Back to School - Grantwriting Basics

Back to school

If you've been on social media at all this week, you've probably noticed something: pictures of kids in clean, pressed clothes, posing (sometimes patiently) for their parents' obligatory first day of school photos.  Or, if you're a parent, perhaps you've taken (and posted) one yourself.

All of this back-to-school-ness has gotten me thinking about getting back to basics.  In elementary school, kids learn the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic (or 'rithmetic, for those really focused on alliteration).

What does getting back to basics in grantwriting look like?  For me, it's the three Rs of grantwriting: research, relationships, and writing:

  1. Research.  Good grantwriting starts with good research.  A really compelling grant application requesting funding for an animal shelter will never be successful when submitted to a funder that only supports education reform.  While that's an extreme example, less egregious examples abound: grantseekers submitting requests to funders whose priorities have changed without confirming the funder's current interests; grantseekers not thoroughly reading guidelines before submitting a request and being denied for not adequately meeting the requirements; grantseekers spending significant resources to apply for a big-name grant they are unlikely to receive, at the expense of smaller grants that are a better fit.  Another facet of research is being selective about which grants to apply for and which to skip.  Grantseekers are always looking for new funding.  But not every grant is a good grant or a good fit.  Some aspects of that relate to funding priorities and ensuring that the program, project, or initiative for which you are seeking funding fits within the funder's interests, but it's also important to calculate the net grant value (discussed in this blog post) before applying for a grant.
  2. Relationships.  Relationships are a key part of institutional fundraising, just as they are a key part of individual fundraising.  While grants are awarded by foundations, corporations, government agencies, or other types of organizations, the decisions are made by people.  Establishing and building relationships with those people is critical to grantseeking success.  When approaching a new funder, try to get to know the people.  It's beneficial in a number of ways: it helps the grantseeker gain a better understanding of the grantmaker's interests; it helps the grantmaker better understand the organization applying for the grant; it helps the grantmaker feel more valued in the process.  Grantmakers sometimes feel like they're treated by grantees like ATM machines: grantees are only interested in the check.  There are much more meaningful relationships that can and should be built with funders, not only because it helps the funder feel more valued, but also because both parties have much to learn from each other and can help each other.  Funders and grantees are all focused on addressing issues.  There is an immediate alignment of interests in that realization.  Connecting with funders - not only during the application process, but on an ongoing basis - can help inform both parties about what is working and what isn't working in addressing the issue or issues they both have in common.
  3. Writing.  Of course, a key part of grant writing is the actual writing.  As a grantseeker, take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of the person who will be reading your grant application.  Is yours the only grant application they will be reading?  How much will that person know about your organization before reading your application.  What do they need to know to evaluate whether your organization is going to be a good fit with their funding interests?  How will they be able to determine that your organization and your application stand out from the others?  Simply put, good writing is paramount.  When reading many applications, one that is poorly written can be easy to dismiss, regardless of the quality of the program the grant would support.  And persuasive writing is critical.  How are you making the case that the grantmaker should allocate some of its limited resources to supporting your organization?  Every decision to support your organization implies a decision not to support another organization.  Have you crafted your proposal in a manner that is sufficiently compelling for the funder to make that decision?  Have you used a good combination of qualitative and quantitative information to make your case?

What do you think?  What are your back to school tips for grantwriters?  What other grantwriting elements are fundamental?

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Author: Dahna Goldstein
September 11, 2015, 10:55 AM

Online Grant Management - Millennium Development Goals and Data

Millennium Development GoalsThis morning, I attended the Washington DC viewing of TEDxChange.  For the uninitiated, TED is an organization that presents talks (generally at TED - Technology, Entertainment, Design - conferences) by interesting and accomplished people, or, as the organization frames it, "Ideas worth spreading."

(As an aside, TED talks are really worth checking out.  One of my favorites has nothing to do with philanthropy or grants – Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk, as a brain surgeon, talking about her experience having a stroke.)

The impetus for this morning's TEDxChange was the 10th anniversary of the UN Millennium Development Goals (for more information about the MDGs, check out the UN MDG site).  The lineup of speakers included Mechai Viravadiya, Founder and Chairman of the Population and Community Development Association (nicknamed "Mr. Condom"), Graca Machel, former Minister for Education and Culture in Mozambique, Hans Rosling, Professor of International Health (and prior TED talk presenter - worth watching), and Melinda French Gates of the Gates Foundation.

I'll leave it to others to summarize everything that was said during the talks (or you can watch the whole thing here), and focus on one theme that emerged as I listened to the talks and to the panel of experts assembled for post-event discussion at AED in Dupont Circle in DC: the importance of data in achieving the MDGs - and in social and economic change in general.

Gates' talk used Coca Cola to highlight things that work in developing countries and to propose some lessons at could be applied to development work.  Coke, she said, does three things incredibly well in developing countries: it uses real-time data, empowers local entrepreneurs, and has incredible marketing.

That first point - having and using real-time data - struck me.  Without data, how do we know what's working and what isn't?  Without data, how do we know if any intervention is actually having an impact?  How can we make a case for supporting one initiative over another?  Or the case to support an organization doing the work?  While NGOs clearly aren't the same thing as a multinational company, the broader point is well taken.  

Hans Rosling's talk also highlighted the importance of data (admittedly, the whole talk was about statistics, so of course data is important!).  He showed compelling visualizations of declines in infant mortality rates in both developing and developed countries (and made the point that, particularly as infant mortality rates decline, the distinction between "Western" and "not Western" countries is increasingly irrelevant).  Without good data - and good data collection tools, how would we know that infant mortality rates are declining?  How could the people and organizations working on that issue identify which interventions are working, or which are the most successful?

The importance of data in social change applies just as clearly to foundations and other grantmakers combating poverty, protecting the environment, and supporting communities here in the U.S.  Good data helps grantmakers determine which organizations to support, which interventions are most effective - and can, perhaps, be replicated, which initiative are, perhaps, less effective.  Long term data - trend analysis over several years - can be particularly helpful in both identifying what's working, and in tracking changes in populations and communities served.  More than just helpful, I would argue that information is critical to the work that nonprofits and philanthropies do every day.   And the importance of good tools to support that data collection can't be understated.  

As governments, NGOs, philanthropies and others continue to work towards the MDGs - and other social, economic, and environmental goals - my hope is that organizations will continue to work together not only to accomplish their goals, but to efficiently track, share, and use the revenant data.

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Author: Dahna Goldstein
September 20, 2010, 09:23 PM

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