Updated: Jul 20, 2022
It's so tempting. You're working hard helping clients and just rocking your mission all over town. You've made your shoe-string budget work for years. You know you're right on the edge of nonprofit greatness... if only you could find that angel foundation to swoop down and fund the heck out of your new project idea, sponsor your dream fundraising event, or (gasp) pay you a salary. Then someone casually says, "Hey, have you checked out Blah-Blah-Blah Foundation? I bet they'd give you money." Your heart skips a beat. Your pulse quickens. 'Yes!' you think. 'I'll submit a grant proposal!'
Slow your roll, my friend. As alluring and romantic as it may be for a development professional, just submitting a grant proposal is usually not the most effective route to nonprofit financial windfalls. But I often hear my colleagues new to the grant writing and management component of fundraising say things like, "Well, I don't know why we didn't get that grant. They looked like a perfect match on paper." And in that sentence lies your problem.
In my time as a fundraising professional, I've learned that new nonprofits make some common mistakes when approaching foundations. Here are a few that are simple to avoid:
1. You've never spoken to the grant manager. Consider the foundation's grant manager your new best friend. He or she serves in a position to provide you with insight about the foundation, its current funding initiatives, its board's interests that particular year, and how much money is really up for grabs. You can read every online profile, but you will never get the real-time, boots-on-the-ground perspective that a grant manager can provide from anything on the internet. And unless it explicitly says not to call, PICK UP THE PHONE! Calling and having a live conversation will give you ten times more information than a response to an email all day long. It allows you to ask follow up questions based on the responses you receive. And here's an insider secret for you... some grant managers will even review your proposal for you before you submit it. Be sure to ask first and give them at least a month ahead of the final deadline. Better still, ask when is most convenient to send it.
2. You don't have a budget for your project or program. Listen, as development professionals, we all know that magic number, right? We know how much we need to make things happen. But gone are the days when donors just take your word for it. And honestly, I think those days were over even before my time, so it's been a while, friends. You need to prove that you need the money and what you're doing with it when you get it. Foundations need to feel confident that they're investing in a nonprofit that financially has its ducks in a row. What are you currently bringing in? What are you spending it on? How much more do you need to continue or advance this work? And what would you spend that money on? It doesn't have to be a complicated spreadsheet full of Excel formulas and long-term projections. A simple document showing money coming in and money going out is all you need.
3. You submit your proposal on the deadline. Remember that grant manager/best friend we talked about earlier? Let's say he or she is compiling all of the proposals to present to the board for review. They notice something missing from your packet. But it is past the deadline, and there isn't time to wait for you to send in your missing documentation. Guess what happens? It's "see you next time" for your grant proposal. Hopefully, you've been in conversation with your grant manager/best friend, and this never happens. But waiting until the deadline to submit your request is risky and doesn't allow for any wiggle room. Plus, it's stressful. Do yourself a favor and be prepared with at least two weeks of lead time ahead of the deadline.
4. You're working in a silo. The new buzzword in nonprofits is "partnerships." With as many nonprofits, government agencies, and civic organizations as there are in most of our cities and communities, avoiding some kind of overlap in mission or clients is challenging. Finding a partner organization will expand your reach and show a foundation that you've thought about the bigger picture. It also shows that organization is going to bat with you, which makes it less risky for them to invest financially and provides an opportunity to have a greater impact with one grant award.
5. You use a cookie-cutter grant proposal. Now don't get me wrong. I've done a lot of copying and pasting from one proposal narrative to another in my day. There's no reason to reinvent the wheel every time you submit a proposal. But, you have to be conscious of each foundation's specific guidelines and expectations. And you know who can help you with that? (A-hem...) Your grant manager/new best friend. You may have a wonderful program and two potential partner foundations. Let's say you need money to provide lunches at an educational summer camp for low-income children. One foundation may be very interested in supporting this program because it addresses the physical health aspects associated with the nationwide hunger crisis facing low-income children. The other foundation may be interested in supporting this program because of the educational component, and the benefit continued education through the summer vacation months has for students into the upcoming school year and beyond. You'd write those appeals very differently, providing different statistics and impact stories for each. Your canned proposal may allude to both of these issues but may not fully develop either of these components enough to inspire the foundation to select your program for funding. Ask your new best friend which direction to take if you're unsure.
The moral of the story? Treat a foundation like you would any other donor. You'd never walk up to a potential donor at, say, a Chamber of Commerce event and say, "Hi, I read your bio online and think you'd be a great fit with our mission. You love kids. We help kids. Give us $25,000." That's just not how fundraising works. Do your homework. Cultivate a relationship. Show off a little bit. Find "the fit." Create a relationship where everybody wins. Dot the i's and cross the t's. Is grant approval guaranteed if you do all of these things? No. Nothing in fundraising is guaranteed until you cash the check. But, are you more likely to be the proposal at the top of the stack that the grant manager/your new best friend recommends the board reviews first? Yes.
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