By Craig Klose
Your nonprofit organization needs funding. So you set out writing a grant proposal. Perhaps it’s to fund a specific project, maybe a plan to provide tech education to impoverished kids. Perhaps it’s for a study, requiring you to secure funding to contract with an expert consultant to follow best research practices. Or maybe it’s to fund your whole operation for the next five years.
But have you done all the legwork required beforehand to put yourself and your organization on the best possible footing to succeed and win BIG FUNDING? Presumably, you’ve done some homework and highlighted a few potential funders with priorities aligning with yours.
Good! But you’ve got a long way to go before submitting.
Grant writing is much more than sitting down and hammering out a proposal that sounds good, hoping it sticks with someone. The process must be planned, nurtured, ushered along a timeline, with many moving pieces that all must be coordinated, while writing and revising, en route to a sparkling finished product that inspires funders to help.
What Do You Do Before Writing a Grant Proposal?
We’ll start from the beginning, when you first encounter a funder you’d like to pursue. Now, you may have the luxury of many standing relationships with funders, which can result in personal invites to submit (and continue submitting) proposals. But for this exercise, we’ll assume you came across a request for proposals (RFP) organically through research, digging through grant databases, receiving funding notifications, etc.
1. Read the Grant RFP Carefully
This is how you make sure the grant is a good fit for your organization. What are the requirements of the grant?
Before you begin writing a grant proposal, do they ask for a copy of your organization’s strategic plan? If so, has yours been updated lately? Are there any other major pieces such as environmental reviews, reports, schematics or floor plans? These are pieces that could be handled by outside entities and take some time to complete – so who is going to pay for them, if not the grant? What is the timeline for completion? What types of supplementary documentation do they require? The list goes on.
Understand the grant RFP inside and out, so you know what you are in for and are able to discuss it with your team and/or board of directors.
2. Research Your Funder
If you have never received any support from a funder, learn what they are about and what they have supported in the past. Poke through their most recent IRS 990 form (available for public inspection) to see exactly who they have funded before, how much and why.
Peruse their website and social media. What are the values and goals of their organization? Do they align with yours? Do they make their politics known? If so, are they complementary to your own politics? Remember, if the grant is successful, the funder is going to be your partner for the duration of the grant project. Make sure it is a comfortable collaboration.
3. Make Sure the Grant Fits Your Strategic Plan
Your strategic plan is a guide to your organization’s calculated and methodical growth. It lays out your goals and objectives and a plan for achieving them. It should be used by your development team as a roadmap for any services and programming your nonprofit provides. Make sure that ANY grant project you take on directly furthers your mission.
4. Project Design and Development
The design of your project is extremely important! A high-level project design will serve to further the goals of your own organization AND those of the funder. From the start you should consider:
- What will be the funder’s return on investment?
- Is the proposed project likely to do what you say it will do?
- Have you reached out to natural local and regional partners for collaboration? (Grantmakers love to see collaboration. It shows that you are thinking about combining resources, experience and talents for the good of communities served.)
- Does your project use the funder’s money and other resources in a practical way?
DO do what your organization is good at. DON’T try a project that’s a stretch for your nonprofit mission and goals simply because money is available. Find grant programs that fit your needs. Don’t make your organization “fit” the grant program just for the sake of going for grants. That’s a very undisciplined and scattershot method of stewarding your organization’s development.
5. Make Sure Your Organization has the Capacity to Implement the Grant Project
When developing your grant project, keep in mind the size and capacity of your organization. You definitely want to think big and to challenge your organization to excellence, but you don’t want to have unrealistic expectations. Is your 3-person nonprofit going to put on a 5-week international symposium on climate change? Probably not. But with careful planning and adequate support you can probably do more than you realize.
6. Read the Grant Proposal Instructions Carefully
Most professional grant writers have learned from painful experience that following directions is the first commandment of grant preparation. Some grant RFPs have instructions for the narrative, for instance, that seem extraordinarily convoluted. Resist the temptation to rewrite the narrative for clarity and ease of reading. Remember, there are often reasons for how the funder requests information. For instance, some grantmakers assign different sections of a submitted grant to different readers for review. This may be why they seem to ask for the same information — or only slightly different information — in several different places.
Don’t overthink this one. If they ask for your organization’s goals in two different places, give it to them in both places. See, wasn’t that easy? And make sure that you give them everything in the order they request it. Following directions is the first sign the funder will see of your working methods. Make a strong first impression.
7. Get Buy-In from Your Staff and Board
Many nonprofit organizations write and submit grant proposals that the staff and board are either unaware of or minimally briefed on. Your grants or development committee should be given time at a board meeting to discuss the grant and future plans. Let them know:
- Who is the funder?
- What’s the plan?
- How does it fit the organization’s mission?
- Is this a new or recurring grant for your organization?
- What is the max amount you can ask for under this program?
- What is YOUR organization’s ask? (Break the request down, eg: $3,000 equipment and supplies; $2,000 program staff; $1,000 contracting, program venue rental, etc. Ask their input. And don’t be so far ahead in planning or so close to the grant deadline that you cannot make use of their suggestions or address their advice!)
- How competitive is the program?
- Have you received support from this funder in the past?
- Is the grant being written by staff or is an outside entity writing it or consulting?
- Are there any members of your board with grant writing experience? (Make them part of the grant-writing team, if they’re available. In most cases, they will WANT to be a part of their process. This is one of the reasons they are on boards like yours – to put their relevant experience and expertise to work for the organization!)
Think of this step in very practical terms. If your application is successful, the staff and board are responsible for implementing the grant project. They must be prepared. It’s also simply part of keeping them “in the loop” on plans and projects.
8. Get Your Matching or Other Outside Funding in Place
Many grants ask that the applicant contribute funds or in-kind support toward the project. Make sure you know exactly how much they require — and, more importantly, that your organization is prepared to provide it. Some call for a 50 percent match, others for more or less. Some want cash, others in-kind contributions or a mix of both.
Some grants will say nothing at all about matching funds. Here is my advice: Always show some financial contribution to the project. If you don’t have cash, In-kind contributions are usually acceptable. Most funders like to see that you have “skin in the game.”
9. Plan Enough Time to Do It Right!
If you happen to find a grant program that is perfect for your organization, but the deadline is two weeks away, don’t even think about it! You need time to design and develop a winning grant project. It’s MUCH better to plan to apply next year and put it on your grants calendar, than to try to be a hero and scramble to write a grant proposal in a few short days. A grant project developed and written in two weeks is going to look like a grant proposal developed and written in two weeks.
Having a month or two, or even a year, to put a grant together is much preferable to hurrying the process. Depending on the size and scope of the grant, you should have a pretty good idea of how long it takes your team to prepare a well-thought-out proposal.
Remember the elements that take the longest time and plan around them — any substantial documents: plans, reports, demographic studies, environmental reviews, easements, etc.; elements that require the involvement of people outside your organization; site visits, support letters, permissions, board approvals, etc.
10. Develop an Internal Grant Timeline
Create a timeline/calendar including your internal deadlines for writing a grant proposal. Set deadlines for yourself and your team for having important pieces of the grant done. Start with the elements that will require the most time. For instance:
- Review and update strategic plan for inclusion in the grant
- Get sample support letters out to those stakeholders who are providing them
- Get all information they will need to any contractors who are working on pieces of the grant
- Do a site visit by ______
- Have the standard budget and budget narrative completed by ______
- Have the grant narrative done by ______
- Have the project timeline done by______
- Have the grant done for review by your executive director and/or board chair by______.
Leave yourself enough time to make revisions. (We can’t stress this enough.)
11. Bring in Outside Help if You Need It
So, you’ve gotten this far and all lights are still green. What about grant writing capacity? How much experience does your team have with writing grants? Is it sufficient for the present task?
Don’t hesitate to bring in outside help if you need it! It is much better to spend some money up front to ensure the best possible outcome than to try to do it yourself and end up with an unconvincing proposal. Think of grant writing like any other professional service. Would you represent yourself in court? No? Then why would you write your own 250-page grant when you have no training and experience in grant writing?
Ready, Set, GO! Are You Ready to Write a Grant Proposal?
OK, it’s time to put pen to paper — or rather, fingers to keyboard. Where to start? With the budgets. Your budgets, both the standard budget and budget narrative are the skeletons upon which your grant is built. Do them first and your grant will begin to take its natural shape. Then your ready for writing a grant proposal.
If you need help, Southern Tier Communications Strategies, LLC helps nonprofits to develop grant-writing strategies, research opportunities, prepare proposals and submit for approval. We have an excellent track record for delivering successful grant proposals for nonprofit organizations who need it most. Contact Kelsey Boudin, STCS President and Founder, at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.