Shared Knowledge: John Tumino on Grant Writing
Published August 14th, 2023
In 2011, John Tumino left his job as a restaurant owner and chef to launch In My Father’s Kitchen with his wife Leigh-Ann. Their work supports people facing homelessness through access to food, medical care, spiritual resources, and other avenues of assistance. Neither of them had experience with grant writing, but their first opportunity came when they heard about a chance to apply for a small pool of community funds and successfully earned $3,000 to support their work.
Twelve years later, their budget has grown to nearly $1 million. They recently made headlines after deploying a new full service medical van delivering care to the homeless, paid for by a $200,000 HUD grant through the City of Syracuse.
“You need the resources to do the work that you’re doing, but don’t chase the money.”
“It’s still uncharted waters. We’re not grant writers – we’re just doing the best we can.” says John. Despite his humble nature, the wisdom John has picked up in his years of fundraising for the agency quickly came through in our conversation. One of the biggest dangers, he says, is being tempted into chasing funds that are outside of your focus area. “Stay true to your call. There could be good things to be done, but are those the things you’re supposed to be doing? You need the resources to do the work that you’re doing, but don’t chase the money.”
Organizations that try to adjust to the funding opportunity rather than finding funding opportunities that fit them naturally run the risk of mission drift. There may be short term gains, but over time they will have taken on practices and programs that strain their resources and create confusion about what their identity really is. This approach eventually weakens the agency as a whole and can generate mistrust within the community they serve.
John says that part of evaluating whether or not a funding opportunity is a good fit comes down to knowing the funder and reading the fine print within the grant guidelines.
As a faith-based organization, they know that actively promoting religion violates the parameters of many grants and are therefore very selective about where they apply for support. Understanding grant guidelines and whether or not they align with your operations and values is a critical part of the process.
Today, the majority of the revenue that In My Father’s Kitchen earns comes from either private, individual donations or from service contracts with Onondaga County. In one such case, they responded to an RFP from the County seeking proposals for work opportunities for the homeless population. Their application was approved which led to the launch of their Hire Ground program, now in its fourth year of operation.
“Someone may not have the means to make a donation, but they can pick up our product instead and support us at the same time.”
In a nod back to his roots as a chef, John has also built up an additional revenue stream for his organization through selling branded food products – a strategy that other nonprofits have also begun testing in Central New York. “One day I started thinking about how I could use the marketplace to generate revenue for the mission as well as bring awareness. For me, it revolved around food so the pasta sauce was the first thing – it’s my grandma’s Sicilian recipe that I used when I was running the restaurant.” After getting started, they began to notice that the effort needed to create the products and organize distribution was hurting their organization. “[Food sales] is a way to get funding, but it can also turn into a job in and of itself to get out there and hustle and promote it,” he explains.
This led to him remembering his own rule about drifting away from the core focus of the organization. Soon after, they partnered with Giovanni Foods so he could get back to focusing on his role as Executive Director. “What I could do in a year they could do in a two-hour run.”
John’s food sales initiative now brings in a small but important part of In My Father’s Kitchen’s budget, and he is optimistic that it still has room to grow. Money aside, it has also helped them boost name recognition and forge new agency allies without having to pour money into a major advertising campaign. People see the sauce in the store, or in their cupboard each day. People even take pictures with it and post on social media. “Someone may not have the means to make a donation, but they can pick up our product instead and support us at the same time.”