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When a Grant Becomes the “Brand”

When the Foellinger Foundation came up with the idea for a program that would inspire leaders of nonprofits to renew themselves, it didn’t realize it also was creating a new public identity for itself.  As a result, when people think of Foellinger today and what it stands for, many are as likely to cite the foundation’s Inspire Grants as much as the other work it has done over the past 50 years.

The Fort Wayne, Ind.-based foundation launched its Inspire Grants in 2009 as part of the public celebration of its 50th anniversary.  Initially, though, the grant program was envisioned as a one-time effort.  But based on its successful launch, the positive reception to it, and the recognition that Inspire Grants could continue to serve the foundation and its community well for some time to come, it’s now become the foundation’s marquee program.

From the beginning, though, the foundation must have had an inkling it was on to something bigger than just a one-off series of grants. For one, rather than treat the announcement of the award as it usually did for others like it in the past – sending out letters and emails – it went the extra effort to create a stand-alone, full-color brochure.  Also, it put a lot of time into thinking what to call this award program. Thankfully, more creative heads were consulted and the name, first suggested, “Operational Enrichment Grant,” didn’t stick.

According to Cheryl Taylor, Foellinger’s president, “Some brainstorming inside the foundation led us to come up with a more appropriate name for our award program. Apparently the name we chose – Inspire — not only stuck to the grant, but it’s sticking to the foundation as well.”

Taylor adds that the purpose of the Inspire Grant is – as the name implies – to inspire leaders of nonprofits to do and be their best. In coming up with the idea, the foundation asked itself, “What would happen if we provided leaders of local nonprofits with a grant designed to support their own professional and personal growth and renewal? What would happen if we simply said, ‘Show us what you would do – if you had the funds – to make yourself a stronger leader by investing in yourself?’  Significantly, we also asked how these leaders would institutionalize what they discovered in order to strengthen their organizations.”

Inspire Grants – which total $25,000 each — have two phases.  According to the foundation, during the first, or the Inspire Phase, “nonprofit leaders are given the opportunity to look beyond their daily duties, to renew their energies and to explore new perspectives. Leaders can also use this opportunity to not only develop themselves, but to provide development opportunities for key staff members – the next generation of leaders.”  The grant will pay for personal or group retreats, personal research projects, site visits – it’s up to the organization.

In the second, or Action Phase, leaders put their inspirations to work “to make their nonprofits stronger.”  Recipient organizations also participate in Learning Circles – formal and informal – to share what they learn with each other to help spread the impact of the grants.

As an example of the kinds of activities the grant funded, one nonprofit executive director interviewed his peers at other social service organizations in the community to learn what helps them succeed at their work and then spent time determining how to apply those lessons to the leadership of his own organization.  In addition, he summarized what he learned from his research for a series of articles published over 12 months in a leading local business publication.

In another case, five Inspire grantees chose to work together. All attended a renowned leadership institute to learn about effective management. When they returned home they – as a group — began applying the principles they studied at the institute in each of their organizations.

While the Inspire Grants probably would have won strong public support no matter when they were announced, it didn’t hurt that – purely by coincidence — the launch came during a time when many foundations were retrenching due to the collapse of the stock market in late 2008.  For Foellinger, which had the Inspire Grants on the drawing board long before the market meltdown, instead of having to communicate bad news, it had a good story to tell.

As Taylor notes, “the Inspire Grant gave (and continues to give) us a ‘good news ‘message at a time when good news was not easy to drum up.”

To help promote the program, the foundation has also enlisted grantees.  To both encourage and help grantees to talk up the award publicly, the foundation provided each recipient with a tip-sheet, art work – such as the program and foundation logos – and copy to describe the award.

“So rather just us promoting the Inspire Grant, we have 19 local nonprofits serving as ambassadors,” Taylor says. “They’ve seamlessly integrated information about the grant and the Inspire brand into their own branding in their outreach materials.”

As noted, the Inspire Grant is no longer considered an experiment. It has been so successful, as both a grant program and communications effort, that the foundation will award another round of grants later this year.

For more on the Inspire Grants, click to download a case study.

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