Updated: Jul 20
If you're new to grant writing, it can be easy to get caught up in the fantasy. Your inner dialogue may go a little something like this:
"Wow... you mean to tell me that all I have to do is tell a foundation why we need the money on some nice paper with our logo at the top and they'll send us a check? For thousands of dollars?! Maybe they'll even fund our entire project... for the next five years?!?!"
Ahhh... what bliss, right? For a fundraising professional, this is the dream. But, the reality is usually something very different. Now before you accuse me of being Debbie Downer, let me say that the beauty of grant writing is that sometimes it can go this way. It's not impossible. Just like the winning the lottery. But, the odds are pretty high.
So, here are a few things that you might be expecting when you first start grant writing versus the reality:
1. You expect to be flush with cash overnight. This can vary from funder to funder, but in most cases, it can take months to hear back from a grant-maker and even longer to receive a grant check. Knowing a grant-makers timeline for reviewing, announcing awards, and dispersing funds is critical in your planning for any timely project. I've talked to many nonprofits that have anticipated a check that took so long that it crossed into another budget year, and they'd already "spent" the money. Be diligent about planning, stay in touch with funders who have promised awards at certain times, and don't put your nonprofit in a financial bind.
2. You expect to provide the same information to each potential grant-maker.
In my career, I've written hundreds of grant proposals. It is few and far between that you can simply print and send. There's no real uniformity when it comes to grant applications. Some web-based services allow nonprofits to manage their applications, but they still vary from foundation to foundation based on the interests and requirements of each. Expect that you will need to spend time gathering information for each application and then tweaking that for each funder.
3. You expect that you are going to find everything you need to know on the foundation's website.
Part of working with an experienced grant writer is having the expertise on hand to know where to look to gather all of the information you need to submit a grant request. The question I get the most often is "How do you know how much to ask for?" As a seasoned professional doing this for over a decade, I know how to determine an appropriate ask amount if I haven't gotten a definitive response to that question from a grant administrator first. It's not typical that you're going to find this information on a foundation's website. But you could make an educated guess by reviewing their 990s. Need to address your cover letter, but there's no contact person listed on their website? Again... the 990s can help with that information. But, the real insider tip is to call the foundation. Information on websites can be out-of-date, and 990s can be years old. Relying solely on what's on the screen may prevent you from succeeding in your request.
4. You expect that you can just resubmit your request every year and get the funding again.
Unless they specifically state otherwise, you should treat grant donors the way you would treat your individual donors. Provide regular reports of what you're doing with their funds. Share client stories. Include them in stewardship activities. More often than not, they want to be a part of your mission and not just thought of as an ATM where you push the right buttons and money comes out once a year. It's important that you take the time to build relationships with grant funders, which may turn into long-term partnerships.
5. You expect that you can do anything you want with the funds once the check arrives.
Be very careful here, friends. You must do what you said you would do with the funds in your grant proposal. I've worked for organizations that did otherwise, and it is not a pretty scene. Now, most grant-makers understand if something happens and you intended to do one thing, but circumstances beyond your control make that impossible. Or if, through evaluation, your nonprofit determines that there is a better path to take. In those cases, communicate that with the grant-maker as soon as possible. But never nonchalantly think, 'Well, we've got the money. We can go buy those fancy treadmill desks we've wanted for years instead of using it to buy food for our food pantry like we said we were going to do.'
6. You expect that writing a grant proposal is going to be easy.
There's a reason there is a whole grant writing profession. It's not easy. It's absolutely something that can be learned, a craft that can be honed, and skills that you never stop working to improve. But it's not easy. You may be passionate about your nonprofit and its mission, but often that passion can be quite the opposite of what is necessary for a successful grant proposal narrative. With time and experience, you learn ways to write more effectively and some standard elements that must be included.
Working with a professional grant writer can help you navigate all of the nuances of the grant world.
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