If you’re new to grant writing or have not been successful in securing grant funding, we hope this post will help you. We’re covering three essential truths about grant funding to help you prepare a strong grant strategy.
When it comes to grant funding, you must:
Know Your Organization’s Capabilities
Set Reasonable Expectations
Unfortunately for all of the procrastinators out there, if you want to secure grant funding, you need to plan ahead. If you find out about a grant opportunity a week or two before the deadline, unless it is a very short application and does not require a detailed budget, you should forget about applying. If you want to prepare a competitive proposal that actually has a chance of winning, you will need more than a couple of weeks to prepare the application.
How much time do you need? It depends on how complex the grant application is, but if the application requires a proposal narrative of 5 or more pages and a detailed budget, you should set aside at least 2 weeks for even the simplest of proposals. During those two weeks, you will need to clear your calendar to focus on the proposal.
The best strategy is to plan your proposal calendar months in advance. How can you do this? By dedicating a block of time at least once a week (preferably every day) to research potential funders. When you find something you’re eligible for that looks interesting, look at the deadline. Given the grant application requirements, is the grant application deadline far enough into the future to allow you enough time to prepare a quality proposal? If the answer is “yes,” you can start planning the proposal process. If the answer is “no”—and the funder accepts applications for the opportunity annually—then open your calendar and schedule times to check the funder’s website to see when the opportunity opens up again. While you wait for the opportunity to go live, you can start preparing the materials you know you’ll need to have ready when the time comes to apply.
Why do you need to dedicate so much time to a document that may be just a few pages in length? Because getting a grant is a competitive process. You are up against other organizations that want the grant as much or more than you do. You must prepare proposals that are clearly written and persuasive to have a chance of winning a grant, and for most of us, this kind of writing takes time and doesn’t come naturally. In fact, the shorter the application, often the harder it is to write because you have to choose every word very carefully.
If you don’t have time to prepare a quality grant application, don’t waste your time by applying. Your goal as a grant seeker should not be to submit as many grant proposals as you can in a given period of time. The goal should be to prepare a select number of high quality, competitive proposals that have a reasonable chance of being funded.
KNOW YOUR ORGANIZATION’S CAPABILITIES (AND ITS LIMITS)
Knowing the needs of your beneficiary population is not the same as being qualified to receive grant funding. This is true regardless of whether you are doing a phenomenal job at serving your beneficiaries. Why? Because grant funding is not about getting money because you need money. It’s about receiving money because of what you can offer the funder, which includes effective project management and responsible financial management. The funder knows you want money—that’s why you submitted the grant application—but the funder isn’t going to award a grant to the organization that appears to “need” the money the most. Funders evaluate proposals based on a number of criteria such as how responsive the proposal is to the funding opportunity announcement, whether an applicant has demonstrated the capacity to manage a funded project based on their past performance, and the level of skills and experience of key personnel.
To receive grant money, an organization must show it has the capacity to manage funds, accomplish project goals, and meet funder requirements related to reporting on project outcomes.
Your organization may be eligible to apply for grant funding from a particular funder because of the population you serve or the nature of your work, but this does not make you a competitive grant applicant.
Many nonprofits think about grant funding as a simple two-part process of “find opportunity, apply to grant.” These organizations often believe that the main barrier preventing them from receiving lots of grant money is lack of opportunities: If they could only find more opportunities to apply to, the thinking goes, they would be okay. The reality is more complicated. You do need to find opportunities to apply to, that’s a given. However, you need to be a competitive applicant for the opportunities you find in order to have a chance at receiving a grant.
Rarely is it possible to receive a grant based on doing good work alone. You also need to have policies and procedures in place to manage funds and programs. If you do not have a financial management system in place, if you do not have accurate data on how many beneficiaries you’ve served, if you cannot show how your work is making a difference in your community, it’s going to be a challenge to secure grant funding. Before you dig into writing grants, first make sure that you can put together a strong application by looking at your organization as objectively as possible: Does your organization have the capacity to accomplish its stated goals and manage the funds responsibly?
If your organization is a home-grown operation with an all-volunteer staff and no organized systems to speak of for managing programs or funds, it may still be possible to get a grant. The grant will probably be micro- or small grant (under $5K) from a small, possibly local, family foundation that doesn’t have a complicated application process. If you do not have systems in place to monitor revenue and expenditures and report on program activities and accomplishments, it is highly unlikely that you’ll receive a grant from a major foundation, so you should plan your grant strategy accordingly.
This leads us to the final truth, which is about setting reasonable expectations.
SET REASONABLE EXPECTATIONS FOR YOUR GRANT PROGRAM
A grant is not going to solve all of your organization’s funding issues. A grant can be part of a solution, but alone, winning a grant will not be enough to keep your doors open long term.
You need to have a strategy for raising money to meet your expenses, and that strategy must include sources of revenue other than grants. While grants can be a piece of your revenue stream, you should not expect to meet all of your expenses through grants. Relying on grant money means, by its very nature, that your revenue is going to ebb and flow. You may win several grants one year, but few or none the next, and your programs and services will correspondingly have to contract. The only way to counter this natural cycle and create a more consistent funding stream is to have other sources of revenue such as holding fundraising events and courting individual donors.
If you win a grant, this is usually a good thing. However, a single grant will not cover 100% of your operating costs. Do you need an influx of funds to meet some well-defined objective? If the answer is “yes," grants can be good for that. Do you need funding to pay rent and utilities for your office or pay staff to manage programs that have no end date and no sustainability plan (i.e, means of continuing operations after the grant ends)? Grants are not going to be a good bet for these types of ongoing costs.
When you plan your grant strategy, set a reasonable target for the number of grants you think you can bring in within a given period time along with realistic expectations for the grant amounts. Although grants can be an important part of a nonprofit’s budget, if your assessment of your organization shows that you may only be competitive for a local grant worth $3500, you’ll know to dedicate more of your resources toward cultivating other types of funding such as individual donors. Through this self-assessment, you’ll also avoid the pitfall of pursuing grants you cannot win.
You Are Committed to Getting Grant Funding. Now What?
If you have determined that grant funding is something you want to pursue, your first step should be to take a look at your organization. To know which kinds of opportunities you are eligible to apply for and have a reasonable chance of winning, you need to know your organization’s programmatic and funding history as well as its administrative capacity.
Second, you should identify the resources you have to apply for grants. While volunteer grant writers can sometimes be found, you shouldn’t count on finding a volunteer to help you. Assuming that you will have to rely on your organization’s staff with no outside help, how much time and effort can you reasonably dedicate to pursuing grant funding?
Third, pull out a calendar and block off time each week to search for opportunities. To stack things in your favor and give you as much time as possible to prepare the application, it’s very important to identify opportunities as soon as they come out.
Applying these three steps—planning ahead, evaluating your organization, and setting reasonable expectations—will go along way toward improving your chances of securing grant funding.
For more guidance on how to research opportunities and apply for grants, we encourage you to explore our courses.