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Autism After 21 Utah Project: Lessons from a first-time fundraiser

Salt Lake City Public Library building

In May 2021, I had to face the inevitable: I could no longer avoid fundraising.

I had recently joined Madison House Autism Foundation as the Director of the Autism After 21 Utah Project (AA21 Utah). As is often the case for smaller nonprofits, everyone was involved in development. I’ll be the first to admit that I had a lot of fears about fundraising (deep insecurity about my ability to make small talk, the general awkwardness of asking for money, etc.). But it was now a vital part of my job–and the part I was least excited about.  

However, I was determined to push away my fears and become a successful fundraiser because the mission of AA21 Utah is so important. Our mission is to develop neuro-inclusive communities for adults with autism and other intellectual or developmental disabilities to ensure that everybody has a place and a sense of belonging in the world. It requires substantial funding. 

I quickly became responsible for identifying potential funding opportunities, grant-writing, stewardship efforts, and reporting to funders. I was also unaccustomed to having to find all my own resources; I had spent the previous 15 years of my career working in higher education with access to a university research library, enterprise platform subscriptions, and myriad other resources. I’d taken it for granted that these resources were just there. Feeling rather overwhelmed and clueless, I headed to the Salt Lake City Public Library (SLCPL), where I was introduced to Dave Forsman, librarian extraordinaire and the lead for this location of Candid’s Funding Information Network. 

Dave kindly met with me for a one-on-one training session on Candid’s resources, and I was absolutely amazed by what was available to nonprofits for free through the library. He answered all my (very rudimentary) questions with a lot of patience and the mannerisms of a natural-born teacher. Foundation Directory and Foundation Maps quickly became two of my favorite tools, teaching me about researching funders, finding specific grant opportunities, and making connections in the fundraising and grantmaking landscape of my state. It was such a relief to have access to this information! (It doesn’t hurt that SLCPL is a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon diving through databases.) 

Now you can find me at the library frequently, combing through Candid’s resources. I have learned how to deep dive into Foundation Directory, align our grant asks with funders’ typical award amounts, and use Candid Learning’s sample letters of inquiry (LOIs). I have also become more familiar with the funding world through Candid’s Philanthropy News Digest.  

My journey to become a fundraiser has paid off. These resources have helped AA21 Utah secure grants from Union Pacific Railroad’s Community Ties Grant program, the Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation, and others. These initial grants enabled us to launch a three-year community needs assessment research program, which includes an expert-developed survey and in-depth interviews with autistic adults, their family members, and community leaders. We have been able to invest in community outreach to marginalized groups in order to see a more representative reflection of Utah’s population in our data sample. This will give us insight into how autism-friendly Utah’s communities are and what neurotypical people and communities can do better to support adults with autism. More importantly, we will be able to center the voices of Utahns in conversations about disability, access, and inclusive communities.  

For the next phase of the AA21 Utah project, our research will serve as a launchpad for local community work throughout the state. We will convene gatherings for autistic self-advocates, community leaders, and family members to come together and address the specific issues and opportunities identified through this project. We will also focus on developing housing solutions for neuro-diverse populations that don’t currently exist and empowering community leaders to support the autistic adult population. We hope this will result in a model we can share with other states across the country. I am excited to see what kind of creative grassroots improvements the engaged and caring citizens of Utah come up with through this community-building project! With SLCPL and Candid’s help, fundraising has become extremely rewarding to me.  

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