The true thoughts of a grant writer
And my guideposts for maximizing your time and effort through grant funding
This post was originally going to dive into grant research, and I’ll do that in an abbreviated form below, but to be honest, that topic was just not sparking *joy* or inspiration for me this month (which is also why this is coming to your inbox a week or two late…) so I’m changing it up a little bit.
I’ve been writing a lot of grants lately, and it has had me thinking about the process of grant writing -- the questions we love, the questions we wouldn’t mind never seeing again, and just how much of a roller coaster each grant application can be. When you write just a beautifully crafted, eloquent sentence that shows how your work perfectly aligns with that of the funder – such highs! And then, as you are emailing the same person for the fourth time to “touch base about that data point/client story/letter of support we need for the submission” … deep, deep lows.
The exasperating yet at times hypnotic rhythm of grant writing has had me thinking – do we all just go through the same mental roller coaster each time we write a grant? Are the grant writers across the world – whether full-time or dabbling when their team needs them to chip in – just rolling through the same mental script alone, together? And if so, can I capture that essence to let all my fellow grant writers know… I see you and deeply understand your painstaking struggle to keep all your grant system logins updated?
Whether or not this rings true for you… I hope it gives you a chuckle.
Set the scene: It’s Friday afternoon at 4:30 – you hear the ping in your inbox. You had been **hoping** you could finish out the week just cleaning off your desk and planning for the week ahead, but alas. You open the email.
“This grant looks right up our alley. Let’s plan to apply. It’s due in 2 weeks, so let the team know what you need to get everything submitted on time. Thanks, and have a great weekend!”
Welp. Looks like planning next week wasn’t necessary anyway – I think I know what will be taking my time! You read through the funding announcement, jot some notes down, and call it a day to go enjoy your weekend.
Monday morning comes. You arrive at work – rejuvenated and ready to get down to business. You get yourself a nice big cup of coffee, light a candle, and put on that “focus flow” playlist that always gets you in the writing zone. You sit down, ready to write.
15 minutes and four password reset email attempts later you are finally in the grant system. Slightly less rejuvenated, but you will not be deterred!
You open the application form and begin to read:
Please provide your mission statement.
“Okay, this is the level of complexity I can handle on a Monday morning pre-coffee kicking in. I’ll just pull it from the website…”
A few clicks later…
“Hm. This looks outdated. Let me just email our communications team and let them know. I know I have our newest mission saved in that last grant I wrote though.”
How many individuals did you serve last year?
“Simple enough. Let me just find that google spreadsheet the programs team shared…
Hmmmm. This hasn’t been updated since last quarter. Let me just email them to ask where they’re tracking this data these days.” (You start jotting down a list of who owes you what so you can keep track…)
Please provide percentage of individuals served that [insert specific demographic breakdown here]:
Wellllllll. We track almost every aspect of our programming, except for this specific data point. I guess I’ll put 0%? But I don’t want this to automatically disqualify us. So, I’ll just try to add a * to it and include the * as a footnote in the response for another question, since this text box is numerals only…. Hopefully, the reviewers will understand my scavenger-hunt-style application narrative.
How will you ensure the sustainability of the program?
Insert standard language we use about “consistently working to improve the diversity of our fundraising streams, how much of our programs are covered by earned revenue, and our work to connect with a larger base of supporters that are passionate about our work” ...
But let’s be real, oh dear grant funder, YOU are a part of my sustainability plan! Why do you think I’m applying for this grant?!
Intermission: You take a quick break to refill your coffee. You end up also clearing out your inbox from the weekend, creating a to-do list of what else you need to get done today, and maybe playing Wordle.
How is your program innovative or novel?
Well, if you consider that our organization addresses a social problem that would otherwise be completely disregarded by larger society, I think that on its own is fairly novel. But I don’t want to get testy… so let me just talk about how we use that software that nobody else does.
How are you collaborating with other community partners?
Well, we have that standing monthly meeting with other nonprofits in the field that has been going on for years. Not much comes of it, but it certainly happens. Wait… is that meeting just so we can all write on our grant applications that we meet and work together? Oh man, I don’t want to think about that for too long.
How will you publicize the grant funding?
I will happily display your logo on any organizational material you want, sweet funder! Website, brochure, coffee mug, my forehead… you name it!
Please upload the following: the last 3 years of financial statements, proof of your federal tax-exempt status, high-quality marketing materials that highlight your mission, your most recent independent audit. Please upload one document, must be PDF format. Limit submissions to 5 pages.
Ummmmmm… All of that in 5 pages? That must be a typo right…
Ok, ok – this may be a cynical take on grant funding. But having also worked on the grant funding side of the industry, I truly see both sides of this coin. Funders have a duty to effectively steward the funds they oversee and diligently assess the investments they are considering. Nonprofits on the other hand, end up seeing nearly identical application questions repeatedly, with wording tweaked just enough that they can’t really reuse application language they’ve previously developed without taking time and care to set their submission up for success. As frustrating as this can be, it is just the world we live in, and it probably isn’t going to change any time soon!
So how do we make grant writing less trudging through, more focused progress? My guidance to nonprofits who want to bring in grant funding, especially when there is not a full-time grant writer on the team, always centers around the same ideas:
Be selective in the applications you take on. Just as funders must be diligent about assessing the organizations they invest in, consider that you must be diligent in assessing what is worth your time to apply to. Your time and effort are worth reserving for the applications you have the best chance of receiving.
Make every effort to start the conversation with the funder before applying. This will help you avoid an enormous amount of unnecessary work by having a better sense of the funder’s interest in supporting you. If there is no way to contact the funder, submit an initial grant application (if it meets your standards for the point above) with the intent of being rejected so that you can talk with the funder more personally after the fact. Don’t want to put in that effort? Maybe that’s your subconscious telling you that you know it isn’t really the right fit, anyway!
Don’t spend money on a paid grant research software when you are just getting started with grants. Especially for nonprofits new to grant funding, Google’s algorithm works wonders for grant research. Try googling [your state or metro area] + [your main area of focus – child welfare – aging – animal welfare – food security – etc.] + “grant funder” and see what pops up. You’ll be surprised at how targeted you can get with this type of search. Another great free way to research potential grant funders is to look at nonprofits doing similar work in your area. What types of grant and corporate funders are supporting them? Do you have any current contacts at these organizations, or do you know someone at a similar company that may have the same connection point to your cause?
This may feel weird to some, but this isn’t a zero-sum game. You aren’t looking to take the support they are receiving from that nonprofit; you are looking to connect with people and organizations who have shown they value the services you provide to your world. It would be a missed opportunity to not at least try to reach out to organizations and individuals that plainly state they want to support organizations like yours.
Be as big a fish in as small a pond you can be. By this I mean, don’t start by applying to the national grant funders that receive by far the most applications and often have the most rigorous application review and reporting requirements. Start with a small funder based in your community that is tied as closely as possible to your mission. Your competition will be lower, the funder’s attention will be more focused, and the mission alignment will be much stronger.
Expect two years before you truly see progress in the amount you are bringing in from grant funding. This may be hard to hear, but it’s true. Most funders do not approve a nonprofit’s grant the first time they apply (or only approve a decreased amount). It may take two years of building a relationship with the funder, applying, being rejected, and then applying again with changes based on their recommendations from the previous grant cycle before you ever receive funding. Unfortunately, grants are not a magic bullet to resolve your budget deficits. (If anyone knows of such a magic bullet, please do let me know!)
Know when to say goodbye to a funder. Grant writing can feel a lot like dating. When it comes down to it, both sides are just looking to discover if their values and goals align. What this also means is that, once you’ve given that funder enough time, energy, and information about the work you do, if they are not reciprocating, it can be important to move on and not waste more of your time. If you have had individual discussions with the funder, have tried applying an additional time or two after making the changes they’ve requested, and are still being rejected, it may be best to just remove them from your grant funding plan. Perhaps you revisit them in a year or two. But for now, give yourself the gift of your own time back, and focus on finding funders who value who you are and what you do.
Next month I am going to be sharing some life lessons I’ve learned from fundraising. Do any come to mind for you? Reply to this email and let me know! I’d love to hear them.
Until next month,