There is no holier grail for a nonprofit than unrestricted funds (clouds part, angels sing). Unfortunately, holy grails are notoriously hard to find, especially if you’re looking for them in the grant world. So, in lieu of that holy grail is there something a little less holy, maybe just this side of divine, which is easier to acquire? Not quite unrestricted, but less restricted? The answer is yes, but you have to be willing to think outside the box or at least unpack that box a little and repackage it.

Let me take you back in time. A first class postage stamp was slightly cheaper than it is today and the price of gas was… Oh, about the same as it is now, actually. YouTube had just launched, providing us with a whole new set of cave walls on which to watch shadows flicker.  I, a fresh-faced and green-horned grant writer, faced the daunting task of writing proposals for a slew of programs each of which was almost identical but the data and the outcomes were all just a little different. The organization had started a decade or so before, providing arts programming at a local public school. Soon they expanded to two schools, then three, and so on. At this point, we were working with over a dozen individual schools as well as two small school districts. Each expansion was funded discretely, meaning that each was treated, at least by the funders and fundraisers, as a separate program.

This wasn’t a bad strategy for expansion. There were some definite pluses. The organization was able to expand incrementally and funders felt very connected to the schools they funded and to the community served.

But, there were also quite a few minuses. Big ones.  If the total cost for a school’s program was $25,000 a year, we were leaving money on the table with funders who could be awarding twice that. If a school’s demographics changed due to gentrification or an increased reliance on bussing in students from other neighborhoods, it could jeopardize grants which targeted a higher percentage of low-income students or students from a specific geographic area. Not to mention the fact that we were creating fifteen different grant templates and managing fifteen separate data sets in multiple formats — don’t even get me started on the accounting nightmare — for what was, essentially, one program. The bookkeeper and I were both tearing our hair out. Something had to be done.

I find the best ideas happen on walks and the best way to flesh them out is over coffee or tea or other beverages with smart, creative colleagues. After many walks to the local coffee shop, we designed an overarching framework of goals and outcomes to combine these into a single visual and performing arts education program. This process helped us to create a consistent set of demographic data to collect and track from all sites and disciplines. While our goal was to be able to go after larger grants with fewer restrictions, we also found that having universal data sets made it much easier to unpack and repackage information for those funders we would continue to solicit for specific school sites or arts disciplines. Standardization allowed us to be a lot more flexible in how we targeted funders and crafted our solicitations.

Step back and take a look at your programs. Are there ways you can repackage multiple programs as components of a larger single program or into just a few programs? Perhaps you have programs with similar outcomes which target different clients or communities. You might have programs that serve the same clients at different stages of their lives, educations, transitions, or recoveries which could be viewed as sequential components of a larger program. As you do this, you may find ways that you can streamline your data collection, tracking and analysis. You may even discover new angles for framing your work. It’s amazing what you can discover when you start unpacking your programs.