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Underexplored Major Gifts: Systemizing the Grants Function

John Wilson
Published:  04/11/2019

Underexplored major giftsAdapted from a presentation by Katie Tiernan, Executive Director, Grants, SCL Health, Inc. and Kristi Keolakai, MPA, MSW, Philanthropic Operations Manager, Colorado Health Access Fund, The Denver Foundation, at the 2018 AHP Annual International Conference in San Diego.

At SCL Health, a Colorado-based health care system, eight different foundations were seeking grants in their own ways. Some had full-time staff, some used contract proposal writers, and still others were asking their executive teams to spend a portion of their time writing proposals. As a result, they often unknowingly submitted multiple proposals to regional or national funders.

To address these issues, SCL elevated their grants function to the system level, creating a senior-level position responsible for coordinating grant activity across the system. In that role, Katie Tiernan, executive director of grants, works with physicians and organization executives to develop a business case for potential grant-funded programs, including a sustainability plan, and to serve as a relationship manager for the system’s portfolio of grant funders.

The results have been strong. SCL’s grants program moved from a return on investment (ROI) of $24 per dollar of expenses to an ROI of $38. Their proposal success rate has reached 70%.

Tiernan and one of her funding partners, Kristi Keolakai, MPA, MSW, of the Denver Foundation, share three lessons from SCL Health’s grants evolution for organizations seeking to improve their own performance in this area:

1. Identify local projects that create regional or systemwide opportunities.

Foundations and other funders want their grant dollars to make a measurable impact. A well-designed project will build in sustainability and/or replicability in order to extend the value of the initial grant.

In the proposal, it’s important to not only explain your project’s direct benefits, but also show how the project can be sustained beyond the grant period. Merely saying you will continue to fundraise for the project is not a good strategy for sustainability. Instead, make a business case for the initiative. Clinical projects will likely generate some business income. Other projects may become part of the larger health care organization’s operating budget if the initial grant-funded work shows value.

For smaller projects at a local level, a good proposal will show how the initiative could be replicated at a larger scale. For example, SCL Health’s first grant from the Denver Foundation’s Colorado Health Access Fund funded a director of behavioral health in a single clinic. The new position transformed care at that clinic site, and SCL was able to not only sustain the position, but also to use the learnings from that project to benefit other clinics, thus expanding the reach of the initial grant.

2. Work with care sites to fulfill grantee requirements and donor reports.

Like individual major gift donors, grant funders require stewardship. However, their reporting requirements are typically more stringent and can sometimes lead to a loss of funding if the recipient organization fails to execute the project described in their proposal.

“If you’re having challenges hitting your goal, call your funder as soon as possible to identify solutions,” says Keolakai. Too often, the funder only discovers a project has not been successful when they receive the final report. That lack of transparency destroys the funder’s trust in your organization and can sometimes even prompt them to ask for the money back.

A strong grant proposal will include a plan for evaluating the project’s success. Reaching internal consensus about how to measure success prior to submitting the proposal makes it easier to hold project managers accountable for collecting data and evaluating progress throughout the grant period.

3. Develop clear communication with individual care sites.

SCL Health recently transitioned their foundations to a single database, allowing all sites to view the same funder records to see Tiernan’s activity updates, including proposal status, reporting due dates, contact reports and more. Tiernan also stays in weekly contact with the executive directors of all SCL Health foundations so when a new prospect or proposal opportunity comes up, she can easily see who may have a project that may be a fit with that organization’s priorities or the specific grant.

Consider developing a quarterly impact report across your enterprise, Tiernan advises. This single report can be shared with multiple constituencies, including local care sites, operating boards, major donors or other funders, and community members. If people in local communities don’t hear about the work you’re doing, they’re going to assume no work is being done.

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Meet The Author

John Wilson
John Wilson
Director of Content Marketing
Association for Healthcare Philanthropy

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