One of the things I’m asked most often by those new to grant writing or even by prospective clients is: “what are the most important things we should be doing to get more grant awards?”
It’s a good question, and although the answer can be a little nuanced depending on the organization and its unique circumstances, there are 5 main things that I’ve found to be tried and true. If every nonprofit tended to the following 5 areas, I can guarantee they would be more successful with grant writing than organizations which don’t.
Without further ado, here they are:
This is really just “grant readiness”, which is taking care of all the boring, organizational things that make you attractive to funders and demonstrate that your organization is capable of managing a grant award successfully. So, what exactly should you be doing?
Here’s my list:
- Ensure you have up-to-date job descriptions, bios, and resumes for all program staff
- Ensure you have all of your documentation that a grant maker might want in order: IRS determination letter, annual reports, audits, budgets, marketing materials, etc.
- You will need a secure place to store and organize sensitive documents, including grant files. Get a locking file cabinet if you don’t already have one.
- And you should never only have hard copies of your records, so you will need a way to store and organize your digital records as well. I recommend Google Drive
- Do you have a detailed description of the program design on hand? Was it based on best practices or a successful model you’ve replicated?
- Do you have measurable goals, objectives, and outcomes defined for your programs?
- Do you have an evaluation plan for your program? Is it based on best practices or successful models?
- Do you have an annual grants strategy in place and a grants calendar to manage deadlines, reports, and other important dates?
- Do you have a comprehensive fundraising plan that includes other sources of funding for operations and programs besides grants?
- Do you have a sustainability plan for what you will do if anticipated funding falls through for your program(s)?
- Do you have an accounting system set up that is capable of tracking grant income and program expenses? Can you accurately report on grant expenditures if you receive an award?
- Do the board and high-level staff understand the commitment and responsibility that come with receiving grant awards? Are the educated about the process? (If not, here’s a good article on starting that process)
- Do you have a plan for cultivating and deepening relationships with prospective and current grant funders?
The above list is only part of what you could do to get “grant ready”, but it hits some of the most important elements. For a more thorough overview and some tools to help you get it done, you can download my Grant Readiness Toolkit.
Grant Readiness will require you to get very organized, form realistic expectations, do some of the hard work up front, and formulate a reasonable strategy. Boring? Maybe. Essential? Absolutely.
Create a grants strategy
As with many things in life, those who have a plan and a strategy tend to get better results than those who wing it. I recommend going into each fiscal year with a realistic, reasonable goal for how much grant funding you want to raise for operations and programming.
Once you know your goal, make sure you have all the budgets and documents collected to support any applications you might submit, and then go look for prospects. Do your research on each potential funder to make sure they are a good fit by looking at their website (if they have one), looking at their 990s on Guidestar, and viewing their funder profile on databases such as Foundation Directory Online (FDO).
Then put all of your prospects, information, research, and links into a spreadsheet or other planning document so you can see what needs to happen, deadlines, and track your progress.
If you don’t already have something like that set up, I can help. Click here to download my Master Grants Planner, which will help you create and track your annual grants strategy.
Understand what grant makers really want from you
If you want to get grant funding, then you need to get out of your own head. I say this with the utmost respect and love for you, but when it comes to grants you need to think and care about what the funder wants and stop thinking about things solely from the perspective of what your organization needs.
Now, I’m not saying that you should include anything in a proposal you don’t mean. Don’t lie and don’t fudge. And I’m not suggesting that you change your program or mission to fit a grant.
What I AM saying is that when a grant is a good fit, you need to think about how it fits with the grant makers priorities and interests and then tailor the proposal so that it focuses on them.
Specifically, you need to demonstrate why your program and organization are a good fit. Tell them how you will make an impact and why your nonprofit is better suited to make that impact than another potential grantee. Answer the questions they ask in the proposal application and demonstrate why you will be a good steward of their money (which goes back to getting your grant readiness ducks in a row).
Look at best practices
Best practices are your friend. After all, when funders make a grant award, especially to an organization with which they’ve never dealt, they are taking a gamble. They are gambling that if they give you this money that you will do what you said you would in the proposal and that you will achieve the outcomes you stated.
But when you can truthfully say that you’ve designed your program based on best practices and successful models, then you’ve told them that you are a better bet than a program that isn’t based on tes things. You can point to a track record of success that results directly from these practices and say, “See? We are implementing this plan and we have a really good shot at achieving these same outcomes based on this data.”
That will definitely put you ahead of the competition.
If you aren’t sure where to look for best practices, you can look at the NEA’s website, talk with your local community foundation, or contact organizations with successful programs similar to yours or the ones you want to implement.
Make an evaluation plan
Evaluation plans are hugely important. Possible even more important than the initial program design. This is because the program evaluation plan will determine your ability to actually measure outcomes and collect data that proves you made an impact. It’s what will give you a track record of success that is desirable to grant makers.
Evaluation plans, at a minimum, need to include the following elements:
- How you will collect data and how you will analyze it
- A timeline for data collection and analysis
- State who is responsible for data collection and analysis (may not be the same person)
- State how your data will tell you whether or not you have succeeded at achieving your goals, objectives, and outcomes
- What you will do if you are unsuccessful at achieving your goals, objectives, and outcomes
Again, when looking to make a solid evaluation plan, I recommend looking to best practices. The NEA has a great resource section on their website which can be of help and you can go back to your local community foundation or other successful organizations for advice and insight as well. I also have a good article I previously wrote on program evaluation from a grants perspective. You can check it out here.
Ok, now you know the top 5 areas you need to address to win more grants. Now go get to it!