Nonprofit royalty exist, but you’re unlikely to be the next Duchess of At-Risk Youth Services

I had coffee with a friend who was in LA from NYC, and he’s the development director of a huge arts organization in NYC that raises $50M annually, mostly from large foundations, “whale” donors, ticket sales, and a soupçon of grants (not one of our clients). Over our iced macadamia milk lattes (this is LA after all) at Go Get Em Tiger, he told me he’s making his annual trek to LA to meet and show the flag with a big entertainment-related foundation that funds his agency. He was invited to various “industry events” that us mere mortals read about in TMZ. I said he’s a member of the nonprofit royalty.

“What’s that?” he asked.

Imagine you’re looking down on a vast savanna. Roaming are the 1.5 million 501(c)(3) US nonprofits (thousands of new ones bubble into existence every year, while some starve to death). Let’s deduct two-thirds of these as either being very small or too inert to be of interest. That leaves maybe 500K active nonprofits scurrying around the plain looking for donation and grant grubs, mice, rabbits, and the occasional elk. Most of these nonprofits are doing good works in primary health care, at-risk youth services, workforce development, other human services, the arts, and so on. While most have relatively modest annual operating budgets, say less than $5M, some, like big FQHCs, have annual operating budgets north of $50M. No matter how large, however, these are still commoners, battling with one another for donations, grants, third-party payers, and the like.

Among the nonprofit herd, however, stride a very smaller number of nonprofit royalty, like my friend’s agency in NYC. Royal nonprofits are funded by fawning large foundations, public agencies, and donations from the carriage trade (in LA, this means entertainment and tech folk, while in NYC this means hedge-fund types).* For the nonprofit royals, much of their revenue is derived from relationships, individual and organizational. Management staff and board members of the royals go to the same events as their target funders, probably went to the same colleges, and send their kids to the same private schools. Royals have access to celebrities at galas that they can dangle in front of potential funders—pssssst, Meryl Streep and Al Gore will be at the VIP party after our annual gala, and a donation of only $50K gets you in the VIP door.

A nonprofit does not have to be “born” royal, although it helps if the founder is a royal herself, can sweet talk some royals to serve on the board, or arrives at the the right moment to address a suddenly attractive cause. Examples of fortuitous nonprofit start-ups include Komen for the Cure, Wounded Warriors Project, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the like. Nonprofit royals usually grow into their status, rise above the nonprofit herd through hard work, relentless PR, providing great services, and more than a bit of luck.

The “luck” element is important, and you’re likely familiar with analogous stories from the movie biz. Meghan Markle was just another beautiful actress, one of thousands in LA, when she was auditioning for bit parts 15 years ago, and now she’s set to marry Prince Harry. Grace Kelly from Philly had only been acting for six years when she married Prince Rainier in 1956. Both became literal royals.

The same process can unfold with nonprofits. Geoffrey Canada took the rather mundane work of helping at-risk kids and their families to nonprofit royaldom with the Harlem Children’s Zone over 30 years (he’s also not a client). Like in Hollywood, only a tiny percent of. nonprofits start with or ever achieve this rarefied status—and they must work incredibly hard to maintain that position, albeit in ways different than conventional nonprofits. For most aspiring actors, it’s best to have a fallback career plan, and for nonprofits, it’s best to assume you’re part of the herd, not the royalty.

This is why we advise our clients to forget about trying to get foundation and government grants based on relationships (unless they already have preexisting relationships). All large foundations have frontline program officers whose main job is to talk nicely with nonprofits seeking grants and point them to their guidelines. It’s pretty hard to schmooze your way to big foundation grants, as the program officers have heard it all before. The only real way to achieve this is via relationships that already exist. For example, there’s an organization called Cancer for College that offers scholarships to childhood cancer survivors. The founder was a college frat buddy of Will Farrell. That’s not going to be true of the vast majority of nonprofits.

Most government grant officers, meanwhile, are bureaucrats with little, if any, interest in which applicant get funded—the system is actively designed to be impersonal in order to prevent corruption. Also, virtually every politician, and their field deputies, will wholeheartedly gush over any idea you bring to them, pat you on the head, tell you you that you have to wait for an RFP, like everyone else, as they show you the door (and likely invite you to a fundraiser). This is why there’s little point in getting support letters from politicians for proposals, as they will generally provide them to any agency that asks.

There are exceptions in the government grant world, especially at the local level, where patronage and cronyism is evident. Many NYC and LA City and County RFPs are not entirely competitive, as the pols, and the program officers, know that favored constituency groups (e.g., African Americans, Hispanics, Orthodox Jews, etc.) and a few connected applicants need to be funded.

Since seeking grants through relationships and royalty status is not going to work for most nonprofits, what’s an agency to do? It’s not complex, but it is hard to execute: select services that are needed and your organization can plausibly deliver, conduct detailed grant source research, and submit compelling and technically correct proposals on time. It you do that often enough, who knows, your agency might become the Duchess of At-Risk Youth Services, joining the royal court with Duke Geoffrey Canada.


* Amazon’s pretty good series, Mozart in the Jungle about a fictional version of the NY Philharmonic, has some storylines that fairly accurately depict how nonprofit royals use relationships to snare big donors (everyone in NYC wants to drink mate tea with Maestro Rodrigo). The series is based on the eponymous but very different memoir by Blair Tindall.

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