organizations (with budgets of all sizes) who borrowed at the end of the year for operations from savings, deny this as the truth. Don’t forget operations has many program variables which can be used in some grant budgets. Sad but true, are also organizations who are stuck so firmly in this belief that their program cannot grow. Really? If you are running a youth organization, kids/people vote with their feet. If it is a for-profit, people vote with their dollars and keep coming back. To expand programming, you must first find the need.
After you really look or ask and find the need, look for others who are like-minded and also believe in the program. Essentially, you are building up the volunteer base with (wo)man power. If you have read any of my other blogs, you’ll see that finding volunteers can be just about anywhere and sometimes on accident! After putting your boots to the ground with the other volunteers, you will begin to see the inside of the program and get a really good handle on what the minimal costs will be, how many people are impacted by the services, or if people are even interested! Make sure to track those numbers, preferably unduplicated, because this data will be essential in supporting the future Ask. In new programs being developed, brain damage or unavoidable losses can happen because of the lack of experience, volatility in the program schedules or space, and natural program evolution. Make sure to be honest with the data and prepare to explain it when a funder asks. If you really believe in the program you will be undaunted when the time comes to tell your (program’s) story and all of the benefits of having it.
Finally, It doesn’t really matter if the program is for infant and toddler aged pre-school youth, unemployed adults going back to school, elderly, disabled adults, politics, religion, ministry or animals. What determines The Ask is The Need! Are you performing a needed service to the community? Or, are you just really excited about doing what you love on a daily basis? I would hope all of the above. Helping others? Check. Building up the community? Check. Doing what you really love on a daily basis? Check. It’s another win-win-win.
I hope this helps anyone who may be thinking about going into nonprofit programming or fundraising. If you would like more information on Money, (Wo)Man Power or Membership check out my other blogs!