The Only Grant-Writing Book You'll Ever Need by Ellen Karsh and Sue Arlen
The Only Grant-Writing Book You'll Ever Need - Ellen Karsh and Sue Arlen
Highlights by Phi Pham
*We must mention that although we often use “grant writing” as a term in common usage, strictly speaking, one doesn’t write grants, one writes proposals in order to win grants; grants are a reward for excellent proposal writing!
Roundtable: Grantsmanship and the Economy
The Foundation Center’s Statistical Information Service reports that the number of foundations nationwide increased from 56,582 in 2000 to 76,610 in 2010, and that their total giving increased from $ 27.56 billion in 2000 to $ 45.86 billion in 2010, even in the face of a recession: not exactly chicken feed!
And now (more than ever) we’re asking, “Why do you need the money?” A grantmaker from a small foundation explained that since the downturn, “money feels twice as precious and now I want to make very sure that ‘best practices’ are being utilized by grantees.” A funder from a large foundation agreed. “We ask, ‘Do you really need that amount of money to do what you say you want to do?’ You’d better sell us on why you need the specific amount you’re requesting. Grantmakers know how much things cost!”
A government grantmaker chimed in with a similar reminder: “We’re very experienced about cost. Don’t ask for $ 2 million for something that costs $ 250,000.” Another panelist added, “We’re looking hard at what we want to do because—pure and simple—we have to do less. We’re raising the bar. Money is worth more.”
Recent interviews suggest that as the trend toward larger grants continues, grantmakers, especially government agencies, also are moving toward larger grantees. These larger organizations are seen as better able to sustain their programs over time and to serve larger numbers of people.
One of our panelists said, “Not-for-profits need to communicate—to stay on the radar of a foundation even if they are not receiving funding at the moment.
“Relationships do matter enormously. It’s about trusting you with their money.”
“Sometimes,” a funder said, “you might hear something like, ‘We can’t fund you but we have three other things we CAN do for you. We can incubate your group—give you space and secretarial support for instance. And we can suggest someone who might be able to fund your organization . . . or who is giving away computers.’”
Along the same lines, one panelist suggested that everyone who works for an organization should have a 10-to 20-second “elevator speech.” “If you meet someone at a party or on the bus—or on an elevator—you have no idea who they are, or who they know.
“If you write grants for a small nonprofit,” one said, “you’d be smart to see if you can learn something about fundraising in general. ‘Diversify funding’ is a mantra these days—but many nonprofits only have one person assigned to funding.” “Groups should expand their resource pool,” another funder suggested, “and stop relying only on foundations for funding.”
“Be flexible, entrepreneurial, willing to take risks. Be willing to fail. Learn from your failures. In this economy, it can no longer be business as usual.”
“We’re moving from a ‘funder’ mentality to an ‘investor’ mentality. We’re asking ourselves, ‘What do we really want to buy, what are our chances of getting it, how will we know we’re getting it, and is this the best use of our money?’”
“For an organization that helps children,” a funder explained, “I want to see the deeper impact on the children’s lives. Did you actually keep a child out of a gang? A single example can be meaningful.”
“We don’t just want to know that you conducted workshops,” another panelist said, “we want to know how many people got jobs.” “Or,” she suggested, “you can ask participants what three things they got out of the workshops and whether you can follow up with them later.
Check out the competition. Here’s a suggestion that can help proposal writers at any time. “I think people who are writing grant proposals should read great proposals. They should ask foundation program officers to show them excellent proposals—and they should collect a file of exquisitely written proposals. How are people doing it?” The grantmaker added, “I’ve read proposals that brought tears to my eyes. A written grant proposal should convey that lives are being transformed. Don’t say, ‘Reading is the bedrock of literacy,’ for example, say, ‘Reading opens doors that change a person’s life’ . . . and your proposal should explain how reading changes that life.”
Part I: Prerequisites
one huge foundation recently received some 40,000 proposals; it awarded 1,400 grants. But the proposal has to be excellent in order to have half a chance of winning any money. And even if you don’t win a grant at first, the proposal lets the reviewers form an impression of you and your organization that could help you (or hurt you) when you apply the next time.
Submitting a poorly thought-out, poorly developed, poorly written proposal is sometimes the most damaging thing you can do to your long-term prospects.
Lesson 1: Who Am I? (and What in the World Do I Want to Do?)
Grantmakers look very hard at potential grantees, and the vast majority of them expect to see a significant track record, a committed board of directors, fiscal health, talented leadership, a clear vision, the capacity to implement programs, and the ability to sustain projects, activities, staff, and programs that are grant funded.
Lesson 2: Wait a Second—What Is a Grant . . . and Where Do I Get One? > Page 16 · Location 775
Some organizations have learned that chasing grants can take them away from their core mission or move an excellent program in the wrong direction. The most successful programs and organizations are not grant driven, they are mission driven.
If money is needed to implement or supplement a well-designed program, that is where a grant comes in. But the program is the thing. The better designed the program is to address the need, and the more other funding you have raised or resources you have found to support it, the more likely you are to win grants.
Government grants are generally announced through requests for proposals (RFPs, also called requests for applications, or RFAs; or notices of funding availability, or NOFAs) that specify the nature and cost of the program that must be proposed.
Community foundations have been set up to administer individual trust funds or pools of funds from individual donors who want to benefit their own city or region but don’t want to create a new foundation.
There are two extraordinary resources for organizations seeking foundation grants: the Foundation Center and the Grantsmanship Center. Their focus differs slightly (e.g., the Foundation Center includes extensive services for foundations as well as for nonprofits; the Grantsmanship Center focuses on training and support for nonprofits), but both organizations provide a wealth of information, training, and other assistance online and on site, some free, some for a fee.
there are many other directories that describe foundations and corporations by location, program interests, size of grants given, and many other characteristics, as well as foundation annual reports. These references will let you identify grantmakers in your area, find out what kinds of activities they prefer to fund, determine the general dollar amounts of the grants they offer, define eligibility, and locate the addresses, telephone numbers, and names of appropriate contacts at the foundations.
Grantsmanship Center (TGCI), which provides technical assistance and training to nonprofit organizations. Most of its extensive training and subscription services now require purchase or fees that range from minimal to substantial, but some of the most useful sections of its website (described on pages 33 below and in Appendix 6) are free.
Although some foundations are interested in brand-new organizations and may even offer some technical assistance in preparing a proposal, most want to know that you know the ropes.
Let the foundation see that you are aware of its work, that you have studied the annual report, that you have looked at the organizations and individuals that it has funded, and that you are making a careful decision to apply based on all your homework.
Although philanthropy is important for its own sake to many corporations, it is usually tied to business concerns as well. If you can show how a grant to your organization will bring broad recognition or publicity to the donor, even the most public-spirited company will be pleased.
How can I find out what grants are available from all the different federal agencies? There are three basic sources for federal funding information: the Federal Register, Grants.gov, and the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA).
Formula grants, for instance, are not the same as project grants. Formula grants are allocations of money to states or municipalities “in accordance with a distribution formula prescribed by law for activities of a continuing nature not confined to a specific project,” for example, based on the number of residents in the designated area who are living below the poverty level—or just based on the number of residents.
Project grants described in the CFDA are the ones most grant seekers are interested in, because they include fellowships, scholarships, research grants, training grants, experimental and demonstration grants, evaluation grants, planning grants, technical assistance grants, and many others.
All of the federal government grants we mention in this book are project grants.
Some states, and even some cities, have the equivalent of the Federal Register or a statewide “e-grants” system in which you sign up via email and automatically receive notices in categories for which you’ve indicated an interest.
For example, the New York State Assembly leader publishes Grant Action News every month, as a mailing and online (www.assembly.state.ny.us/ gan); this publication describes current and recent New York State agency grants, as well as some federal and foundation opportunities. Virtually all elected officials do mailings, so make sure you are on their mailing and/ or email lists and read the mailings to see what committees your officials are on, what causes they are interested in, and sometimes the groups for which they have provided funding.
Funding from state and local elected officials probably will be relatively small (the $ 15,000 for the CERT team only trains one team, while the agency trains about 30 teams a year), but every bit of funding can help. Also, if you are a new organization or program, this small amount of funding can be vital as seed money to show foundations and other funders that someone has confidence in you.
And even if local elected officials do not have money available themselves, they may be able to help you get funding from other sources. For example, during meetings with state officials, that same New York City agency met with a state assemblyman from one of the city’s boroughs and asked for a grant for a CERT team. The assemblyman did not have any funds of his own, but he was impressed by the project and approached a local real-estate company, which agreed to fund a team. In the same way, local elected officials can be helpful in getting donations for after-school programs, fundraisers, and so on.
So call and visit all your elected officials; send them information on your programs, and invite them to events. Often their staff will attend, but they are the ones who will make the funding recommendations so it pays to keep them informed.
For example, if there is a particular foundation you are interested in, you can find out how to reach it (contact person, address, and phone number); learn about its assets and total giving; and link to its latest 990 tax filing (which usually includes lists of organizations funded).
more. A fairly new, free site is GrantSpace.org, which centralizes information and training on nonprofit planning and management, outcome evaluation, legal issues, finding funding opportunities and applying for grants, and other issues for nonprofit organizations.
Grants.gov: http:// www.grants.gov. Grants.gov is a centralized grant site for the federal government and is rapidly becoming the first place to search for grants. The home page has a link to grant opportunities released during the previous week (organized by agency); a search feature to focus in on specific opportunities; a list of subscriptions you can sign up for to get direct notice of grant opportunities; a list of resources, such as foundation sites, state point-of-contacts lists, and links to other federal sites; and grant applications, among other helpful items.
In New York City there is an organization called the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York, which regularly searches the Federal Register Online and state and local government agency sites. It then emails its members brief summaries of the announcements in categories that they have chosen from a lengthy checklist.
*One research effort demonstrated that federal proposals took more than 80 person-hours to prepare on average, but that winning proposals took more than twice that amount of staff time.
Lesson 3: Making (Dollars and) Sense of Grant-Application Packages: What Grantmakers Want
You may need funding to start a chorus in a neighborhood day-care center. You may feel passionately about the importance of getting children excited about music at a very early age. Unfortunately, the RFP insists that the program this organization wants to fund in day-care centers must focus on computer technology and use of the Internet. You feel that the grantmaker is off base and would be wise to give money to the chorus. And you may be right. But don’t give this grant any further thought. You may have research suggesting that little children are too young to fool around with computers—and should, instead, be singing. Don’t bother. Not only will your grant be rejected, the program officer will think you are unable to read instructions, and this will put you at a serious disadvantage the next time you happen to apply.
Government websites often list the winners of recent competitions. Application packages and funding guidelines also may mention past projects that have been funded by the grantmaker, especially if a foundation includes application information in its annual report. The annual report may organize grants into topics and include a brief description of the programs funded and the amount of funding.
All the SS/ HS proposal questions and evaluation criteria must be considered in light of the Logic Model. (We can’t get into a discussion of the Logic Model here, but there’s plenty of information about it online, and because other funders use it, or something like it, we suggest that you take the time to learn about it.)
We’ll say it one more time: You must answer every question or address every topic that is included in the application. Not only must you answer every question, you would be wise to outline your proposal with subheads that reflect each question to make it clear to the reader that you are very responsive to the funder’s interests and concerns and that you have answered all the questions.
Many government requests for proposals, like the Safe Schools/ Healthy Students application package, contain a description of the criteria the agency will use to score the proposals, and often assign a specific number of points for each section of the proposal. The funding agency obviously considers a section that is assigned a large number of points to be more important than a section with fewer points—but every point counts; in fact, every fraction of a point counts.
In most government programs, grants are awarded starting with the proposals with the greatest number of points and are awarded to each successive proposal until the money runs out.
Try a letter of inquiry. If a funder does not set forth guidelines, instructions, or specific questions, you may want to initiate contact through a letter of inquiry (LOI). Like the abstract, which we discuss in Lesson 15, this is a brief summary of your organization, its mission, the need in the community that you want to address, the program you want to implement, its total cost, and the amount you are requesting from this funder. In this letter, you should explain why you are writing to this particular funder; talk about the ways in which it appears that your program fits into the funder’s overall interests (which should be clear from its annual report or list of grants already awarded). Follow up with a phone call.
When the grantmaker specifies type size and margins, it’s for the good of the people who will be reading the proposal. Some reviewers may read dozens of 50-page proposals in just a few days. You do not want to irritate them by giving them eyestrain from type that is too small.
•If You’re a Not-for-Profit Organization . . .
As I did so often when I was a consultant for nonprofit organizations, I told the director of a teen pregnancy prevention program that it would cost her agency a lot less if her secretary pulled together all the documents I would need for the federal grant proposal that I was writing for the organization. But it turned out that the director didn’t have a secretary. As in so many nonprofits, it was a small office, and everyone working there did everything. Staff members were getting ready for a board meeting. Nobody had the time to pull together the materials I needed, so I had to charge them for the time I spent going through their files and setting up a separate folder with copies of these materials. They could have saved that money with a little prior planning.—ASF
On one of those slower days, when you’re not racing around putting out fires, assemble a folder of materials about your organization, its financial status, and its staff.
it will save you a lot of time if you have them available to draw from and submit as you need them. If you keep as much of this information as possible in your word-processing files, you can just copy or cut and paste when a proposal is due.
All types of organizations will need updated job descriptions of key staff and the most current résumés. You also will need local, citywide, and school district demographics and other data that are as up-to-date as possible.
•DUNS number. Dun & Bradstreet assigns a number (a Data Universal Numbering System number) to every organization that applies for this identification number. This is required for all federal applications and increasingly requested by other government funders. You can apply online (http:// fedgov.dnb.com/ webform). You should allow plenty of time for the application (although they say it will take only one business day). If you have difficulties with the application, or are working against a deadline and need the number immediately, call 866-705-5711.
•Brief “biographies” of key staff. In addition to résumés, it is worthwhile to have a document in your files that gives a one-paragraph summary of the background and experience of the executive director and heads of all departments. This is requested instead of résumés by some grantmakers, and should be updated regularly.
•Most recent (current and previous year) overall organization budget and individual program budgets. If you don’t develop budgets like this each year, you should.
•List of all current funding sources, and potential sources of matching funds. It may help to have a two-or three-year chart showing how much you’ve received each year from each source. You also should indicate planned submissions, showing funders, amounts, and dates. A simple spreadsheet is sufficient.
•Any recent needs assessments, program evaluation reports, and examples of forms or procedures you use. As we explain in Lesson 11, grantmakers want to know that you’re using their money effectively and that you are committed to evaluation. Most organizations do not have the resources to hire outside professionals for needs assessments or formal evaluations, but if you’ve ever been able to do this, be sure the documents are on file. Refer to them in any proposal when it’s appropriate (that is, almost every one!). If you don’t have any external evaluation documents like this to show, be sure you do have some indicators that you use to inform you about how well your programs are working. You should collect data and report at least once a year on every program you operate; many excellent organizations expect programs to report monthly. We’ll talk more about this in Lesson 11 on evaluation.
•Recent publicity (news clippings) and a list of awards to the organization, its programs, and its staff members.
There are essentially four types of income that come to states, counties, municipalities, and school districts. Everyone knows about tax-levy funds; these come from income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, and so on. Money for capital expenses like school construction usually is raised by issuing bonds that a government entity has to pay off over many years out of its tax-levy income. Other funds come from higher levels of government—state or federal. Entitlement funding is written into law, usually at the federal level. It must be spent on behalf of any individual (for instance, a person with the HIV virus) with qualifications specified in the authorizing legislation. The amount of money that the locality gets is based on the number of residents who qualify (thus this kind of funding also is called a formula grant). The formula for the grant might include, for example, the number of people with family incomes below a specified amount, the number of children in a school district whose parents’ income is below a certain level, the number of elderly people living in poverty, or the number of people with disabilities. Examples are Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Discretionary grants, the focus of the present section, are available through a competitive process from a higher level of government at its discretion, depending on available funds. At the federal level, as the general public is learning, discretionary funding covers all government spending other than debt service and entitlements—including the military, the FBI, emergency management, Head Start and other early childhood programs, housing, education, transportation (including air traffic controllers), and health.
•If You’re a Government Agency or School District . . .
One important way to make sure there is time for a grant proposal is to use slow periods to develop boilerplates (material that can be used again and again) for much of the text and supplementary material that a proposal will require.
•Information about the various neighborhoods or sections of the locality, for example, the number of residents, age and family composition, ethnicity, crime and health statistics, and needs.
•Overview of the school system, including, for example, form of governance, number of schools, number of students, structure of the system, number of children eligible for free or reduced-cost meals, school and district performance, number of children receiving special education services, and the types of services they receive.
•Specific neighborhood/ district/ school information (e.g., reading scores, math scores, dropout rates, children with language problems, attendance data, and incident reports).
•Overview of the particular agency you work for—and for which you will write proposals (e.g., police, transportation, health). Include the agency structure and mission, overall budget, staffing and “lines,” leadership, responsibilities, achievements/ existing grants, gaps in services, and awards.
Lesson 5: Intangibles: Things They Never Tell You (About Proposal Writing) > Page 79 · Location 1845
I have a friend who recently started writing grant proposals as a consultant to nonprofits. While she is an excellent writer—and a whiz at all the things we cover in the rest of this part of the book—there is one recurring problem she faces that would drive her to drink if she weren’t a teetotaler. She can never seem to get people to give her the material she needs to write the grant! She has to beg—sometimes right up to the deadline—for demographic, financial, or program information. She loves writing grant proposals but she hates feeling like a stalker.—EK
a big part of the grant writer’s job is enlisting the support you need from others in the organization. Sometimes forgotten in the grants process is that a winning grant proposal doesn’t just spring full blown from the writer’s computer. Nor does it (or should it) spring full blown from the writer’s imagination. You need a good deal of buy-in and active participation, not to mention lots of information, from program managers and staff.
“The most important strategy for a successful grant writer is to get inside the program staff’s heads.”
Focus on the big picture. Remember that, whatever your job title, you also are one of the few people in an organization who must look beyond a specific program to consider the good of the entire organization. There’s a world of grants you could be seeking (and program staff will be imploring you to find more), but it’s not only constraints on your time that should limit which ones you pursue. We’ve talked elsewhere about mission creep.
In some organizations this just may mean holding out for a grant for general operating funds from a particular funder (remembering that general operating funds are true gold for an organization),
Unless you’re the executive director of a very small organization, doing it all yourself, the first step for anyone writing a grant proposal is to talk with the executive director and/ or the person who will be directly responsible for implementing the grant. Whatever this person’s title, he or she is the project leader who will help you identify key staff members from inside and outside the organization and persuade them to participate in the proposal development process.
Watch your language! Nobody ever tells you to watch your language. As we discuss in Lesson 6, it is very important to be aware of the way you describe your target population, partners, and everyone and everything else. Sometimes you may think that avoiding certain terms is just too “politically correct.” But you never know. One of us was planning a capital campaign and developed an “adopt-a-room” initiative, only to learn that some parents of adopted children hate to see the term applied to anything else because they feel it cheapens the adoption process.
“Putting business cards into the hands of grantmakers you meet at meetings or conferences is silly. People who give grants need to trust your organization, not stare at your business card.” Inviting funders to visit your program or sending news articles or brief newsletters is a much better way to build the kind of relationships that can lead to trust and, eventually, to grant funds.
Funders Roundtable I
we learned that grantmakers too often find that applicants haven’t read a word about the foundation that receives their grant proposals—not the guidelines, the biography of the original donor that often appears on the foundation’s website, the annual report, the names and projects of current and former grantees, or the composition of the board of directors. Some applicants don’t even know the name of the current program officer (let alone how it is spelled). So most of the funders suggested a few ways not to get ready:
“Less than 10 percent of the proposals my foundation receives fit our guidelines—and the ones that don’t fit are rejected,” said one funder. “Believe it or not,” said another, “some proposals that come my way have cover letters addressed to the program officer who was here 10 years ago!” She tried not to let this fact affect her perception of the applicant but acknowledged that it did call into question the competence of the writer.
“There’s nothing worse a grant applicant can do than come out of left field, which means not being strategic,” explained one of our panelists. “The way to make sure that our foundation is one that you can create a partnership with is by reading the guidelines.”
With government funders, when it comes to human contact, it’s a (bit of a) different story. Government grantmakers generally have a great deal of contact with potential applicants, although much of it is systematic. One government funder explained that his agency has five or six bidders’ conferences in all sections of the country.
“We want people to call if they have questions. We prefer that they talk with us and not waste their time giving us something that we won’t fund or that won’t work.
“I like to see evidence that grant seekers read the guidelines versus getting a very bad sense that they sent shotgun applications to everyone in the world. Show some thinking! It shouldn’t just be about asking everyone for money,” warned a panelist. “And another thing: Check out our application format on the Web instead of using any format you can get your hands on.”
A government grantmaker agreed that “small and new programs are disadvantaged. They often have a lack of sophistication about how to get things done. Occasionally there are start-ups funded, though,” she added. “You just have to keep your eyes open for the announcements.”
Although in most cases there’s not much you can do to persuade a foundation to fund you if it has its own pet causes, another panelist told us, “People fund people. Get the attention of a staff member or a board member. Send newsletters and other information about your work. Savvy individuals can make connections with people who can swing the door open for them.”
Another foundation grantmaker said, “We get a lot of proposals sent in cold. People think you have to know someone, but you don’t.” She does talk to other funders who know an applicant organization. “Or we’ll talk to our grantees to ask them about an organization that has applied to us for funding.
Whether you win or lose, a grant is not about “who you know.” Although other factors (such as the resources available to a foundation or government agency) affect grantmaking decisions, the quality and substance of your proposal make the difference.
Our panelists told us that if you do good work and manage to develop a good reputation in your field, among your clients, and in your community, local grantmakers will know and respond.
“I see development people—grant writers—as ‘guns for hire.’ I think of them as ‘turnstile people’—this week they’re writing grants for a youth organization, next week they’ve moved on to the arts, then to AIDS. Their proposals have a mechanical feel. They lack passion. The grant writer should convey a sense of commitment rather than a sense that a person is moving up a career ladder.” Ouch! But the point is extremely important. If the person writing the proposal is not a staff member who is passionate about the program to be funded, he or she should be working closely with someone who is. It shows.
Part II: It’s Finally Time to Write the Proposal
Lesson 6: Writing (Proposals) with Style: 12 Basic Rules
those who write grant proposals have to be effective writers no matter how sound their programs are or how highly regarded their organizations happen to be. It’s just common sense. If a proposal is a mess, grantmakers will tend to think the organization may be equally sloppy.
Sure, proposals can—and should—be enjoyable to read. But the reason for writing them is not to entertain. Grant proposals are written to convince grantmakers to hand over money to you; that’s their unique and specific objective.
Rule 1: Make an Outline Before you write a word, create an outline that exactly follows the funder’s guidelines, questions, or selection criteria for the proposal.
We’ve said this before and will say it again: Follow the funder’s outline to a T. If the first question on the application asks how you plan to evaluate the program (even if you haven’t been asked yet to describe the program) then, as strange as that may be, it will be the first item on your outline.
Use subheads for each topic in the outline to make sure you don’t lose your way. This sounds obvious, but it’s important because a poorly organized proposal will make even good writing seem incomprehensible.
Rule 2: Write as You Speak (or as You Should Speak) You are not speaking, or writing, as a Shakespearean actor speaks . . . or as your awesome 14-year-old nephew speaks. You should not be overly formal, pretentious, or ponderous in a proposal. Nor should you be so casual that the grantmakers are left scratching their heads in confusion.
Rule 3: Double-(and Triple-) Think Your Choice of Words Never, accidentally or on purpose, fall back on slang, or on imprecise or insensitive terminology.
Rule 4: Don’t Exaggerate No, your organization is probably not doing the most cutting-edge, innovative, earth-shattering computer instruction on the planet—and grantmakers often just laugh and shake their heads when they see this kind of grandiose claim.
(Hint: terms like “cutting edge” have become clichés.)
Rule 5: Buy a Grammar Book . . . and Use It When in Doubt (and Even When You’re Not in Doubt) Nothing is more disheartening to a grantmaker than poor grammar.
Rule 6: . . . and a Dictionary and Thesaurus While You’re at It Your computer has a spelling checker and many other tools that can help you. No excuses for misspellings and no reason to discuss this any further.
Rule 7: Stick to the Active Voice It is a more straightforward way to write, and it is the only way to keep from getting tripped up—or tripping up your reader—in a grant proposal.
What if we don’t know who will recruit students, conduct workshops, hire staff, evaluate the staff, and so on, at the time that we are writing our grant proposal? Wouldn’t it be misleading to give the funder inaccurate information? Aren’t we better off using the passive voice? No! Funders want to be sure that you understand how these tasks will get done; they don’t necessarily expect to know the names of the individuals who will be doing them.
Rule 8: Keep Your Own Voice Out of It Keep your value judgments, controversial ideas, political views, and sense of humor out, out, OUT of the grant proposal.
What if I believe that a nontraditional program is better suited to my participants than the same-old, same-old? Can’t I request grant funding for projects that are a little different? It depends. Do you have any solid research and/ or anecdotal information that back up your ideas? If you do, you may present the program as innovative and a potential model for others. (For example, you might have research supporting your proposal to include children with severe disabilities in general education classrooms rather than assigning them to segregated special education classes where all the children have the same level of disability.) If you don’t have this sort of background information, you may want to seek funding from sources other than grants—asking for donations from parents of the children you want to serve in a nontraditional way, or running benefits, for instance—for programs that may be too controversial, too hot to handle for either government or foundation funders.
Rule 9: Limit the (Yawn) Adjectives When too many modifiers are tacked on to a noun, verb, or phrase, the reader is likely to see them as just the opinion of the proposal writer rather than documented facts. Overusing adjectives can seem to be a shortcut for the proposal writer—saving the time and trouble of explaining what is meant by the adjectives. Excessive use of adjectives smacks of desperation.
•The Meridian Mews Center runs high-quality, exhilarating, well-regarded programs for poor, disadvantaged, disabled children. •The Meridian Mews Center runs four programs that have been cited for excellence by the National After-School and Weekend Program Society. Attendance at all four programs is over 90 percent. During the last year, parents have written more than 50 letters to the executive director praising the programs. The first statement is just . . . words. It doesn’t really say anything that has meaning. The second statement is meaty and informative.
Rule 10: It’s Not Personal A grant proposal is neither a personal essay nor an autobiography. Save “I,” “we,” and “our” for your memoirs. If you are writing on behalf of a not-for-profit organization, a school or school district, a college, a consortium of groups, a faith-based organization, or a government agency, it is not a good idea to get personal in grant proposals when talking about the organization and the project that you hope to get funded.
Every time the grantmaker has to stop to think about what you mean, you lose a little momentum in what may otherwise be an excellent proposal.
Rule 11: Brevity Isn’t Always the Soul of Wit Unless you are trying to confuse the grantmaker, abbreviations and acronyms have no place in a grant proposal. Believe it or not, even the most commonly used acronyms are bound to confuse someone—and that someone may be a potential funder.
Rule 12: Prove It! Very little of what you write is common knowledge, even if it seems obvious to you. Grantmakers want to see backup information, proof that what you say is true. Certain statements express universally agreed-on knowledge that you don’t have to prove: the sky is blue (at least once or twice a year), grass is green (if there is any), winter is cold. But the unproved, unexplained statements that are thrown into grant proposals drive reviewers crazy!
Compare the following pairs of statements: •Everyone in the community thinks the Meridian Mews Center runs educational and enjoyable programs. •According to surveys that were conducted in two community churches and two schools, 60 percent of residents of Meridian Hills Mews think the programs offered at the Meridian Mews Center are educational and enjoyable.
IN CLOSING Following the rules that we’ve highlighted in this chapter will not guarantee that your grant proposal will receive funding, but you can be certain the grantmaker won’t be too confused, too frustrated, too offended, too angry, or too shocked to fund your project.
Lesson 7: Identifying and Documenting the Need: What Problem Will a Grant Fix?
Why Would a Grantmaker Give Money to My Organization? Most foundations and government funders prefer to give grants to address problems where the need is greatest.
Whatever the community’s demographics, you must know them in detail, and you must use facts to demonstrate the need or problem you have identified.
It should be clear yet again that before you start writing a proposal, you have a lot of ground to cover. You know that a grant is given for specific programs and services that are directed, first, by the grantmaker and then by you, the grant seeker. Even if the grantmaker doesn’t appear to require anything specific—there’s no rigid application form to fill out, no due date to adhere to, no seemingly limitless program requirements—don’t believe it for one second. Read the guidelines and the latest annual report to see what recent grants were approved by the foundation, go to the website, and talk to people who have received funding from the grantmaker.
Because grants generally are earmarked for specific purposes, almost anything (notice we said almost anything) a grant will fund is a solution to a problem or a strategy for addressing a need that you’ve identified.
How Do I Prove There’s a Compelling Problem That Deserves a Grant? First of all, don’t think that submitting a fabulous program idea to the grantmaker will be enough to win the money. Think about all the fabulous ideas there are. Soothing programs for rambunctious children. Helpful services for harried parents. Technology centers for the whole family in inner-city neighborhoods. Drug-abuse prevention programs for middle-school girls. Or how about a cutting-edge program for children, including middle-school girls and their harried parents, that addresses both technology and drug prevention? So what will persuade a grantmaker that your comprehensive intergenerational program—or the Y’s gym mentioned in the opening remarks—fills a critical need or addresses a compelling problem?
You can be certain that, no matter how much or how little money you are requesting from a grantmaker, you’ll be competing with organizations that have carefully documented their need by using (formally or informally) one or more of the following: •A variety of economic and demographic statistics about the community, including the latest census data •Relevant and up-to-date research, trends, and literature •Anecdotal information from participants, staff, and community residents •Waiting lists for their programs (or for those of other community organizations) •Focus group results •Assessments of needs and evaluations of past programs •Newspaper reports •Police precinct data •Health department data •School report cards, test scores, attendance figures, demographic data, and incident reports
First of all, for more reasons than we’ve yet described, it is important to put yourself in the grantmaker’s place. Instead of seeing the program officer of a foundation or government agency as a nasty professor assigning a research paper to an overworked student, look at her or him as someone who has to make an informed decision and persuade others to come to the same conclusion.
With a finite amount of money to spend and two delightful arts programs requesting that money, would you give it to the applicant who writes, “All children need exposure to artists and the opportunity to paint on weekends to keep them out of trouble,” or the one that says, Children in the Wishbone Housing Projects have the highest school-dropout rate in the city of Rosemont. Their family income is the lowest of any Rosemont housing project. According to their parents and teachers, as well as police officers, clergy, and local business owners, children who will participate in this weekend arts project have no other activities to occupy them. The proposed arts program has been shown in other cities (e.g., Memphis and Sacramento) to provide children with an outlet that increases reading scores, reduces their participation in vandalism, and encourages them to stay in school. If you have space, you might insert a chart here, documenting the facts you are presenting. No contest, right?
Target population. As the example above indicates, you need to describe a target population, the group that has the need and to whom your program will be directed. In this case, the population is low-income children living in public housing in Rosemont, but it could be elderly immigrants in Milwaukee. You need to show that those living in the target area are needier than those in other areas, using key indicators such as income, age, education, employment status, crime, and many other statistics that we will describe later in this lesson. You would collect data for the target area, for the city as a whole, and perhaps for the state as well.
Context. The best way to approach the need section is to put your particular problem in a context. If it’s relevant, you may want to start with a national context. The teacher who is concerned that her students don’t get enough nurturing would probably find a great deal written on the topic, and the information should not necessarily be disregarded because it reflects a research study that was done in California when her school is in Maine. What are the national trends? What kinds of research have been done and with what findings? Once a national perspective has been addressed, move in closer to your own city, town, or neighborhood. Often a simple search online, or at the local public or college library, will bring you a wealth of relevant information.
Example. Here’s one way of moving from a sweeping national perspective to a local one. (It’s pure fiction, by the way.) Many researchers have identified a lack of parental nurturing as a problem for children in today’s economic and social environment. The absence of nurturing is, according to Ames (2010),* Reese (2012), Bolger (2007), Uncles (2013), and others, the primary cause of student alienation and disenfranchisement, which can lead to violence, suicide, and other dangerous behaviors. In studies in Texas (Jones, 2009) and California (Smith, 2013), researchers have found that 75 percent of teachers report that their students “practically seem to be raising themselves.” Piazza (2011) indicates that 56 percent of fourth graders in his Pennsylvania research study don’t see their parents until after dinner, and Wilson (2010), in Wisconsin, suggests that more than half of the state’s seven-year-olds go to day-care centers for at least three hours after school. The lack of nurturing is both a national and a local problem in Indiana. For example, in Metropolis, Richardson (2013) found that more than 60 percent of elementary school children studied in a citywide project were “latchkey children” at least three days a week. In North Metropolis, the problem is even greater. A citywide study of what children do after school and on weekends (Johnson, 2011) indicated that more than 80 percent either go to crowded day-care centers or sit in front of their television sets watching programs in an unsupervised manner. And in the target neighborhood of Meridian Mews, Johnson found the situation even worse. Ninety percent of the children under 16 who live in the neighborhood served by the Meridian Mews Elementary School do not see their parents until after 9: 00 P.M.
Warning. There is a temptation to throw research data, statistics, and other documentation of need into a grant proposal haphazardly. Proposal writers can be so ecstatic over finding usable information that they may neglect organizing the material to make their case for the need. But this portion of the proposal is not too different from a research paper. The variable is how much research—and what kinds—makes the most sense for a specific grant proposal. You almost certainly wouldn’t do the kind of work involved in the example above for a $ 5,000 grant. But even if you are requesting only $ 5,000 and the proposal is only three pages long, it is a good policy to show you are informed about the problem and include some documentation, even if only in a footnote or parentheses. Again, put yourself in the program officer’s shoes. Wouldn’t a presentation of pertinent information encourage you to think highly of an applicant’s seriousness—and appreciate her respect for you as a grantmaker?
Community demographics. Most government grants (and many foundation grants) are targeted to communities with predominantly low-income populations. Many are targeted to specific members of a low-income community, like children, AIDS patients, unemployed or underemployed individuals, a particular immigrant group, and so on. Your first stop for this kind of information is the municipal or county agency that deals with the population of interest to you—a child welfare agency, a housing agency, a board of education or school district office (the Local Education Agency), a department of employment, and so on. Localities maintain a gold mine of statistics on issues like homelessness, poverty, income, race/ ethnicity, public assistance, foster care, substance use, schools, recreational facilities, hospital admissions, vital statistics, vandalism—you name it.
Remember that your own organization’s records also provide important data. Whenever possible, the program should have an entry or registration form that summarizes as much information as the participant will stand for—and as much as your ability to protect her/ his privacy will support. Sometimes this isn’t feasible, of course; a jumpy out-of-school youth population, for example, may resist providing you with any information, and in order to retain their trust you may not want to try. Surveys of participants can help too. A survey of parents of the children in one after-school program we know showed that 92 percent of the parents were born outside the United States. Talk about a gold nugget of support for an agency that seeks funding to serve immigrants!
Anecdotal information. Many proposal writers shy away from anecdotal information, fearing that it is too casual. But anecdotal information can be very powerful when used in the right way. It can put a human face on otherwise cold statistical reports. And sometimes there just isn’t any hard “proof” that a problem really exists—although “everyone knows” that it does. There may not be actual data on whether the residents of a senior center are bored, but formal or informal interviews with senior center staff, participants, and family members may indicate universal agreement. People may be willing to say things in response to oral questions that they wouldn’t say in a written questionnaire.
A good approach is to cite the individuals you’ve spoken to—if not by name, then by title or relationship to the community. For example: The director of the Starview Teen Center has tried for the last two years to get teenagers to join clubs such as chess and current events, and take trips to places like museums and sporting events. But he has found that they are apathetic and unwilling to do anything but play basketball. Two mothers of teenagers here say that their sons seem lethargic; another mother says . . .
Needs assessments. Needs assessments generally are used to document conditions in a community or population that show gaps in service that you intend to fill. Normally, a community needs assessment is a fairly major project that will be used for many purposes for several years. Ideally, a needs assessment report will include statistical data, anecdotal information, and results of interviews and focus groups (as well as any of the other sources described here).
Police precinct data. If your program is intended to serve youth at risk of substance use, vandalism, gang participation, or crime; if you want to show the need for an alternative sentencing program for youth or adults; if your focus is on neighborhood crime prevention efforts; or if you want to show a need for any similar crime prevention or intervention program, your first stop is the local police department or precinct. All police departments are required to maintain data on a variety of types of crime, and they usually compile it by geographic area and age of the offender.
School reading and math scores, attendance figures, dropout rates, and violent-incident reports. Similarly, if you plan to run a program meant to help children or teenagers improve their academic achievement, stay in school, go on to college, or any other education-related initiative, you should be able to show the need through data from the school in question, the school district, the local education agency, or state department of education.
The literature. Yes, relevant and up-to-date research, trends, and literature are the types of information included in college and graduate-school research papers, but you are generally not expected to scour every esoteric journal or conduct far-flung searches for your proposal. But it helps your cause if you know what the trends and issues are in your area of interest. And why wouldn’t you want to know this?
Most important, being familiar with the literature—which is another way of saying the prevailing or conventional wisdom, the accepted thinking—will help you design, refine, and enrich your program. It will afford you the opportunity to study best practices and see what kinds of program elements have been more or less successful.
Another intangible. This is a good time to mention again that you shouldn’t seek a grant to solve a problem that you don’t have or that is not a high priority for your organization. Too many not-for-profits are so desperate for money that they may try to get any funding that’s available, even if it’s not directly related to what they really want to do.
Even if such organizations genuinely believed they could offer these services effectively, this fundraising approach could endanger their organization’s mission by moving into areas that are outside its experience and fundamental concern. But what is more likely to happen is that the grantmaker will see this as a ploy to get money, not an honest attempt to solve a compelling problem.
Lesson 8: Goals and Objectives: What Do You Hope to Achieve if You Get the Money?
Goals normally refer to broad, long-term intentions.
Because goals are broad statements of intention, a particular goal probably won’t be met within the time period of a proposed grant project, and probably can’t be met through the project alone, if at all. Everyone, proposal writer and grantmaker alike, is aware of this. For example, eliminating youth violence is a goal that, realistically, may never be achieved completely, and certainly not by a single organization or program within a year or two, because it is affected by factors that are numerous, complex, and to a large extent outside the control of most possible interventions. A proposed program, say, a youth mediation program, may be only one of many possible steps toward reaching this ultimate goal.
Objectives should be thought of as outcomes that can be expected from the project itself. Whereas the accomplishment of goals may or may not be subject to measurement, objectives must be concrete and specific, measurable, realistic, attainable, and time bound.
If the program announcement or guidelines spell out the goals and objectives for a federal grant program (say, to reduce incidents of domestic violence in an immigrant community), or if the goals and objectives are stated or implied in the background or legislative history of the program (the Violence Against Women Act), the proposal that is submitted should incorporate those goals and objectives into the applicant’s own plan.
both foundation and government program officers generally have worked long and hard on the research and policymaking that goes into crafting a program announcement, application or proposal guidelines, or requests for proposals. There is nothing pandering about reflecting either the grantmaker’s language or research or perspective in your grant proposal, if you agree with the approach. If you disagree with the funder’s premises or priorities—either politically or philosophically—then don’t apply for the grant!
We can think of three objectives for a collaborative after-school basketball project for at-risk youth, including a reduced dropout rate for participants (there are many more). •Objective 1: Improved behavior. By the end of the first six months of the project, participants in the after-school basketball project will demonstrate improved behavior in school as a result of project requirements and activities, as measured by incident reports and teacher observations before the league started and six months later. •Objective 2: Reduction in violent incidents. By the end of the basketball project, participants will demonstrate a 50 percent decrease in violent incidents, as measured by school incident reports. •Objective 3: Improved school attendance. By the end of the basketball project, participants will have a 40 percent better school attendance record than students who did not participate in project activities.
For example, if you require the ballplayers to arrive by 3: 15 P.M. or be benched for that day, you are teaching them promptness and responsibility without necessarily saying so. Before the games begin, you may feature a discussion period (with light refreshments), led by a popular “coach” who is actually a social worker with experience working with at-risk teenagers. The coach might ask the students to talk about their day in school and any problems that they experienced, and use peer counseling techniques to help them resolve these problems. Discussions on sportsmanship, fair play, and following rules could be emphasized during the games, with team penalties enforced for roughhousing and offensive language. On some occasions the games could be followed by a potluck supper, with the families of the ballplayers included. Or, instead of discussions before the games, you might run a homework help program, with tutors from a nearby college who are studying to be teachers (and who also might serve as coaches), as a condition of playing.
As you can see, what started out as a simple after-school basketball project has evolved into a program with a very outcome-directed twist. Every activity associated with the basketball project is part of a master plan that expects to solve a compelling problem and achieve measurable objectives. And it in no way detracts from the teenagers’ fun.
Lesson 9: Developing and Presenting a Winning Program
The program description, or program plan, should show that you have a thoughtful, workable solution to the problem that you described in the need statement. A clear and detailed description of the proposed program must be strongly supported in several ways. And, as we discussed in Lesson 5, and as the opening example demonstrates, these details must be worked out (and sometimes argued out) in an ongoing, close partnership between the proposal writer, who understands the scope and limitations of the request for proposals, and the program supervisor and project staff, who understand the population to be served, the needs to be met, and their own objectives for the funding.
The program description must match the funder’s priorities. The program description should explain what you intend to do and clearly address what you know about the funder’s priorities. As we’ve said before, whenever possible, use language from the grantmaker’s guidelines to describe your own program, to show readers that the proposal focuses on the grantmaker’s concerns as much as your own.
The program description must be consistent with other parts of the proposal (not to mention clear and well organized). Consistency across all components of the proposal is extremely important.
The program narrative should describe how you will handle obstacles. Some of these obstacles may be simply programmatic: What will you do if you can’t recruit enough participants, or if you have too many? What will you do if your program space is not accessible to individuals with limited mobility? Other obstacles may become more relevant during crises, and this is where a disaster plan comes into play.
The program plan must address everything that will occur from the time a grant award is announced to the time the money is received, and to the end of the funding period (and beyond).
Lesson 11: The Evaluation Plan: How Can You Be Sure if Your Program Worked?
I Have Four (or Three, Two, or One) Programs to Run. Who Has Time for Evaluation? First of all, you’d better make time if you ever want another grant from the funding organization that asked for the evaluation.
Foundations and government funders, often under pressure from their boards or the legislative bodies that set the rules for government programs, increasingly are looking for proof that their grants make a difference and are not “just an employment program for the workers.”
It is reasonable for not-for-profit organizations and government agencies to try to find competent evaluators who do not view a grant as a cash cow. Evaluators should be as much a part of the program development team as every other partner, helping to define and refine the objectives in measurable terms and devising a comprehensive plan that should be included in the grant proposal.
Lesson 12: The Budget: How Much Will It Cost . . . and Is the Cost Reasonable?
Remember that the proposal process works backward and forward: When you craft your objectives, you must keep budget parameters in mind.
reviewers of government proposals and foundation program officers have been around the block, and they are looking for a budget that’s not too high, not too low, but just right. What would a reader say about a $ 2,000 computer, when perfectly good PCs are available in the stores for under $ 500?
Foundations want to see program budgets with projected income and costs. In the past they did not usually require a formal budget justification, but some foundations are moving in this direction. Even if a formal budget narrative is not requested, be sure that all of the items in the budget relate to activities described in the program narrative. Whether you are approaching a government or private grantmaker, the numbers in your budget should be as specific as possible. Rounding out a budget item to the nearest hundred or thousand dollars suggests to the funder that you’re trying to take a shortcut, which is not smart; showing the exact cost of six basketballs demonstrates that you’ve researched costs and thought about the program in detail.
Personnel services (PS) (also called personal services) include the costs of all project staff (not necessarily by name, but by title) and the percentage of their time or the number of hours that they will work on project activities. Unless the grantmaker specifically rules it out, you may include all of the time that one or more managers can reasonably be expected to devote to the program, whether in setting it up, recruiting, training, supervising the program director, conducting outreach, maintaining partnerships, acting as liaison with the funding agency, and so on.
Lesson 13: Sustainability: How Will You Continue the Program When the Grant Funds Run Out?(and You’d Better Not Say, “I Won’t!”)
Show that other grantmakers are interested in the program. Earlier we suggested that you keep on file a list of current funders of the agency and your programs. Your program budget could show actual income from other grants as part of the total support of an existing program, or it could show all the other grants for which you’re applying to support a new program.
(Increasingly, funders are thinking carefully about how realistic you are in projecting such income, and they’re talking to each other, so make sure your list isn’t mostly fantasy.)
Demonstrate your organization’s commitment to and experience with fundraising. Do you have development staff? Describe how that staff will pursue additional funding in the future. Have you been working to diversify your funding? Describe your initiatives. Do you have a fundraising plan? Describe it. Have you raised private or government dollars in the past? Explain your past success in raising money to sustain programs that are similar to the one in the grant application.
Use grant funds for activities and/ or resources that have a life beyond the grant period. Training, for instance. If grant funds are used to provide up-to-date training for your organization’s staff, then the newly trained people will continue to do excellent work once the grant period is over. Train-the-trainer courses (sometimes referred to as turnkey training) increase exponentially the number of individuals who receive training.
Lesson 14: Capacity: Proving That You Can Get the Job Done
It’s important to be able to demonstrate that you can manage the money efficiently, implement the program as it’s designed, and handle the reporting requirements (which for some government grants are substantial). Even when these questions aren’t asked, somehow you need to include at least a paragraph with information about your track record in the proposal, because it is one of the things almost all grantmakers really want to know.
Here’s the kind of information you want to provide in order to show capacity:
- The organization’s history
- Your successes in implementing projects similar to the proposed program
- Your reputation in the community to be served
- Relationships with partners in past and proposed collaborations
- Management and staff experience, qualifications, and awards
- The organization’s overall budget
- A description of your organization’s fiscal control procedures
- Grants that you have won
- Letters of collaboration or commitment or a chart describing community linkages (which some grantmakers ask for in this section, while some ask that they be presented in an appendix)
If you haven’t done this already, add to the file a brief history of your organization; its experience in operating all the current programs (the number of years a program has operated, the number and type of clients served in it); any awards or honors the organization or any of your programs has received;
Any information you can provide that shows that other grantmakers have found your organization to be fiscally responsible and programmatically sound will enhance your ability to win new grants.
To show organizational capability, municipal agencies and schools should, first, flaunt their resources, brag about their leadership and accomplishments, explain their management structure, describe funding streams, and highlight previous grants they have won (and implemented efficiently).
Lesson 15: Front and Back: The Cover Page or Cover Letter, the Abstract, the Table of Contents, and the Appendix
If a program officer has been helpful to you in developing the proposal, you should mention this—and note that you’ve tried to include information that you discussed with him or her. If you’ve had a grant from this foundation before, mention how important that grant was to your community. (Remember that grants aren’t about you; they’re about the needs you are trying to address.)
EASY FOR THE PROGRAM OFFICER An abstract (sometimes called a summary, program summary, or executive summary) is the first thing a reader sees and may be your most important marketing tool. But because you can’t really prepare it until your proposal is nearly finished, there’s a tendency to rush through it, seeing it as less important than the rest of the proposal.
•Other attachments: Foundations often like to see a few (a few!) news articles about the organization, or the executive summary of an evaluation that’s been done on the program to be funded. Most foundations do not want to see Power Point presentations or videotapes. If you happen to have a video that you think effectively documents the program you want funded, and if the guidelines don’t prohibit it or request it, call first to see if there’s any interest in seeing it.
Funders Roundtable II
Nearly every grantmaker said that what they like to see is that you’ve done your homework, read the guidelines, and understand the foundation or government program priorities. Almost all of them said they looked for a good idea, a good program, and clarity—and brevity—in the expression of the idea.
Foundation representatives were annoyed by applicants who didn’t know what the foundation did, hadn’t read the guidelines, and didn’t even know who the current program officer or foundation director was.
In more recent interviews, funders were clear that they could not take poorly written proposals to their boards and did not have time to help with rewrites as some might have done in the past for small grassroots organizations or new immigrant groups who were just learning the grants process.
“Beginning grant writers tend to base their proposals on their ideas rather than on a real need,” said a funder. “To show need is very important . . . yet there’s an amazing lack of statistics included in proposals—and when they are included, they are often dated and out of context.”
You see—more is better when it comes to reading and studying guidelines, but it is not better if you haphazardly adorn your grant proposal with statistics that are overwhelming and irrelevant. Clearly you have to find a balance between failing to describe a problem and throwing in the statistical kitchen sink.
One way to deal with this may be to include (brief) compelling stories that demonstrate the need. “I like to see some anecdotal data about how a program touched the lives of people, along with some relevant hard data and statistics,” said a government funder. “I prefer a bigger picture view showing the organization’s understanding of its role in making positive things happen,” explained a foundation grantmaker, “rather than, ‘our community has the worst so-and-so.’”
Do Grants Always Go to the Communities with the Greatest Need? The answer to this question surprised us a bit. Communities with the direst need aren’t always the ones that get the grant. Most funders want to be sure the money will be well spent, so they look for strong organizations doing important things, wherever they are located.
we asked our panel of grantmakers about the importance of objectives, and for suggestions about how to develop them. “Measurable objectives—very important,” said one funder. “I need to see benchmarks so I can sell the proposal to the board and senior staff.”
“The fewer questions I have about a program as I’m reading a proposal, the better the program is explained,” one panelist said. Others noted, “I look at what and who: What is the program and who is the leadership?” “We want to see an explicit theory of action.”
“Look at grants as building blocks for financial sustainability—but not as the only building block.” “Don’t be dependent on only one sector for funding.
“When there is a large community buy-in, there is likely to be sustainability because the community partners [i.e., local government] will take the project over,” a federal government panelist said. “We expect programs to be institutionalized by the end of five years. We might reduce funding in the third and fourth year.”
“I hate it when budgets make no sense. And I loathe the ‘blah-blah-blah syndrome’—when grant writers sort of go blah, blah, blah instead of just telling us directly what they plan to do with the money. Keep the budget simple.” As a government panelist advised, “It all goes back to writing a clear proposal. Our application format has a proposal narrative and a budget narrative, and the two have to ‘crosswalk.’”
“Be realistic about what it costs to run a program . . . don’t shortchange yourself,” insisted a panel member. “Put it in front of the foundation’s eyes—right smack in the middle of the proposal—that it costs money to do all the things you want to do. Don’t say, ‘We only need $ 45,000 to pay the salary of a staff member,’ when it costs a hell of a lot more than $ 45,000 to run the program.”
Another panelist commented, “We don’t want to be the sole support of someone’s salary because, let’s face it, when the grant runs out, there’s a good chance the person will get fired. We don’t mind paying a part of a salary, or we might be willing to pay the whole amount for a development staff member who will turn around and raise money for the organization.”
most grantmakers say evaluation is important. “Anyone can design a good program . . . but will it get good results? The world is littered with good programs. I want to focus on results,” said a grantmaker. “Very few program staff actually care about evaluation—but they should use evaluation techniques to help them make changes in the program. No one ever says, ‘We haven’t succeeded.’”
“We expect to see an audit (our treasurer goes through this line by line).” “Don’t send videos—they usually end up in the trash. And just don’t send tons of stuff,”
Part III: And After the Proposal . . .
Lesson 16: The Site Visit—Playing Host
Most site visits involve a program officer from a local foundation spending an hour or two at your office, meeting staff, chatting with the executive director, asking some questions, observing the programs, and visiting with clients. But when the federal government or a large national foundation makes a site visit you can bet there’s a lot of money at stake (often grants for many millions of dollars), and the funders come with a posse and an agenda. They expect to see certain things and talk with certain people, maybe even the mayor. Getting ready for one of these site visits almost calls for an event planner—the kind of talented, organized person who plans the Olympics for a host city or a political convention to choose the party’s nominee for president.
Lesson 17: So Now You Know—What Next?
We’ve said before (and the grantmakers support this), if you win one out of every 10 grants you apply for, you are in the Grant Seeker’s Hall of Fame. Most foundation and government funders report that they can fund only 10 to 20 percent of the applications they receive, and the reason is not always because of poor proposals or programs.
- Does the proposal look as if it was done in a big hurry (which it was)?
- Is the description of the project clear and believable?
- Did I make a good case for my program?
- Did I follow the guidelines and answer every single question?
- Is there anything I left out or didn’t do because I ran out of time?
- Can I make sense out of the budget now, after not looking at it for a few months?
- Did I make any confusing computational errors in the budget?
- Is the proposal poorly written, or filled with spelling errors and grammatical mistakes that make it hard to understand?
- Are the charts that I included clear and helpful or fuzzy and confusing?
- Is the appendix organized and relevant—or did I use it as a dumping ground for any piece of minutiae that I could find?
- Did I correctly spell the name of the person receiving the proposal?
- Can you tell me if there was a problem with the program or with the proposal itself, or if you just couldn’t fund it at this time? (If there was a problem with the program or proposal, politely request some suggestions on how to improve it.)
- Did you think the proposal clearly addressed your guidelines, or should we have made that case more strongly? (Make notes!)
- Would you suggest that we apply again? (This is the most important question you need answered!) Is there a time frame for doing this? (If the funder doesn’t assure you that you should apply again, ask if there are any other foundations she or he thinks might be interested in the program.)
- Do you have any other suggestions about how we could strengthen either our program or our proposal?
If the foundation program officer does not think you should resubmit to his or her foundation (for whatever reasons), ask the program officer to suggest other foundations that might be suitable for the project. And, even more important, if it seems appropriate, ask if you can use the program officer’s name when contacting the new foundation, and whether he or she would be willing to serve as a reference.
Funders Roundtable III
“We’re looking for genuineness in making funding decisions,” explained a foundation colleague, “even if the proposal isn’t well put together.”
“Very few groups call when they’re not funded. I’m impressed when a group calls and asks, ‘Can we do something different?’ If they tell us their challenges—for instance, ‘We’re no longer as small as we were, but we’re not really big enough to appeal to most funders; what can you suggest?’—they’re educating us. We can then tell our board about the challenges inherent in growing.” This grantmaker summed up by suggesting, “Tell us your dilemma; maybe we can advocate for you.”
One funder we spoke to will refer grant seekers to another grantmaker if they call to find out why they weren’t funded, but she doesn’t do this unless she knows the groups and the funder she’s calling pretty well. “I usually fall in love with a couple of new groups that I can’t fund every year . . . and I’ll call other foundations on their behalf or let them use my name when contacting other grantmakers,” she said. Another panelist said, “I refer groups to other funders all the time, especially when a group is doing such a valuable thing but I can’t fund it.”
Before we left this issue of what steps to follow after getting rejected, one panelist speculated on why so many grant seekers don’t call to find out why funding was denied. “Maybe it’s the power dynamics between those who want money and those who have money.
After countless hours of conversation with funders, it’s not easy to sum up everything we learned. Much to our surprise, not all grantmakers agree on some of the things we thought were “nonnegotiable.” For instance, one funder couldn’t care less if the applicant spelled her name right. This same funder puts “how well written the proposal is” as her least important criterion for funding.
You should never be greedy—not in flush economic times, not in woeful economic times. You should always think about how to sustain grant-funded projects and cultivate additional supporters. And no matter what’s going on, you need to stay calm and focused. It’s part of the job.
Mainly, winning a grant takes hard work, lots of homework, good programs, great leadership, fiscal responsibility . . . well, you get the picture.)
(Grant applications never say a word about abbreviations—it’s one of those “intangibles”—but you shouldn’t use them in your proposals.)
(Most grant applications leave all decisions about hiring grant-funded staff up to you. But you must explain the qualifications of staff in your proposal.)
Short Answer 1. The best way to actually prove that you collaborated with other groups on a grant proposal is to include a memorandum of understanding, letters of commitment, and/ or sign-in sheets for collaborative program development meetings in your application.