As senior vice president and community affairs program manager for the Wells Fargo Foundation, Jonathan Weedman has more than 20 years of experience working with philanthropic organizations. In that time, he estimates he has reviewed as many as 40,000 sponsorship and grant requests from nonprofits in the Greater Los Angeles Region. In this interview with the Business Journal, he draws upon his experience at Wells Fargo to lend advice to local philanthropies about seeking funding, leveraging resources and developing relationships with donors.
Jonathan Weedman has served as senior vice president for the Wells Fargo Foundation since 1996. In his role, he manages the foundation’s charitable contributions in the Greater Los Angeles area. He first joined Wells Fargo in 1989 as a business banking officer in Los Angeles. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)
LBBJ: What are the top three questions you most often hear from philanthropic organizations?
Weedman: The first question I always hear is, ‘What do you think of our organization? Do you think we would fit in to your funding profile?’ Of course, that’s a really good question. Sometimes you get a question like that and you say, ‘Gosh, that doesn’t really fit what we like to do.’ . . . Take a look at our guidelines. If they go to WellsFargo.com/donations, that takes them to a website where they can read all about our program, what we fund, what we don’t fund and what sort of things we can’t fund because we’re a nonprofit foundation. And then [it outlines] the whole process for how to apply. We have an online application process that’s pretty cool. It will direct the grant seeker through every step they need to send a proposal to us.
The second question I am always asked is, ‘What is your average grant size, and how much should we apply for?’ That’s a harder question to answer because our award sizes to nonprofits vary. We have written some checks that were as big as $100,000, and some checks as little as $500. The average donation size to a nonprofit is probably somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000. We have 30,000 registered nonprofits in L.A. County, and they all need help. You’ve seen a lot of funding sources disappear over the years. A lot of corporations ceased to exist: Washington Mutual, First Interstate Bank, Security Pacific Bank. [And] you saw some headquarters move away. We are one of the last standing. And, by the way, our funding has only increased every year. It has not gone down. During the economic crisis, people would say to me, ‘How can Wells Fargo continue to give away so much money when there is such bad economic news?’ And our answer was, ‘How could we not? How could we not continue to invest in our partners when they needed our help the most?’ We are one of the corporations that did not cut our funding during the economic crisis. . . .
The third question that people ask is, ‘How can we better partner . . . [and] get involved? How do we get to know somebody at Wells Fargo? How can we better connect with you beyond a grant request?’ And I always say, go into the local branch and introduce yourself. Ask your members of your board, ‘Do you know somebody who works at Wells Fargo? We’re doing great work, we’re helping the community and we’d love to get them involved.’ I am always happy, whenever I can, to make the introduction to fit a nonprofit organization together with a team member for volunteerism or board service. It’s hard to do because it’s kind of like a marriage. You need to feel very passionate about the organization. You need to be able to dedicate the time to the organization. It has to be geographically suitable for you. [You have to consider] when the board meets, in daytime or nighttime. I guess the overarching comment I would make about that is that we encourage, support and cheer when our team members connect with nonprofit organizations in the community.
One of my heroes is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said some profound, brilliant things in his life. And he said, ‘An individual has not started living until he rises above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.’ . . . You know if you really want to do something good for yourself, go out and help somebody else. You will feel it in your core. That’s what we teach and what we believe in at this company. It’s a very big part of who we are as a corporation and who we are as individuals. I would also say with maybe a little biased pride that I think we have an unmatched, peerless story to tell in corporate America. I really do.
LBBJ: What do philanthropies need to do to prepare for the grant application process?
Weedman: It is very important that they read the guidelines and they familiarize themselves with those organizations’ funding priorities. Some foundations may only give money to environmental causes; so if you’re a ballet company, don’t apply to them. It seems sort of obvious, but it is very important that they know the priorities of the foundation they are applying to. I also can’t overstate the importance of relationships. If you can, meeting with or connecting with the men and women who run these foundations is hugely important. Pick up the phone and call them and introduce yourself . . . [and say], ‘Let me tell you about who I am and about my organization.’ And [it’s important] to not be shy. Corporations give away nearly $20 billion to nonprofits every year in the United States. That goes to everything from hospitals, schools, economic development, arts organizations, health care and social service agencies, gang prevention, and services and programs for people with diverse abilities. People should research the corporations and businesses that are investing in their community. I always tell nonprofits to step outside and look at the businesses around them and say, ‘These companies are part of our community. We’re helping the community be successful. Maybe they can help us continue that success.’
LBBJ: How can a nonprofit/philanthropy create the groundwork for a successful fundraising campaign?
Weedman: You have to have a great product to sell, particularly in this day and age when, let’s face it, the needs are great, the demand for funding is substantial and there is a lot of competition out there. To start off, is this an endeavor, cause or concern that is going to be compelling or meaningful enough for people to support? It sounds so obvious, but that’s very important. The second thing is, there are multiple tranches where you can go for funding or support. The first you look to is your board of directors. The second thing you look at are corporations and local community businesses. There are private family and community foundations you can reach out to. Then of course there are individual donors. . . . Then there is government funding, which is very overlooked. Many elected officials have resources they can bring to bear as a result of their offices. There are many government programs that will invest in communities and nonprofits, but you have to find them. And of course you need to apply, which is generally very competitive and complicated. Those would be my general recommendations around how you prepare for fundraising. For anything you want to be successful at, you are probably going to have to work pretty hard. But if you feel passionate about your organization, you are committed to it, and you know that it is helping people and improving the human condition, then I think people will stand up and pay attention.
LBBJ: What resources for philanthropies are out there that you believe some organizations may not be aware of?
Weedman: There are sadly not enough. If you are a nonprofit organization and you need help trying to get your group started, getting your 501c3 letter, building a good board of directors or putting together an effective fundraising strategy, there are not a lot of places you can go, but there are some. There is the Center for Nonprofit Management, located in the California Endowment [in] downtown [Los Angeles], which is a great resource for nonprofit organizations. There is a nonprofit in L.A. called the Grantsmanship Center, which also provides training for nonprofits. Then there is the Executive Service Corps, which is also located in Los Angeles. The Long Beach Community Action Partnership, which provides technical assistance and training to nonprofit leaders, is a great group. We have supported them over the years. I have spoken at events they have had. They are a good local resource for nonprofits in the area.
LBBJ: When a philanthropic organization receives funds, is there a requirement of oversight to ensure donated funds are spent appropriately?
Weedman: That’s a really good question. A lot of foundations have rigorous reporting requirements, check-in requirements, and metrics. They spend all their time doing that. At Wells Fargo, we do not have a formalized requirement where we ask a nonprofit every month to tell us how they’re doing. Candidly, we feel that when we make a decision on the front end, we’re pretty good at making decisions. We make a lot of loans. We know what to look for and we know the kinds of questions to ask, so we do not have reporting requirements. What we do ask is if a nonprofit organization has a great story to tell or if something really good is coming out of their work, to please let us know. We are probably going to be moving toward some reporting around our giving very shortly. . . . Reporting is a mixed bag because you have to commit resources and staff time to do the reporting. There is a happy medium in there somewhere.
LBBJ: How can philanthropies maintain relationships with their donors?
Weedman: Stewardship is so critical to an organization’s success. If you have successfully managed to inspire, motivate and convince an individual, company or corporation to support you financially, then you have to be pretty special. Once you have achieved that, then it’s very important to stay in touch with the donor or report to them regularly about how you are doing. Pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, let me tell you about this great thing that happened at our agency today.’ Believe it or not, there are nonprofit organizations that you will support and then you don’t hear from them. And then they call you up and request additional support again, and you say, ‘Well, it’s nice to hear from you.’ It’s such a stronger value proposition that you stay connected, and there are so many ways to do that. There is sending newsletters, there’s e-mails, there is a phone call, there is social media. All those kinds of things strengthen that relationship. When it comes to philanthropy more broadly, those are the relationships that sustain funding, [which is important] because it is competitive and there is never enough money to support all the great groups that we’d like to support. You know, out of sight, out of mind.