On March 27th I had the pleasure of attending the 2019 ReWrite Conference in Lexington, Kentucky. The conference was presented by KY GPA (Grant Professionals Association) and the Kentucky Nonprofit Network and it was absolutely fabulous! For those of you who were unable to attend, I’ve put together some of my favorite takeaways from the conference below.
Vu Le’s Perspective on Funders
Vu Le was this year’s keynote speaker for ReWrite and I was so excited to see him speak live I have trouble explaining it. For those of you who don’t know him, he runs the Nonprofit AF blog, which you should check out immediately! It’s funny, timely, and he provides important commentary on nonprofit work.
Anyway, back to his presentation.
It was filled with images of baby animals which, he told us, had admittedly nothing to do with the subject matter but might make us all feel a bit better in the end. Which was good, because he dove deep into power imbalances between funders and nonprofits, lack of diversity at nonprofits and how to fix it, why sustainability is often a ridiculous question, and he ended with a rallying cry to stand up to any unreasonable demands from grant makers.
Oof. That last one is hard.
Because let’s be honest…there is a power imbalance between grant makers and grant seekers. When you see a grant opportunity that you really want to pursue, but which also has crazy word limits or asks questions that you know will be answered somewhat disingenuously because you know they only want to hear one answer (and it’s not the honest one), it can deflate you.
The last thing most of us want to do is call up our contact at that foundation and have a heart to heart about why things like overhead are just as important as buying paint brushes for the after school art program. Or tell them that the real answer to their question about how the program will be sustained is that yes, you have a plan. But no, you can never guarantee that plan will play out the way you hoped and that you absolutely will be applying for future grant funding for this program because the reality is that most nonprofit programs will never be 100% self-sustainable. If they could be, then why start a nonprofit at all? Wouldn’t a for-profit structure make more sense?
Having those conversations is hard, but Vu reminded us that the power imbalances and lack of understanding on the part of grant makers will never be solved unless we, the ones on the front lines, speak up. We have to be willing to tell them the truth. We have to be willing to ask for more and tell them what really would make a difference for your nonprofit and probably all the others they want to help, too.
I typically talk to my clients about how to work within existing structures for grants. I’ll admit that I have never advised anyone to tell a grant maker why their system is broken. In my defense, it’s because I want them to win grant awards and when you speak up you do run a risk that the funder will be offended and you will lose your chance at that funding altogether.
But maybe it’s time for a shift in how we build relationships with grant makers.
There’s lots of food for thought here. I would love to hear other perspectives from nonprofit professionals and other consultants on this topic. Please comment below!!
Marketing principles also work for writing grants
I attended a workshop called Making Your Writing Stand Out in a Crowd, presented by Becky Crump, which was excellent. She had tons of good suggestions, but I was somewhat surprised to hear her say that we should be applying important marketing principles to our grant writing work.
Let me be clear. I was surprised in the absolute best way. Many of you know that in addition to grant writing I am also a digital marketer so marketing best practices are something that I think about frequently. But you never really hear this sort of crossover from grant writers.
I was delighted!
The speaker’s main premise was that we should be grabbing the reader’s attention in our grant narratives in the same way in which we try to grab our audience’s attention in marketing materials. Our narratives should be compelling. They should leap off the page and make people want to read more. Of course, this means writing in a style that’s closer to the way we speak and being ruthless in editing out jargon and overly flowery/academic language.
I could not possibly agree more.
If your grant narrative reads like an article in an academic journal or a grad school thesis, you will bore the grant reviewers to tears. Worse, they either won’t absorb your meaning or they won’t retain it. This is not the place to impress everyone with how smart you are. You should aim instead to write simply and in a way that best tells your story. (Speaking of story, I have a great tool to help you with that at the end of this post!)
Diversity is increasingly important
A theme that came up again and again at the conference was diversity. Vu Le spoke about it at length, encouraging us to actively include more people of color (POC) in our work in a variety of ways. There was also a panel discussion where the Q&A session focused almost solely on diversity and making sure POC and people from diverse backgrounds are not just included in your mission, but made to feel welcome as staff and board members.
Clearly, this was something that was on the minds of many of those attending the conference.
There was a range of answers and perspectives on this topic. And yet, the room we were all sitting in at the conference was 90% white females (myself included). I don’t bring that up to make anyone who’s white and female feel bad, but I do think we need to be aware of it. And it isn’t just grant writers. It’s the nonprofit world in general. Walk into any nonprofit office in the country and I would wager that most of them are filled with middle-class white women.
That means that it’s up to us to actively seek out those who are different from us. We need to create board recruitment strategies to find them and make them valued trustees. We need to create equitable hiring processes and staff policies. And we need to make sure that our programs and services reach out to diverse populations through our marketing efforts and in the ways we facilitate engagement.
This is how we make sure everyone has a seat at the table.
This is how we make sure all voices are heard and considered.
And by the way, this is becoming increasingly important to many funders, too (as it should). So for anyone dreading the time commitment that comes with changing the way your organization does things, know that you would likely have to do it anyway. This is just an opportunity to do it now, when it will help you stand out to your donors and funders.
And more importantly, it’s the right thing to do.
And, I have a freebie for you!
Last, but not least, I learned a great new strategy which can help you be a better storyteller in your grant writing. It will help you get organized and tell your organization or program’s story in a way that will quickly draw in grant reviewers.
I created a quick, powerful template so that you can use it, too. If you want to get your hands on it, just click the button below.