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Example 1: Getting initial support

Ray Shonholtz, the founder of an innovative organization called Community Boards, describes how he got initial community support for his work. Community Boards involves training citizens in dispute resolution on a neighborhood level. At the time Ray started, this was a very unfamiliar idea:

"When I started Community Boards, I knew that it was an unusual idea, particularly to funders and to political people. My first effort was to build credibility for the idea by associating it with people of some standing in the criminal justice community -- which meant people in the bar association, the district attorney's office, et cetera -- to at least say it was an interesting idea, worth experimenting with.

"So I wrote a concept paper, made 50 copies of it, distributed them to the legal community and to some community organizations. And then asked some friends of mine around the city to put me on the agenda for community organization meetings, public defender office meetings. And I started making contacts with all them, not for them to endorse it -- I never asked anybody to endorse it -- but merely to give it conceptual credence.

"The advantage of that is that you avoid anybody critiquing it too early, and kind of have all the benefits of getting what you really want, which is some green light like "This idea interests me," signed, "The Prosecutor." Since I didn't ask for more, I didn't get more; but those kind of support positions grew to be extremely useful with funders.

"Before any services were delivered, I also built a board of directors of name people -- some community people, but also a nice balance of lawyers and judges, very friendly to the idea. Then, in the funding proposals, I would show the support we had received from these different organizations, and leverage that with the funders. I'd say, "Look at the range of interests in this unique idea." So I became relatively skillful at educating the funding base.

"And I was a credible person: teaching at the law school, being an Associate Professor of Criminal Law, putting it on law school stationery, circulating the idea around. That added to the credibility of it, because stature, name, connections, I think have a lot to do with whether an idea gets some hearing or is quickly dismissed. I spent a lot of time around the politics of the idea, so that nobody came out opposing it. There were some people who were skeptical, but then I would only ask for conceptual support, for trying it -- not in the sense it was a meritorious idea, but one that ought to be given some chance.

"Well, there are very few people who won't give you that, you know. So I had very little if any opposition in the early days. It was very important to build a conceptual constituency within the local community for it."

Example 2: Approaching foundations

Ray describes how he approached foundations, and in particular how he used one funder to network with another. Eventually his work became funded by more than a dozen different foundations.

"I also learned foundations fund people first and ideas second. The foundation wants to know that the person they're funding isn't a kook. Regardless of what the idea is, they want to know that the person has a reasonable chance of delivering it, or at least making a reasonable effort to attempt to deliver it, especially if it's a very risky idea. So credibility becomes the first and primary issue for most sophisticated foundations. Who you are and who supports you will be the first determining factor of whether a foundation gives you money.

"My process with the funders was always to see the executive director of the foundation, not a program officer. It's to use one funder to network with other funders. So if one person in the funding community felt strongly about it, I would ask her or him who else this should go to, and could I use their name in the letter; or better yet, would they make a call for me indicating that I was going to call so-and-so. And invariably they'd say yes to one or the other of those openings.

"The issue with foundations is getting through the door. Once you're through the door, you have to be your own salesperson. But you need a door-opener. Somebody has to be the bridge, help you over the bridge, that's been my experience. So if I wanted to deal with the Ford Foundation, I'd need somebody who knew the Ford Foundation and who would say, "Hey, this program you should look at, and I'll let so-and-so know you're going to call." And that of course is a time-honored approach; I don 't think there's anything unique about it.

"But the funding community responds well to that, because they get so many requests, and most of them don't have the staff to screen -- see, they all operate on the principle of people first, ideas second. That might be simplistic, but I think it's generally true. That increases the importance of somebody to take you through the door."

(Both examples from an interview with Ray Shonholtz in Bill Berkowitz, Local Heroes, Lexington Books, Lexington, MA, 1987.)