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Step 1: How to start a grant program

Step 1: How to start a grant program

This is the first post in a series of three blogs the Dot Org team will be writing on something all nonprofits should know about: grants. I’m going to start off with “Step 1: How to start a grant program.” Next week, Lauryn Rosinski will cover how to write a compelling story and Kayleigh Fladung will finish the series by writing on how to market your grant award and steward your grantors.

Let’s kick this off!

When you begin a grant program from scratch or want to grow your current program, there are a few steps to take to make sure you are asking the right funders for the right funding need at the right time. Grants are not a given. There are many different organizations vying for the same dollars, so it’s extremely important to have a clear idea of what you need funding for and how to articulate it clearly.

I always feel the need to also point out that a grants program should not be the only fundraising your organization is involved in. While grants can be a part of your overall strategy, you should also be asking individuals and corporations for support.

Setting your funding priorities

I think this is the most important step in any grant program. If you, your board and your executive team aren’t on the same page, it can lead to wasted time and money for you and your organization. We suggest to our grant clients to meet quarterly as a leadership team to review and prioritize your funding needs. You must know what your organization wants to raise money for before you can research funders, write a compelling story and, hopefully, get funded. New projects pop up, the direction of the organization can change or large funding sources can go away. And that’s okay - but when we meet monthly with our clients to go over the next few months of grants and they either 1) use it as a brainstorming session for projects to fund or 2) change the priorities from what they said was important last month, which can lead to confusion, frustration and unsuccessful proposals.


Research is such an important step that too many people skip in the grant process. First, you want to spend some time looking for grantors that might support your project. We use Foundation Center Online (it is a subscription service, but your local library probably has free access) for most of our research. GuideStar is also a great resource to look at a foundation’s 990 to see how much they give away each year and to whom. I also always do a Google search using some keywords. You never know what might pop up!

While you are looking at funders, pay close attention to what they say they fund and what they actually fund. Sometimes those lists are very different. Use your judgement to see if they really are a good fit for your project. If you really aren’t sure, contact them and ask. A lot of foundations have funding priorities, but they can shift widely based on the current environment in your area or even who is currently sitting on their funding committee.

One important thing to look for: There is a section on a foundation’s 990 that gives you their funding priorities, application deadlines and how to apply. Some grantors ask you to jump through some pretty tricky hoops in order to receive funding while others are more lenient. Make note of this information for later, so you don’t have to keep going back to double-check a mailing address or deadline.

Internal communication

Once you’ve researched who might support you, how to apply and when the grant is due, make an internal plan. Figure out who in your organization needs to be involved. You will need information from a variety of sources that will include program information, populations served, goals, measurable objectives, budget, staffing needs, etc. Communicate with your staff as soon as possible with the information you need from them and when you need it by.

Pro tip: do not give staff the deadline for the grant itself. Give them the date you need the information by. If people see a grant is due May 1, they aren’t going to add in time for you to write, review, proof and mail. In short, you will end up chasing them down for what you need.

Hopefully, your staff and leadership will see the importance of grant funding and be helpful to you throughout this process. If you are having an extremely difficult time getting information from a specific person or department, speak up. At the end of the day, you are being judged by your efficiency as a grant writer.

So, once you’ve collected everything you need to write the grant narrative, what’s next? Look for Lauryn’s blog next week where she will talk you through creating budgets, SMART goals and a compelling narrative.


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