Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán
April 17, 2024

How can you better position your organization for funding?

Sheleia Phillips

Farra Trompeter, co-director, is joined by Sheleia Phillips, founder and principal consultant of SMP Nonprofit Consulting, to talk about how to better position your organization to secure funding. Hear examples of nonprofits that have better positioned themselves to receive funding and find out what the shift looked like that led to their success.


Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director, and worker-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re gonna ask the question, how can you better position your organization for funding? We talk a lot about positioning, especially through our branding work, but it certainly also does come up in the work we do related to donor communications. And I was connected to today’s guest, Sheleia Phillips through Rachel D’Souza-Siebert, who was a guest on our podcast previously, back on episode 124. Why should you try new approaches in donor communications? So consider this part of that conversation and many others we’ve had on this topic. Before we dive in though, let me tell you a little bit about Sheleia. Sheleia Phillips, who has a lot of degrees, including an MPH and a CHES, uses she/her pronouns and is the founder and principal consultant of SMP Nonprofit Consulting, a full service firm that provides grant writing, capacity building, and fund development support to nonprofits. A servant leader Sheleia has dedicated herself to the growth and development of nonprofits for nearly 10 years. To date, Sheleia has secured over $5 million in grant revenue for youth development, education, and health programs. Sheleia believes that nonprofits are essential to creating the change We all want to see. Sheleia, welcome to the show.

Sheleia Phillips: Thank you. Thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here. And no matter how many times I hear my bio, it warms my heart to hear it from a friend. So thank you again for having me here and trusting me with your community.

Farra Trompeter: Of course. Deeply. Deeply, my pleasure. Well, before we dive in, you know, sometimes I do like to ask folks how they got to where they are and your story’s an interesting one, it’s not one I think I’ve heard before recently about, you know, lots of different things bring us to this work. Yeah. And I would just love for our listeners to learn a little bit more about you and your path to the wonderful world of nonprofit fundraising and development. Can you talk a little bit about who you are and what brought you to this work?

Sheleia Phillips: Yes, of course. So I am a biologist by trade. I know that shocks a lot of folks, but just to give you a little bit of background, I started my undergrad. I actually have a bachelor’s in biomedical sciences and a minor in chemistry. Don’t ask me why I chose chemistry because that was probably one of the craziest decisions of my life. But realized very quickly in that type of work, I would be in a laboratory all day. I remember feeling the early morning blues before the sun came out. Like I’m gonna be in the lab when the sun is down. And then when I, by the time I go home and have dinner, I still won’t see the sun or the light of day as I’m going to work day to day. And it just didn’t fill me with joy. So I did that work for a little while and had this moment where I wanted to do something different with my life, I just didn’t know where.

Sheleia Phillips: And I went back to that core, why did I get into the medical biomedical sciences field in the first place? And I just wanted to help people. Now that didn’t translate into nonprofits immediately. So I went to grad school, got my master’s of public health. And part of that process to graduate was to do some internship work with a local nonprofit. It ended up being a Boys and Girls Club that I actually grew up in. So not only was I able to have a like home connection there, but that was the first time I learned the real truth behind when you’re in nonprofits you wear many hats. So I initially came in as a health educator, somehow turned into a development intern, and never forget that was a special event going on, and my boss was like, “Hey Sheleia, we know that you’re the health educator, but there’s this big grant coming up and just can you take a stab at it?” And I’m like, okay. I panicked a little bit had to gather myself, went to the restroom, did my pep talk, and I said, just approach it like a research paper. Like I’ve done plenty of research papers, I’ve done plenty of scientific reports. It can’t be any different, right? It wasn’t that different because it requires attention to detail, thorough writing skills, and technical writing. But what I learned over time, we didn’t get that first grant, is that grants are a way to connect with funders with a story about people, not bacteria, chemicals or reactions or experiments. But I had to learn very quickly how to write about people and end up with the second grant that I wrote. It was a six-figure grant with a fairly large foundation here in the state of Missouri. Not only did we get the grant for two or three years worth of programming, but I wrote myself into a full-time job being the grant writer. I tell folks all the time, skills always translate. So even if you’re in a job today that you don’t think will be relevant later on, take it ’cause you’ll learn so many different things that build upon the foundation that you have. So take me as a prime example of that.

Farra Trompeter: I love that. When I was in college, I actually did a lot of work related to health education too and health promotion and then found myself in fundraising. So we’ll have to talk more about that. I was not a biology or chemistry major, I was a psychology major, but I had a minor in health education and promotion and I love that stuff. So we’ll have to talk more about that in the future.

Sheleia Phillips: Listen, I should have stayed on the path that you were in ’cause I don’t know what made me take chemistry. I think I lost a lot of hair in college, but we made it. I’m back.

Farra Trompeter: That’s right here you are! Well you were just talking about how you got into grant writing, you know, and I think some of the best grant writers are the people who actually understand the program. So that part of the story makes sense to me. I can follow that. And I know you do a lot of work now to help organizations win grants. How do you do that? What are some of the approaches that you bring into in your work with nonprofits or as you advise nonprofits when they’re working on grant writing and setting that work up internally in their organizations?

Sheleia Phillips: First and foremost, we embed community-centric fundraising in all that we do. Community-Centric Fundraising really transformed how I approach the work because we’re in a field where fundraising, especially grant writing can be transactional. In an effort to tell a story sometimes we’re not positioning our clients or the organizations that we work for in the best light. Or we may be working, in my experience, for leadership who don’t have the depth of understanding of what it means to not put the funder in the seat of the savior but to be more of a partner alongside us. So I will say that community-centric fundraising really transformed how I worked as a professional. And then when I transitioned to have my own consultancy, I made that the base of our culture here at SMP, because as we advance equitable philanthropy, we have to be mindful of what we produce while we are emotive beings. And yes, we want to support and mobilize resources in our communities. We have to be careful about how we do that. Being mindful of not only our clients but who they serve. And I always look at it as what am I producing work that our clients, not only as the organization, but the clients that they serve will be proud of and empower their story. So we start there. The second piece is that we marry what I call client-led exploration. We don’t come in, although we’re the consultants, thinking that we’re the experts because every organization has its own internal culture that they’re asking us for help. They’re not asking us to be saved. So we marry that with our expert-based experiences to create asset-based strategies is what I call them, to move them towards their goals. So sometimes we’re not just going in writing grants and seeing, you know, two points and a benediction and then we’re done.

Sheleia Phillips: But it’s more so helping them identify what are some of those core issues when we have time ’cause some projects are faster than others. But still having that mindset of partnership and asset-based solutions to create the deliverable, but also help them understand how to dismantle those harmful structures and how they can do their part in advocating for equitable philanthropy while engaging with institutional funders. And just the practices of traditional philanthropy all while telling their story. So I like the work that we do here because it’s as much creating a quality deliverable as much as it is coaching. And that’s where the heart of where I enjoy the work most. I say if you support the client and what they need and what they truly have at the foundation, the resources will come because we’re sticking to their values versus just solely trying to raise money for their mission and goals. But getting to know the client, getting to know the funders and connecting them and marrying them has been a joy in our work for sure.

Farra Trompeter: That’s great. I love how you bring your own personal belief in leading with values and questioning traditional and harmful practices into how you work into also what you try to connect with your clients to do, even beyond their work with you, which is amazing. For those of you out there listening, if this is the first time you’ve heard the phrase community-centric fundraising, I encourage you to check out community-centric where you can read about the principles behind that movement, amazing set of blogs and podcasts and their content hub. We also have had many conversations with folks connected to CCF or Community-Centric Fundraising, including the one I mentioned earlier with Rachel, as well as just two others. If you’re out there and you wanna listen or go to our show notes at back on episode 133, we had one of the co-founders, Michelle Shireen Muri on the show talking about how you can center community in your communications.

Farra Trompeter: And then on episode 136 we had Michelle Flores Vryn and Marisa DeSalles talking about how can we bring radical honesty to communications. So all of this is is all related and, and great stuff. And I love thinking and talking about it and helping to elevate these ideas. And I wanna go back to the idea of, you know, grant writing is, there is certainly, as you said with your chemistry and biology brain, there are certain steps you have to follow to make things happen. But also part of grant writing is that relationship with the funder getting their attention, making sure you can actually hold onto it. Just like we talk about donor retention, there’s not just acquisition but donor retention. There’s also the same with funder relationships. And I’m curious, what have you found works best in terms of actually building long-term relationships with funders? How can nonprofits build those stronger relationships?

Sheleia Phillips: One of the first things we encourage our clients to do is what we call clarifying your core. When it comes to finding, I like to say finding your people in this landscape. If you are not clear on who you are as an organization, and I mean well beyond just mission and your vision, but when we talk about values and when we talk about how we want to show up and our story and our brand in this ecosystem. Its very important to be clear on that because that’s going to determine the type of people that, or the type of funders, in this case, that you want to partner with. So we do a little bit of internal deep work with that. And as we explore, we start identifying and building their networks. I mean, we do this in a few ways. One, if they have an existing network, let’s just say they’re working for a nonprofit, or if our client has been working in the community or in a nonprofit space for years, they likely have an extensive network.

Sheleia Phillips: But if you’re a grassroots organization and you’re just getting started, it’s a lot of this work that they’re starting from scratch. So I like to encourage them to one, look in the community and start local, then go national. A lot of organizations are like, Hey, I can go to this national funder, but if they, it takes a while to get to that level unless you have a relationship to get in. So it’s prioritizing which step would be the next step forward. There’s a few ways you can do this. In our field, we start with grant research, of course, whether that’s opportunities or funders, but there’s ways that you could do it. Even without a grant research tool. You can use free resources like Google or if there’s a community event coming up with other nonprofits or a conference, you can get to know folks like that.

Sheleia Phillips: And once you start building your list of key people that you desire to have a relationship with or get to know more, I’m a huge fan of using social media platforms like LinkedIn to stay in communication. We call it love mapping here at SMP. So once we know the names of those folks, I’m going on LinkedIn typing in their nam, and seeing if we have any mutual connections. Because nine times outta 10, if you’re local, somebody knows somebody that knows somebody that knows somebody. And instead of directly inboxing them saying, Hey, I met you, sometimes you can, but I like to use my connections or folks that I know to say, “Hey, do you know Jane Smith at the A BC Foundation? Can you give us a warm intro and see if we can have a cup of coffee?” That tends to work. But if you wanna just go for the gusto and you know, go in directly, that could work as well.

Sheleia Phillips: But utilize your existing network and be warming your approach. Make sure that the first few times you’re meeting with folks, you’re not asking for money, but you’re really getting to know them and getting to know their values. And once you have space to cultivate that relationship, again, attend those local events, make sure that you’re seeing what they’re doing. But also on the other end, that a lot of organizations are doing well as we’re in this more progressive era of our work, doing lunch and learns and funder debriefs as ways to invite funders into your world so they can get to know the work that you’re doing, seeing the value in it. And then when it’s time to ask for that investment, they have like some real-time experience with it to see, you know, this is where our investment will go. And then that’ll lead to more funding opportunities in the future.

Farra Trompeter: That’s great. And I do wanna give a shout-out to another podcast conversation. You’re connecting to lots of other things we’ve talked about here, which is great. Oh good. Back on episode 141, we had Tania Bhattacharyya on the show talking about how your staff can maximize LinkedIn. So, more there to discover. Well, I wanna get really specific now. Can you share an example or two of nonprofits that have better positioned themselves to get funding? What did that shift actually look like and what do you think led to their success?

Sheleia Phillips: There was a client that we had a few years ago, and when we talked about clarifying your core, they did amazing work and still to this day do amazing work. However, they weren’t connecting with their people. People laugh at me all the time when I say that they were a social justice organization. What I’m learning with social justice movements is that you have to connect with more progressive funders. It might not be the federal grant funder that you want to make your bread and butter, but it’s going to come from those local community foundations. The folks that know somebody, that knows somebody at those large corporations and or progressive funders like the Amplify Network in places like that where you know someone that can really see your vision and understand where you’re coming from. As institutional funders are getting to a space where they understand community-centric fundraising, they understand the work that’s being done to undo harmful structures and philanthropic redlining.

Sheleia Phillips: It takes a bit of time. So it’s really connecting to your people. I will say they started to really revamp their list of folks that they wanted to connect to. They were able to utilize every grant submission as an opportunity for feedback, whether win or loss, which I thought was amazing because we were able to continuously redefine their approach. So the language got stronger every time. And that’s where I really started to realize as a professional, someone that has a technical writing and biology background, like you just can’t pull on heartstrings. ’cause I thought if it’s not technical writing, then I have to put emotional language like in my very immature days as a writer. But it’s both, and. It’s having that storytelling piece, right, that connects to human emotion. But it’s also that articulation and vision and impact that you can articulate that really helps position your organization and then helps others connect with your stories.

Sheleia Phillips: And then recognizing that grants aren’t a quick fix. This organization in particular really wanted to like, Hey, we need grants and then two months later it has to land. But as we work together, as they started to realize that grants are a long game, I wanna say fortunately, but unfortunately led to their success and they didn’t stress themselves out along the journey. So when I think about shifts, right, sometimes we think of it as a perspective shift, but one thing I kind of look at it like when you go to get your eye exam, right? Sometimes when you get that eye exam and they tell you to wear the sunglasses and take ’em off after two hours, that shift from the exam to wearing the glasses to taking them back off, I can’t immediately look at light. It takes a while for this shift to occur for me to get back comfortable again.

Sheleia Phillips: So I say all of that to say what I think led to their success were not only those points that I was reaching to earlier, but they were patient with the process. And within that patience with the process, they were able to identify what I call the Easter eggs of what really worked for them as an organization that was unique to them versus trying to follow the prescription of other organizations like them in the community. While we have our partners, right, that do the same work. We all don’t approach the work in the same way. So understanding that your journey is unique to you and that perspective shift is a process. And even the journey is a process would be my answer to your question.

Farra Trompeter: That’s great. So know who you are, lead with your values, ask for feedback, speak to the head and the heart, have patience, and really just stick with it.

Sheleia Phillips: Yes, I love that. Thank you. You summarized it so well. Thank you.

Farra Trompeter: It’s great to hear you unpack it. Well, if you’re out there and you’d like to learn more about Sheleia’s work, you can visit her organization’s website at or follow The Grant Writing Coach that includes the the. The Grant Writing Coach on Instagram or LinkedIn. And again, we’re gonna link to all of this at Sheleia, before we go, any other tips or words of wisdom you’d like to share with our listeners today?

Sheleia Phillips: Yes, I would say we are human beings, not human doings. As someone that’s been in the grant writing world for a while, I’ve had experiences where it was quantity over quality. It’s just get the proposals out the door, go, go, go, go, go, go, go. And it led to a lot of burnout and just being unhappy with the work. Not so much so now that I’m in the consultant field, but when I was in nine to five, I wish someone would’ve came to me and said, Sheleia, you’re a human being, not a human doing. And even if we don’t get 60 proposals out the door, being as a crazy example, or if we don’t get this grant, you’re still valuable to the nonprofit landscape and your insights and the voice that you have to contribute will touch and change someone’s experience here. And as we think about how we’re all in community, I wanna share that with your community in that this work can be all-encompassing and sometimes we can think of ourselves as our metrics and really forget that we’re doing our part as much as we can, as best as we can to mobilize resources in the community.

Sheleia Phillips: So just take your time as much as you can to do some self-care, because the more you pour into yourself, the more you can advocate and be part of the change that we all wanna see here in our landscape.

Farra Trompeter: I love that. And a great way to come full circle to the bio, so I see what you did there, Shelia. I love it! All right, well everyone have a great day and be good to yourself.

Sheleia Phillips: Awesome. Thank you so much.

Farra Trompeter: Thanks again for being here.