Grant Seeking? Upping your Odds of Funding
By Tracy Kaufman, Program Associate, Foundation Center
Working in the Foundation Center’s busy New York library, we see dozens of scrappy, ambitious nonprofits pass through our doors every day in search of their next grant (or in some cases, their very first grant). The first step through which we typically guide these organizations is pinpointing some specific funders who may have an interest in their cause, whether it’s healthcare, the environment, performing arts, or what have you. However, finding a list of prospective funders is just the first step. When choosing who to approach and how to approach them, there are certain strategies that can help push your application toward the top of the pile. Read on for some of the best ways you can boost your chances of getting funded.
Don’t bark up the wrong tree. Your time is limited, as is funders. Recalling the eternal lessons of science class, no system without an external energy supply can deliver an unlimited amount of energy to its surroundings. Give yourself the gift of energy conservation, and do not submit proposals to funders who are simply not right for you. If you run a youth development organization, and a foundation notes that they specialize in funding for senior citizens, this funder is not for you. If your nonprofit is in California and the funder says that they only support projects in Florida, then no, this funder is not for you. It may sound obvious, but this problem materializes again and again. Guidelines exist for a reason – to help ensure appropriate submissions. Rather than casting too wide a net, refocus your efforts and exert more energy on a few well-crafted proposals for funders who will actually be receptive to your work.
Use outcome thinking. Having a passion for your mission is essential, but if you truly want foundations to take you seriously, one of the most critical things you can do is measure outcomes. Funders want to know that your programs are effective – that they work! – and that they have a specific impact. Otherwise, if there is no indication that your programs get concrete results, then the funder will probably bypass you to find someone whose programs do get results. In your proposal, give prospective funders the information they need by showing that each specific action of your program leads to a goal. To do this, you’ll need data and numbers to illustrate how many people you serve, what kinds of results you get, and how many success stories you have.
Robert Mark Penna’s book The Nonprofit Outcomes Toolbox is an extremely helpful resource for nonprofits that are wading into the outcome measurement process for the first time. When using data, be prudent in trying to use it correctly and carefully. Funders want to see numbers, but they want to see the right numbers. Rather than loading down your proposal with extraneous information, pick out only the most pertinent data that demonstrates a concrete impact. Including too many numbers that don’t really say anything specific or significant is a form of “dazzle camouflage” to hide the fact that your programs aren’t quite holding up to scrutiny, and this technique will probably not get you a grant. Finally, when you have pulled out your most pertinent numbers, present them artfully and to your best advantage. Think about the data, then think about the real, human story of your organization, and find a way to put the two together so that they form a moving and persuasive narrative grounded in both fact and emotion. Which brings us to our next point…
Tell a great story. At first glance, grant writing doesn’t often seem like a medium conducive to creativity. However, if you embrace the structure and limits of a grant application and allow yourself to enjoy some ingenuity within those boundaries, there can be space for some truly compelling storytelling. Remember the sense of inspiration that brought you to this field in the first place, and use that to explain how your organization has changed lives, and how it could potentially change even more lives in the future. The people reading your proposal may represent a funding institution, but they appreciate a captivating tale as much as anyone – also, keep in mind that they review a ton of these proposals, so it’s a nice treat to receive something eminently readable.
Your story needs to accomplish a few things. You will need to create a compelling narrative that seizes and keeps the reader’s attention. You should also show a clear knowledge of the intricacies of your program, and you’ll also need to persuasively explain your specific need for funding. Try to consider the challenges your community or constituents have faced, and any obstacles or crises your nonprofit has encountered in its efforts to deliver its programs, and explain how any of these challenges and obstacles were overcome, and how the funder can help you as you and your constituents continue your journey. For some great in-depth advice on this, read Storytelling for Grantseekers by Cheryl A. Clarke.
Ask for feedback. So you tried your best, but you didn’t get the grant. Don’t take it personally or make the mistake of writing off that funder permanently. Rather, use this as an opportunity for learning and for cultivation. After an appropriate amount of time has passed, call the funder and ask if they can give you any input on their decision and what you could do differently to have a better chance at a future grant. The key factors to remember when doing this are to keep things quick, be polite and open-minded, and thank the funder for having considered you during their decision-making process. As long as you’re careful with your etiquette, you could have a chance to learn something truly valuable for your next proposal, while also cultivating a closer relationship with a funder.
The tactics mentioned here can go a long way toward streamlining your grantseeking efforts, ensuring that the hard toil you put into creating proposals will actually yield results (if not on the first try, at least after a smaller handful of attempts). For more help, in addition to Storytelling for Grantseekers, Martin Teitel’s book “Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal”: A Foundation Director Reveals What Happens Next is a great resource for getting a no-nonsense view of what funders look for in a grant proposal. Organizations sometimes find themselves discouraged and frustrated when their grant proposals vanish into a rejection pile, but with a great strategy in tow, a new grant can always be just around the corner.