The Mountain & The Spoon Mistake
nonprofit management tips

When seeking grant funds to tackle a complex, multi-faceted problem such as homelessness or poverty, your organization’s proposed approach can seem tantamount to suggesting that a spoon be used to remove a mountain.

Unless you’re careful, the crushing weight of negative facts and figures can tinge your grant proposal with an aura of hopelessness. “I call it the mountain and the spoon mistake,” said Barbara Floersch, executive director of The Grantsmanship Center in Los Angeles, Calif. “To move beyond this conundrum the proposal must define how your organization’s work will contribute to long-term progress.”

    There are three main pressure points in planning an effective approach to complicated, entrenched problems.

  • Target the causes your organization can influence. To make positive change, a program must strike at the causes of the problem, and complicated problems have numerous roots. For example, homelessness is the result of many factors including poverty, substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, lack of affordable housing, joblessness, and more.
    Sort out the various causes, then lean into the one that fits your organization’s mission and expertise. No single organization can tackle every factor that contributes to homelessness, but each organization can target the causes within its realm of influence.
  • Take a right-sized bite. Once you’ve narrowed your approach to factors you can realistically influence, you might have to narrow the work plan further to fit your organization’s capacity. While its role and expertise might be appropriate to assist school-aged children who are homeless, your organization might not have the capacity to assist all of these children who live in your city; it might have to confine the work to one neighborhood, age group, or demographic.
  • Identify your circle of friends. Organizations that effectively address complex, multifaceted problems don’t operate as lone wolves. They’re usually tied into coalitions or associations of organizations that form a working partnership. When various public and private nonprofits coordinate their effort, there’s more muscle, additional expertise, expanded resources, and greater promise of impact.

Identifying your organization’s role within the larger picture strengthens your grant proposal. “One program can’t wipe out a complex problem,” said Floersch. “But a well-considered, tightly targeted approach that’s coordinated with other community efforts can absolutely make a difference.” A convincing grant proposal acknowledges the complications, then clearly shows how the role, capacity, and achievement of your organization will contribute to positive change. © Copyright 2017 The Grantsmanship Center.