Let's Raise Some Money
Insights from Karen Climer about fundraising and nonprofit organizations

Half A Dozen Tips On Asking Your Local Government For Money

July 17th, 2014 by Karen Climer

This is a long post, but it’s worth reading.  (Just my unbiased opinion!)  Most government entities are planning next year’s budget right now.  Not surprisingly, many nonprofits want a piece of the pie.  In some ways, asking the government for money is the same as any major gift request, but in other ways, it is very different.

If the government entity has a specific grant program for your project, go that route.  For example, many local and state governments receive money from HUD.  It is distributed to local nonprofit organizations in the form of community development block grants (CDBG).

If your organization doesn’t qualify for a grant program, you’ll have to ask the city or county commission directly.  That is what I am most familiar with, so that’s what I’ll be discussing.

If you are a loyal reader, you’ve read about one of my clients, the Central Florida Veterans Memorial Park.  Of the $2.3 million we raised, just a little less than $1 million came from local government entities.  This all-volunteer organization was phenomenal, so I want to share some things they did well.

First, know your audience.  What are their interests?  What size gift is appropriate?  What types of projects are popular with this administration?  For example, Orlando will throw money at any building that makes us a “world-class city.”  If your project creates a “world-class city,” talk to the City of Orlando.  Orlando doesn’t have enough money to fund all these “world-class” projects, so they convince Orange County (and their larger budget) to get on board.  Just as you do with major donors, you want to match the right project to the right donor.

Second, know the political arena.  On every board of commissioners, there are certain members who have more influence than others.  Get those people on board first.  Some commissioners only look at what is best for their district.  Others are more interested in what is best for the entire county.  In some governments, you only need to sell the mayor on the idea because he makes all of the decisions.  Know what is appropriate for that governing body.

Right now, we are in a campaign season.  Many of the commissioners are campaigning to keep their job or get a new job.  This makes a difference in how they vote.  Government priorities change every four years when new leaders are elected.  If you don’t know the local politics of your area, talk to some who does.  There is bound to be a local political junkie on your board.  If there isn’t, recruit one.

Third, get all government entities involved.  The Central Florida Veterans Memorial Park honored fallen veterans from six counties.  We asked seven different entities: the six counties plus one city.  In the end, four of the entities supported it.  We talked to all of the mayors and commissioners.  We were very explicit that we are asking you for $500,000.  We are asking the next county for $250,000.  Another county already gave us $125,000 from their parks budget.  Governments want to know what others are doing for two reasons.  First, no one wants to be the only supporter.  But also, Orange County wanted to know how Orlando paid for it.  We told them Orlando took it out of their reserve fund.  That gave Orange County ideas about how they could fit it in their budget.  Then Seminole County wanted to know how Orange County did it.  Local governments are just like nonprofit organizations in that they watch and learn from each other.

Fourth, know what’s going to happen before it happens.  Before we went to the commission meeting and gave a presentation, we talked to the mayor and each of the commissioners.  It varied but usually that’s about 6-7 people per government entity.  At the appointment, we pitched the project, told them what we would be asking for, and asked if they would vote in favor of it.  Once we knew we had the votes lined up, and we knew which commissioner would make the motion to approve funding, THEN we asked the full commission.  Don’t put the cart before the horse.  Know you have the support before you get to the meeting.  Once the commission votes not to fund your project, it is very difficult to have them go back and vote back again.

By the way, if you call and ask for an appointment, elected officials will meet with you.  (At least that’s been my experience)  Ask for 15-20 minutes.  If the elected officials won’t meet with you, meet with their staffers.  Treat the staffer with the same respect you would the elected official.

Fifth, know the government budget.  Here in Orange County, we raise a significant amount of revenue from a tourist tax.  (Bring your family to Orlando!).  Everybody, and I mean everybody, wants a piece of that money.  There are laws that govern its use.  In nonprofit vernacular, the money is restricted.  The county commission is rightfully very protective of that money.  My personal (yet unproven) theory is that as soon as you mention the tourist tax, the commissioners shut down and lose interest your request.  Yet, it is a regular occurrence for nonprofit organizations that serve only residents ask for money from the tourist tax fund.  That’s just annoying.

We didn’t ask for tourist tax money for the Veterans Memorial Park because we didn’t want to be annoying.  We found two appropriate line items (parks and the reserve fund) in the budget.  We knew which counties had extra money in their parks fund.  We knew how much was in the reserve fund.  When a commissioner said, “We’ve already set the annual budget, how can we pay for this?,” we had the answer.

The government budget, how much they’ve spent on what, and everything else you need is public record.  Most likely, it is on the website, so you don’t even have to ask for it.  If you can’t find it, call.  Governments are used to people asking for this information.  They have departments dedicated to handling these requests, so don’t be shy.

Sixth, and most important, leverage your supporters.  The first major donor to the Central Florida Veterans Memorial Park who was not a board member was Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation.  They gave us seed money to handle the campaign.  Later, they made additional gifts to the Memorial.  David Odahowski, President/CEO of Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation offered to join us at the county commission meetings.  A Veterans Memorial board member made a presentation to the commissioners, then David spoke for a few minutes about why the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation supported the Memorial.  Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation is widely regarded around town for their philanthropy that goes beyond writing checks.  That was the most powerful part of the presentation.  If you are not asking your donors to help you outside of donating money, you are missing the boat.

Early in my career, I was a staffer at an arts center.  When the City threatened to cut our funding, we asked our donors to tell their commissioners to vote in favor of the arts center.  It worked.  Later the mayor told us that the overwhelming support from the citizens is what kept the arts center budget from getting slashed.  Yes, politicians do listen to voters.

Do not underestimate the value of getting your donors involved.  If all of the commissioners are getting letters, calls, and emails from their constituents that say, “Please keep the arts center in the budget.  It is important,” that makes a huge difference.  A very small percentage of constituents write or call their elected officials, but the ones that do are the ones that rule the world (That is not an exaggeration.  It’s the absolute truth).  Elected officials know that small percentage who take the time to write are likely the super voters who vote in every election.

Also, in Florida, all public meetings have time for citizen comments.  Ask your donors to speak in support of your cause.  I was at a county commission meeting recently where mental health funding was on the agenda.  A mental health organization had several supporters  at the meeting who each said something like, “I’m Bob Jones.  I suffer from depression and schizophrenia.  This is how it has affected my life.  Please support the mental health funding proposal.”  There were probably five to ten citizens who spoke in favor of the mental health funding that day.  As an added bonus, the media is always at these meetings.  They reported that “several citizens spoke in favor of the mental health funding.”

Elected officials, and in turn the priorities of the government, change every four years, so individuals are a more reliable long-term source of gifts.  However, government funding is an important part of the mix and a good source of donations for a special project like a capital campaign.

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