How a Social Entrepreneur Won Millions of Dollars in Grants

Rana Dajani of We Love Reading has transformed a tiny nonprofit into a sprawling social enterprise. Here’s how she got funders to come to her.

Colleen DeBaise By Colleen DeBaise

How to find grants is difficult for any social entrepreneur. Rana Dajani of We Love Reading took a scientific approach. Plus, she was persistent.

How to find grants is difficult for any social entrepreneur. Rana Dajani of We Love Reading took a scientific approach. Plus, she was persistent. (Credit: Niels Steeman on Unsplash)

Over the years, I’ve interviewed countless entrepreneurs — and one thing I always hear is how difficult it is to raise money. Particularly if you’re a woman, the stats are dismal.

I recently helped produce this inspiring podcast on Rana Dajani, who has transformed a small nonprofit into a sprawling social enterprise that has helped foster a love of reading in an estimated 100,000 children in 36 countries. She started in 2006, reading books aloud to children at her local mosque in Amman, Jordan. The concept took off, and soon she was training hundreds of volunteers to do the same in their communities.

Rana Dajani of We Love Reading

Rana Dajani of We Love Reading

What’s particularly notable to me is how Dajani appears to have easily raised millions of dollars in funding. A few years after officially registering We Love Reading as a nonprofit in 2010, Dajani was approached by UNICEF. The agency said, “Rana, ‘here’s a million dollars, do whatever you want,’” she recounts. That grant was soon followed by an even bigger one of $2 million from USAID, a U.S. agency that administers civilian foreign aid.

The Happiness of Reading

Listen to our podcast episode for more of our interview with Rana Dajani.

When I asked Dajani how she got funders coming to her, she told me she took a scientific approach to winning grants for We Love Reading. She is actually a molecular biologist by training, and still teaches at a university in Jordan.  

“Out of every 10 grants, you win one, and that’s part of the work,” Dajani says. “You learn from all the failures. You say, ‘Okay, what did I learn?” Rather than feeling rejected or frustrated, Dajani would analyze where her organization fell short and where it excelled when it came to raising money. And then she would try again.

[Related: These Women Entrepreneurs Used Grant Money as Stepping Stones]

The process itself — repeatedly writing grants, over and over again — also helped. She recommends that other entrepreneurs keep trying, even when it’s difficult to power through, as you refine your approach. “A funder will ask you, ‘Can you give me a budget? Can you tell me how much are you putting on administrative and management?’” she says. “Writing grants, although difficult, helped structure We Love Reading.”

Dajani also says she never changed her core mission or business model to please potential funders, something she says other founders sometimes do simply to raise capital. “We resisted change,” she says. “We showed the funder how We Love the Reading would fit their focus. That led us to get funders coming to us.”

Lastly, Dajani says she practiced patience. The million-dollar grants didn’t happen overnight. The very first one she received was $36,000 from a nonprofit called Synergos, which had a program called Social Arab Innovators. “If I would draw a graph, I would show that We Love Reading funding started going up with these small grants,” she says. “It was credibility.”

And eventually, the big backers came. Dajani now runs a 30-employee organization with a $1 million annual budget. “It’s about being persistent,” she says — and it’s about believing in what she’s doing. “It’s my way of approaching life. When you’re focused on what’s right to do, things fall into place.”

[Related: Watch our video on Rana Dajani of We Love Reading]

Posted: December 4, 2018

Colleen DeBaiseHow a Social Entrepreneur Won Millions of Dollars in Grants