Grant Writing Tips for Nonprofits – Grant Mythbusters

Busting these myths will help any organization to set a firm path to success in grant development.

Myth #1 – Grants are the easiest way to secure funding.

Let’s start with “All fundraising is hard”.  Probably the most misunderstood and least appreciated profession in the nonprofit sector is the role of development. Development professionals do not have a victim mentality on this, their experience proves time and again that the industry of philanthropy and the acts of fundraising are just, well, mysterious to their board, their volunteers, even to some of their organizational leadership. Happily, with the advent of so many top tier universities institutionalizing the profession with certificates, undergrad and graduate degree programs, that will be a short-lived misperception, one which we can reflect back on and say “I remember when.”

Grant Writing Tips for NonprofitsBut I digress.

Grant procurement, grant development, grant writing, by whatever name it is called, is no easier than any other development activity in the philanthropy sector.

Grants require the same strategic processes that are applied to all fundraising activities: Strategy, planning, capital investment, relationships, good products, attention to details and excellent writing ability. No one aspect is more important than the other; all play a tremendously important role in securing viable and sustainable funding from federal, corporate, public and private grantors.

Not only do grants require multiple processes, players, and priorities, but they also need time. Successful grant development is not an overnight activity. Nor can it be effectively done in a few weeks. Developing a grant strategy (more on this later) and a calendar of grantable opportunities will help to raise your effectiveness level and ensure that you aren’t making grant development any harder than it already is.

Myth #2 – It’s a numbers game.

Efficiency is gained in development work by ensuring that there is a definite game plan, defined outcomes, qualified prospects, and measurable activities toward a goal. Organizations that do not adopt this method of fund development often find themselves losing traction in unearned revenue, expending a lot of resources for little return and performing the same activities over and over and over again with the same poor outcomes.

For grants to be effective and efficient, nonprofits must resist seeing their grant programs as the lottery – send out 100 grant requests and you’re sure to land one or two. Instead, focus on quality and content, applications that are clear, concrete, well supported with measured outcomes and documentation. Build your program first before your build your grant. Most grants that are awarded are well-illustrated representations of existing or envisioned substantial programs and services.

Myth #3 – Grants can fill our funding gap.

Too often, nonprofits forget that grants are built on the agreement with the grantor that the money received will be spent on very specific, tangible, and measurable activities, resources, or products. Grant funding is direct funding toward expenses already allocated in your budget or added to your budget by virtue of the newly granted program. Therefore, grants most often are seen as ‘pass through’ funding – the grant revenue hits your account and is expended by established allocated liabilities for the program the grant is supporting. Few grants offer any wiggle room for overhead, most certainly not grants in which overhead funding was not specifically requested.

Grant Writing Tips for NonprofitsThere are expensive penalties for not conforming to the grant proposal funding allocation, including losing the opportunity to receive any future funds from that grantor. Most commonly, grantors reserve the right to request funding that is left unspent or spent outside of the grant request to be returned by the nonprofit organization. Things become even more complicated with federal grant funding, with whole manuals devoted to grantee requests, expenditures and appropriation of funding.

It is best to reserve grant funding for those programs already established and needing investment in your organization, or for new program development.

Myth #4 – Grant writers are like baseball pitchers – they have ERA stats.

If I had a nickel for every time, a prospective client said what they needed was a really good grant writer to secure grants for them…

The reality is, that while excellent writing skills are mandatory and often a distinguishing factor in grant-making decisions, grants are not won or lost by the grant writer. Keeping with the baseball analogy, games are won through teamwork – good pitching is important, as are fielding, hitting, and coaching.

It is the same with grant development. Good grant writers are no doubt essential to efficiency and effectiveness in producing the document for submission. But there are three basic components which if missing, no amount of good grant writing can fix:

  1. Product. Nothing can make up for lousy programs and services. What might make them lousy? Programs, especially unestablished programs, whose goals and expectations are too high level and untested; new programs which are too conceptual without relevant data to support the premise of the effort; existing programs that show no outcomes or measurements of success; poorly performing programs and programs with poor participation rates; and programs that expend too many resources for very little return.Programs and grant development need to work synergistically to ensure that the development of the products and services in the programs, the investment of funding, the expenditures, and the measurable outcomes are all in line with granting source requests and expectations. Avoid the ‘if we build it, they will fund it’ syndrome and work as a team to create substantive, promising, quantifiable products.
  1. Relationships. The key performance indicator for every high performing development office I’ve experienced is Relationship Building. This includes grant development efforts. Building a relationship with the grantor, well in advance of sending off the email with the grant attached, is a critical function directly correlated to your expected funding success. Grant managers and grant committees are people. They have a job to do in divesting profits to the grantees that meet their guidelines, but it’s not a transactional job. It’s translational. Stop thinking of grants as a commodity. A grant submission should be an authentic step in the ongoing continuum of relationships with the granting agency whether it be federal, state public, private or corporate grantors.I once had a grant manager of a large international manufacturing corporation say to me “If I only knew my grantees better, I’m certain I’d be able to invest with them more wisely.” If building a relationship can get you more of an investment, in areas more meaningful to your programming, why would anyone skip that step?
  1. High performing grant development does not just happen; it is strategically aligned with the organization’s vision, mission and its purposeful development of actions and tactics in reaching defined goals. To develop and deliver grant requests outside of the strategy, or worse as a knee-jerk reaction to weak unearned revenue numbers for the year, is a recipe for defeat.Strategic grant development begins with a review of the revenue projections for individual programs and the overall organization budget. It includes an audit of past grants awarded and denied, as well as a review of all relationships established between the grantor and the organizations representatives – CEO, board, staff, and volunteers. Finally, it defines specific grant opportunities for selected programs, costs to secure grants needed and a forecast of when cash awards from submitted grants might be received.

Myth #5 – We can rely on our grants already awarded to be awarded again every year.

Grants are a less reliable form of unearned revenue development than say, annual fund, major gifts, or events. Where with each of those three revenue development functions, experienced development professionals have a latitude of influence over a prospective donors decisions, that is not so with grants.

Grant selection and awards follow specific guidelines that are established by a grant committee or the board of the granting agency. It’s difficult to influence an entire organization to change their minds or to see the value in your program. Therefore, your sphere of influence in grants is reduced, making it a higher risk approach. Also, take into account the changing nature of granting agency expectations and needs. We once had a national organization call us in a panic in June, because they had just received word that the federal grant program that supplied them with 80 percent of their annual funding was reducing their grant awards for the next round by 50 percent. This national organization needed to make up for a sudden $1 million revenue loss in six months.

That is not to say that couldn’t happen with an individual donor as well, but the spread of the risk among individual donors and event revenue makes it a more stable base of funding than grants.

Final Words

Grants are an important part of a nonprofit’s unearned revenue generating mix. Grants provide necessary funding to established and emerging programs, create visibility and network opportunities for additional funding and partnerships and validate the effectiveness of an organization’s mission. Placing grants in proper perspective for the nonprofits funding resource allocation and avoiding myth feeding actions, will create a stronger and more successful grant development program for all organizations.




The Secret to Targeting Businesses for Cash Donations

Targeting Business for Cash DonationsIn 2004, I moved to India to help start a new research lab in Bangalore for Microsoft. With the move I made a conscious shift in my own career. Whereas I previously did technical computer science research, in India, I turned to explore the application of technology to social causes – innovative software for education, mobile services for healthcare, digital video for agriculture, and so on. And that shift caused me to go out in search of partners who were experts in serving communities: nonprofits.

Before I got far in my search, though, I found that nonprofits came looking for me. Some were curious about our research, but for the most part, they were interested in donations: Could I get them free software? What did we do with our used laptops? And, any chance of a cash gift?

Since then, I have worked with a wide range of nonprofits– as volunteer, advisor, consultant, or board director – and I’ve found that even in the best of circumstances, collaborations between civil society and the private sector are full of misunderstandings. But, the misunderstandings can be mitigated with a little mutual knowledge. In this article, I focus on what nonprofits need to know when interacting with corporations as potential donors.

The most important point is that raising funds from corporations is not that different from raising funds from other sources: personal relationships matter a lot; knowing their giving strategy and process is important; different organizations require different approaches; regular acknowledgment and reporting can strengthen relationships; and it’s good to have a crisp message about what your nonprofit does and how it aligns with their interests (both as the representative of the larger organization and as an individual).

But, there are also a few differences…

First, because private firms are not primarily in the business of giving, they often don’t have a unified, publicly articulated giving strategy, nor a clear path to engaging with them. You have to work harder to understand what their giving interests are, if any.

Second, businesses can be both carefree and narrowly quid-pro-quo about grants. The same company that casually tosses a few thousand dollars to one organization might demand an exact accounting of how they benefit when supporting another organization. From the nonprofit’s perspective, it helps to be clear about donor benefits, in any case. A default option is to claim PR value, but there may be creative ways in which you can return the favor in more concrete ways.

Third, there are many ways in which a business might make gifts. It’s worth approaching different groups within the company, not just the most obvious one. And, each might require a different approach.

What does this mean practically?

The first thing, of course, is to go to the company’s website and see if there are any corporate social responsibility programs. Larger companies will be sure to advertise their CSR work. The sites can be heavy on the marketing, but they will give you a sense for companies’ CSR priorities.

Corporate websites, however, rarely offer obvious ways to apply for grants. Microsoft’s corporate citizenship site, for example, mentions support in the form of software donations to nonprofits; youth programs; and work in disaster relief. But, while it’s easy to apply for software donations, it’s much less clear how a nonprofit might apply for funding: “Our cash grants are limited and typically result from an invitation to apply for a grant.”

Still, this is far from saying that grants don’t get made. They do. There might be many paths to a donation:

  • Corporate social responsibility. If a company has an official CSR group, it is often run like a nonprofit foundation and can be approached in a similar way. CSR advisors generally recommend that giving programs align with the corporate brand, so look for businesses that are related to your cause, or fill your specific need – pharmaceutical companies for your public health program; software donations from a software company; pro bono legal services from a law firm; etc.
  • Employee giving. Many companies encourage employees to make charitable donations, and some match employee gifts and volunteer hours. If you can get a group of employees excited about your nonprofit, they could rally support among their colleagues. There may also be a time of year when the company runs an employee giving campaign – just before or during, have someone on the inside host you for a brown-bag presentation.
  • Business development. Your extended network of donors, supporters, volunteers, and beneficiaries might be exactly the customers that a corporate sales team is chasing. If so, they might sponsor events you host that put them in front of potential customers.
  • Client relationships. Firms that provide professional services to other companies – legal, consulting, accounting, etc. – sometimes donate to causes championed by their clients. If any of your board members work with such services in their day job, they could hit up those they contract with for donations.
  • Relevant units within the company. Large companies tend to serve many different types of customers, and different sub-units have different priorities. Even if you have no luck with a company’s formal CSR group, it may be that their education-focused team would support your non-profit’s work in schools. When I was with Microsoft Research India, what I sought in nonprofits was research partners – our budget wasn’t structured to give away a lot of funds, but when we made grants, it was to nonprofits who worked with us on research. Seek out every possible point of connection.

All of this reinforces the need for strong fundraising fundamentals. Large organizations are rarely the monolithic fortresses they appear to be from the outside; they are a society of smaller groups, each with their own goals and budgets. So, it helps if you build multiple relationships – you can often “snowball” from one point of contact; employees tend to trust their colleagues’ referrals. Good personal relationships are the best way to get the inside story, to hear about unadvertised opportunities, and to build the trust that any donor wants in a grantee.


The Dos and Don’ts of Grant Writing

Grant Writing TipsThere’s a common misconception floating in the ether that grants are free, easy money. That’s simply not the case. Grants are awarded through an increasingly competitive system that favors only the strongest proposals. Here are some tips for making sure your proposal is in tip-top shape.

Do your research on the funder you’re approaching.Make sure the request you’re submitting is appropriate for the foundation, corporation, or other grant program you’re applying under. Read the guidelines carefully and thoroughly, and research past grants to make sure your request fits both in terms of the content of the proposal and the grant amount. For example, don’t ask for a $50,000 grant from a family foundation that only gives grants between $5,000 and $15,000.

Don’t wait til the last minute to start writing. Prepare your materials well in advance of the deadline, leaving yourself time to ask questions of the funder, to double and triple check your information with program officers, and to feel stress-free when you’re preparing the proposal or application.

Do thoroughly discuss your program. Write details of the who, what, why, when, where, and how of the proposed project. This will help show that your organization is prepared and capable, and that plans are in place to undertake the program. You want to show your ideas are not theoretical; prove they are real, well thought out, and practical and that you’re ready to hit the ground running

Don’t frame the proposal in terms of your organization’s needs. You don’t need money because you’re out of printer paper. You need money because you are working to solve an important, pressing, dire problem, and without money to keep the lights on and buy that printer paper, this problem will go unaddressed and people in need—not your organization—will suffer.

Do use outside research to justify your project. Show that there is widespread, well documented need for the program you intend to run, and that that program draws on experts and scholarly research in determining the best course of action to meet that need.

Don’t overstate or estimate your budget. Be precise with your budget numbers and don’t build in money for contingencies. Ask for only what you need, and make sure that need is justified. Don’t write that you need four reams of paper at a guesstimated $8 each. Go online, find the exact price, and quote that price.

Do consider hiring an outside eye to read through your proposal before you send it in. Often people who are close to the program they’re writing about fail to see gaps in their argument and may leave out important details inadvertently. A fresh set of impartial eyes can help strengthen your proposal.

Don’t mail lots of extras with your proposal. An attachment such as a DVD, annual report, or letter of support can be a good idea, but don’t overload your proposal. Let the writing stand on its own, and pay attention to the funder’s guidelines; often, funders specifically state whether they want attachments or not, and if they do, what to send. Stick to the guidelines.

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