Setting Yourself Up to Win a Foundation Grant before the Funding Opportunity Comes Out

Sometimes grant writing comes down to spotting a funding opportunity posted by a foundation or government agency and deciding spontaneously to submit a proposal. Maybe you and your colleagues can clear your calendars and dedicate a month or two to prepare the proposal and get it submitted. This approach may work occasionally, and you may win a few grants. However, to increase the odds that you will win a grant, you don't want to wait for the funding opportunity to be announced before you start working on the proposal.

But how do you work on a proposal that hasn't been announced yet? There is a two-part answer. Your approach will depend on whether you are interested in foundation funding or government grants. This post will focus on preparing for foundation grants. A follow-up post will discuss preparing for government grants.

Preparatory Work for Foundation Grants

As a first step toward creating successful grant proposals for foundations, you will want to learn everything you can about each foundation you think could be a potential funder for your organization. Things you'll want to look at should include the foundations' current funding interests and trends in their giving. Over the last few years do they seem more interested in certain issues or types of projects? Are they funding more projects over time or fewer? Are their grantees a diverse group or do they fund the same organizations over and over? You should also understand how their funding programs are organized and what their application processes are. Do they accept applications once a year? Biannually? If the foundation does not have a standard application period (e.g. grants accepted March and October every year),  try to find out when they awarded grants in past years to get an idea of when the application period will be during the current year.

Once you know roughly when applications will be due and what a donor's program areas and current interests are along with the average grant size, your next step will be to think about what your organization could propose that would be a good fit within this framework. Do you have an existing project that could be presented to the donor for ongoing funding? If the donor doesn't fund general operating expenses (few do) or core programs, is there a new project or set of activities that you could propose that might match the donor's interests and budget limits?

After you have some ideas on what you could propose, you'll want to identify the information and resources that you'll need to have in place by the time the proposal needs to be written. Examples might include:

  • Will the work you're proposing require you to hire new staff or consultants to implement the work?
  • Will you need to hire a consultant to help you to write the proposal?
  • Do you need additional information about the setting where your proposed project will take place or about other organizations working on similar issues or services?

If you use your time effectively, by the time the proposal opportunity comes out (or the application period begins), you'll have the information to write the proposal ready to go plus an idea of who on your staff can help with the proposal writing and do the proposed project's work. You'll also have an idea of what your proposal budget will need to be, or really budgets (plural), because most likely you'll need two. You'll need a budget to cover the proposal writing period and then another budget for the proposed work (i.e. the budget submitted with the proposal). If you do the prep work thoroughly, by the time the proposal opportunity comes out you will have gotten a lot of these organizational pieces out of the way, leaving you room to focus on the details. Many foundations use the same basic outline each year, so in addition to thinking about your project's features, you may also be able to  draft in advance sections like "project background, organizational experience, staff experience" etc., which are pretty standard proposal pieces regardless of funding source.

How Does Prep Work Help You Win a Grant?

With the exception of foundations that accept applications on a rolling basis, almost every grant application period is a short window of a month or two.

If you don't have an idea of what you are going to write about by the time the funding opportunity is released or the application period begins, you'll end up using a large chunk of the limited proposal period doing planning and deciding what to propose, identifying who can write the proposal, and collecting the information you need to respond to the opportunity.

However, if you research these things in advance and have the people and resources lined up, you'll be able to spend more time during the proposal period on high-value activities like refining your ideas and strategies and polishing your writing. No matter how great your proposed project, or how pressing your organization's needs, if the donor cannot understand what you've written or finds your proposal uncompelling, they are unlikely to give you a grant. By getting the more administrative-related proposal tasks out of the way early in the process, you'll be in a better position to produce a responsive proposal that meets the donor's requirements, which in turn will increase the odds that your proposal will be successful.