Meet the Funders Series: Burns Memorial Fund

At Propellus, we work to strengthen organizations. We decided that a MEET THE FUNDERS SERIES could help non-profit organizations shed some light on the process of fundraising by turning to funders themselves for some tips and answers. First up on the Meet the Funders series is  a conversation with the Burns Memorial Fund.

Organizations are regularly on the lookout for potential funding, but behind the funds, is a person who has their own passions and ideas about how they would like to be approached, how to make the meeting and what to bring to said meetings.

Executive Director of the Burns Memorial Fund, Michelle Clarke, just happens to be right next door from Propellus. We decided to take advantage of that proximity to talk to Michelle about what it takes to get on her ‘yes pile,’ her ‘no pile,’ and some other tips and tricks.

The Burns Memorial Fund was created by Senator Patrick Burns, who passed away in 1937. On his passing he left his legacy to the children of Calgary.

One of the programs run by Burns is the Children’s Fund, which has four main programs. Three of those funds are exclusively for individuals but the Community Grants program is for organizations.

There are two granting streams under the Community Grants program, the one for $2000 and under happens year-round. The other stream is for grants over $2000 and happens twice a year, once in the spring and one in the fall.

One of the perks with the Burns Memorial Fund being a smaller funder, is that Michelle is all about contact when an organization is considering applying for funding.

“What organizations need to do is just contact me and we’ll have a little chat. If it fits within our criteria, then they submit an application and it can be approved fairly quickly all year-round,” Michelle says. “Our criteria are so straightforward that I can usually tell someone over the phone if it’s worth their time to put in the application.”

Criteria vary for each grant program and it is important to pay attention to details.  For the Children’s Fund it has to be intended to help low-income kids in the areas of health, education and recreation – and be a one time funding opportunity. “We are really looking for applications that are one-time only special projects, maybe program supplies, recreation equipment, that kind of thing,” says Michelle.

While some funders like to sit down for a face-to-face chat, Michelle is all about the phone call. “If people are looking for funding, most I can just do over the phone. I really try to do that, if I didn’t I would spend all my time meeting with people interested in putting in an application.”

Whether it’s on the phone or a rare in person meeting, Michelle knows what a really good grant looks like to her – and it starts with pinpointing a very specific need.

There was a school that had found that attendance was down because some of their kids couldn’t afford the transit fare to make it there. They asked the Burns Fund for a grant to get the students bus passes. Why was this a successful grant for Michelle?

The school contacted the Burns Fund with a simple and specific need, with the statistics to back it and a way to measure the outcomes.

“They could tell us about the kids in their school, they could give us stats on low income kids, they could tell us the kinds of problems those kids were facing, and they had a solution,” remembers Michelle.

“That was very successful because we knew them, and the work that they did, and they knew us. They knew what we were interested in, and they were able to give us a very specific proposal meeting a very direct need. They also had a way to track the data and give us the information. In that respect, that was probably one of our most successful grants.”

On the flip side, Michelle says that she knows when people are trying to force the agency programs into funds areas of interest, and that usually doesn’t get them into the ‘yes’ pile.

“What doesn’t work is someone who has looked on our website, and says oh, they’re interested in health, education, recreation and low income kids and they call us up and they say: I am thinking of a program focusing on the health, education and recreation of low-income kids, it doesn’t flow genuinely from their work, so it is not as interesting to us,” she says.

There is something else that will get an organization relegated to the ‘no’ pile, not answering all the questions on the application, or not submitting all the requested documents, according to Michelle there is a very simple reason for that.

“If you have a whole bunch of applications, and the process is competitive, you are instantly going to weed out the ones that didn’t answer the questions and didn’t provide the supporting documents.”

Not sure how to answer the questions? That’s another reason Michelle will be happy to take your phone call.

“I think of us as a friendly funder, in the terms of – call us, let’s chat, let’s figure out and then we can take it from there,” Michelle says. “It is right on our website. I am amazed by how many people don’t call me first, and then they go through the trouble of putting in an application that would never be funded. They’re wasting their own time.”

  • Check out the Website – Like most funders, the Burns Memorial Foundation has a website that clearly outlines their areas of interest; peruse their website to get a good working knowledge of their programs. Still not sure if your program is right for their fund?
  • Call – She said it multiple times throughout the interview; call her to find out if your program is a match to the Children’s Fund criteria. Why bother going through all that work filling out an application if one quick phone call will tell you if it is worth it.
  • Be Simple and Clear – Being clear is Michelle’s biggest piece of advice for fundraisers. “What are you trying to do? What are your activities and what are they going to cost? Don’t complicate it with a lot of other stuff – that is when people get lost.”
  • Be Specific – In the same vein of being simple and clear, being specific means that funders don’t have to guess at where their funding is going. Don’t present a global budget for the whole project; instead indicate where the funders’ money will be going.
  • Fill in the Blanks – Funders have to sift through a large amount of proposals or applications. If you haven’t filled in all the blanks and supplied all the requested documentation, they probably won’t have the time to go looking for it. Missing pieces of information could easily get your application turned down.

RISE TO CHALLENGES. Do you have fundraising challenges? Our experienced consultants are ready to offer specialized support for your team and customized solutions for your organization — no matter what your challenge.

Consult with us. Contact Jeff D’Silva, Manager, Consulting at  or 403-231-1431.

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