One of the most common things I have heard from start-up nonprofits is:
“If I can just get this grant, we’ll get started and not have to worry about fundraising!”
While it can be disheartening, I often try to temper these expectations. For large-scale, institutional grant funding (i.e., a grant that could cover the costs of a full staff person or more) to be awarded to an organization, in my experience it has been important to have several components in place before ever submitting an application. Unfortunately many of these “prerequisites” I describe below are worthy projects that should be considered for funding in and of themselves – and there are specific funders that offer, for example, evaluation training or infrastructure support. However, I am providing these guidelines based on personal experience in what most funders are looking for when they are selecting organizations for grant funding.
The following factors can help set your organization up for success in grant writing:
Your program is in place, or you have (almost) all of the essential elements to put it in place.
Unfortunately this can often feel like a “chicken or the egg” issue. But in most cases, funders are looking to support programs that are already operating and creating outputs and outcomes. This could mean the program is in place and served only one client last year, but you still already have all of the inputs in place and you are ready to expand.
While it can be frustrating for startup organizations to have that barrier to entry for winning grant funds, it is important to see both sides of the coin. Funders are responsible for distributing funds to accountable organizations, which is often why they shy away from funding unproven organizations or organizations that were only incorporated in the last few years. (Whether or not this is an equitable or effective set up is a discussion for a whole other blog!) On the nonprofit side, though, there is also a positive. If you already have the structure of the program in place when you begin submitting grant applications, you can effectively scale that program exponentially by applying for grant funding from multiple sources for the same program. In this way, you are better equipped to hire multiple staff for the program and serve exponentially larger numbers, all while still only taking on the infrastructure burden of a single program (in terms of accounting, IT needs, etc). Whereas if you begin receiving grant funding while you are really still shaping your program, you can very easily end up with a piecemeal set up where aspects of the different grants don’t align – ie., evaluation, staffing, and even client eligibility criteria, causing double the work for your already time-crunched team. If you align all aspects of the program across all grant applications, you are ensuring economies of scale can work in your favor as you begin to receive grant awards.
The one caveat to this “have everything up and running” mindset I want to note is if you have all of the essential components except for one key element. For example, you have the building and the equipment and materials and staff or volunteers for an animal shelter, and you have partners in place that have animals that could use care, but you just need a vehicle to transport them. These specific, one-time asks can make for a solid grant application when submitted to the appropriate funder.
You are actively tracking what works and what doesn’t (and pivoting your services based on what you learn.)
Another key element of successful grant writing and winning is knowledge and evaluation of your program and organization. Most funders want to know and understand why you’ve made the choices you have. For example – Why are you locating your program in that specific location? Why are you offering the sessions on Tuesday nights instead of Saturday mornings? Why are you capping the program at the current attendance rate?
Answers to questions like these are all about what you a) inherently know from your deep understanding of the issue you are trying to solve and b) from your lessons learned and hard work you’ve put in to develop the program. Being able to answer these questions in your grant applications (without being directly asked, often!) shows that you not only deeply understand the issue you are working in, but that you are committed to making your service or offering the most effective it can be.
You have your internal processes down to a science.
This is often the not-so-fun (and at times overwhelming!) component of grant writing and nonprofit management more broadly. To be a stellar grant applicant, you need to be able to show that you have all of the components of nonprofit organization management solidly in place. This means your accounting systems are set up to track grant funds appropriately, your Board of Directors understands their duty to provide appropriate governance support, your staff has any and all necessary training available to them to successfully implement the program, and you are equipped to provide ongoing grant reporting throughout the grant period, should you receive the grant. Those items often represent the bare minimum – for example, some funders choose to have their grantees come to onboarding retreats or conferences for embedded learning and support throughout the grant process.
This is not to intimidate small organizations trying to wrap their heads around grant funding – but to highlight the need for work on the front-end prior to applying for or accepting grant funding. If organizations ensure “their house is in order” not only are they more likely to win the grant, but they are more likely to be successful in implementing or expanding the program in a sustainable way and build a successful long term relationship with the funder as well.
You have (or can find!) data that supports your argument solving a problem.
When I say data, I do not mean that an organization has to have completed a large-scale research project with scientifically valid results. I do mean, though, that either you have some internal data showing the results you’ve created or you can do the research to find representative data somewhere externally. This internal data could be statistics-focused (ex., for a literacy program, children that went through the program improved their reading scores by an average of X%), or anecdotal (a testimonial from a parent of a child that went through the literacy program). The external data could be from a variety of sources – continuing with the reading program example, you could pull outcomes from the specific curriculum you are using, or go more general and look for data that highlights how continuous reading and educational support helps young children achieve greater success in school in later years. The important part of this is that you are showing the funder why your program is worth funding and why their foundation is the one to fund it. This data should be answering the question of How is your organization solving the community problem the funder wants to address?
So…. what if I don’t think I’m ready?
I am glad you asked! I am a firm believer that it is much more effective for organizations to focus on potential funding sources that they are a fit for right now, rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If based on what I laid out above, grant funding does not seem like the right fit for you at this time:
Focus on solidifying your infrastructure, policies and procedures. Whether it is grant funding, individual donations, or program income that your organization depends on, your first focus should be your infrastructure & governance. This doesn’t necessarily mean expensive software, but rather asking yourself – how can we make all of our processes and procedures run smoothly and use industry best practices to do this? If you are always returning to focus on effectiveness and accountability, you will get your organization to a place where it is much better equipped to obtain funding and put it to use in a way that honors the donor’s support (whether that donor is a foundation, an individual, or a company.)
Consider funding sources with fewer ongoing requirements in the meantime. While you are working to ensure your building blocks are in place, how can you keep the funds coming in? Each organization is different, but if you have started to gain a social media following or develop an email list, soliciting individual donations or completing a crowdfunding campaign could be the way to go. If you have an engaged volunteer base, how could you incorporate them further and expand how they support? Look at what you are already doing well – and focus on doing it even better! Your results might surprise you.
Reach out to potential future funders to begin building a relationship. Finally, if you aren’t quite ready for grant funding, but think your program could benefit from it in the future, I highly recommend reaching out to the funder(s) you have in mind if they seem like a match for your mission. If you are able to connect with them through an introductory discussion, you may find out information you never would have had you gone through the process of submitting an application blind. Additionally, once you do submit the application, the funder already has a basic understanding of what you do and your journey as an organization thus far.
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