A Beginner’s Guide To Grant-Writing

You hear all kinds of things about grant-writing:

There are tons of money being given away! All you have to do is ask!

Grant-writing is difficult. It’s incomprehensible, time-consuming, and tedious.

Grant-writing is a waste of time! You invest all that effort and don’t get funded.

So what’s the truth about grant-writing?

The bottom line is that all of the above statements are true some of the time and in some contexts.

Here’s what I mean:

Yes, when you add it all up there are thousands of organizations giving away millions of dollars, and all a qualifying recipient has to do is write a compelling grant to receive a portion of them. Sounds easy enough, right?

The other pertinent facts are: there are also millions of organizations applying for those grants; it takes some research to determine what type of person, organization, and projects qualify for the funds; and only the most competitive applications are likely to receive any money. We’ll get into how to write a successful grant in a moment, but first, let’s look at some other hurdles to effective grant writing.

Yes, some grant applications are difficult, time-consuming, and tedious to complete. These tend to be government grants, which, because they dispense public funds, have to document their decision-making by collecting all kinds of demographic data, such as age, race, ethnicity, residence, and income of the people the grant will benefit. If you don’t routinely collect that kind of data, it’s difficult to complete the application.

Other grant applications can be tedious and time-consuming, such as those that use a computer-generated form that requires all of the answers to fit into tiny rectangles that will only accommodate a certain number of characters, or that have a bug in their programming so that the numbers dutifully entered into the columns don’t add up to anything like the correct total; or that inexplicably fail to save your data after you’ve gone to all that trouble to enter it and you have to do it all over again. Perhaps repeatedly. These types of grants make you want to pull out your hair, change your career, and conclude that grants are the hard way to get money.

And then there’s this: you can go to all that trouble and not get funded. Yes. It happens all the time. Even a well-qualified applicant whose project is closely aligned with the purpose of the funding organization, who writes a thoughtful, compelling application, may get turned down for a grant. Why? The granting organization just received more compelling applications from qualified applicants than it had dollars to cover. Or one of the trustees had a pet project that took precedence over yours. Or, in the interest of fairness, they had to spread the grants over various regions or communities the funding organization serves. There are dozens of reasons a grant application might not get funded and a lot of them you—the applicant—don’t have any control over.

That being said, there are some surefire things you can do to put yourself in the best position to get funded. Let’s take a look at them.

How to write a successful grant:

Number one: do your research.

Read the website, funding guidelines, or other available information about the funding organization to understand what they fund, where they fund, and whom they are most likely to fund. If you are using a grants database such as Guidestar, or the Foundation Directory Online, you may see that the granting organization is a big supporter of teen programs, which is what you provide. Great, you think. Just what I’m looking for. Then you see that they restrict their funding to the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Still good! We’re in Seattle. But then you read that they only give to faith-based organizations…which you’re not. Don’t waste your time applying for a grant unless you know someone on the Board of Trustees (or whatever they call the people who review the grants and make the decisions) who has encouraged you to apply and will recommend you for funding. It’s true in grant-making, as in many other aspects of life, that relationships often take precedence over overstated criteria.

One other note about research:

Take a look at the list of grants the prospective funder has awarded over the last few years and look to see organizations similar to yours in size and purpose. If the website says the funder is interested in teens, animals, and the environment and funds universities, zoos, and environmental research centers, they’re most likely not going to fund a small teen after-school program, no matter how great a program it is, or how great a grant you write. They’re going after bigger fish, and in their eyes, you’re small fry.

Number two: Have your organizational ducks in a row.

At the end of the day, grantors make grants to organizations, not to grant-writers. You can write a great grant application, but if the organization you’re writing for doesn’t have a strong and effective board, a clear and compelling mission, demonstrated community support, well-designed programs and means of measuring results, and diverse sources of income, you’re pushing a rock uphill. Most grant-makers aren’t going to fund your proposal.

As the grant writer, however, you can help your organization get its act together by pointing out these facts. You can do so without having to play the heavy, but by explaining, “We need to include more diversity on our Board because that’s what our funders look for.” Or, “We need to explain to the Board that their financial contributions influence grant-makers’ contributions, because why should a grant-maker give to a cause that even its own Board members don’t give to?” Or “We need to do more outreach to individual donors because grant-makers want to see strong, grassroots support.”

What about grants to individuals?

Most grants are to organizations—specifically nonprofit organizations—not individuals. The exceptions are grants to artists, writers, filmmakers, and other creative types; scholarships; and some special-purpose types of grants to encourage individuals to take actions that benefit society. Examples are grants to individual homeowners to install solar panels or to weatherize their homes to conserve energy. Though individuals have to apply for these grants, the government, utility company, or other entity offering the grants typically advertises their availability and has staff that will help applicants complete the application. In general, however, you’ll find that most grant-making organizations explicitly state: No grants to individuals, or for film or media projects, travel, or any of the other things we’d all love to do if only someone would give us the money.

Number three: Follow the clues the grant-maker gives you.

This means using the language the grant-maker uses. Sometimes, this can be subtle. The Orfalea Foundation, for example, uses positive, “strength-based,” or “asset-based,” language in describing its work. Its mission reads, “Strengthening communities by empowering individuals.” Its REACH program, which stands for Resilience, Education, Adventure, Community and Health, “works to prepare students for lives of purposeful action, continuous learning, and the courageous pursuit of opportunity.” Notice that there isn’t a mention of “problems,” “needs,” “underserved,” or other language that one commonly finds in descriptions of nonprofit work. The Orfalea Foundation doesn’t want to fill holes; it wants to scale mountains. It wants to work with nonprofits that see their clients as potentialities waiting to be unleashed; not as problems needing to be “fixed” or “solved.”

The Orfalea program officer working with one of our clients, AHA!went so far as to recommend that AHA! use the term “diversity appreciation” rather than “eracism,” or “tolerance” in the grant application describing the goals of its teen after-school program. Yes, all three terms refer to the same issue, but one describes a benefit; the second refers to a problem, and the third lacks enthusiasm. While not all prospective funders will quibble over the use of individual words, the point is still worth noting: You should describe your work through the lens of your prospective funder, not through your own conventional frame.

This leads us to “secret” number four:

Customize each application to the organization you are applying to. It is seldom effective to write one grant application and mass mail it to a dozen organizations. Although there may well be language you can cut and paste for all applications—such as your organizational history and accomplishments—each funding organization is different and deserves individual thought and analysis. Each funding organization has its own purpose it is working to fulfill, and your job as a grant writer is to show them how funding your organization helps them achieve their purpose.

Number five: Tell a good story.

At the end of the day, giving is an emotional decision. Yes, foundations are conservative, and they want to give to applicants that have solid management practices in place and that can quantify their results. And they want to feel good about giving. There are millions of organizations with good intentions trying to make a difference. Why should they fund yours? Because you’ve told them such a good story, you’ve made them such a believer in your efforts, that they want to be a part of it.

That’s “getting to ‘yes.’”

 –Leslee Goodman
Alchemy On Demand

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