Category Archives: Grantwriting

Marginalized Communities and the Audacity of Ambition

[Image description: A cute little brown squirrel, sitting up in the grass, staring straight at the camera. This squirrel has nothing to do with the content of this post. Or maybe it is a metaphor. Maybe all of us are this squirrel. Image by Vincent van Zalinge of]

A few years ago, I called up a colleague to ask for his advice on fundraising. It was my organization’s first year, and I was still stealing office supplies from other nonprofits (as we all do during the start-up phase and sometimes years after, am I right?). He is a well-respected leader in the field, and I needed some guidance on getting significant resources for my organization’s mission of developing leaders of color for the sector. What he said, paraphrased here, was one of the most honest and shocking things anyone has ever said to me:

“Well,” he said, “as a white guy who has done this for a while, my advice for you is to be more like a white guy.” I nearly choked on the bar of raspberries dark chocolate I was eating for lunch. “What do you mean?” I asked. Continue reading

Answers on grant proposals if nonprofits were brutally honest with funders

[Image description: Closeup of a raccoon, resting on a branch, its head on one arm, staring directly at the camera. Cute little creature. Not sure if this adorable raccoon has anything to do with the content of this post, but come on, look at those big eyes. Image obtained from]

Hi everyone. Before we start, if you haven’t written a review of a foundation on, or asked your grantees to review you, please take a moment to do so. GrantAdvisor was launched a few months ago to address a pervasive problem in our sector. No, not the mice problem, although that too is pervasive (#NonprofitMiceProblem). I’m talking about the imbalance of power between funders and nonprofits, which leads to a lot of no-good, very bad things such as the lack of honest communication and feedback between funders and nonprofits.

One area where this shows up is on grant applications. It’s not that we nonprofits lie when writing proposals, it’s just that…we’ve been trained to tell funders exactly what we think y’all want to hear, sugarcoating everything in jargon and BS. 

A while ago, a colleague imagined what our answers would be like on grant proposals if we nonprofits were allowed to be completely and brutally honest. Here are some of these honest responses, with credit to colleagues across the field, most of whom understandably prefer to remain anonymous; anything in quotes is someone else’s direct words. Apologies in advance for the sarcastic, possibly biting tone; the entire sector has been on edge lately: Continue reading

Book preview: “Unicorns Unite: How Nonprofits and Foundations Can Build Epic Partnerships”

[Image description: A diagram from the book, featuring drawings of cartoon unicorns holding bullhorns, illustrating the cycle of distrust between foundations and nonprofits]

Hi everyone. About a year ago, I mentioned I was co-authoring a book with two brilliant colleagues, Jessamyn Shams-Lau of the Peery Foundation and Jane Leu of Smarter Good. Many of you backed our Kickstarter project, and guess what? We actually wrote the book! OK, Jessamyn and Jane wrote the book, while I tagged along and tried to offer helpful suggestions like “instead of writing this book, how about we take the money and invest it in this awesome tech start-up I just heard about called Juicero, then get rich and start our own foundation but have headquarters in Oaxaca?”

Anyway, the book is called “Unicorns Unite: How Nonprofits and Foundations Can Build Epic Partnerships” and will be available this Spring, with pre-orders being taken on April 9th, 2018, which is coincidentally World Unicorn Day. Now, you may have some questions, so I’ve anticipated and answered them here: Continue reading

A Call to Inaction: Nonprofits, Give Your Staff a Break

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Hi everyone. Once a while, I do a call to action. For example, if you haven’t written a review of a foundation on Grant Advisor lately, or encourage your grantees to do so, please do it! Grant Advisor is like a Yelp for foundations, and everyone who writes a review gets a basket of gluten-free mini muffins*! (*By gluten-free mini muffins, I mean the joy of advancing our sector by increasing transparency and decreasing power imbalance).

This time, though, I am making a call to inaction. I am giving my team and myself the entire week of Christmas off. If your organization can do it, I strongly recommend you to do that as well (or some alternatives to that, as discussed below). Here are several reasons why: Continue reading

Star Trek and the Future of the Nonprofit Sector

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Thank you Nonprofit Quarterly for publishing my piece last week on the future of the nonprofit sector. Except for the post on the misuse of the word “literally,” this is probably one of the most important things I’ve written about in the past four years. Due to a few people not having read it, I am reposting the entire piece here. If you haven’t read and thought about it, please take some time to do so. We can, and must, move our sector into the future.

Let’s face it, the last few months have been brutal. Dealing with the constant threats to communities and to democracy itself has been exhausting and heartbreaking, and many of us have been questioning whether we nonprofits are equipped to respond to current and future challenges. During these dark times, there has been at least one bright light: A new Star Trek show!

When hatred and xenophobia are on the rise, it’s nice to see a universe where diversity is a norm. From the two episodes I’ve seen, the new show, Star Trek: Discovery, is awesome. It’s not without flaws, of course, but this show, and Star Trek itself, paints a hopeful picture that we nonprofits should observe closely. And the Starfleet model in particular is something we should study

In Star Trek, there are various starships. Each has a different captain and a different mission. However, they are bound together by Starfleet, an organization that supports and coordinates the work of all the ships. Starfleet is big, with multiple departments. There’s Starfleet Academy, which trains officers; Starfleet Command, which provides governance; Starfleet Shipyard, which builds the ships; Starfleet Judge Advocate General, which serves as the judiciary branch, etc. Continue reading