Showcasing Your STEM Programs: What Funders Value

Friday, May 26, 2017

Focused goals and measurable results are the secrets to any successful STEAM program – and are key to convincing philanthropies and corporate foundations to fund your effort. STEAM donors have invested millions in specific math, science, and tech programs for students and teachers, in and out of school. In this session, several philanthropic leaders, including SDG’s very own Megan Thomas and SDG members Nhu Tran from SDG&E and Ron Ottinger from STEM Next at USD, alongside Sirisha Yadlapati of Motorola Solutions Foundation, which is based in Chicago but has a workforce in the San Diego region and funds here, shared what they look for in funding strong STEAM programs and advice on how to craft compelling funding requests.

Below is an extract of the thoughts and comments from Megan during her participation in this exciting funders panel.

Session link:

…About the same time that San Diego’s STEM Ecosystem Initiative was forming, a group of funders also came together. These are people, foundations and companies with funds to contribute to advancing STEAM education in our region and want to be connected and strategic with their grantmaking.

SDG has about 120 members in San Diego County whose interests range from hunger to race equity to workforce development. I am privileged to work with groups of funders on advancing their common area of interest by combining forces to be more strategic than they can be apart.

A year ago, we noticed that numerous members fund in Science, Technology, Engineering Arts & Math (STEAM), but were unconnected. We’ve been able to provide a place for them to come together, share their experiences, and start to form a joint strategy.

Sirisha, Ron and Nhu (fellow panelists) eloquently described how they operate, so I want to give you insight into how funders combine forces.

No doubt you’ve noticed the trend over the past five or so years to ask nonprofits to share how they are collaborating. Well, funders are seeing that they, too, can benefit from working together. And It's not really any easier or harder than when you all try to combine forces. Each organization or individual has a lens – a focus on technology or on North County or on girls. But common themes emerged. Most are looking at young people of K12 ages, in schools and outside schools. 

They all agree that girls and diverse populations - kids of color - are a priority. They believe STEAM is important of itself, but this is also about workforce - it's about teaching kids in a way that connects their algebra today to their science class in three years to a job or higher education experience that ultimately equips them to work in our companies in 5, 10 years.

And finally, funders are interested in leverage. The STEAM Funders at San Diego Grantmakers are currently looking at how to examine the grants already made by our members, and find ways to combine forces for larger grants that have a more transformational or catalytic potential.

So, it's not about just doing a little more of the same, it's about catapulting programs to make a large scale difference. Each funder knows they can’t do this alone and does not want to. One thing to understand is that funders have what seems like a lot of money but it’s neither infinite nor sufficient for all the needs that exist. So they seek ways to make sure their investment multiplies in size or impact.

The last thing I'll leave you with is the thing that most surprised me. Now, I come from a background as executive director of a nonprofit. In fact, it's a nonprofit that has a science education curriculum - Project SWELL of San Diego Coastkeeper. So, this rocked my world.

Many of our members say they are not aware of the full breadth of STEAM programs in our region. And judging by the number of people in this room, how could they be?! They want to know what others are funding to find out if they are missing out on opportunities. So, what that tells me is we need to find a way to make it easier for nonprofits to get their stories and evidence of their impact in the hands of funders. 

And to do so in a way that promotes a useful exchange of information, doesn't set up false expectations or aggressive sales pitches, but does expand the relationships and knowledge exchange in our region.

San Diego Grantmakers, through our STEAM Funders group and in partnership with the Ecosystem work and others, aims to make that happen…

This panel was part of the 6th annual STEM Solutions National Leadership Conference – where the brightest minds in business, academia, nonprofit and government came together for three days in May to discuss, discover and help craft the blueprint for building a strong and diverse STEM workforce for tomorrow.

Participate in the next SDG STEAM Funders meeting on June 29, 12:00-2:00PM, where we will explore regional giving and discuss collabortive funding strategies.  Register online or contact Megan for more information megan(at)

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