Mar 31, 2022

How Robin Hood Cultivates Early-Stage Nonprofits

The GRIT program helps nonprofits scale their vision. Updated June 1, 2022

By Suzi Epstein, Managing Director | Field Building & Public Benefits

For seven years, Robin Hood has taken on the challenge of helping community organizations polish their funding asks.

While many nonprofits in New York City benefit from intriguing models, committed staff, and government support, many of them struggle to appeal effectively to evidence-based funders who want to see impact before committing support. Some of these organizations can describe a problem statement well, but do not adequately communicate their program model. Others may concentrate on inputs and processes, but do not outline results. Some might prepare satisfactory budgets, including ratios such as administrative overhead and employee benefits, but lack specificity on program costs and total resources needed. In general, many nonprofits need to show a stronger command of what funders need to see.

Robin Hood’s Grant Readiness and Insights Training (GRIT), an annual, cohort-based training and support program, has a simple goal: help early- to mid-stage nonprofits with talented leaders to present their program models, results, governance, and financial picture in a way that betters their chances of receiving private funding.

For GRIT, we have developed 30 hours of content, which have been delivered both in person and virtually. Our sessions bring together a broad range of professionals — from within Robin Hood and externally — to mentor leaders on how to differentiate their organization and best showcase their impact when seeking funding. Today, we are proud to share GRIT has supported 73 organizations.

We recently surveyed groups who have participated to understand whether it made a difference. Every group who responded noted that they had achieved positive aims, such as making changes to their board, reconfiguring the way they thought about events, and improving evaluations. 90% of GRIT alumni responders reported successfully applying for and receiving new corporate and philanthropic support after completing the program.

Four groups who completed the GRIT program went on to become Robin Hood community partners. Examples include Children of Promise — which helps young people impacted by the criminal justice system — who received a grant from our Fund for Early Learning (FUEL) initiative, and The Knowledge House — which provides digital skills training — who joined Robin Hood’s Power Fund in 2020. Additionally, 23 GRIT organizations have received support from the Robin Hood Relief Fund to address COVID-19 pandemic-related relief efforts.

One GRIT participant in particular — an organization called New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) — went on to receive the prestigious David Prize for their work improving the lives of immigrant workers. Additionally, NICE’s Executive Director, Manuel Castro, is now serving as the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

A number of participating organizations have grown considerably. Emma’s Torch, a job-training program for refugees in the culinary industry, has made incredible leaps since participating in GRIT. Despite the setbacks of the pandemic, Emma’s Torch raised money, pursued earned revenues, set up a cafe at the Brooklyn Library, and tripled its private funding in roughly two years.

A member of the inaugural GRIT cohort, the Kennedy Children’s Center added a job training initiative that prepared low-income parents to become teaching assistants for children with special needs and secured a grant from Robin Hood. Of the 150 people who went through the training program, 106 gained employment in the sector.

For all the information that we’ve imparted via GRIT, we have learned a lot, too. Here are some discoveries:

Organizations low-balled when presenting their costs.

When writing to funders, you have to be clear about their investment — including all the resources you need. Know your costs and understand all the allocations. In an effort to appear lean, organizations will not share all their requirements. Funders will ask detailed questions so our workshops drill down to the essentials so that organizations are prepared.

Qualitative evaluation matters.

Beyond the concrete numbers of a quantitative evaluation, a qualitative evaluation is an important part of relaying program performance. It is critical to think about things outside of metrics like program implementation, adjustments made after client feedback, staff morale, and appeal of facilities. Ultimately, organizations should also relay meaningful, productive insights that are not necessarily metrics-oriented.

Community organizations understand engagement.

It is quite a humbling thing to know that the people in the room can teach us more than we can teach them. Most of the groups we have worked with are highly adept at community engagement and relating to constituents, whether that’s scheduling focus groups at times that are convenient for participants (or using phone surveys instead), and arranging for childcare, snacks, and interpreters. In our workshops, we make sure that we’re learning, too.