Sunday, March 01, 2009

Think About Applying for Grants From the Grant Donor's Perspective

Sometimes the best way to get a grant awarded to your nonprofit is to think beyond the actual grant writing process, get out of that mindset for a moment, and imagine what the grant donor's wanting to assist (or, to what do they want to give a grant to - what are they looking for). This exercise can actually help you create a winning grant proposal.

Let's look at the grant application process from the grant donor's perspective. Let's say that you and I work together at a local grant donor, a local foundation. Let's say we work at Partners Foundation (I just made that up). Let's say, too, that we're a medium size foundation in a larger town or city. Our annual operating budget is around $180,000 and we grant about $100,000 a year to applicant nonprofits. Let's say that (as all foundations specifically wish to grant to the causes or issues that they are concerned about, at the time) Partners Foundation requests applications from nonprofits providing one of three different kinds of health programs: hospice programs, counseling programs for families who have a critically sick child, and shuttle or transportation assistance services for people unable to drive themselves to their medical appointments or to pick up their prescriptions. In other words, any nonprofit who is (or is going to) provide, and needs money for any one of these specific programs (and who also meets the other requirements to apply, located in Partners Foundation's giving guidelines (see the link to understand what giving guidelines are)) should apply to Partners Foundation. Do not ever apply to a foundation: that does not fund the cause/issue that your nonprofit works on, or that does not fund organizations that serve the population in the geographic region that your nonprofit serves, or that does not fund the kinds of programs, services, research, etc. that you are needing to fund. [Note: To understand how to look for grant donors (this work is called 'prospecting') to specifically locate the grant donors most likely to give to your nonprofit read the following posts: We Need Money For Our 501(c)(3)... , The Grant Writer's Little Helper; IRS Tax Form 990 Post 1 of 2 , The Grant Writer's Little Helper; IRS Tax Form 990 Post 2 of 2 ]

So, given that we work for a small to medium sized foundation, we have four giving cycles a year. This means that each quarter, we notify the public that we are accepting applications for grants (for the specific issues, programs, and in the locations that we indicate in our current giving guidelines). Working for a foundation, we provide nonprofits who are interested in applying for our grants with our foundation's giving guidelines, due dates, answer questions about how to apply or the application, itself, etc. Being that we grant about $100,000 a year over four quarters, in 2005 we received about 300 grant application a giving cycle (or a quarter). In 2007 we averaged receiving about 800 applications a quarter - over double the average before the economy slowed. Also, since we have an annual operating budget of about $180,000 (which is only how much the foundation spends, annually, to operate - it does not reflect the assets that the foundation owns), and we give about $100,000 annually, in grants, then we can surmise that about $80,000 is spent, over the year, on operating the foundation (everything from overhead such as rent, parking, office supplies, phones, etc. to salaries and benefits). Let's say that $80,000 is broken into $60,000 for the foundation's executive director's salary and benefits, $10,000 for one part time program manager, and we have two interns in our office at any time to do administrative work. The other $10,000 pays the foundation's overhead and operations expenses. Yes, foundations recognized by the U.S. federal government as such, are nonprofits, themselves.

So...if we have a staff of four, not including Partners Foundation's board of directors (which, let's say, is 15 people); we receive approximately 800 grant applications that must each be read before a major deadline each quarter, every year; and we only fund those nonprofits that meet and exceed the requirements and spirit of our foundation's giving guidelines - we know the following about our work as a foundation (and these are important clues to nonprofits who are applying for grants to any foundation or other grant donor):

__ While program managers may be excellent readers, they are reading for content (looking for the applicant nonprofit's mission, proposed program/project that they need funding for, reasoning that explains why the program/project and organization are necessary to the community, and for the application's compliance with not only the giving guidelines but also that all required attachments are in the application package, etc.). That is a lot to have to find in each document of 800 applications. [Note: the more that a nonprofit formats it grant proposal (while staying within the requirements of the giving guidelines) so that it is easy for the reader to pick out the compelling or important points in it - the easier it is for anyone who has numbers of proposals to read to find the facts that will sell them on your organization's proposed work].

__ We have to determine which applicants' budgets are not just mathematically correct, but also correlates to what is stated in the written proposal, and is fiscally responsible and sound (of the nonprofits that remembered to include the budget for the proposed program/project, in the proposal, as required in Partners Foundation's grant application process). [Note: Always make sure that your budget is in accordance with the foundation's giving guidelines, is realistic/possible, simple, complete, honest, and is mathematically correct. Also, make sure that what is stated in the proposal about money, matches what is listed in the budget].

__ We have to weed out the grant applications that we can (because of the volume of applicants compared to what we give in grants each quarter). While we wish we could fund each good idea that we received in applications, we can't. Any reason that we can find to put a grant application into the "No Pile" - we have to use. [Note: Never make it easy for a grant donor to put your nonprofit's application in the "No Pile". How? Always do everything that they require in the foundation's giving guidelines. Meet deadlines. Do not add any extraneous documents, attachments, videos or other media to a grant application package. They don't have time to go through it at all. Write a succinct, complete, honest, and compelling grant proposal, etc.] While working at our jobs, we move after this first quarter of 2009's giving cycle's deadline is past us, approximately 90% or 720 of 800 grant applications to the "No Pile" for various reasons (which we note on each grant application that we put into that pile - in case the nonprofit calls us, after receiving their rejection letter, asking us how they can do better when they apply to our foundation next time). The 10% or 80 grant applications that we did not find issue with, next, goes to our board of directors who always make the final grant recipient decisions. The 15 of them will divvy up going through all 80 grant proposals and probably in greater detail than you and I could.

__ Since we know that we only have about $25,000 to grant this giving cycle, and because we want our foundation's grants to make the most good in our community that those dollars can, the board of directors of our foundation do not want to fund any programs, projects, etc. that indicate even a possibility of the following: nonprofits whose missions do not serve a current or urgent real need in our community; nonprofits who do not expertise in what they doing (e.g. do not have expertise or credentialed professionals working as staff or on the board of the nonprofit); nonprofits who do not appear to know how to run a nonprofit according to current professional nonprofit best practices (because our board doesn't want to risk even a dollar of its grant money to nonprofit leadership who are learning as they go, when there are plenty of nonprofits who are run by people who make sure that they know how to run a professional nonprofit, that have also applied for a grant); nonprofits who have had bad press recently (e.g. a legal or internal scandal), or who are known to spend grant money on things other than what they say they'll spend the money on (the board of our foundation have friends who work for other foundations' boards and these friends do talk to one another about nonprofits who bilk or cheat them), or nonprofits who do not seem to account for their money well or correctly, etc.; proposals that are not clear or do not demonstrate that the program/project has been thoroughly planned out, including the goal of the program/project and anticipated results and an evaluation method; etc. [ Note: When your organization applies for a grant, and even if it's up against only one other nonprofit (instead of 79 other nonprofits) to get that grant - you must have submitted an excellent, strong, well done proposal because if you don't, the other nonprofit has).

__ We want to give our grants to reputable nonprofits. Not only does this mean that we only want to give our dollars to organizations who are known to be successful, well run, honest, efficient with their money, etc. BUT (big 'but') it also means that we (as the foundation staff, board, etc.) should have heard of the applicant nonprofit before. Not only that, if we, at the foundation, have friends, colleagues, or family that work for, is served by, or volunteer with an applicant nonprofit - that helps that nonprofit's chances of getting a grant (because connections are 'everything') WHEN WE AT THE FOUNDATION KNOW ABOUT THE CONNECTION. [Note: Always, always, always take marketing and public relations work as seriously as fundraising work because the two actually go hand and hand. Marketing and PR can increase the amounts raised and numbers of donors gained. Similarly, be sure to let your community at large know whenever and each time your organization achieves any success. Finally, whenever and each time your nonprofit is about to submit a grant proposal check with your organization's staff, board, volunteers, and beneficiaries whether anyone has a relationship with anyone volunteering with or working for the foundation that you're applying to. It can be invaluable. If a connection is found - be sure that the person who has the connection contacts their connection in the foundation and let them know that your nonprofit is about to apply, and why they believe in your nonprofit (nothing "sales-y" - from the heart is always more compelling)].

From a foundation's (or other grant donor's) point of view, they are looking to give grants (not for the tax break, studies have found) because they are concerned about our world and have specific concerns for the community. They are as much investors as they are donors. Foundations (and others) give grants to succeed at providing a viable and strong solution to real needs. Help them see and be able to see why your organization's proposed program or project is an excellent, efficient, current, professional, successful, viable, and long lived investment.


Suzy Meneguzzo said...

Well said! As someone who reads grants for a living, I believe you've said it quiet well here.

I would re-emphasis these points:

Make sure the proposal is well written, logical and clear. I don't need flowery; I do need to know that you know what you are talking about. Every time I read a confusing proposal I assume the writer simply doesn't have a clear concept of what they want to accomplish...straight to the “no” pile.

Make sure you're a fit with the Foundation you are targeting (research). I often have long conversations in which someone will try to convince me how their idea fits our guidelines. No matter how much convincing someone does, it doesn't change my obligation to my Board of Trustees and to the directives I've gotten from them. My advice, if you have to stretch to make it doesn't fit.

Finally, on the communications issue. I would go one step further. It isn't so much that I've heard of you but that others in the area doing similar work have heard of you...better yet you are working closely with similar agencies. Even when agencies don't work together, I always look for at least an awareness of other organizations doing similar work.

Arlene M. Spencer said...

Thank you for posting and for clarifying what exactly you look for! I appreciate your sharing! Best, Arlene

Ronnie Ann said...

This is great advice! I was once the development director of a small non-profit, having taken the job without any prior non-profit experience. For anyone in a similar situation who may be feeling a bit insecure, please know despite my being new to the game, I managed to raise funds anyway (even from foundations who had never given to us before) simply by following the tips you suggest.

I read each set of guidelines carefully and focused efforts on creating customized proposals to match THEIR needs, sending to only those we really qualified for (rather than sending out the same untargeted proposal to any and every place I could find.) And made sure I clearly responded to each point in the Grant notification in a well organized, easy-to-understand manner. I was NOT an expert by any means and am sure they could see that in my proposals, but we still managed to get new awards. I hope that gives some people the courage to get out there and raise the funds they need!

Thanks again for a great post and much-needed information.

Ronnie Ann

Arlene M. Spencer said...

Ronnie Ann,
You are welcome, and thank you for your support! Best, Arlene