Updated: Jul 20
Starting a nonprofit can be exciting, right? You’re passionate about your mission, and you rally like-minded people to join you on your quest to change the world. You devote all your extra time to making sure this organization gets off the ground. Eventually, you start making progress, and you notice that clients’ lives are changing. The dream is coming true. All you need now is that angel foundation to come in and grant you all the money you need to serve all the clients that need your help. You write up a compelling, emotional appeal that no one could possibly resist and the board immediately writes you a no-strings-attached, giant check for exactly what you asked for the very first time they’ve heard about your organization. Right? Well, at the risk of being dubbed a dream-killer, the next few paragraphs are designed to lovingly bring you back to reality.
While it may be tempting to jump right into submitting grant proposals to foundations, in my work as a grant manager, I caution new nonprofits to take a few steps back and ensure that all their proverbial ducks are in a row. Dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s before you submit your first proposal will save you time now and for future requests and will ensure that you don’t miss an opportunity with a potential funder because you don’t have your house in order.
Here are seven questions to ask about your organization before submitting that first grant proposal:
Are you a 501c3 organization? At this point, consider this a requirement. There are so few foundations that will fund organizations that are not 501c3 tax-exempt charities that you will spend more time hunting for them than it would take to register your organization with the IRS.
Do you have a mission statement? And by “do you have,” I mean, is it written down somewhere outside of your head? There is something powerful in putting words to paper and sharing it with all your stakeholders. Don’t get too complicated or too lofty (save the truly unattainable dreams for your vision statement, which is another conversation), but do make sure that it is a representation of your overall goal for the organization and your staff and board members can recite it relatively easily.
How old are you? Organizations with less than three years in operation may have a challenging experience when seeking foundation funds. I recommend at least five years of data on how your mission has made a difference in your community. This also proves you’ve made it past the blissful time when all your friends and family are slipping you checks at holiday gatherings to “help you get started.”
Do you have the stats and the stories? Saying you’re making a difference and proving it in a grant narrative are two different things. And this is another reason that being in existence longer than three years is critical. Are your clients better off than they were before they became your clients? The earlier you start keeping track of the data and the impact stories, the more successful you’ll be when pursuing grant funding.
How do you manage your finances? Adopting Generally Accepted Accounting Practices and using a financial management software can show a potential partner foundation that your organization is mindful of its current funds, and there’s less likelihood that their check is going to be rolling around the floorboard of your car for a few months before you cash it. (That’s a joke. Don’t ever cash a grant check.)
Do you have other donors? I use the line “Nobody wants to be the first money in the tip jar” a lot with my clients. If you can’t prove that other people have supported you and your mission, it is highly unlikely that a foundation (that has received dozens, if not hundreds, of requests from other worthy nonprofits) will bite at being your sole funding source. If you haven’t done much fundraising yet (beyond that check your uncle slipped you at Thanksgiving), look for other nonprofits with missions like yours to partner with in the specific program or project for which you’re requesting funds. We’ll address this more later in another post.
Do you NEED money? I’ve never encountered a nonprofit that didn’t need money. But, you should be a bit more detailed than “We need it, k? Thanks” in a grant proposal. Your odds of receiving funds will increase if you can clearly articulate a unique program or project and its specific need as long as it aligns with your mission (refer to question #2).
Do you have a strategic plan? While not a requirement for funding from most foundations, putting your long-term strategy into words will add more credibility to your organization. It will show a foundation that, while you may have an immediate need for funding assistance, you’ve thought about how this exciting new program or project plays a bigger role in your organization's future, your mission, and the overall benefit to your clients.
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