A Dollar Here, A Dollar There…

As the saying goes, pretty soon you are talking about real money. And when you talk about real money, Amazon might come to mind, because they are a company who has figured out how to make big-time money! Estimates are that Amazon revenue will near $80 billion dollars this year. Their customer base keeps growing, with nearly 250 million people considered to be active customers, meaning that they have made a purchase within the past 12 months. I’m sure these numbers make company founder Jeff Bezos smile all of the time. And now, Amazon would like to make their customers, and your non-profit organization smile as well.

And they will do this in the easiest way possible, by giving some of those Amazon billions to charity.

Whether you are a non-profit looking for new ways to raise a little money and remind your supporters of the good work you are doing, or a person who wants to support a favorite cause, you need to know about AmazonSmile, the company’s new program that will give back to the charitable community a small percentage of money spent on qualifying products. Small is a relative word, our calculations suggest that, within a year or two, the AmazonSmile Foundation could be directing as much as half a billion dollars to U. S. based public charities annually.

The donations will represent .5% of the purchase price of a very wide selection of products. Sure, that doesn’t sound like that much, but the average Amazon customer spends about $245 a year on Amazon, which means that each customer could bring about $1.25 of donated money to your door. Do you have 1,000 supporters? That’s worth over $1,000.00. 25,000 supporters? About $30 grand a year.

If this sounds like a good idea, there are some things you need to do to take advantage of it. First, you will want to make sure that your non-profit organization is among the nearly one million groups already recognized by the AmazonSmile program. If it isn’t, you can go to the registration page and ask to be included in the future.  The process is simple and straightforward and the requirements are pretty basic as well. Please note that you will need to name an organization administrator, and provide an email address, Employer Identification Number, and a means to receive AmazonSmile donations via electronic funds transfer (basically you will need to have a bank account!).

Charitable organizations that are on the registration list already will be contacted by AmazonSmile the first time anyone chooses them, and will be asked to register with the program in order to begin receiving donations. If a group does not respond within four quarterly donation cycles, anything that had been pledged to this group will be distributed to other registered organizations, and their donors will be prompted to choose a different group.

The next step is to grow awareness of the program among your employees, your supporters, and everyone you can think of who would be in favor of shifting some of that Amazon money from their bottom line to your “special needs fund” – or whatever purpose you could find for the extra money. There are a few steps involved, so pay attention and communicate clearly.

First, shoppers should know that donations are made from purchases which come through the AmazonSmile commerce site, not the main Amazon shopping platform. This means that you have to be logged in to http://smile.amazon.com and not just http://amazon.com . The good news for the customer is that nearly every product they might be looking for is available on both sites.

Next, the individual customer needs to choose a charity which the donations will benefit. The opportunity to choose will be offered automatically the first time someone logs into the AmazonSmile site, and there is a “Change Your Charity” option available under the “Your Account” tab, so no selection has to be forever. Unless you make changes all donations from AmazonSmile that are created by a purchase will continue to go to your current choice. This means that, conveniently, a shopper doesn’t have to make a new choice each time he or she logs in.

That’s pretty much it. Once everything is set up, people make qualifying purchase, and the AmazonSmile system sends donations via EFT every 3 months. For more details of the program, see their website.

As we said at the start, it will only be a dollar here, a dollar there, but sooner or later…!

Don’t Write That Grant Proposal!

More musings on why you should Stop Chasing the Money

One of the first things I say when opening my remarks at a Grantwriting seminar or workshop is “The good news is there is plenty of money out there.” And I mean it. Millions (maybe even billions) of dollars of grant funding is available each year from public and private sources. But sometimes my advice to a client is “Don’t write THAT grant proposal!” Just because there is funding, and even if you have or hire the talent it would take to write a winning proposal, there are some grants you just shouldn’t pursue.

Here are some of the main reasons why, despite your optimism that you could write a winning grant proposal, you should take a pass.

The budget may be inadequate to fund the promised services.

It is not usually a good idea to propose a grant when you are uncertain that the funding will not be adequate to pay for the product you promise to deliver. Hopeful optimism that you will ramp the services up quickly when that isn’t your history, or that you will get the number of participants needed to maximize the grant dollars, when demographics suggest otherwise, or that you will be able to find staff or procure resources (rent, for example) at below-market rates usually results in a net loss to the organization over time. Make sure your proposed budgets are both accurate and adequate, or walk away from the opportunity.

The outcomes the grant maker is seeking are at odds with what you want to do.

I firmly believe that one of the factors of the “art of Grantwriting” (as opposed to the science) is the ability of the grant writer to describe the project you intend to deliver, and want to pursue, in a way that makes it clear that you will also be meeting the wishes of the funder. If you have to modify your mission too drastically in order to make this case, you will find yourself delivering services in a manner that does not fit with your organizational values. You may benefit financially from a grant award that fits this description, but the non-monetary impact on your organization might be devastating. Don’t sacrifice mission for money.

You lack experience in the services you need to deliver to satisfy the requirements of the grant.

A grant can very often represent an opportunity to use someone else’s money to expand the scope of services you deliver. But beware going too far outside of your comfort zone. If you take on projects that represent radical changes in your service model, or require hiring and supervising people with skillsets you are not familiar with, you may find that the hassle of maintaining an unfamiliar infrastructure has a serious impact on the success of the project, and can be significantly disruptive to your overall business model. Trying new things is how we grow, but the deeper you go into the woods, the harder it can be to find your way out.

Competing projects will stretch your team too thin.

One penalty of success occurs when you find that your organization needs to grow too fast, too quickly. Remember that most grants don’t just involve the resources – human and otherwise – that are required to deliver the specific services enumerated in your proposal. New requirements on your overall infrastructure, including obvious items such as Human Resources and less obvious things like increased maintenance or strain on your IT systems, are part of growth as well. If you don’t have what is needed to insure that all of these “indirect” costs are satisfied, the pressure on your existing infrastructure can wreck your business. Grow, yes, but do it at a pace you know you can tolerate.

You have philosophical disagreements with the funder

Regardless of the stated goals, some grant funders dole out money to offset negative public opinion or to “atone” for their sins. Let’s face it, making money available for a philanthropic purchase is sometimes a way for an organization to say “Hey, regardless of that other stuff we do (to animals, the environment, the general health of the world, or whatever) It is never a good idea to accept money from an organization if you are not comfortable with what they stand for on a daily basis. You may win the grant but you will always feel a little “dirty” taking the money.

You are unsure of your abilities to anticipate all of the details

Not every organization does an excellent job of planning, and not everyone who wants to win a grant will anticipate all of the possible elements that will go into discharging their responsibilities if they win. Be sure that your team is experienced in planning what it will take to deliver the goods, or seek outside help when you are not sure. A funded grant proposal is a legal contract. You want no surprises!

In general, I would encourage you to investigate the appropriateness of grant funding for your organization. All of that money that is available, or at least the portion you might qualify for, could make a big difference to the future of your business, and a huge positive impact on the people or causes you serve. But watch out for the things I’ve shared with you, lest you regret your winnings.

As always, if Innovaision, LLC can be of help to you, we are willing and ready to do so. Just call us!

Open Source Software – Why Free is Often Just the Right Price!

Have you heard of Open Source Software? If not, you should know about this – particularly if you are a nonprofit struggling to make ends meet, or a start-up working with a restricted budget. OSS (per Wikipedia) is “computer software with its source code made available and licensed with a license in which the copyright holder provides the rights to study, change and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose.” In many cases OSS is developed as a collaborative effort, and indeed new versions come out regularly when an OSS project has been embraced by the community.

There’s nothing slapdash or sloppy about the software or the movement to make it available. The Open Source Initiative acts as something of an oversight group to educate the word about open source and its many benefits. Along the way they have developed the de facto standards for what constitutes Open Source Software. You can read the full list here – included are the expectations about redistribution, branding, integrity of code, non-discrimination, and other important issues.

And, don’t think of this movement as being driven by pirates or anarchists, some of the most powerful digital organizations in the world are backers of the Open Source Initiative, including Adobe, Google, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM.

The upshot for many of us is that we get software we can use for free, even when we are using it in ways that might be helping us make money. In many cases, the products available via open source are as good, or better than their commercial counterparts which may cost several hundred dollars. Here are some examples of open source tools and the products they could replace.

Thunderbird for email, instead of Outlook ($110)

Tight VNC for remote access, instead of LogMeIn ($99 per year)

Dia for creating diagrams and charts, instead of Visio ($299)

Gimp for graphics editing, instead of Photoshop ($20 per month)

Open Office as an office suite, instead of Microsoft Office ($219)

xPDF instead of Adobe Acrobat ($449)

Open Antivirus, for computer protection, instead of McAfee ($50 per year)

Whether you love the open source concept because it saves you a ton of money, or embrace the spirit of free and fair use as a personal credo, Open Source Software is definitely worth your consideration.

Stop Chasing the Money!

“Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment!”

I’m not sure where I first heard that saying, but it certainly is true. I share this idea at the outset because what I am about to tell you comes from experience, and that experience more often than not came from bad judgment.

When it comes to grants, or contract competitions, the second worst thing you can do is to fail to look for and compete for money that you could and should be awarded. But the first worst thing you can do is compete for money that you don’t really want, need, or deserve.

Over many years of grant and proposal writing, I would say I have gotten pretty good at it. One thing that has helped is the development of a sincere understanding of the Art, versus the Science, of Grant Writing. That simple act of discovery can make a world of difference in the quality of any proposal.

There is an additional level of discernment that should be brought to the table when considering any attempt to get more funding for your project or organization, and it is this: “If I could win this funding, would I really want it?” If you chase money just “because you can” you are likely to be disappointed in the end.

Among the most common things that happen when an organization chases money, here are the ones that usually end up harming, rather than helping:

  • You underestimate the cost of delivering the services you promise

In an effort to compete on price, many applicants will unrealistically reduce their anticipated costs. This is often accompanied by a rationale (irrationale?) that “We’ll figure out how to do it cheaper if we win.” This rarely works, and the consequences are that you lose money overall because the funding you got was inadequate to compensate for the services you promised. In a worse-case scenario you under perform, which can seriously tarnish your reputation going forward, impair your ability to win funds in the future, or – in the extreme – lead to charges of mismanagement or worse.

  • You win money to perform services that are not compatible with your mission

Like the dog that chases the car and then does not know what to do when he catches it, you might win a grant or a contract, and find that delivering on the agreement disrupts your entire organization. In trying to be something you are not, you become something you never intended. The worst consequence is that new programming or procedures you implement to fulfill a contract you should never have pursued drives away longtime supporters or valuable employees who conclude that you have lost your way.

  • You fail to win the money because, in the end, you really weren’t the right fit

Trying to fit a round peg into a square hole is rarely a winning strategy. When your organization’s expertise and service arsenal is wrong for the purpose of the funding, trying to win the money by brute force won’t work.

  • You fail to win the money because, in the end, you really could not compete

Sometimes the smartest thing to admit is that the competition for funding is just better than you are in a specific case, or that there are already those with an inside track and you aren’t one of them. This is often evident before you ever put pen to paper on an application or grant proposal.

One of the best ways to avoid any of these undesirable outcomes is to develop an internal pre-evaluation or “vetting” process that forces a fair and balanced evaluation of opportunities, and steers you away from money-chasing and towards investing your time and energy into finding legitimate sources of useful funding.

There is an amazing amount of funding available for the right people, and for the right purposes. A good evaluation strategy – one that is not only unafraid to but actually designed to return the analysis of “walk away from this one” – will save you immeasurable time and headaches down the road.

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