Since the early days of the Progressive Power Lab‘s partner, the Progressive Multiplier, we have come across a lot of innovative grant application ideas. While we’ll continue to steer organizations towards techniques that we discover that work (e.g. Free Will), we’d be loath to over-steer, because we truly want your best ideas, not ours. In that spirit, we thought we’d share some of the questions that you can ask yourselves when coming up with your proposal, and share examples of grants that we believe fit the line of thinking raised by these questions.
Question 1: What worked in the past that was not part of your plans, and therefore you didn’t pursue? Could this idea be your grant application idea?
I still recall the day that Frank Canata returned to my door-to-door canvass office in Chicago in 1998, gregariously shouting towards me that I had not given him enough houses, but that he’d still beaten his daily goal by standing on the street corner and asking for money. I thought “only Frank could pull that off” and brushed past his surprising success. Years later, after someone had paid attention to a similar, accidental success in Austria and launched street canvasses, door-to-door canvasses were largely replaced with the street canvass. I launched a street canvass for Greenpeace years later, which raised $23 million per year. Since then, I’ve always asked what has worked that wasn’t in the plan, and should that surprising success be tested further.
Paid Leave for the US (PL+US) is an example of an organization that discovered something unplanned that worked, and now they’re testing it more fully. PL+US found that they were the beneficiaries of Facebook crowdfunding hosted by people who were sharing birth announcements and paying their own paid leave “forward” by asking their friends and family on Facebook to donate to PL+US. Their Test & Innovation Fund grant is helping them build lookalike models, target them through Facebook Ads, and recruit them to host crowdfunding campaigns on Facebook.
Question 2: How can you play to your strengths, and test one new thing at a time?
Many organizations approach the PMF asking for funds to test lead generation and test email fundraising for the first time at the same time. Trying too many new things that don’t play to your strengths is likely to fail. Don’t get me wrong; the PMF aims to fail 80% of the time with the experimental grants we provide. But the kind of failure we like is by organizations, staff, and their partners who have experience testing one or two things that stretch them, but aren’t all brand new to them.
Texas After Violence Project (TAVP) is a great example of an organization playing to its strengths — legal training — and testing one new thing with its grant idea — marketing legal trainings — as an experiment. TAVP designed three legal trainings that are qualified to be Continued Learning Education Credits. The trainings are focused on preventing future traumatization from the criminal justice system, and promoting restorative, nonviolent responses, all while generating income from attorneys paying for the courses. With TAVP’s grant, they are testing a wide array of marketing techniques to determine the best methods for generating paying customers. Their objective is to find successful, replicable marketing techniques that TAVP and other organizations can use to market CLE courses.
Corporate Accountability International based its grant application idea on its expertise in house party fundraising and distributed organizing. With their grant, CAI is activating and training their volunteers to host fundraising house parties. Through these house parties, they are building their monthly giving program and engaging their current base to be even better advocates for their cause.
Question 3: How can you take what you’re doing well to 11 to design your grant application ideas?
PushBlack is building off of their 4,000,000 Facebook Messenger list and their experimentation sprint culture. Through a series of 2-4 tests per week over a year, PushBlack will very quickly learn and adapt to what increases and engages their audience and what doesn’t. With each test, they’ll look at subscriber engagement, acquisition cost of new subscribers, viral growth, format and campaign ask effectiveness, and adapt accordingly. All of their tests seek to optimize the cost and return on investment of increasing their subscriber count and income per subscriber.
Let’s Go Negative
If you were to ask these questions in the opposite way, you’d get a great list of things not to do in your grant application ideas:
- Don’t ignore things that surprisingly work when thinking of an idea for a grant. Those are the best next things to test;
- Don’t propose to do a big plan that includes multiple new things, none of which play to your strengths. Stretch yourselves or test one new thing in your tests, but do it with staff or consultants who have skillsets that can be applied to these new ideas;
- Don’t rule out improving your current programs. Just optimizing them, in some cases, could lead to millions of dollars.