Coins in the Can

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In a proposal writing workshop one of the participants (call her Roxanne) despaired of anyone wanting to help her raise the money she needed. “All we need is a van to carry some equipment,” she worried, “but it’s not glamorous and we don’t have any way to get started.”


The workshop leader tried an experiment: he put a coffee can on the table and asked if anybody had spare change to give Roxanne. There were jokes, but the “Van Can” began to fill up with nickels and dimes and quarters. By the end of the workshop she had raised about $75 in spare change.


She took it back to her organization and repeated the exercise. Finally, she had raised a few hundred dollars in change, then she asked a board member to match it. Four board members stepped up with a match. Then she contacted the local community foundation with the total and asked for a matching grant. She won that grant, and another matching grant from a local small business.


She got her van because of the nickels and dimes and her willingness to start small and her belief in old sayings:  nothing succeeds like success . . . everybody wants to back a winner . . . journeys of a thousand miles begin with a single step, etc.


Sometimes the answer to a nonprofit’s search for support is informed by those old sayings. The answer might be to postpone the stretch for a highly competitive and difficult funding opportunity but instead to start with small, internal and personal actions. Nonprofits have always known the revenue potential from special events and that same way of thinking—a little bit from a lot of people—can be the floor under a successful search for bigger and more funding.


Foundations favor organizations that act in their own behalf. A proposal that begins, “We can’t do anything until you give us a grant” is a much less competitive request. One of the reasons Roxanne was successful with the community foundation was (as they told her) the way she’d gotten things moving with the spare change in the can.


“Small-change fundraising” is as diverse and as innovative as a nonprofit’s imagination can create. The common denominator is the willingness to start where you can, with what you can, and keep an eye on the bigger prize while you fill your coffee can.


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

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