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Demystifying Grant Seeking Part 2

by Larissa Golden Brown

Continued from: Demystifying Grant Seeking Part 1

Myth: Writing grant proposals is an ordeal
Reality: Proposal writing is predictable and simple

Though the specific requirements of grant makers vary, and your proposals should be tailored for each funder, all grant applications involve just one basic activity: responding to a set of questions about your nonprofit organization and its programs. This set of questions varies little from funder to funder. For example: Who and how many people will be served by program X? How will the effectiveness of program Y be evaluated? What other organizations do you collaborate with? What other funds have you sought?

If you know your organization and its programs well, answering these questions will be a fairly straightforward process. The experience of grant writing as an ordeal — staying up all night, agonizing, and racing the envelope to FedEx at the last second — comes not from the nature of grant seeking, but from predictable situations at nonprofits that are desperate for money but ill-prepared to answer key questions. Presented with a grant opportunity, some nonprofits try to design whole new projects from scratch at the last second, so they can apply with something that fits the funding requirements. We strongly object to this practice on the grounds of both practicality and principle.

In purely logistical terms, designing a new program is naturally hard work that takes a long time, and must be done before the questions in a grant proposal can be answered. It's work most appropriately done by an organization's program staff, who are the experts on day-to-day operations. An experienced member of the development staff, such as yourself, might have skills in spotting good programs and be able to help design a new one, but you will never want to invent a new program without the cooperation of program staff. You could get funded for a program that is not ready to roll, and have serious trouble following through. You might even have to return the money.

Or you might raise the money, your organization might follow through, and you'd "get away" with it. This can create what nonprofit managers call "mission creep," when your mission changes due to external factors, such as money. Why would you want to be involved in such a transaction? If you're like many fundraisers, you got involved in nonprofits because you really believed in a cause or program. It's our opinion that you should hang on to that idealism and use it as your guiding star, rather than pursuing funding for funding’s sake, or creating bureaucracies that no one believes in.

A better way to operate is for you, the grant seeker, to ask the program staff basic questions about your organization and relevant programs, and use their answers to write grant proposals. If the program staff have trouble answering the kinds of questions foundations often ask, they probably need to think out their ideas or document their experience more carefully before they ask you to write a proposal. As you become experienced with grant seeking, your role as development staff should be to help program planners ask themselves the right questions. Chapter 4 of this book contains exercises to help both development and program staff collect the answers you’ll need to know before applying for any grant.

When you know your organization well, and programs are fully designed and ready for grant seeking, the actual writing of grant proposals turns out to be easy. After creating a few of them, you'll notice that though the order or wording of the questions may vary from funder to funder, the questions themselves are very much the same.

The requirements of grant applications are repetitive and predictable. As a consequence, making an investment in preparation and organization will speed the writing and assembling of all your proposals. Several chapters in this book describe how you can anticipate needs and have much of the necessary material ready before you even think of applying to any particular funder.

In fact, grant seeking involves so much organization, preparation, and clerical tasks that it is more trouble than it's worth to apply for one or two grants. If you make an investment of time in setting up a grant seeking system, you can easily apply for 10 or 20 grants instead of one. And if you make a steady, consistent effort, even if it is low-key, chances are that your investment will eventually pay off. You’ll be left with more time to spend any way you want – on the finer points of each proposal, on your other job duties, or on sleep.

Myth: All you need is one well-written grant proposal
Reality: Winning grants depends on pinpointing matches and tailoring proposals

As consultants, we have been approached by many nonprofit organizations each asking us to write a single "boilerplate" proposal for them – one they can send out to many funders. This is the kind of job we don’t take, because a single grant proposal is right only for the funder for which it is written, and sending it to dozens of funders at once is usually a waste of resources. Grant makers can tell when they’ve been sent a form letter, and it likely makes them feel just about as special as you do when you get a letter from Ed McMahon.

Grant proposals all have similar elements, and a few funders even accept Common Grant Application forms, which save administrative time for applicants. However, every proposal – even one submitted on a Common form – should have at least a cover letter that points out how the program in question specifically matches with the funder’s mission and goals. As a grant seeker, you will spend time making crucial decisions about what we call "matches" – which programs you will present to which funders, and for how much funding. Sending a boilerplate proposal skips over the important steps of matching the potential funder with your program, and presenting the match in a way that this particular funder will find pertinent and compelling. It also skips over the brief but essential task of updating your text with the most recent changes in your program goals and community trends, which can lend a sense of timeliness and relevance to your proposal.

Myth: You need to "know someone" to get a grant.
Reality: You don't need to know anyone to start, and relationships can be built as you go.

One Monday morning two years ago, we observed an otherwise rational program director come into a weekly staff meeting in a state of tremendous excitement. Over the weekend, he had been best man at a wedding, where he had met the brother-in-law of a trustee from a big foundation! He thought this personal contact had won a crucial "in" for our organization -- regardless of the fact that we didn't even meet the foundation's guidelines for grant funding.

Many people have heard relationships are crucial to foundation fundraising, and in general that is true. However, the crucial relationships in steady, systematic grant seeking aren't personal friendships or "ins." Instead, they are business relationships built on confidence and mutual regard -- the elements necessary to work together in a significant way. Consider how you might react if someone asked you for a dime for their project. You’d probably give ten cents to anyone, stranger or friend, without much thought or expectation. But if someone asked you for a thousand dollars, you might reasonably wonder what kind of track record they had, if you could trust them to follow through, and how their success or failure might reflect on you.

Similarly, many small grants, and once in a while a large one, are awarded with zero personal contact and no pre-existing relationships. We had the experience of starting from scratch with an organization that had no existing business relationships with foundations, and we raised 10% of that organization’s budget through grants in our first year there, working entirely through the mail.

For larger or more significant grants, you will need relationships, but fortunately they can be initiated and cultivated by you in a businesslike way. You might be introduced to foundation staff or trustees through public knowledge of your program’s work, a personal introduction by a trusted colleague, or a record of successful use of prior grant funds – for example, small grants you got through the mail. These elementary relationships can be crucial because they provide an accepted context to build up positive background information about your organization before the next funding decision is made. Assuming you have a good program, it's likely the better a grant maker knows you, the more they will trust you as a steward of their funds.

An efficient grant seeker sends a steady stream of good information to funders, without going overboard. You want to develop an evolving relationship of collaboration, in which you consistently provide proof that your organization is a responsible and effective partner in their efforts. Such relationships can position your organization to be a serious contender for very significant grants. This kind of relationship, more than a chat with someone’s brother in law, will ultimately be your "in."

Continue the article here: Demystifying Grant Seeking Part 3

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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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