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Grants: A Basic Primer

by Marian Quinlan

Often, writing grants is targeted by small fundraising shops without contacts to wealthy individuals or the wherewithal to conduct a direct mail campaign to the masses. Grants can range from small to very large. Grant sources include: foundations, corporations, government, churches, and nonprofit organizations.

Foundations must give away at least five percent of their principle each year by law, so they are in the business of giving away money. However, many foundations have very restrictive guidelines which can preclude their giving to your project. Working with them can be a long-term process -- six months from inquiry to a grant would be quick. And, you may put in a lot of effort with no pay off at all. Most foundations make grants to fewer than five percent of organizations requesting their support.

Most foundations must limit their awards to private, nonprofit, tax exempt organizations that qualify under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Grants are usually for general support for the overall organization or project support for specific work. Project support can often be divided into specific issues or geographic limitations.

Start by researching funders through: periodicals, the Foundation Directory (availablethrough the Foundation Center in New York), annual reports of nonprofit organizations similar to yours, and through word of mouth. Look for foundations with a record of awarding grants to organizations like your own, or foundations in your geographic area, or both. Eliminate from your list foundations whose geographic or program limitations would prevent them from funding your organization.

Request from the foundation's giving guidelines and annual report. Review their interests and requirements, and note special restrictions. Depending on the foundation's application deadlines and procedures, you may make an informal inquiry, by letter or by phone to the top prospects.

Briefly describe your organization and need. Offer to send a formal funding proposal. Schedule a preliminary meeting by phone or in person to discuss proposal basics, if possible. Find out what the funding source is interested in supporting. Show how your organization fits into these interests.

Submit a formal letter of inquiry, if necessary. A letter of inquiry may be about your organization, outlining your history and each of your programs. Or, it may be about a specific project. Think of the letter of inquiry as a mini-proposal.

If you are invited to submit a proposal, keep it brief and to the point. Be realistic about the amount of your request. Send proposals only to grantmakers expressing an interest in the project.

Call to be sure they received the proposal. Ask a program officer if further information is required, what the decision making process is, when the funding decision might be made. Grant decisions can take from a few weeks to more than a year. Plan accordingly and be patient, but persistent, in checking your proposal's progress.

Sometimes funders may call you with questions. This is actually a good sign. It means they are interested.

If possible, get friends to submit letters of support or make calls on your behalf. Also alert your other funders about this pending proposal, and ask if they might put in a good word for you.

When calling on acquaintances, keep in mind that your primary contact at the foundation is your program officer. Consider sending him/her a copy of correspondence sent to others when soliciting support for your project, keeping him/her in the loop. Complying with the funder's guidelines, is usually the best way to ensure your success. Respect the funder's need for proper internal communications, and be aware that you do not undermine your program officer's authority by securing preferential treatment from other staff or board members. Sometimes, over-enthusiastic networking can backfire and set your project back.

Find out when the board meeting is, and call afterward to inquire if you have been funded. If you do not get funded, ask why. Letters of denial may not state specifically why a proposal was denied. Request a meeting to discuss revising the proposal, and what the foundation's next deadline is, if it might be appropriate for you to reapply. It may help you to reapply or rewrite the proposal for success with the next prospect. Ask if the foundation staff knows others who might be interested in your project. Usually proposals are declined because: the foundation's grant budget was insufficient; the project was not a priority for the foundation; or the organization appeared to lack the capacity to carry out the project. Acknowledge rejections with a thank you note for their consideration.

If your proposal is funded, celebrate! Thank the funder. Track the financial expenditures for grant reports and your organization's programs, making sure staff are fulfilling what you promised in the proposal. A full evaluation and accounting of the funds' use are due to the foundation at the close of the grant period.

Ask if the foundation staff know of other funders who might be interested in your project. Keep in touch with every funder. This is very important, yet many grantees don't do this.

If changes in the program outlined inyour proposal are necessary, contact the foundation and let them know of problems. Send periodic reports and copies of any publicity about the program. Don't let the next time you submit another proposal be the next time they hear from you.

With the funders' permission, publicize and publicly acknowledge their grant.

Once you know the program officer, you can call him/her for guidance for future submissions. Get to know the people who make the decisions and let them get to know you.

Some projects require multiple grants, so you will need to make simultaneous submissions to several grantmakers. Most funders appreciate knowing about all outstanding proposals. Sometimes, they can even help you with pending proposals by putting in a good word for you. Don't limit yourself to local funding sources. If your proposal is unique or of national significance, approach major, national grantmakers.

Good research, followed by a good proposal will gain you consideration. A great proposal may get you the grant.

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About the Author:

Marian Quinlan has been Director of Development at First Nations Development Institute, a national, nonprofit Native American organization, since 1994. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive, a status conferred by the National Society of Fund Raising Executives for years of service to the profession and through a rigorous examination. She has approximately 10 years of fundraising experience at social change and nonprofit organizations, including People For the American Way, the National Parks and Conservation Association, and Clean Water Fund/Clean Water Action. She has raised funds from major donors and through events, and specializes in foundation and corporate fundraising. Marian can be reached by email at

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