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Social Change and Your Grant Applications

Wanna make more impact but need more funding? Guest blogger Claire Sterling shares three core principles behind social change that you can use to write successful grant proposals.


ASPCApro was fortunate enough to host a highly informative, inspiring and thought-provoking two-part webinar, Social Change 101 and 201, presented by Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet. A longtime ASPCA grantee, the Austin-based Emancipet brings accessible spay/neuter and wellness services to communities where they are scarce, and the organization’s work is highly informed by the low-income communities it serves.

While Social Change 101 delves into the core principles behind social change and places them within the context of animal welfare, Social Change 201 focuses on applying those principles to some especially challenging animal welfare issues, such as those found in low-income communities grappling with numerous barriers to securing essential services for their pets. Although these webinars are geared primarily toward the hands-on work of direct-service organizations, there is some relevance for the grantseeking efforts of those organizations as well:

  • Articulate the kind of change your organization is striving for. In the 201 webinar, Amy framed the discussion by stating, “Social change makers create programs, services and messages that change societal behavior patterns to solve social problems.” This idea is widely applicable to animal welfare work specifically, and nonprofit fundraising in general.
    One of the most fundamental questions that the best grant proposals and applications answer is, “What is the specific impact your organization is working to achieve?” In many cases, regardless of program area, that desired outcome is inextricably linked to positive changes in behavior that favorably benefit the target population. Being clear and specific when discussing desired impact in funding requests conveys organizational focus and makes it easier for funders to see how they can be part of a solution.
    Emancipet exemplifies this principle through dedication to making spay/neuter and preventive veterinary care affordable and accessible to all pet owners. Prior to Emancipet’s involvement in a given community, where these services were outside the reach of most residents, people over time may have come to believe that such services were an unnecessary luxury and consequently not have sought them out. By making them affordable and easy to access, providing information that directly connects them to their pets’ health and survival, meeting clients where they are, and actively seeking input from clients about how best to serve them, positive attitudinal and behavioral shifts can occur within the affected communities.
  • Chart a concrete course for change. Amy emphasizes the necessity of taking the time to identify root causes of problems within a community (versus basing organizational efforts on a set of assumptions) as critical for successful social change. A vital part of this exploratory process should include actively seeking input from communities experiencing a given problem—as they are often in the best position to help develop effective solutions—and framing interactions as learning opportunities for both the service provider and the beneficiary. Identifying and exchanging information with existing service providers in a given community, as well as documenting its relevant historical, legal and demographic factors, also provide a strong foundation for effective program design. Describing how your organization’s day-to-day work is anchored in concrete findings from your research helps to assure funders that your approach is a thoughtful one and that your programs—and their grants—are more likely to be successful.

    For example, several organizations to whom we have granted funds have told us that through conversations with residents, gaining an understanding of local ordinances, and learning the lay of the land in the communities they serve, it came to light that low-cost or free veterinary services were only accessible by car, creating a significant barrier for those dependent on public transportation. These organizations subsequently determined that providing a mobile clinic and/or pet pickups/dropoffs was critical to the success of their work, making a good case for funding these expanded efforts.

  • Share what you’re learning in your change making journey. Amy encourages organizations to be forthcoming with constituents about what they are learning through their experience in designing and implementing their programs. In addition to board members and volunteers, funders are another important constituency. A project’s financial supporters have a tangible stake in its progress and are eager to see it succeed. As a direct-service provider, your organization can be a pipeline to experience-based knowledge that can inform not only future programmatic and funding decisions, but also the work of other players in the field with whom funders are connected.
    Even a project that has encountered difficulty is often still valued if helpful knowledge arises from it and the grantee organization is transparent and methodical in its efforts. Although some organizations fear that funders may be put off by unexpected challenges, in many cases the funder is more than willing to be flexible and assist in some way that will help improve the project’s trajectory over the long term. Documenting what has been learned also helps organizations to gauge what kind of impact they are (or aren’t) having, and to make course corrections as needed.


Many grantmaking professionals—myself included—derive tremendous satisfaction and inspiration from the work of the organizations they support. Amy’s webinars not only lucidly and eloquently reinforce the relationship between animal welfare and broader social change movements, but also offer helpful guidance for reinforcing the relationship between the thoroughness of an organization’s approach to its work and its ability to secure the necessary funds to carry it out.


Guest blogger Claire Sterling is Director, Grant Strategies, at the ASPCA, and previously did foundation fundraising for six years at the Foundation Center. She adopted her cat Toffee from the ASPCA in 2015.



Related Links

Blog: "The Human-Animal Bond: Research & Resources"

Webinar: Social Change 101

Blog: "9 Steps to Better Fundraising in 2017"



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