"I love the ability to track everything in Instrumentl. Take deadlines for reports and email reminders I get, for example. I don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night and think—oh my god, did I miss it?"
Cynthia Ceilan, Director of Institutional Giving at Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan
The JCC is a Jewish Cultural Center that offers programs for people of all ages—from kids all the way up to adults and seniors in the areas of fitness, literacy, and social justice. Together with its community, this organization creates opportunities for people to connect, grow, and learn within an ever-changing Jewish landscape.
Cynthia Celian, Director of Institutional Giving, has over 20 years of experience in marketing communications and fundraising in the nonprofit sector. She briefly introduced us to the work of her organization and the Jewish values that are at the core of everything they do:
One of the things that Cynthia does when researching funders is to focus on those that have more than one overlapping funding interest with their own JCC programs:
“For example, if there’s a foundation that serves or wants to support programs for children’s education and also intergenerational programming, we do both of those things. So the more overlap there is between our mutual interest areas, I think the better chances we have of securing these grants.”
The second thing Cynthia likes to look at are the grantmakers' past grantees and find organizations similar to theirs. She explores how much funding they have won and for what kinds of programs:
“This serves as a vetting process for determining the best fit for our organization and best funders.”
In Instrumentl, it’s easy to see who received the grants in the past and how open a certain funder is to new grantees:
The feature that Cynthia particularly values in Instrumentl is the range of grants awarded in the past, particularly how much they’ve awarded new granteest:
“Anybody who’s been doing grant writing for any length of time knows grantmakers aren’t always very forthcoming in their guidelines about what their median or average grant is. They’ll say something like—we’ll give grants up to X amount of dollars. But that makes it really hard to determine what would be a reasonable request for our organization to make as a first-time applicant.”
Instrumentl offers this type of information in form of a snapshot that you can comprehend in a single glance:
So Cynthia will look at the potential funder’s median grant sizes, and average grant sizes, and then combine this type of information with the data points like past grantee amounts to specific organizations, that speak volumes about organizations that this funder has supported before:
“This is how you can ensure that you don’t end up worrying that you asked for too much or too little.”
When it comes to the value of 990 reports in Instrumentl, the first thing Cynthia looks at are the funder’s top giving categories by NTEE codes, which she says are quite helpful, especially considering the way they are organized on the funder profile:
“NTEE codes tell you about the type of organization you’re looking at. Is it education, is it healthcare, is it community service? This gives you a lot of insights about what their main focus is. It’s hard to find this type of information in the old type of PDF 990 reports.”
By the way, if you’re not sure how to set grant targets in prospect research, check out our partner workshop to learn more about this topic.
Another thing that has become vital to the way the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan identifies prospects and engages new grantmakers, is being able to see very quickly who the key people are in the organization.
Also, it’s good to bear in mind that individual donors could potentially become annual ones:
Key people can be a board of trustees, a board of directors, or the leadership staff at the organization. Cynthia shares why this is so valuable:
“We can pull that list and share it with our board and other people in our organization, our executive team, etc. This way, we can see if somebody already knows someone from the organization which helps us get a foot in the door. Through a friendly conversation, you can find your support partners much easier.”
We were curious to learn more about the best ways to increase the chances of winning a grant and Cynthia had some great insights to share:
“When we do have the opportunity to engage with a key staffer at a grant, we always map out two or three funding areas that fall into their priorities. We can gauge much better what lights up their eyes if we listen carefully—and listen more than we talk. By mapping out two or three potential funding areas, they can come back to us with their favorite one, and then we’ll know which program to focus on when we pitch our proposal or send an LOI.”
Cynthia also advised nonprofits not to be shy when it comes to asking grantmakers’ advice on the best way to proceed in asking for their support. This shifts the focus to the potential partnership you are about to develop with them.
Also, never underestimate the value of the relationships you have with the frontline staff, i.e. people who answer emails or pick up the phones.
They are the ones who put you in touch with the key people. Once you're on the phone with the key people, you're in position to talk about your potential funding programs and the "best way to proceed" in asking for their support:
“You should cultivate your relationships with frontline staff as carefully as you do with board members and trustees. They can be among your best allies who can help you maintain a great relationship with your grantmakers.”
As a Director of Institutional Giving, Cynthia is a very busy grant professional. The amazing thing is that she used to spend up to 4 hours per funder on grant prospecting before Instrumentl, but within just her first year of using the platform, she now spends less than 30 minutes, which amounts to ~87% in time savings.
We asked Cynthia to share what her typical Instrumentl session looks like and how you can learn from her best practices.
Before you start using Instrumentl, there’s a good chance that all your vital data is scattered across multiple sources. Many nonprofits rely on Excel spreadsheets or Salesforce to track grants, but there’s a much easier way to do this, as Cynthia learned.
Here’s how Cynthia started using Instrumentl as an institutional fundraising tool that centralizes everything related to grants:
“There are actually a few layers to the process of creating a single source of truth within Instrumentl. When we first signed up for it, we had to figure out what our projects should be. That’s because the JCC has literally hundreds of programs throughout the year that serve different populations. So the first step was to learn how to set up our projects and group them in a logical way.”
Once you have your projects mapped to your organization’s program areas, it’s fairly easy to jump into the prospecting part because now you know what you’re looking for and where the project data is stored.
Because you have categorized your projects based on your program areas, you can then set up a search criteria for that project detailing the field of work, locations, and grant amounts associated with that project search. This project’s saved search will generate a list of grant matches, which you can then look through the list of potential matches and “Save” any that are worth further exploration.
“What happens when we keep information in spreadsheets is the data is scattered across multiple rows and columns, so it can be hard to achieve a unified view on your history with funders.”
The good thing is that, if you used to track your grants in spreadsheets, you can import them to Instrumentl and enjoy a new, visually pleasing overview that allows you to grasp everything that’s been going on in a single glance.
Cynthia mentioned how it’s easy to upload historical information and neatly organize prospect information inside Instrumentl:
“For example, if there were grantmakers we were researching and proposals that were already in progress before we started using Instrumentl, we could add them in manually without any hassle.”
By doing this, Cynthia brought in all of her historical grant information so that it’s all centralized in one place and easily searchable from a master database.
One tip Cynthia pointed out was the importance of organizing your internal task workflow, which they use not only for keeping track of deadlines but also to divide ownership between different team members:
“When we get an award letter, it will usually tell you when your reporting deadlines are going to be. So everything from an interim report, yearly report, etc. After I do my little dance of joy that we got the grant, I set up tasks in Instrumentl and insert my reporting deadlines. That’s one of the many things that makes my job a lot easier.”
By setting up her reporting deadlines as Tasks, Cynthia knows she’ll receive email reminders as the task deadlines are approaching, and can easily reference all the reporting requirements for a grant later on just by opening it up on Instrumentl and checking her tasks.
Just like many nonprofit organizations, Cynthia’s development team often gets asked to produce ad hoc reports of their pending grants for the coming year, or how much money is likely to be brought within the organization within the next six months.
Cynthia shared how Instrumentl makes reporting a lot easier:
“Being able to pull reports as these beautifully formatted PDFs and share them with our executive team, board of directors, or whoever it is who requested them… It’s extremely helpful. Even if you choose to download the report as a spreadsheet, there’s additional flexibility because you can easily add another column or leave comments.”
Before you choose to send or print out the PDF report, you can customize reports by project, status, and fiscal year. For example, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan has a fairly large development group and everyone has their own portfolio of program areas.
This means that, if you want to see the list of grants that have been assigned to your program, you don’t have to pull an entire list, but rather mark what you’re interested in and have a relevant PDF report generated for you.
A nice touch to the report is that all of the grant names in the PDF report are clickable links that lead to a detailed page about that grant opportunity, including the 990 funder insights.
Sometimes the keywords you select in Instrumentl don’t fully reflect what grants you’re seeking. Other times, the grantmakers fall short of precisely describing their areas of focus. This creates an unfortunate misalignment where you might miss some relevant opportunities.
Something that Cynthia does to ensure she leaves no stone unturned is to search past recipient profiles to see who’s funding organizations like hers
“One really cool thing that you can do is look up any recipient profile, in addition to grantmaker profiles. So if I know an organization in our area or town that’s very similar to ours, I want to see—ok, who’s funding them?”
Another great way to discover new opportunities is to look at Funder Matches or invite-only foundations. Federations and philanthropic divisions of corporations, and invite-only grantmakers are not that easy to find online.
Here’s what Cynthia had to say about finding new opportunities in Instrumentl:
“I have found several opportunities that I wouldn’t have really known about otherwise. I don’t know how else I would have been able to identify them. For example, American Express has some philanthropic divisions but there’s no concrete information about how to solicit funds from them on their official website.”
As Cynthia wraps her thoughts around this, she concludes that having access to this type of information opens up an entire new revenue stream for your nonprofit. Indeed, there’s a lot of opportunity there, just looking at the corporate philanthropic groups.
At the end of our conversation, Cynthia shared a valuable tip on how to activate your board members and make them feel engaged. Board members typically have important connections and relationships that can be leveraged in order to get funding:
Each team member can contribute to getting a new grant, and that’s one of the beauties of working within a nonprofit organization that fights for a certain cause.
Thank you Cynthia for sharing your amazing story with us! We wish your organization a lot of success in the future.
If you want to watch the full interview with Cynthia, check it out here!
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