Right on the Money: Tips for Raising Money as a Coalition

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Photograph of a stack of fifty dollar bills

Neil Donovan has worked with coalitions aimed at serving homeless people for more than a quarter-century. No matter how regularly they meet or exactly how they strategize, one thing’s for sure, says Donovan, now executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless: “With effective coalitions, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

That two-or-more-is-better-than-one attitude can extend to fundraising, Donovan says. Rather than competing against each other for the same scarce funding, organizations that serve the homeless (or any other group) can pool their efforts and together raise money for their common cause.

To learn how local and statewide coalitions can raise money as a group, we talked to Donovan and Jeremy Sidell, who directs development and communications at People Assisting the Homeless, or PATH, a homelessness services coalition in Los Angeles. They shared the following tips:

Define your purpose.

Coalitions that serve homeless people come together for different reasons, Donovan says. So define the purpose of your coalition before applying for funding.

For example, some coalitions see themselves as a continuum of resources—an overall solution to homelessness. One agency focuses on prevention, another on street outreach, and others on health care, income, civil rights or housing.

Other coalitions are made up of several agencies that offer essentially the same services but have a slightly different approach. One agency may ban drugs and alcohol from the program. Another may use a harm reduction model. One program may focus on the needs of gay and lesbian youth, another on Native Americans. In this model, the coalition gives homeless people a choice.

Set up a structure.

When it comes to making decisions as a coalition, trying to come to consensus usually doesn’t work, Donovan says.

He offers two alternatives:

  1. Every agency gets one vote, and majority rules.
  2. The coalition appoints, say, two agencies per year to make decisions for the coalition and prioritize funding applications. Over the years, every agency gets a turn.

Either way, Donovan says, agree on who the decision makers will be before you talk about potential funding. Otherwise, nothing will get decided.

Stay true to your mission.

Some coalitions worry too much about the requirements of the funder, Donovan says. Others try to follow the funding, which can lead to “mission creep,” a phenomenon in which nonprofits change or expand their missions because of funding requirements or other outside factors, without thinking really carefully about what they want to accomplish.

“Make sure the coalition isn’t tying themselves in knots just to get funding,” Donovan says. Apply for funding that will promote what your coalition wants to achieve. Otherwise, take a pass.

Know when to share, and when to go on your own.

General operating support for the coalition and general assistance to help youth meet their basic needs for food and clothing are two types of funding Donovan says groups can easily apply for. Sidell says PATH raises money for shared building space and the administrative costs of a board that oversees the collaboration.

Funding that is best kept separate includes money for staff salaries. And Donovan says some grants are so difficult to apply for and come with such onerous conditions, it’s better to apply as an individual agency that can meet the requirements. Grants for providing health care, for example, require the proper licenses, specific pay schedules for staff, and regular site visits.

More on building coalitions

Read Building Effective Coalitions (PDF, 842KB), a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Homeless Assistance Programs.

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