Grant readiness is a topic that is near and dear to my heart.
For any of you who haven’t heard the term before, “Grant Readiness” refers to a nonprofit’s readiness and competitiveness to win grant awards and their capacity to manage them if they do win them.
When someone contacts me for the first time, the questions I ask them before taking them on as a client almost all revolve around grant readiness. I’m not really all that keen on taking an organization's money if I don’t think I can help them and whether or not I can help them get grants is almost entirely determined by their level of grant readiness.
It’s a pretty important topic, and I’ve already spilled quite a bit of ink on the basics. If you haven’t read any of my other blog posts on this subject yet, here’s a listing so that you can get some background and entry-level info:
The Top 5 Things You Need to Do To Win Grant Awards
You can also get my free Grant Readiness Toolkit or get yourself a copy of my book, Get the Grant: Your No B.S. Introduction to Foundation Grants (available in paperback and ebook formats).
For those of you who are well-versed in grant readiness, I wanted to examine the topic in a bit of a different light. Personally, I think it can be easy to make a list of the things you should be doing. But sometimes it’s harder to look at the things you’re already doing and spot problems, missteps, and missed opportunities. This is doubly true if an organization has been doing things a certain way for a long time because let’s be honest – it’s super easy to get set in our ways and assume that they are the best ways.
In this blog post, we are going to examine 3 common grant readiness issues that many arts and culture nonprofits either overlook or could stand to improve upon.
Issue #1 – Developing Other Fundraising and Earned Income Streams
I often hear grants referred to as “easy money” and it makes me cringe. Or sometimes organizations that are brand spanking new will say that they want to start bringing in grants right away before they’ve done anything else with fundraising. This also makes me cringe, although I understand these nonprofits mean well.
Here’s the thing: grant makers usually don’t want to be your only funding source. If you send them a proposal that shows no other fundraising or revenue streams in the budget or narrative, 99.9% of them are going to send you a denial.
Grant makers want to see impact. They want to know their money, which they look at as an investment, will be used wisely, paired with other funds for maximum effect, and will not go to waste. Proving these things to grant makers means you will need to show them that you do, in fact, have other sources of funding for your programs and operations and that they are likely to still exist and grow in the coming years.
To ensure you have the best shot at winning a grant award, you will need to address other funding streams first in most cases. Focus on cultivating a donor base, even if it’s small at first. Create fundraising campaigns such as an annual fund campaign, sponsorship campaign, or business campaign to bring in dollars from the donors you’ve identified. Evaluate whether you have the capacity to throw any effective fundraising events, also. And of course, look at earned income your organization can bring in from sources such as ticket sales, memberships, and class registrations.
You will want to have at least a 1-2 year track record of these other sources which you can show grant makers. They demonstrate your long-term sustainability, the work you’ve put into your organization’s growth, and show that you are a smart investment for grants.
Without this track record, many grant makers won’t take a chance on your nonprofit.
Issue #2 – Treating Grant Makers Like Donors
It’s common in the nonprofit world to view grant makers as impersonal entities. This is probably because funders are set up much like a company, rather than a person with a face and personality. Unfortunately, this leads to many organizations submitting proposals without ever having any prior contact with the grant maker and when they get a ‘no’ they move on and don’t speak to them again unless they try to submit another proposal during the next round.
Approaching them this way is a mistake! Grant makers are created and staffed by actual humans who make actual decisions about which organizations they will and will not fund.
Organizations that are successful at securing grant funding year after year usually approach their current and prospective grant funders as if they were individual donors. And you should, too!
Start to look for opportunities to create relationships, to communicate with them about your nonprofit’s work and programs, to pull them into the life of your organization, and to communicate with them aside from just asking for money. Get to know the grant officers, trustees, and other staff that work for prospective funders. Lastly, think about putting in place an actual cultivation strategy for grant funders that includes how to initiate contact, how to create a lasting relationship, when to reach out to them, and how to follow up on grant decisions.
Issue #3 – Not Laying Adequate GroundWork
I know so many nonprofits who make the job of writing grants harder than it needs to be. Each time they write a proposal, they spend untold hours researching data and statistics, crafting a custom narrative, and basically reinventing the wheel.
Now, I do believe that you should tailor each proposal to each individual grant maker. But I also believe in making your job as easy as possible so that you have the capacity to pursue the grants you need without burning out. And you do that by laying the right groundwork.
In particular, I recommend that you start each fiscal year by writing a comprehensive case statement for your organization and its programs/projects. In this case statement, you would include:
- Write answers to the most common grant questions (i.e. what is your mission, what is the need, what is your sustainability plan, etc.).
- Compile data which supports your answers, your description of the need, etc.
- Compile past evaluation data and analyze it in advance.
- Compile program descriptions, staff job descriptions, and any materials which you might use as attachments so you don’t have to hunt this stuff down later.
- Look at best practices, replicate models, and trends in similar programming. Then identify areas where you will make improvements to your org and its programming. Write this into the case statement to strengthen your argument for receiving funding.
- Create a program budget for each program you will seek funding for. Also, create a simple operational budget that can be shared with grant makers. Some funders will want you to use their budget forms, but this will still give you something to start from without reinventing the wheel or waiting on other staff members.
Again, you will still need to tailor each proposal for the funder in question. But if you have all of this material assembled in advance you will spend much less time doing it. If you are typically pressed for time in general, this could make the difference between having a thoughtful proposal backed up with data and stats and a haphazard proposal you send in on a wing and a prayer.
A thorough case statement is your insurance policy against problems and setbacks and it vastly increases your chances of receiving grant awards.
Of course, there’s a lot more to grant readiness than the 3 issues I’ve outlined in this blog post. But as with many things, you often only need to get 70% of something right in order to succeed. What I’ve outlined here will get you most of the way to that 70%.