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Advice to Grant Seekers: Never Believe Your Own PR

(May 19, 2008) It’s a phrase we’ve all heard, but Karen Levin, executive director of the Levin Family Foundation in Dayton Ohio, says grant seekers should remember to bring their data and a level head—not a sales pitch—when they approach a foundation for grant money. Leave the public relations brochures at home.

Named the 2008 Outstanding Foundation by AFP, the Levin Family Foundation supports a variety of causes in innovative ways to benefit people in the Dayton area and globally. The foundation’s initiatives include organizing an annual health fair that offers free medical tests to children and the uninsured, funding childcare at the YWCA for the homeless and abused, and support of research to advance global health and emergency preparedness worldwide.

Levin, who has worked on grants from both sides of the table as a grant seeker and grant maker, doesn’t mince words when asked about effective approaches to grant seeking. “Never get smarmy,” she says. “If I don’t know you don’t assume we’re best friends.”

It may sound harsh, but that dose of realism may help you dig deeper when preparing to make a case for funding. What foundations are looking for, Levin says, is a fundraiser who has done his or her homework and is armed with knowledge about program success and even how that success is measured.

“I’ve talked with people who thought they could win me over with statistics,” Levin says, “but when I ask them about their results in detail, they either have no answer or try to make one up. That’s not going to work for someone like myself with a background in experimental design.”

Perfection Not Needed

But Levin is quick to note that she doesn’t expect a fundraiser to be perfect, just genuine and focused on results. She says her foundation learns as it goes and adjusts its approach to make the best process possible, just as grant seekers should keep analyzing their approaches with grant makers. “We certainly aren’t perfect,” she admits, “and we’re happy to get feedback, just don’t blow sunshine up our knickers.”

Levin also says she looks for “asks” that not only fit her foundation’s mission but for donation amounts that fit the foundation’s overall strategy and pattern of support. “Look at our Form 990 and see what we’ve given to similar organizations,” she advises.

The lesson? Make sure your “ask” is as down-to-earth and realistic as what you are going to do with the money. According to Levin, that’s a good start to a strong charity-funder relationship.

A Variety of Causes

The Levin Family Foundation was created in 1995 and focuses on Jewish causes, social services and education, with an emphasis on serving underserved segments of the population.

One of foundation’s newest ventures is funding a documentary film about the immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel called Take Us Home, slated for release later in 2009. The film explores the history of people in transition—not only the sociologic impact upon Israeli society, but also the profound impact upon the new immigrants.

The foundation’s support of the Wright State University (WSU) School of Medicine’s PALS program helps students with disabilities learn about the risks of substance abuse, while other seed funding has established support services for chemically dependent mothers. Levin brought government agencies, the University of Dayton and local charities together to address the issues of childhood obesity and diabetes through the creation of the Miami Valley Healthy Kids Task Force. This group is now being reconvened under the auspices of the Montgomery County Combined Health District.

Funding from the foundation has served as a catalyst for significant in-kind support from local public health agencies and the U.S. Air Force. The foundation also has made grants for health care and social service programs in Africa.

Recently, the foundation partnered with the United Way to create “Grants for Kids Program” to encourage children under age 17 to give back to their communities through personal service. Young leaders were invited to develop and present service ideas and encouraged to think creatively about how their funds could make the biggest impact. The foundation also has helped establish the first Legacy Partnership Program, which assists local charities in establishing or enhancing planned-gifts programs and building endowments to guarantee their future.

About AFP’s Awards

The Levin Family Foundation was honored as the 2008 Outstanding Foundation at the Awards for Philanthropy Banquet during AFP’s International Conference on Fundraising in San Diego earlier this year. Paulette V. Maehara, CFRE, CAE, president and CEO of AFP, presented the award to Levin and members of the board of the foundation.

“The Levin Family Foundation sees well beyond its local borders, providing ground-breaking and lasting help to underserved segments of society both nearby and worldwide,” said Paulette V. Maehara, CFRE, CAE, president and CEO of AFP. “Foundations like this one show what passion and ingenuity can accomplish for the benefit of the local, national and world community.”

Nomination forms and information for the 2009 Award for Outstanding Foundation and other categories of AFP’s Awards for Philanthropy are now available here on the AFP website. The deadline for submitting nominations for AFP’s awards program is July 15.

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