The Water, The Hose, and the Proposal

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It’s an often-used metaphor: funders want to pay for the water to put out a fire, but not the hose it takes to deliver the spray. The water might be specific programs or activities; let’s use the hose as a symbol of basic organizational systems—administrative salaries, rent, utilities, supplies, technology—the things it takes to keep the place open and running. This is generally thought of as “general operating” and is one of the vexing challenges for a proposal writer or development leader.


How to make a compelling case for general operating support? It’s an important dimension of proposal development for nonprofits, whether you’re preparing a request specifically asking for general operating funds or including those costs in a larger “program-specific” proposal.


Broaden and lengthen your focus. Think of the wider impact of your organization. If you provide community-building work, the job won’t get done in a single grant cycle. Instead, it will take steady and consistent presence to make a difference—the elements of an organization’s general operations. Make the case for operating support on the basis of “playing the long game.”


Pat yourself on the back. Remind the funder of your accomplishments and the impact you organization has had over time. Use the proposal to demonstrate what difference it has made in your community to have you on the job.


Use numbers. The basis for your request is probably a gap between what you can pay for with program revenue and what it costs to be in business independent of programs. Show the funder what that gap is, make it specific and base it on your labor market, your salary history, your rent increases etc.


Look ahead. What are your plans for continuing to meet operating costs? Do you have financial projections about the next one, three or five years? A funder wants to know that your nonprofit is thinking about tomorrow, not just grasping at what it will take to survive today. This kind of projection is basic Board work, in consultation with staff leadership.


Arranging a general operating proposal with these elements will tell the funder that it’s important to keep a hose in your hands so you can continue to pour water on the conflagration


Thomas Boyd is Chief Editorial Consultant for The Grantsmanship Center
and an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations.

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