4 Scary Things to Avoid in Grant Applications

It's that time of year: time for ghosts, goblins, and ghouls to emerge and make their mark.  While scary costumes and decorations can be fun, scary grant applications do not get funded.

Here are four scary things to avoid in grant applications:

1. Applications that ignore the funder’s guidelines or requirements

Most funders provide some sort of guidelines to tell grant applicants what they want to see – what they are willing to fund or not willing to fund, what their interests are, what information should be included in a successful grant application. And yet, a surprising number of grantseekers still submit grant applications that are outside the funder’s guidelines or do not include the required information. Why is this scary? It means the grant will not be funded, and the grant writer has probably missed the opportunity to build a relationship with this funder, since the funder will be unlikely to want to see another application if the first one is far off the mark. Missed opportunities for funding and impact? Scary.

2. Applying for grants that your organization won’t be able to handle or implement

The temptation is there. A new competitive grant with a big funding pool. The possibility for a grant that’s bigger than any grant your organization has ever received. It’s right up your alley. Your interests are perfectly aligned with the funder’s. You’ve written the most compelling grant proposal you’ve ever written. Then you win the grant, and it’s so big and the expectations are so great that your organization is unable to handle it. You have to hire new staff in a hurry, and they don’t get sufficient training. You have to scale up infrastructure, and the grant hasn’t provided enough overhead support (or maybe it’s a restricted project grant), so you can’t get your team the equipment it needs. The list goes on. This type of scenario can sink an otherwise successful organization. Terrifying.

3. Not proofreading before you submit

Typos? Frightening.

4. Getting too bogged down in detail

If you can’t see the forest through the trees while you’re writing, your prospective funder won’t be able to, either. It’s critically important to know all of the details of the program and how it will be implemented. But you don’t necessarily need to share every detail in your grant application. Provide enough information to give the program officer or other decision makers enough information about the problem your organization is tackling, why it’s important, and how your programs are addressing it, but not so much information that it’s overwhelming. The purpose of the grant application is to demonstrate the need and the opportunity for support from this funder to help your organization meet its goals and serve its constituents while also helping the funder meet its goals. There will be other opportunities for an interested funder to dig into the details with you. Get them interested first, then have the detailed conversation later. Too many details too soon can be scary.

Don’t make these scary mistakes in your grant applications!

While it’s up to you to avoid these scary grant writing mistakes, grant writing software can help with the rest of the process.

Learn How PhilanTrack Can Help

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kimstovring/15052960483
Author: Dahna Goldstein
October 30, 2015, 05:27 PM

4 Myths about Applying to Family Foundations

There are over 80,000 foundations in the United States.  According to the Foundation Center, about half of those foundations are family foundations.  In 2011, there were 40,456 family foundations, and that number has increased since.  That same year, family foundations gave a total of $21,329,932,023 in grants, also nearly half of all grant funding.

private foundation grants

Family foundations are therefore both a prevalent part of the foundation funding world, and a critical source of funding.  The most recent State of Grantseeking report indicated that private foundations (which are not all family foundations, though they frequently are) were the most frequent grant funding source, with 78.5% of all nonprofits that received grants getting one or more grants from a private foundation.

So it's important for grantseekers to understand family foundations as a component of a grant portfolio and fundraising strategy.  Here are 4 myths about applying to family foundations:

  1. Family foundations only award grants to pre-selected organizations.  Many family foundations indicate that they do not accept unsolicited requests.  It's certainly the case that many foundations only give to pre-selected organizations.  But that's not the case across the board, even in some cases where the foundation indicates that it does not accept unsolicited requests.  If the foundation indicates that it does not accept unsolicited requests, do not send in a grant proposal.  But try to find out if the foundation's staff members (if the foundation has staff) or a board member would be open to a conversation to learn about your organization and how it would be a good fit for the foundation's grantmaking goals.  Not all foundations will be open to this, and by all means do not push it if the foundation does not want to meet with you, but in many cases, family foundations in particular simply do not have the bandwidth to handle a lot of unsolicited requests.  But they may well be interested in learning about new organizations, and may then invite an application or an LOI.  Be sure to follow whatever guidelines for communication the foundation prefers.
  2. Family foundations only award small grants.  Family foundations vary widely in terms of the size of their asset bases, and, in turn, the amount that they award in grants.  They also vary in terms of the number and size of grants they award.  Leaving aside the Gates Foundation, family foundations range from supporting one grantee to hundreds of grantees.  While some family foundations will give one large grant to one grantee, and others will give several small grants to a handful of grantees, the size and range of family foundations means that many of them are providing sizable grants.  The best way to find out what's possible with a particular foundation, if past grant information is not available on that foundation's website, is to look at the foundation's 990PF (the tax returns filed by private foundations) for the last two years to see how many grants the foundation awarded and the sizes of those grants.
  3. Family foundations only give locally.  Community foundations give locally - that's what they were designed to do.  In some cases, family foundations will be very dedicated to the community in which the donor or donor family grew up or currently resides.  But there are two trends that suggest that family foundations are increasingly giving nationally and internationally:
    • Donor interests are changing.  Foundations are able to determine their giving focus, and award grants to organizations that meet whatever criteria they set (and legal criteria, of course).  Family foundation interests and giving priorities are as varied as the interests of the donors who established the organizations.  It's not at all unusual for even a small family foundation to be making grants to organizations that are geographically distant from the foundation's office.
    • Family foundations are increasingly getting the next generation of family members (and sometimes even a third generation of family members) involved in determining the foundation's giving priorities.  Those second and third generation family members frequently don't live in the same area as the person or people who established the foundation.  In many cases, the foundation will still grant where it is located, and also grant to organizations that the next generation family members get to know where they live or where they have traveled.  Again, the best way to find out where a foundation grants, if it isn't listed on the foundation website, is to look at that foundation's giving history as reflected in its 990PF forms.
  4. With a small family foundation, it's easier to get a grant since the application process is less rigorous.  The fact that a family foundation is small doesn't mean that it's not sophisticated about its grantmaking, and it's a mistake to think so.  Some small family foundations are among the most engaged grantmakers, thinking strategically about how their giving, no matter how big or small, can have the greatest impact.  Thinking strategically doesn't necessarily mean having onerous requirements; some are very forward thinking in learning about potential grantees and developing relationships, and you can help them by doing your part to develop a good relationship.  Some family foundations have requirements that are not right-sized for the grants they are awarding, though the same is true for all types of foundations.  As with any grant pursuits, it's worth thinking about the net grant (the grant funding your organization will actually receive after the costs of applying for and managing the grant are taken into account). 

One common theme highlighted through the points above is that each foundation (whether family, corporate, community, or independent) is different.  It's incumbent upon the grantseeker to do research to find out about the specific foundation's giving priorities, preferences, requirements, etc. 

The other key theme that cannot be overstated is that building relationships is key to grantseeking success.  Regardless of the size of the foundation, who is on the board, and what the foundation's giving priorities are, building a relationship - and maintaining that relationship - is critical to getting a first grant, and to then getting subsequent grants.  Put yourself in the shoes of a family foundation board member or staff member.  Are you more likely to be receptive to a great proposal from an organization represented by someone who is a total stranger to you, or to a great proposal from an organization you've been hearing about because someone from that organization has taken the time and made the effort to engage with you about how the organization fits with your giving priorities and the foundation's grantmaking goals.  Relationships matter.  And your relationship-building responsibilities do not end once you have gotten the grant.  Keep building the relationship by keeping the funder in the loop throughout the life of the grant, and beyond.

Learn how PhilanTrack can help you build and manage relationships with family foundations and other funders. 

Request a demo


Image: Data from the Spring 2014 State of Grantseeking
Author: Dahna Goldstein
August 28, 2014, 10:30 AM

What Grantseekers Can Learn from the World Cup

I admit it.  I didn't really care about soccer before June 12, and I now have World Cup fever.  And I'm not even American (or a citizen of any of the other countries actually represented in the World Cup).  But it's been exciting to watch and follow, and to witness (on TV and social media) the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, so I'm jumping on the bandwagon.

What Grantseekers Can Learn from the World Cup

What's been most exciting has been the upsets, the underdog stories of those countries that should not have made it through to the round of 16, but have prevailed nonetheless.  Those stories, and the World Cup in general, offer some valuable lessons for grantseekers.

  • Learn the rules, and follow them.  For the uninitiated, soccer's stoppage time can be confusing, as can corner kicks vs. goal kicks.  Once you learn the language of soccer, once you learn the rules, it's much easier to follow.  The same is true of grantwriting.  There are good practices to follow, and many grantmakers will have their own rules.  Grantseekers that don't play by the rules set by a funder they're approaching have little chance of success.
  • You have to play the full 90 minutes (plus stoppage time).  When games are frequently decided by a goal, teams that only play hard for part of the game aren't likely to prevail.  The same is true for grantwriting in two ways: don't wait until the last minute to put together the grant proposal.  Things can go wrong at the last minute (a bad bounce in soccer, or the inability to reach the one person in your organization who knows the answer to a key question for the grant proposal), so it's best to work on grant proposals progressively.  The other way in which the need to play the full game is true in grantwriting is that every part of your grant proposal needs to be equally strong.  If you write a great needs statement but have a weak budget, your proposal is unlikely to be funded by many grantmakers.  A proposal that is consistent and compelling throughout will go much further.
  • But don't give up if you're down a goal near the end of the match. There have been several great stories of games that came down to the wire - games that were tied until the very end, or games where one team was down and then rallied in the last minute or two of play, or even into the stoppage time.  In grantwriting, if a grant seems just out of reach, stretch to go just a bit further to reach your goal.
  • Don't write off the underdogs.  It's true that a lot of grant funding goes to larger organizations - to hospitals, universities, or national organizations.  If your organization isn't one of those larger organizations, you may consider yourself an underdog in terms of grant funding.  This World Cup - and even the US team - has shown that the underdog should never be counted out.  If your organization meets a funder's guidelines and your programs fit with that funder's mission, think about going after the grant even if you're the underdog.
  • Winning outright isn't the only way to move forward.  The US team lost to Germany and still advanced to the round of 16 because it had the same number of points as Portugal, but a better goal differential.  The lesson learned here for grantseekers is that getting the big grant isn't the only way to win in grantseeking.  Of course, getting grant funding is the ultimate goal, but grants - particularly first-time grants - that are awarded are frequently smaller than the amount requested.  While that may not feel like a win, a) some grant funding is better than no grant funding, and b) getting a small grant, doing great work, cultivating the relationship with the funder, and submitting stellar progress reports about how the grant funds were used to help both your organization's and the grantmaker's missions can lead to larger grants in the future.

What do you think?  What other grantseeking lessons can be learned from the World Cup?


Photo: watching the US vs. Germany match in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC.
Author: Dahna Goldstein
July 01, 2014, 11:36 AM

Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket – Grantwriting Tips

Grantwriting eggs in one basket

The upcoming Easter holiday has gotten me thinking about eggs and baskets, and how combining the two – specifically putting all eggs in one basket – can be dangerous, for both grantseekers and grantmakers. 

I suppose I should be writing about Passover symbols, but unleavened bread only makes me think about predictions that grantmaking will be pretty flat this year.  But I digress.

For nonprofits, putting all grantwriting eggs in one basket – and more broadly, putting all fundraising eggs in one basket – can be a serious problem.  A future post will be about grantmakers, and why they should not put all of their eggs in one basket, either.

The notion of eggs and baskets brings to mind an image of an investment portfolio.  Those of us who have been taught about investing (either formally or informally) have been taught to diversify our portfolios, or not to put all of our investment eggs in one basket.  A diversified portfolio mitigates risk by combining different asset classes with different levels of risk and reward.

Simply put, imagine you put all of your money into one stock, the ABC Corporation.  If that stock price goes through the roof overnight, you could become a millionaire.  But if that stock completely tanks, you could lose all of your money instantly.  While a diversified portfolio (combining stocks and other assets like bonds, all with different levels of stability and predictability, and with different potential returns) means you are quite unlikely to become a millionaire overnight, it also means that you’re less likely to go broke overnight.  So a diversified portfolio is a cautious, smart investment strategy for long term stability and returns.

The same is true for fundraising.  Let’s say your organization needs to raise $200,000 from outside sources to support its programs for the year.  You have limited resources, so you need to decide where to invest your fundraising efforts and fundraising dollars.  While many nonprofits don’t think about fundraising this way, any staff time dedicated to fundraising has a cost – both the actual cost of salaries for the amount of time spent fundraising, and an opportunity cost in terms of other activities that cannot be pursued by fundraising staff.  Say there is an online fundraising contest with a top prize of $200,000.  All you need to do is have the most votes at the end of the contest.  If you win, your fundraising for the year is complete, and you’ll be able to deliver all of your programs and services.  All you need to do is win the contest.

If you invest all of your organization’s fundraising resources in that contest and win, that’s great!  It’s like becoming a millionaire overnight.  But how likely are you to win that contest?  And what if you don’t win?  It’s like putting all of your money on that stock that tanks.

Grantwriting is similar.  Some foundations and governments award large grants.  If you write one winning grant proposal for a $200,000 grant, then your organization is set for the year.  But what if you invest a lot of time and resources, and don’t get the grant?  What if, to have enough time to dedicate to writing the perfect proposal for a $200,000 grant, you let opportunities to apply for other, smaller grants pass you by?

Just as the economy impacts individual investing, and decisions investors make, it also impacts the nonprofit sector, and the funds available for nonprofits seeking support.  As many nonprofits are painfully aware, government funding has decreased over the past several years while demand for services has remained steady and has increased in many cases.  For organizations that were overly reliant on government funding, cuts in government support have been disproportionately painful – many organizations have had to cut programs or staff, and some have even been shuttered.

A wise approach to fundraising suggests a diversified portfolio:

  • Overall, grants should comprise one component of your organization’s fundraising, but not at the expense of individual fundraising, fees for service, events, or other fundraising activities that are appropriate for your specific organization and issue area. 
  • Your grantseeking portfolio should be diversified as well:
    • Pursue a combination of smaller and larger grants, ensuring that the total possible value of the grants far exceeds your needs.  If you write $200,000 worth of proposals, and only half of the proposals are funded, you won’t meet your fundraising needs
    • Pursue a combination of government and foundation grants.  If a government grant disappears, diversified nonprofits will still have support from foundations.  It’s not a panacea, but it is better to have some funding (and money in the bank) than none
    • Pursue a combination of levels of government grants, from small local agencies, to state and Federal grants.  Not all levels of government grants will be right for all organizations, so be sure to craft a diversified plan that is right for your organization
    • Pursue a combination of foundation types.  Different types of foundations have different mandates, and their giving patterns can differ when economic conditions or giving priorities change.  Get to know the community foundation in your area, as well as the family foundations and corporate foundations and giving programs that support organizations in your geographic area and issue areas.

A diversified grantwriting portfolio is a wise fundraising strategy. 

What are your tips for creating a diversified fundraising or grantwriting portfolio?  Share them in the comments below.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bobydimitrov/3461353547/
Author: Dahna Goldstein
March 28, 2013, 10:11 AM

Relationships are Key for Foundation Technology Funding

This is a guest post by David Krumlauf

People who work for nonprofit organizations know only too well that they need good technology to be successful. Unfortunately, many foundations don’t quite get it yet. The foundation staff members who review and recommend grants are often confused by what organizations are asking for and why they’d need such a thing.

I’ve been doing IT support and funding for the “Core Grantees” of The Pierce Family Charitable Foundation for over 5 years and have seen how they struggle with their IT needs. I’ve seen the whole range of needs from full network upgrades to just a few minor server tweaks.

If you’re in that group that needs a technology upgrade but are struggling to get those needs funded, here are a few tips to help you be more successful:

  • Create a workable technology plan – You may not have an IT person on staff, but it’s worth finding someone (either a staff member or consultant) to do a network, hardware and software inventory, needs assessment and timeline. The more you know about what you have and what you need, the easier time you’ll have conveying your needs to potential funders. Technology upgrades aren’t always huge requests. Often it’s a matter of training, or minor software and hardware updates. I’ve seen increasing workstation memory, adding a spam filter and reconfiguring existing servers do wonders.  Check out Steve Heye’s blog for some great technology planning resources.
  • Build good relationships with foundations – Get to know the locally-focused family foundations in your area. Be bold! Contact their development staff and ask them to come for a site visit. Once you have them onsite, you can describe your technology challenges and how much better you could fulfill your mission if those were solved.
  • Keep it simple - It’s easy to use tech terms that might be unfamiliar to foundation staff when applying for grants. Use simple, straightforward language that won’t confuse the reader. You won’t get funding if the foundation staff can’t understand what you’re asking for.
  • Be comfortable with the grant reporting requirements - Too often grants come with complex reporting requirements. To build a long-lasting relationship with a foundation, be sure you give them what they’re looking for when they want it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get clarification.
  • Bundle technology requests into program grants - If your program requires staff to be out in the field gathering data, adding a few mobile devices makes a lot of sense. Funders usually understand the need for the proper tools to do the job at hand.
  • Keep grant requests reasonable - Start small, meet the reporting requirements and build up to larger, more complex requests. Use your technology plan to determine what easy, not too costly solution works best for you.
  • Build trust - Once a foundation knows you, your work and sees your progress, larger tech grants will be a lot easier to obtain. Funders love working with grantees that they know will put their grant money to good use and be better prepared to fulfill their mission.
  • Give yourself time - Don’t feel like you have to fix everything all at once. This often creates more problems than good. Give staff the training and time they need to adapt to the changes you implement. “Baby Steps” is a good way to go.

So now you’re primed and ready to go. Don’t be shy about asking for what you need! Funders are always looking for good causes to help and more and more are getting the idea that nonprofits need good tools just like they do.


David Krumlauf

David Krumlauf is an old biology teacher, ISP owner and now Chief Technologist of a private Chicago-based foundation. He lives in a greenbuilt home in NW lower Michigan.

Author: Dahna Goldstein
March 20, 2013, 02:52 PM

Three Grantwriting Mistakes Nonprofits Make

mistakes grantwriters make

I guest blogged yesterday on Forbes.com about business plan mistakes that I see often as a judge for the social venture track of NYU’s business plan competition.  While the post addressed mistakes made by for-profit ventures and nonprofit social ventures, a lot of the mistakes that I see – and lessons learned – apply equally to nonprofits writing grant proposals to fund new programs.

Mistake #1: Developing a solution that’s in search of a problem.  Fundraising consultant Pamela Grow referred to this problem in an email yesterday as “If you build it, they will come.”  In fact, they won’t.  Too many nonprofits (like for-profit social ventures) come up with a great idea that should be of great value to their constituents.  Smart people get together in conference rooms and come up with great ideas.  They see problems their constituents are experiencing, and come up with solutions – all without getting input from said constituents.  In for-profits, this generally results in creating a product or service without a clear market.  In nonprofits, this can result in either creating a product or service without a clear group of people who will use it – or in creating a product or service without a clear source of funding.  Either result has problems, and both can be avoided by getting input for the relevant constituents along the way.  If you develop the service, will the people in your service area use it?  What will compel them to do so?  What might get in the way, and how can you overcome it?  Will they be willing and able to pay for it?  If not (which is frequently the case), how will you cover those costs?  Launching the program without knowing that you’ll be able to get sufficient support to make is sustainable, often manifest in saying, “Oh, we’ll just get a grant to cover those costs,” can be more harmful than beneficial to your constituents if you are then unable to secure funding.

Mistake #2: Claiming you have no competition.  Many grant proposals ask grant applicants to discuss their competition.  It may well be that there isn’t another organization in your service area doing exactly what your organization is proposing, but that doesn’t mean that you do not have any competition.  There’s direct competition, indirect competition, and there’s the status quo.  Think about your constituents.  What are they doing now?  Are there other organizations providing a similar service that is meeting the same – or a similar – need?  Even if there aren’t similar services being offered in your service area, your constituents are spending time and sometimes money on other things that will have to be displaced by your service.  You need to know – and be able to describe – what those things are, as well as any other services that compete more directly with what you’re proposing.

Mistake #3: Grant applicants must clearly articulate their theory of change.  Different organizations have different ways of framing theories of change and the social impact that is expected to result from the program or service being developed.  Whatever it’s presenting a theory of change, articulating SMART objectives, building logic models, or something else, it’s critical to be able to articulate the impact your organization is trying to achieve, how you plan to achieve it, and how you plan to measure the results of your activities.  In grant proposals, look for any specific requirements articulated by the foundation to which you’re applying; many foundations have specific formats in which they prefer to see goals, outcomes, and theories of change addressed.

What are some common mistakes you have seen – or made – in grant applications?  Feel free to share in the comments below.


Image credit: adapted from http://www.flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/5496629643/
Author: Dahna Goldstein
February 22, 2013, 10:30 AM

Not Getting Enough Funder Love? Try These Grantwriting Tips

grantseeking tips

I’ve written before about grant dating (here, and here, among other places).  As strange as it seems, the grantseeking process does bear some resemblance to dating, so revisiting it on Valentine’s Day seemed apropos.

So if things are not working out in your pursuit of a funder marriage, it may be because your dating approach needs to be adjusted.  Here are a few tips to help you get to that long-term funder relationship:

  • Make sure you’re dating the right foundations.  A good relationship starts with meeting the right foundations.  If you have nothing in common, the chances are not good that a relationship will work out.  You can start by doing thorough research on the foundations you’re approaching.  Study their mission statements and their guidelines.  See which organizations they’ve funded in the past, and which organizations they’re currently funding.  Do your programs seem like a good fit?  Trying to fit square pegs into round holes by tweaking your program descriptions to meet funding requirements that you don’t naturally fit is not a recipe for a lasting relationship.
  • Make sure you’re speaking their language.  Many foundations have specific requirements for grant applications – everything from the specific information that they want to receive (specific questions to answer, issues to address, documents to provide) to when and how they want to receive it.  Be sure that the request you’re putting together meets those requirements, whatever they are.  (And we’ll be happy to show you how PhilanTrack can help you manage multiple proposals to multiple foundations.)
  • It’s not all about you.  Many nonprofits take an “it’s not you, it’s me” approach to writing grant proposals.  They talk extensively about their programs, their constituents, their successes, their plans.  While grant applications should absolutely include those things, they also need to position your programs in terms of the foundation’s priorities and its mission.  One of the things Marty Teitel talks about in his book “The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants” is the importance of aligning the proposal with what the foundation – and the people in the foundation, including both the program officer and the directors – is trying to accomplish.  Part of the grantwriter’s job is to make it easy for the proposal reader to see how the program in question will help the foundation further its own goals.
  • Presentation matters.  Think about how you’re coming across.  Just as you would probably choose your outfit carefully for your first date, think about how you’re presenting yourself to a funder.  Is your proposal well written?  Is it persuasive?  Your organization can be doing great work, but if you don’t convey it clearly, you’ll have a hard time getting it funded.  Program officers and trustees generally read many more proposals than they are able to fund.  Think about it from their perspective – it’s so much better to read a proposal that is well written!  Have someone else proof-read your submission to make sure there aren’t any mistakes and that the prose is clear, and supported by relevant quantitative information.  First impressions matter!
  • Once you’re in a relationship, don’t neglect your funder.  Funder relationships, like all relationships, take time and care.  Don’t take your funder for granted.  If the funder asks for updates, provide them in a timely manner, and with the information requested.  Don’t overwhelm the funder with communications (they don’t need to be copied on every email that you send to your supporters), but keep them up to date on key developments that relate to the grant they’ve given you, even if there isn’t a report due for a few months.  Of course, if a funder makes it clear that they don’t want to hear from you aside from reports, then respect that (some funders need their space).
  • If it doesn’t work out, ask for feedback to help your next relationship.  Sometimes funders will break up with you for no reason – or what seems to be no reason.  Maybe you’ve been in a relationship for several years and the board decides to change priorities in a way that no longer includes your organization’s mission and programs.  It can be heartbreaking, but it happens, and there isn’t much you can do about it.  But sometimes, funders will break up with you for a clear and explainable reason.  While they may be inclined to spare your feelings by not coming right out and telling you the reason for the breakup, it’s frequently worth asking the question.  The truth may hurt, but it might help position you for greater success as you pursue your next funder relationship.

Feel free to share your grant dating tips in the comments below!


Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dantaylor/3280435161/
Author: Dahna Goldstein
February 14, 2013, 10:30 AM

What Grantseekers Can Learn from Lance Armstrong

Lance Armtrong

It was hard to miss the news last week that Lance Armstrong finally admitted to doping during his legendary cycling career that included seven Tour de France wins.  The admission was a significant let down for many people who not only believed Armstrong’s claims of innocence, but also idolized him because of his incredible athletic achievements, his successful battle against testicular cancer, and subsequent good work done by Livestrong, the cancer support organization he founded and championed.

There may not be much of a silver lining in what has undoubtedly been a spectacular fall from grace, but here are a few lessons that grantseekers can learn from Lance Armstrong:

  • Don’t do illegal, immoral, or prohibited things.  That may seem obvious, but there are some pretty critical ways nonprofits can get in trouble, like spending restricted funds for a purpose other than what was designated by the donor.  (There are other, obviously illegal things, too, like stealing money from the organization.)  Don’t do them.  And keep a keen eye out for others in your organization who might be at risk of doing something illegal, immoral, or otherwise just wrong for your organization.
  • If something goes wrong, don’t lie about it.  In the process of running a grant-funded program, something may well go wrong.  Things frequently do.  When someone on your team makes a mistake, or something unexpectedly bad happens with a grant-funded program, come clean about it immediately to the funder.  Don’t hide it and hope the funder never finds out.  Getting caught in a lie will only compound the problem, and pretty much sink any chance you might have of receiving future support from the funder (and possibly from any other funder, if the word gets out).
  • Winning at any expense isn’t worth the cost.   The old adage that cheaters never prosper rings true in the grantseeking world.  Misrepresenting your organization’s abilities, or doing something that undermines your competition will only come back to hurt you in the end.  Yes, grants are competitive.  Yes, you need to do something to make your proposal, organization, and programs stand out, but do it honestly, and by highlighting your strengths rather than misrepresenting them or denigrating others
  • It’s not always a good thing to be interviewed by OprahSeveral nonprofits had great success after Oprah appearances.  While Oprah may no longer be the primary aspiration for publicity-seeking nonprofits, many nonprofits still seek that one big media break that will make their organization a household name.  But not all publicity is good publicity.  Appearing on a major media outlet – or being interviewed by a celebrity interviewer – can bring both fame and infamy to your organization.  Just be sure that the publicity you’re seeking is for the right reasons and that the coverage will be positive, otherwise it can do more harm than good to both your grantseeking efforts (if the foundation has heard of you because of a negative news expose, you’re not going to get that grant) and to your organization as a whole.

Feel free to add any other grantseeking lessons learned from Lance Armstrong in the comments.


Image modified from http://www.flickr.com/photos/bike/3281864282/
Author: Dahna Goldstein
January 22, 2013, 11:38 AM

Three Myths and One Truth about Foundation Grantseeking

grant writing

In preparation for next week’s webinar on winning foundation grants, I’ve been reading Martin Teitel’s book, The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Winning Foundation Grants: A Foundation CEO Reveals the Secrets Your Need to Know.  While all webinar attendees will receive a copy of the book, in addition to hearing from the author, I thought I’d share a few nuggets inspired by the book to start the year.

Without further ado, three myths and one truth about foundation funding:

  • Myth #1 - Foundation boards rubber stamp staff recommendations.  Foundation boards are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the organization is a good steward of the donor's funds and that it pursues its mission objectives.  The board ultimately makes funding decisions.  Staff (when the foundation has staff) work diligently to evaluate proposals and prepare recommendations to boards.  But that doesn't mean that the board will necessarily approve every recommended grant.  Foundation staff can certainly influence board decisions (and the degree to which the board accepts staff recommendations varies from foundation to foundation), but part of the job of the grantwriter is to help the foundation staff tell the prospective grantee's story well to help make the case to the board for funding.
  • Myth #2 - Good writing doesn't matter if your organization is doing good work.  Think of a grant proposal as a journalistic apiece.  It should be clear, concise, to the point.  Your organization's grant request has a limited window of opportunity to stand out from the many proposals on the program officer's desk.  You may be doing great work, but if it isn't clearly conveyed in your proposal or LOI, the program officer (or ED or trustee) reading your information won't be able to easily see what is compelling and why your organization should benefit from the limited resources the foundation is able to invest. Good writing matters.  Spend time on your summary or LOI to help your organization make a strong first impression and encourage your reader to want to engage further.
  • Myth #3 - Progress reports don't matter.  Many foundations require progress reports.  Many nonprofits neglect to submit them (or neglect to submit them on time, or put much thought/effort into them).  Those same nonprofits tend to think that foundations don't read the reports, so the reports don't matter.  While that may unfortunately be true in some cases, in many others the progress report can play a significant role in determining whether your organization will receive future funding from a foundation.  Neglecting to submit a progress report (or doing a cursory job) conveys a lack of respect and follow-through to the foundation, which is not the impression you want to leave with someone you're hoping will fund your organization in the future.
  • A Truth - Understanding the motivations of both the foundation as an organization and the program officer as an individual is important.  Foundations have missions to pursue -- and donor intent to support.  Program officers are inundated with requests and have to make a case to their board for why a given proposal should be funded.  What that implies is that a) nonprofits need to be attentive to the foundation's mission and requirements, and b) grantwriters should think about the reader while writing proposals.  To elaborate a bit: if what you're proposing isn't aligned with the foundation's mission and stated strategies, it isn't going to get funded, and it's not a good use of your time -- or the foundation's -- to put a lot of effort into a request.  Foundation priorities can change.  Take the time to review current priorities and requirements before starting a grant proposal.  And be sure that what you're writing/presenting is clearly aligned with those priorities and requirements.  In terms of the program officer, remember that he or she will a) be reading tons of proposals, b) will need to be able to easily summarize what your organization is doing, why it's aligned with the foundation's mission and something that should be funded.  Help your reader help you by giving them clear, compelling prose, backed up with just enough data, to make a case for why your organization should receive a grant. 

Please join us next Tuesday to hear directly from the author about what grantseekers need to know about foundation funding.


Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jjpacres/3293117576/

Author: Dahna Goldstein
January 09, 2013, 11:30 AM

Atoning for Grantwriting Transgressions

Atoning for Grantwriting Transgressions

This week marked Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish tradition.  As you may know, Yom Kippur is the day of atonement, a day in which atoning for one's sins of the previous year creates a path to forgiveness, and the opportunity to begin the new year (celebrated last week) with a clean slate.

One of the unique elements of Yom Kippur is a type of communal atonement.  Many of the prayers recited are in first person plural, ways "we" have transgressed, rather than ways "I" have transgressed. 

And so it is in the spirit of Yom Kippur that I offer the following grantwriting transgressions we, a community of grantseekers, may have made in the past year.  Note: atonement is only meaningful when it is accompanied by a good faith promise to do better in the coming year, to not repeat the mistakes and transgressions of the past year.

In no particular order:

  • We have failed to respect the funder's stated requirements.  Many funders clearly state on their websites (and/or in other publications) what they will and will not fund, what their priorities are, and how they prefer to be contacted.  Not following whatever guidelines have been set by the funder virtually guarantees your proposal will not get funded, and yet many nonprofits still think that the guidelines do not apply to them, or that the grantmaker will be persuaded once they have had a chance to see how amazing the nonprofit's work is.
  • We have failed to communicate quickly with the funder if something goes wrong.  Put yourself in the funder's shoes.  They've just invested a good bit of money in your organization.  Yes, it's a grant, but they're invested in the success of your organization and programs, and the impact you're having on the communities you serve.  If it were your investment, wouldn't you want to know if something was not going as expected?  Surprising the funder in your final report with news about something that happened early in the grant will not endear you to that funder.  Looking at it another way, your funder can be a valuable partner.  If something is not going as planned, the funder may be able to help.  Perhaps the foundation has access to resources that can be useful.  Perhaps a grant to another organization in the past experienced similar problems and found a creative solution.  If you don't take the initiative to communicate with the funder, you'll never know.
  • We have failed to attempt to maintain a relationship after a proposal was declined.  Sometimes a rejected proposal means "I don't want to date, but we can still be friends."  Sometimes it doesn't (and you don't want to become a stalker), but trying to learn from the declination can be very helpful.  Funder priorities can change.  Your program might change.  In a year or two, perhaps you and the funder will be better suited to each other.  If you don't stay in touch, you'll never know.  (Again, I'm not advocating stalking here -- and be respectful of a funder's stated preferences for contact in terms of both frequency and medium -- but occasional updates to a not-right-now funder can be valuable in the future.)
  • We have made unrealistic promises to try to get the grant.  Under promising and over delivering can make your organization look good.  Over promising and under delivering will inevitably cause more harm than good.  Overpromising might get you the grant, but at what cost?  You may have to change your organization's priorities to meet the grant's requirements (which may not be the best thing to do for your mission).  Or if you don't then keep the promises you've made, it will be very hard to get back in that funder's good graces (even if you atone for your sins).  So don't do it.
  • We have failed to calculate the full cost of the grant before deciding whether or not to pursue it.  I've written before about the cost of managing grants.  Not all grants are created equal in terms of the amount of effort (read: cost) to pursue, get, and manage the grant.  While funders bear some of the responsibility for this (see next week's post), grantseekers also have a responsibility to view their time as a valuable resource, and evaluate the cost -- and opportunity cost -- associated with dedicating that precious resource to a pursuit that is likely to have a low return.  Before jumping into a grant application, think about whether the expected value of that grant (if you get it) is enough to justify the cost, or whether your resources better spent pursuing other funding opportunities.

Coming next week, atoning for grantmaking transgressions (since it is not only grantseekers who should seek forgiveness and strive to do better next year).

Feel free to add your own grantseeking transgressions in the comments.

Author: Dahna Goldstein
September 28, 2012, 11:06 AM

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