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Grant writing

Grants 101: Best practices from a director of fundraising consultant

 If you write a few grants or many grants in a year there are some constants to keep in mind:

1. There are no guarantees you will get approved for all or a part of what you asked for.

2. Some applications are easier to fill out than others.

3. Even the best proposals get turned down.

Many nonprofits rely on some sort of grant funding and some rely solely on foundations. Whether foundation funding makes up a large or small portion of your budget, here are a few things you can do to up your chances of getting that approval letter.

1. Communicate with the foundation.

Before you apply

Some foundations are open to meeting with you and learning more about your organization and programs. A few even require a quick phone call to determine if they would be interested in your programming. Those foundations typically will do site visits and require stricter reporting as well. Others are run by trustees or family members that are not as willing to talk or meet with you about your request. And there are others that don’t accept unsolicited requests.

Once you know which of these types of foundations you are approaching, make a note so that you’ll know in the future how to best approach them.

After you’ve received funding

Stewardship is a big topic around our offices. Individuals are giving to fewer organizations so the best way to maintain or increase gifts from individuals is to keep the donors you have. Grant funders should be treated no differently than individuals in your stewardship plan. Include them on your newsletter or e-newsletter list, send them periodic updates and keep them informed. If something in your program changed, let them know that, too. You may even need to get their permission to use the money if the purpose changed from the original request. They want to be kept up to date on what their money is doing – so tell them!

2. Plan.

Think about your request before submitting. If the program or project isn’t fully fleshed out, consider waiting until it is.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself about the program or project before submitting a request:

  • Does it have clear and achievable goals?
  • Do we know how we are going to do it? (staffing, outside resources, etc.)
  • Do we have a solid budget?
  • Can we evaluate the success of it?
  • Will we have to continuously ask for it to be funded?

Once you can answer all of these questions, you are ready to submit your grant. Do not be wishy-washy, unclear, unprepared or overgeneralized. You are asking for funding against other organizations that also could use the money. Be clear, honest and specific.

Finally, don’t forget to research the foundation. You can use free services like Guidestar to look at their 990 (this is the organization’s tax filing document and is public record) and see who they’ve funded and at what amounts. This will give you an idea of the general size of the gifts they give, so you aren’t, for example, asking for $10,000 when the most they’ve given is $2,500. You can also learn more about who their board is and read their submission guidelines. Form 990 is a valuable document and anyone writing grants should know how to use it to their advantage.

3. Give them what they ask for – no more, no less.

Funders are usually made up a board of directors who read through the proposals and make recommendations on which projects to fund and at what amount. They have piles of requests and they are looking for specific things.

If they ask for a detailed budget, give them one. If they ask a question about your objectives, it’s because they want to know what your objectives are. Don’t assume that by leaving something out, it won’t make a difference. It makes a huge difference and it tells the funder that you either can’t follow directions or you don’t know the answer to their question.

Some organizations like to send additional pieces with the grant. Maybe it’s their annual report, a brochure or a one-sheeter listing statistics. If the additional information is important to the grant and adds to the narrative, include it. If you just want to give the committee more information about your organization, either include it in the grant narrative or leave it out. However, if foundations request that you do not include additional pieces, don’t.

4. Report

Be sure to send a final report – even if they don’t ask for one. The report should include what you asked for, what you actually used the money for and, of course, the outcomes. Tracking your outcomes is key. If you are trying to make a difference in a population, do a pre- and post-test. Funders want to see what you accomplished with their funds. It also helps them decide if they are going to fund you again. If they require a report, by all means do it. Make sure you are answering their questions – and do not be late!

Even if you have submitted the best proposal, grant funding is not guaranteed. Do not put all of your funding eggs in one basket. You may be receiving grants regularly for the last 5 years from the same funder – but that doesn’t mean you will this year.

By diversifying your funding, receiving a decline letter will not be the end of the world at your organization – and you may create more funding opportunities for your organization.


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