How to Get Donors & Foundations Excited About Your Nonprofit

In just four years, would you like to:

  • Grow your six-figure donors by 30 percent?
  • Develop a new event that attracts one hundred thousand people?
  • Earn 50 percent more from foundations such as Carnegie, Gates, Rockefeller, and MacArthur?

While this column can’t promise you that, it will share how the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) achieved these feats. It also shares six elements your nonprofit might use to emulate them.

NYSCI is changing how we help children learn by creating educational models for STEM topics, including science, technology, engineering, and math. Their STEM-based learning models engage children in fun, play, and excitement.

Hosting nearly a half-million visitors per year, NYSCI was originally built for the 1964 World’s Fair. Today, the site offers visitors four hundred and fifty interactive STEM exhibits and more. Dr. Margaret Honey, NYSCI President and CEO, leads the effort to “use the informal environment of the science museum as a laboratory to innovate new models for science teaching and learning both in and out of the classroom.” NYSCI generates significant income by offering funding partners a chance to help them create, test, and distribute these models.

 What’s the Appeal?  

1. Recognized Challenge. The work of NYSCI responds to a national challenge to improve STEM education.

You: Even if your nonprofit is not working on a presidentially recognized challenge, such as STEM, it does face a challenge that addresses well-known needs in your field. To create partnerships like those enjoyed by NYSCI, design a solution to it.

2. Value. Given their history and the groundswell of STEM interest, some of NYSCI funding requests would have succeeded. Their overwhelming success suggests a more compelling value. What is it? The way their approach engages learners and creates delight.

For example, ratios are a critical STEM concept. Yet, they befuddle many middle school youth. Traditionally, teachers use word problems to teach them. During my visit, Peggy Monahan, Exhibit Projects Creative Director, demonstrated two NYSCI Noticing Tools. With an I-pad she created a picture of me being stomped by a large foot.  To make the hand-sized foot threaten, she used ratios. Using a second Noticing Tool, in this case, a paper-doll-like pair of pants on a stick, she created a picture of me dressed in a business jacket and clown pants. She used ratios to create the desired effect, so the pants were neither too big nor little, but just right.

Now that you’ve imagined me in clown pants imagine young teens have making silly pictures with their friends while working with ratios. Imagine the fun individuals and foundation staff members have on-site visits.

You: Design your proposals with this kind of appeal. NYSCI used joy and learner engagement. Unique and fresh thinking also appeals. For another example of creating appealing proposals, read about Sesame Street’s service to military families here.

3. Experience. New York City families have plenty of museum and excursion options. To remain open for 50 years, NYSCI mastered engaging visitors. “Our visitors vote with their feet,” said Dr. Margaret Honey. NYSCI has massive experiences sharing STEM skills with joy—when the experience is elective. Traditional educators can’t make the same claim.

You: Include your massive expertise in your solutions. Be the logical choice for your funding partnerships.

4. Leverage. What happens at NYSCI doesn’t stay at NYSCI. NYSCI uses its physical site as a learning incubator. The goal is to reach classrooms nationwide. NYSCI designs its models for classroom use and includes teacher education in their work. Models use readily available items, such as aluminum foil, to fit tight budgets.

You: To inspire partnerships like NYSCI, design your proposals to start at your site and move everywhere.

5. Location, Location, Location. Yes, NYSCI is located in New York City, close to a subway line. Transportation does provide NYSCI easy access to millions. However, this is not Manhattan. It’s “all the way out to Flushing.” NYSCI’s location makes them “scrappy.” Their Queens neighborhood means that they have the opportunity to test their ideas with people who reflect America’s growing diversity.

You: As you think about seeking partnership with foundations or individuals to create extraordinary impact, you’ll undoubtedly moan about some aspect of your location. Turn this around. Find your advantage.

 6. A Culture of Yes. The NYSCI said yes to my request for an interview about nonprofit income opportunities. Not everyone does.

You: To create partnerships, create a culture of “yes.” This is subtle but critical.  Partnerships require openness. To succeed, especially with fiscal partners, you will need to balance your nonprofit’s needs with your partner’s needs. Are you ready to say yes, a lot?

The world you want to change may be as significant as STEM education in America. It might be midsize or small and still be critical to your endeavor. Whatever the challenge’s size to grow your impact and obtain income, use the six NYSCI elements. Apply them to get individuals and foundations excited about investing in your work.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Lonely at the Top

woman standing in front of maze

You could be getting a treasure trove of wisdom and insights on leading your nonprofit, based on Karen’s 20 years of advising work guiding nonprofit CEOs and leaders.

Sign up today to receive your free Karen’s CEO Solutions Welcome Bonus, “Karen’s Top Tips to Obtain the Revenue Your Organization Needs Forever.”