Before You Start Writing - Do This!
My first opportunity to write grants was for a major South Florida hospital. I had a good mentor and quickly learned what to do - and what not to do. Over the years I’ve helped put together many successful grants, including a few 6 and 7-figure gifts. The feeling of success is hard to beat.
I would like to share a few fundamental steps that will increase your organization’s chances of success. Although some may seem basic, I often see many of these principles overlooked.
Let’s start with something that is too often skipped: carefully assessing and organizing the information needed for the core of the grant. You must be grant-ready before you start applying to be competitive. You can worry about the writing later, but if you don’t organize and then present the facts clearly, then you are wasting your time.
Do not write a grant based on need and hope.
Be Specific and Clear
The majority of grants are awarded for a specific need as opposed to just general support. So begin by carefully selecting a defined project that is both credible and achievable. Why are you applying for this grant? Your mere assertion of “need” is not very impressive - everyone has a need. You must define why an investment in your project will be worthwhile. Does it have a good return on investment? Does it help a significant number of people, or have a sustainable impact? Take the emotion out of it and think “X dollars will produce Y results”.
That doesn’t mean you can't be creative. If you are a food bank, for example, and you have served thousands, you can still provide focus by targeting a specific neighborhood, or population group, or the source of food. But be specific.
I often see non-profits reaching for the stars instead of sticking to what they already do well. Unless you have a history with a grantmaker, make sure your request matches your past achievements.
Foundations aren’t typically risk-takers – there are too many solid and successful organizations with a good track record, asking for reasonable support. You should be one of them.
Your initial goal is to create a relationship based on trust and “do-able deeds”, which later you can expand.
Make sure to highlight your strengths, not your needs. Emphasize opportunities. And whatever you do, don’t write about dire consequences for your organization if funding is not received. Few funders will take an interest in funding a potentially sinking ship.
Translate Your Need Into a Simple Budget
Demonstrating core credibility is one of the most important factors in a grant proposal. Many funders look at the project budget first, even before reading any narrative.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read proposals that say one thing, but then it's almost impossible to connect the budget to the request. Think about it, if you cannot easily tie the budget to the outcomes, why would a grantor trust you? Don't fudge. I Make sure your numbers add up and that there aren’t items that are noticeably missing. Make sure that the sources of revenue are clear – having varied funding shows that this isn’t a one-off project which lives or dies on only one gift.
You can provide detail and complexity, but I recommend you start with a simple table that shows what you currently spend on this specific need (if anything), what you want to spend, and what the impact will be. It should be easy to understand and clearly match whatever you are seeking to accomplish. And sometimes the creation of this table will reveal to you, in advance, what’s missing.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
When you are applying formally to a grantor, it’s likely they have years of experience. They have seen thousands of applications and may be reviewing a few hundred right now. You can’t fudge your way into a “yes”. Grants are like resumes – it’s much easier for a tired reviewer to eliminate negatives than to dig further and learn more. Don’t make it easy for a reviewer to toss your application in the circular file.
Your first goal is not to fail.
And make sure to get out of your own head for a moment. If the budget asks, for example, for $50,000 to provide a service to 25 more people in one year, then remember that the first thing a grantor will do is divide $50,000 by 25. Which equals $2,000 per person. Does this outcome sound credible and worthy? Maybe, it depends on what the service is. Start by analyzing the basics.
Do Your Grantor Homework
So once you have defined what you are applying for, it's time to learn more about the grantors you are applying to! The goal is to create a match. Make sure to review the grantor's 990's, their websites, and any other information which lists goals, geographic priorities, typical grant awards, limitations, board leadership and much more. Most of this is available quite easily.
Seek to find where you and the grantor match, rather than trying to twist and turn your ask into something that it's not.
Then if possible, contact the grantor. Prepare some specific questions showing that you’ve done your homework – please avoid asking questions with answers which are clearly available on the grantor’s website or application guidelines. A great way to make a bad impression is to call with a series of dumb questions – and yes – there is such a thing as a dumb question!
Relationship building is as important in grant seeking as it is in all other elements of fundraising.
Be persistent. Apply early and often. It’s truly hard to get funded on the first try. It often takes time and repetition.
Make sure to emphasize solutions and not just problems. In the end, someone is going to read your proposal and you want to present an attractive and hopeful view.
Successful grant work does not begin with a fun creative-writing task (that comes later). You have to start with the hard facts and numbers. Otherwise, you end up with the proverbial “aim, shoot, ready!”.
Remember that developing a grant from start to finish, and then writing it, takes time and solid effort.
There’s plenty more to consider regarding the actual presentation and writing, but that's a subject for another day.