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Demystifying Grant Seeking Part 1

by Larissa Golden Brown


Too many well-meaning staff and volunteers let themselves get bogged down in unproductive attitudes and habits about grants. Chapter 1 of Demystifying Grant Seeking : what you reallly need to do to get grants asserts it's possible to get more grant money while reducing hassle and anguish. The key is dismissing myths and fears and taking on a more empowered point of view, where your organization is a true equal partner in the grantmaking agreement. Along the way, the chapter provides a general introduction to the world of grant seeking.

This chapter is reproduced with the permission of Jossey-Bass Publishers. Demystifying Grant Seeking is © 2001 Jossey-Bass.


Perhaps this sounds familiar –

You're staying late at work the night before the proposal is due – very late. Even the intern went home hours ago. You put on another pot of coffee and slog once again through the 20 pages you've written. Then you spend extra money on FedEx to get the proposal in on time. You swear that after tonight you're not applying for any more grants. You just don't see how the few grants you get are worth the agony.

Or perhaps you supervise a staff person who handles grant writing, but they just don't seem to be getting that many checks in... or that many proposals out in the mail, for that matter. Perhaps they're caught up in other development projects or their time is limited. You'd rather not bug them one more time about a grant resource they're neglecting to tap into. You wonder whether you will ever see results.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Grants are part of almost every nonprofit's world, whether your organization receives dozens of them, or you are just beginning to wonder about them. Grants can be a substantial and meaningful funding source for many kinds of projects and organizations. And they can be a source of great hope and excitement.

At the same time, few subjects in nonprofit management are surrounded by such fear and mystery. Few tasks are faced with such dread as writing and submitting grant proposals. Because you may never know why you do or don't get funded, it's common to look at grant funding as an irrational or chaotic process. Grant makers can seem cruel or fickle.

Nonprofits that are agonized by grant seeking act in accordance with these beliefs. When they hear about a grant opportunity, they scramble to design a program that fits the guidelines, or work all night to get a confused proposal in the mail by the deadline. They conduct their grant seeking as an intermittent series of desperate crap shoots, which we call "episodic" grant seeking. The odds of success are poor. Nationally, only 1-10% of grant proposals are funded, according to a review in Dennis P. McIlnay’s How Foundations Work.1

The effective grant seeker believes something completely different – that, for all the hype, grant seeking and grant making are understandable and fairly rational processes. They run a steady, intelligent, fearless grant seeking effort that minimizes work and pushes their odds well above the average — by targeting the funders most compatible with their organization, by cultivating professional relationships with those funders, and by organizing their efforts for efficiency.

This book gives you simple techniques you can use and habits you can develop to become this kind of grant seeker. But before you try to apply them, you need to free yourself of some common misconceptions about grant seeking, and get a more realistic idea of what you should and shouldn't expect from the process.

Myth: Grants are something for nothing
Reality: Grants are rational deals between colleagues

Grants are appealing because they look like big chunks of free money. Unlike most individual donations, grants are often large enough to actually buy something: to fund a whole program for an entire year, or to purchase a major piece of equipment. And to get a grant, you just send in an application. The funder sends back a check, and you don't need to pay it back. A grant seems like manna from heaven, or a winning lottery ticket.

This perspective feeds some unfortunate practices and beliefs. Buying a lottery ticket takes no skill, so nonprofits that see grant seeking as gambling apply on impulse, without preparation; they assign the wrong people to work on proposals, or they place no value on the work of a skilled grant seeker. Logically, the only way they can increase their chances of winning a lottery is to buy more tickets, so some organizations practice the "spray and pray" method of grant seeking: sending out scores of identical proposals, hoping a few will "hit" and provide a windfall. Similarly, some nonprofits go "fishing" for funds, returning to the same foundations over and over again hoping to eventually get a "bite." Worse, some nonprofit staffers become sycophants, flattering grant makers, and hoping this will provide an edge or an "in."

These methods are recipes for resentment and wasted labor. Rejections of desperate, heartfelt proposals naturally fuel the attitude that grant makers are fickle and unfair. Winning (or losing) a grant on the basis of flattery and connections, rather than on the merits of the proposal, can't do much but create a malaise that few at idealistic nonprofits will be comfortable with. And sending out scores of ill-considered proposals wastes a lot of work, not to mention paper and postage, considering that none are likely to be funded.

Grants are not free money. Foundations and other grant makers are organizations like your nonprofit. They have missions and goals just like you do. When a funder awards you a grant, they are not doing so solely out of the goodness of their hearts. Rather, what you plan to do with the money fits in with their own goals, initiatives, and dreams, and often with their founder’s stated wishes.

It makes sense to see a grant as a fair deal between colleagues whose interests are similar, but whose resources are different. Your nonprofit and the funder have similar goals, for example, housing the homeless. The funder has money to use for work toward that goal. Your nonprofit has the capability to do the work, with shelter space, expert staff, connections with health care providers, and so on. Your organization performs the work in exchange for the money. Your organization and its programs have a value that is equal to grant money.

If you can recognize this value, you will stop praying, fishing, and flattering for grants. You will begin to look for and see matches with funders whose interests and goals are most like yours. You will behave less like a supplicant or gambler, and more like a partner with funders. You will handle rejection better, too, because you will be able to conceive that it is possible that some other organization had a proposal that fit the funder's goals just as much as yours.

Acknowledging the full value of your own organization and its programs isn't always easy. Grant seekers and grant makers are bound up in a status relationship so deeply ingrained it is sometimes difficult to recognize. Grant seekers are accustomed to — even proud of — being poor, fighting for recognition and justice, and having to beg for money. They have a lower status than grant makers, who often play the part of exclusive or "noble" organizations.

This status difference seems to come from a belief that money (or the ability to give it away) is more respectable than expertise, ability, or action. It hasn't helped that some funders have been willing to take on a superior role, hiding behind unlisted phone numbers or gate-keepers, and making forbidding statements like one we heard recently: "Dr. X prefers not to meet with anyone." At one workshop we attended, a program officer from a well-known national foundation seemed to admit his organization found ambiguity convenient, when he said "It is the policy of the foundation to not be comfortable with getting too clear."

The pecking order is perpetuated every day, when nonprofits flatter and supplicate in their grant seeking. They are just as complicit as funders, coming to believe they are "owed something" for their good work. They attempt to play their low status role to their advantage, appealing to those higher up with their incredible need and devotion, and some grants consultants might advocate you adopt this role. But no matter how we in the nonprofit world martyr ourselves for the good of our causes, funders are free to make their own decisions.

While it is unproductive to demand or expect to be funded just because foundations "have to give it away," it might empower you to remember that a funder's money can do little good for the community unless it is invested -- for example, in organizations like yours. Funders need nonprofits to spend their money effectively, just as much as nonprofits need funders to pay for our programs.

It's also encouraging to remember that though grant seeking seems surrounded by mystery, it is basically a rational process. Usually, some or all of the criteria used to award a grant are presented in writing, and if you are not awarded a grant, you may be able to find out why. Often it is because your organization did not fit the written guidelines, or unwritten but discernable priorities of the foundation trustees.

That’s not to say grant making is 100% fair. Even fair deals between colleagues involve some intangible elements, like trust, and any process involving money is open to misunderstanding and corruption. Even at the fairest of trustee meetings, very good programs and proposals can end up as the least important ones on the table.

Still, there are many elements of the process you have control over — for example, which funders you apply to, how you relate to those funders, which information you present to them, how it is presented, and how you organize your efforts. Efficient grant seekers make more money in less time because they take charge of these parts of the process — the parts they can control — rather than leaving them to vagaries of flattery, hope, or luck.

Continue the article here: Demystifying Grant Seeking Part 2

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About the Author:

Larissa Golden Brown is co-author of Demystifying Grant Seeking: What You REALLY Need to do to Get Grants, a hands-on, affordable book for beginners to grant seeking.

The book can be purchased through:

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