Position Yourself to Write a Superior Technology Proposal

Position Yourself to Write a Superior Technology Proposal

A good case statement will strengthen your proposals

By: Marc Osten, Susan Myrland, and Katrin Verclas

August 15, 2003

Editor's Notes

This article is part of the Adopting Technology Series, a project of Summit Collaborative.

There are many things that go into successfully raising funds for technology. Your timing and initial contact with a foundation or donor will often be the key to success. In other situations, it may be your previous track record. In some cases, some positive words from a colleague at another foundation may make the difference.

Raising funds and developing technology proposals takes time; make sure you are organized and have done your homework. The case of Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore ( WEB) highlights the point. WEB was one of only 9 grantees selected out of 500 applications for a grant from Hewlett Packard. WEB staff and HP representatives note that it was the strategic technology plan -- in other words the homework that WEB spent time on -- that made the difference and led to the award of technology equipment, services, and cash valued at $350,000.

Assessment and Planning

Spend the time to assess and plan strategically for your technology acquisitions in the context of your mission and organization's work. We can't emphasize this point enough. There are many resources on TechSoup that can help you with assessing your particular organizational situation and with planning your technology strategy. See the Techsoup technology planning section.

You cannot write a good technology proposal unless and until you understand what your organization does, how it does it, and what you want to accomplish and improve. Only then, examine how technology can help you get there faster, more efficiently, and with greater impact.

For example, ask yourself: Do you need to become more efficient in a particular area of your program so you can serve more individuals? Do you need to increase your membership in a number of key geographic areas in order to have greater political impact or diversify your base? Do you need to work more quickly with the media to inform them about specific campaign tactics? Note that the focus is on what specific technology might accomplish -- not the technology itself.

After you have done some assessment and planning, you should be able to articulate what you want to do with the technology that you are seeking funding for. Being able to talk about the total value of ownership ( TVO) -- and the real benefits in terms of improved programs, increased collaboration, better marketing, and so on -- is very different from articulating what you want to buy. See the following resources:

The Technology Planning Chicken and Egg

Many of you find might yourselves in a type of chicken and egg situation when it comes to funding, technology planning, and implementation. You hear from one funder that it will not fund technology planning but that you must have a technology plan to apply for a grant. Another funder will fund the planning process but is reluctant to support implementation. We have some suggestions that may help.

Be clear in your approach and expect the same. For example, if a foundation supports technology planning, do not assume there will be money for implementation. As one funder put it, "The good news is that [when you have done a plan] we know more about your capacity, and the bad news is that we know more about your capacity." This is the delicate dance between funders and nonprofits that you might abhor, but nevertheless have to dance.

To strengthen your proposal to these funders, describe where you will find support once the planning process is complete. You should show that you will be able to sustain the initial investment. The bottom line is that you have to know where you will get funding to plan, implement, and sustain your technology needs. Otherwise, you will run into problems with your board as well as funders.

Likewise, it will be easier for you to raise the money from donors, board members, and other sources for implementation and purchases if you can demonstrate that you have gone through a thorough assessment and planning phase. As one funder puts it, "It is very useful to go out to raise more money with the ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval' that comes having gone through the effort to say this is what we need, and this is why -- [and have all this planning] supported by another foundation."

Diversify your Revenue Sources

Broaden your approach to include raising funds not just from foundations, but from donors, members, special events, corporate sponsorship, state and federal grants, and other sources. It is widely known that money from foundations often comprises less than one third of revenue for nonprofit organizations. Especially in difficult economic times, as foundation portfolios shrink, we hear nonprofits and funders talk about diversifying funding sources.

We strongly suggest that you explore all options as part of your overall fundraising plan. You may find this easier to do once you undestand the value of technology. We've heard many nonprofits say, after developing a sense of the total value of ownership, that they feel more confident about reaching out to new funding sources.

Fundraising Means Relationship-Building

Do not underestimate the importance of relationship-building. While this can be difficult when a program officer does not even return phone calls, it is essential to success. One funder we spoke with said, "I'm a geographically-focused funder, so we know the organizations in our community. We work with them over and over again. I think that's a plus, because we know the strengths of the organizations that are coming to us, we can make good judgments about whether or not this is in fact an organization that can undertake good planning in the first place and do a good implementation after the fact."

Don't underestimate the value of publicity. A letter to the editor or a newspaper feature can pay off in recognition for your organization down the road. Name recognition always helps.

You should begin building relationships well in advance of any proposal deadline. When a program officer has tens or hundreds of proposals and phone calls flooding in, she doesn't have the time to get to know you and your organization. Ideally, make contact during a "down time," often a month or so after their grants have been awarded and contracts negotiated. If a grant notice has just come across your desk and the deadline is only a few weeks away, it's still better to call and introduce yourself early rather than waiting until the last minute. Spend some time on the foundation's Web site first, and you'll come across as someone who does her homework.

Know the Funders' Focus and Interest

As you go through the exercise of identifying the total value or benefit of technology to your organization, begin thinking about the funders you will be approaching. Ultimately you want to connect things you seek funding for to funders' interests and priorities. We are not recommending that you inappropriately tailor your proposals; the reality is that your interests are often theirs. Nonprofits are the vehicle through which foundations meet their agenda for community improvement. Be proud of this connection and make it clear how technology and your use of it fits their goals. For example, are they interested in funding programmatic work or overall organizational effectiveness and capacity building? Do they have any special initiatives they are exploring or funding? What have they funded in the past? What do their guidelines say? Whom are the people in the foundation you need to know and what are their personal interests in the nonprofit sector?

This is where the time spent on your internal assessment will pay off. Funders are quick to spot technology that appears to be an "add-on" -- for example, the healthcare clinic that suddenly decides to open a community technology center, conveniently coinciding with the funder's RFP on community technology centers. Contrast this to the healthcare clinic with a track record of community education and outreach. The clinic presents evidence showing that patients would use a technology center to research their treatment options. In the latter, technology is a logical enhancement of work already being done.

The Case Statement

If there is a magic key that opens the checkbook, it is a compelling and customized case statement that clearly articulates your vision (see Building a Great Case Statement Worksheet ), how technology can accomplish it better, and why the foundation or donor you are approaching should fund the proposal. If you want program officers to support your proposal, make it easy for them to understand why. For program officers in mid-sized and larger foundations, make it easier for them to make your case with their colleagues who have authority to approve proposals. Remember that your proposal is in competition with other proposals, and your program officer may be competing internally within the foundation for limited dollars.

The case statement should be clear and concise -- no longer than a page at most. Frame it so that it describes the benefits of your work and the technology you are seeking funding for. In other words, emphasize solutions, not problems. Talk about what you've learned from past experiences, thus showing the funder that you have the skills and ability to manage this new tool. Finally, be sure to have people outside the organization review your statement and give you honest feedback.

While there are many resources for writing an effective case statement there are few that pertain directly to technology. (See this resource on creating case statements.) We recommend that you find technology plans written by nonprofits to see how others have made their case. You can start your search at TechSoup's technology planning area  area.

For each potential funder you approach, you need to ask: What needs of this donor will be met by making a contribution or grant to my organization? Will a grant to my organization further the foundation's objectives? How?

When you have good answers to these questions, proceed to the more formal process of proposal writing. You can use your case statement in a number of ways: as the basis for a proposal, letter of inquiry, solicitation letter, or personal appeal to your donors. You can also use it as a set of talking points in conversations with donors and funders.

Assessing your needs, knowing more about the funders you want to target, and building a strong case statement are the essential ingredients. Without them, you can almost ensure that your proposal never makes it to the top of the pile. So step up and take the bull by the horns. It will be worth it.

About the Authors:

Marc Osten is the founder of the Summit Collaborative, an organization that provides research, program development, and management support to foundations, nonprofit networks, and associations. Marc began his career in the nonprofit sector in the early 1980s as a peace and environmental activist. In the 1990s, he attained his masters in education and worked as an educator and teacher trainer. Over the past four years, he has spent most of his time working as an organizational development strategist, builder of learning communities and collaborations, author, and provocateur. He recently launched a successful Internet publishing venture, Dot Org Media, and developed an innovative change management program for nonprofits and executives, Strategic Technology. He is a member of the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network (N-TEN) and serves in various other leadership positions in nonprofit organizations and networks.

Katrin Verclas is a consultant with Summit Collaborative, where she works on technology strategy and analysis. She draws on more than a decade of experience in the nonprofit sector, including six years at the Proteus Fund where she was a program officer for several family foundations and funder collaboratives. While working for the Ottinger Foundation, she was the first national supporter of a list enhancement strategy to increase the capacity of non-profit advocacy groups to engage their members. As program officer of the Piper Fund, a national funders' collaborative on state-based campaign finance reform, she evaluated the strategic use of grantees' money and politics database projects and developed cutting-edge grantmaking strategies for the collaborative. She holds a B.A. from the University of Massachusetts and is completing her M.S. in Information Technology Management and Systems Integration at the Graduate School at Marlboro College.

Susan Myrland is a consultant in the strategic application of interactive media for corporate and community development. She has gained national recognition for her expertise in the digital divide, serving as an advisor to state and federal agencies, foundations, and community organizations. She sits on the City of San Diego Science and Technology Commission, and is a past member of the San Diego Foundation Science and Technology Working Group, the San Diego Regional Technology Alliance, and the San Diego Community Technology Coalition.

About the Authors:

Marc Osten is Founder of Summit Collaborative.

Susan Myrland is Director of Interactive Media Management.

Katrin Verclas is a consultant with Summit Collaborative, where she works on technology strategy and analysis.


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