Practical Advice for Shaking the Money Tree

tree hand
“The Development Department would take any meeting in their desperate search for funds”

Last time on ‘From Hunger into Health’ we visited with some experts on the nationally evolving situation around funding the non ’emergency food’ side of your activities, those that are designed to move communities on from a state of dependence on food pantries. Wally Verdooren looked at how you can begin to align your strategies with those of funders, and Barbara Andersen gave us a peek into the mindset of funders and how it’s never too late to begin a whole new relationship.

As a follow-up from ‘the trenches,’ I am sharing some of my own experience in shaking the money tree – what has worked, what hasn’t, and how you can move forward the whole happy band, including board, different internal departments and the community itself toward a shared vision of a healthy and food secure future.

“The first meeting of the local Collective Impact group, was beginning to feel more like trial by jury.”

For a number of years I have been somewhat of a parrot,  repeating endlessly that ours are community health organizations. In that case, the first job of a doctor is to ‘do no further harm.’ In a fundraising sense that means making sure that you do not lose your current funding base as you reach out for some bright shiny new funding opportunity.


It’s a numbers game. 70% of your existing supporters are locked into the hunger / charity message that you have been espousing for years. They want to help ‘the needy’ and we have relied on their love, generosity and donations of aging cans of weird food since the beginning. You should accept their lack of desire to hear a new approach and keep pumping out the old hunger message. You should take their money and keep using it.

For some, you will need to keep singing from the same song sheet
“For some, you will need to keep singing from the same song sheet.”

This calculation still assumes that 30% of your supporters will be open to something new. This is a beautiful flower  you must nurture and grow. These supporters are typically younger, more interested in getting directly involved, and want campaigns with end results that they can feel good about achieving.

As you begin to think through your new approaches, don’t feel you have to have everything figured out before you take it to supporters. They want to be co-creators with you. Consider having visioning lunches or events that could bring in a third party expert/speaker to validate your new approach. Consider program tours that take your supporters to programs run by other organizations that you want to emulate. You needn’t be afraid they’ll jump ship. If you have the relationship with the donor, they will appreciate you being honest that you don’t have all the answers and be excited about the possibility of learning from success elsewhere.

"Embrace those novel partnerships."
“Embrace those novel partnerships.”


As your aspirations to do new things become known in the community, you have the opportunity to build novel partnerships that will enhance your legitimacy about venturing into health or community development or nutrition or any other area. One new partnership for us was with CEC, an environmental nonprofit. We came together to seek funding and community interest in a local Food Action Plan that would look at the possibility of food as an economic and health driver in our community.

These novel partnerships are going to excite funders because they are a more realistic response to the total picture that they see out there rather than us staying burrowing away in our one little corner of expertise.

One thing that many of us have to base new relationships around, is our access to clients/friends/neighbors (whatever term you like to use) who come to our programs because they trust us to not let them down. You have the potential of offering access to this clientele for health screenings or the provision of other services for low-income people.

You will get your fingers burned with some partnerships, where some groups might not want you ‘invading’ their area, so it is important to have limited objectives that allow trust and true partnership to grow over a period of time.


You should be ensuring that your strategies for the community involve the input of the community itself. These can be stakeholder interviews, meetings with other non-profits or public meetings. You will get a clearer idea of community priorities and that is gold with funders – you have done your research and are not guessing what people need.

“One screen from our online Guide to Nutrition Programs.”

So in our case, part of this strategy includes utilization of our ‘Guide to Nutrition Programs’ a GIS mapping solution that shows areas of need on a neighborhood level, as well as what services and programs are provided by our member agencies and others. What information do you have about the community or needs of it that might be valuable at establishing your credibility?


The research that you have done in the community will reveal a new narrative, one that is not just based around ‘we need your help and more and more of it.’ Communities have found ways to come together and help each other through hard times for millennia. If your new narrative focusing on Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), then there are many positive narratives that can fit into your new view of the world.

"Asset Based Community Mapping"
“Asset Based Community Mapping”

If you are not familiar with ABCD then here is a helpful powerpoint: Asset Based Community Development, Health Warning: Guard your eyes and souls from the hot pink text on turquoise background…

Realistically it will take years for the community as a whole to view your new mission differently. Every Thanksgiving, people give you a frozen B-52 bomber of a turkey and press the mental reset button as to what you can do as an organization.

Don’t panic. Keep engaging journalists and providing more positive client stories that show the self-sufficiency that arises out of other programs that you may be running.

“Complex issues needing systemic change can all be resolved with a barrage of Butterballs.”

You only need one foundation or major donor to give you a bit of money for you to hold this win up to the naysayers and to show them that your plans are the wave of the future and that the money will surely flow if you build it. When I wanted to hire a dietician to move my organization towards embracing good nutrition as our most basic value, I was able to get a single grant for $7,500 from a foundation for this purpose. This was nowhere near enough to cover the whole cost of the salary for even a year, but I still hired the person and kept pushing the process forward. It was the dietician’s job to be ‘singing for her supper’ in a variety of local funder settings. Here was proof that we were doing what we were talking about, and money followed this ‘proof.’

Your first efforts are going to deeply imperfect, but as Barbara suggested last month, the more you can share your process of evolving and learning with foundations, then they will appreciate your honesty and flexibility.


It comes down to having a larger vision of a food secure community, to engage the community to add to that vision, and to clearly articulate it to funders and donors. I know you can do it!



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