Troy Yerkovich argues that nonprofits should start thinking more strategically about government as a funding partner, and that developing healthy relationships with government can result in funds from outside the usual grants.

Gone are the days when nonprofits were predominantly external critics, commentators or spectators of Australian politics. As the sector continues to evolve into a more business driven and politically-oriented environment, it is more apparent than ever that nonprofits need to establish themselves as an integral part of national, state and local political processes.

Some nonprofits have already been doing this very well, but the opportunity is there for many others. Approaching government for funding outside the usual grants can be daunting, and it’s hard to know where to start, but there is a path and here’s a few pointers.

Know Your Prospects and the Political Environment

The first and most important step is to identify the relevant government portfolio(s) that relate to your particular organisation or project to be funded. Once this is done determine the top decision-maker (often a minister), and target your approach to that person.

There will usually be other bureaucrats and advisors who help guide the key decision-maker, so it’s important to know who these people are and to also keep them informed.

Understanding the agendas and political viewpoints of politicians and bureaucrats is critical to helping you to adapt your efforts and the way you present them. Political agendas are shaped by a variety of factors including budgetary constraints, ideological and philosophical approaches and immediate priorities.

Other political considerations which can influence the decisions of ministers are:

The need for all constituencies to be treated equitably with regard to budgetary allocations
Ensuring elected officials are informed about happendings in their region
The potential for controversy with any funding decision

Tip

Seek the influence of your local, state or federal member. Many politicians are happy to provide letters of endorsement for projects they think are worthwhile. This not only lends credence to your funding proposal, it may also expedite the assessment process.

High Calibre Approach Team

Deciding who, in your organisation or wider sphere of connections, is the best person to lead the approach to government is often not easy. Ideally it should be someone who ‘has the ear’ of the government decision-maker and has access to them.

Once you have determined who your ‘champion’ is, have them make contact with the prospect in government to seek a meeting. Some combination of your champion, chairman, board and CEO should be part of the approach team.

Ensure briefing notes are provided to your approach team for all meetings. A well prepared team is a successful team. At some stage during the approach process it can be helpful to invite the government prospects to tour your premises, see programs in action and meet the key staff and leadership.

Be Patient and Follow-up

Bureaucracies move slowly, so be prepared to attend several meetings during an approach to government. There may be many months (sometimes 12-18 months) from initial contact to the point that decisions are made and funds are approved – and that is okay – be patient.

Sometimes it can be hard to remain enthusiastic during a drawn-out process, but it’s very important to maintain focus, especially when it comes to following up.

If you reach a point where you are invited to submit a formal funding proposal it’s very important to ask about the timeframes for decision making. Once you know these you can make timely and appropriate enquiries about the progress of the proposal.

Following up helps keep you on their radar and lets them know you haven’t forgotten them, especially when so many other things are going on in the external environment. Be persistent but not pushy – it’s a fine line.

Continual Engagement Required

Being part of the political process generally enhances the chances for influencing policy agendas and securing better funding outcomes.

In practice this means being carefully non-partisan and willing to give credit where credit is due. It means informing members of government and their advisors about your programs, challenges and dreams.

It also means being committed to understanding the ever changing political context; participating in the political process is a continual activity in its own right.

CASE STUDY 1 RFD’s Long Road to the Top

Over the past seven years the distance flown by the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) South Eastern Section increased by almost five million kilometres, and in the second half of 2006 there was an 18% increase in the number of clients being seen at rural health clinics in NSW alone.

Despite receiving funding from state and federal governments and donations from the public, the increased demands caused a shortfall in RFDS’s capital requirements, and the organisation decided to bring greater focus to bear on its relationship with government to win additional financial resources.

RFDS developed a systematic approach to its government stakeholders, and the organisation identified the former Prime Minister, John Howard, as the most important decision maker.

Before approaching the Prime Minister, RFDS carefully recruited key individuals from within the organisation, the board and the capital campaign committee who could reach Mr Howard and clearly express the importance of the campaign.

A well researched, outcome-focused proposal was prepared, and the approach team finally had the opportunity to meet with the Prime Minister.

Mr Howard was duly followed up, and in April 2007 the RFDS successfully obtained a commitment of $250 million over 4 years in Commonwealth funding.

This was achieved plain and simply by building and leveraging key relationships with several levels of government, but it took many years to plan, prepare, make the approach, follow-up and finally secure the funding.

According to Captain Clyde Thomson, Executive Director, RFDS (South Eastern Section) relationships require ongoing contact; not just a quick phone call when you want something. “We worked on that government relationship strategy for a long time in the lead up to the grant, and the RFDS nationally are still nurturing the relationship today.”

To establish and maintain powerful relationships with government, nonprofits need to become more transparent and outcome-focused. This means offering high-quality, useful information and analysis, sustained over a long period of time.

CASE STUDY 2 WAIMR

In February 1999, the Western Australian Institute for Medical Research (WAIMR) made an approach to the Western Australian Government for funding assistance.

Formed to pioneer and rapidly progress advancement in genetic biomedical science, the objective of WAIMR was to develop a centre of excellence that would provide improved health and a better quality of life for all Western Australians.

A group of well-respected figures was enlisted for the capital campaign and they led the approach to the WA Premier and Deputy Premier, which took several meetings over many months.

WAIMR Director Professor Peter Klinken said the high profile of this approach team, together with a compelling case, were important ingredients in the success of the approach. “The fact that major corporations, philanthropists and UWA had already committed funds to WAIMR, demonstrated to the state government the broad community support for the Institute.”

Although it took almost two years, WAIMR was eventually granted $8 million, which was later extended with a further $6 million.

That was almost 10 years ago, and WAIMR continues to successfully fundraise from government. It recently received $100 million from the state government and The University of Western Australia, as well as $100 million from the federal government to build new research facilities.

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