Demystifying Grants

by Joe Garecht

Next to making personal fundraising asks, grant-writing is probably the tactic that scares new fundraisers the most.  Grants seem mysterious and technical, and it often seems as if it takes some kind of magic mojo to find the right grant, write the perfect proposal, and get your project funded.  I’m here to tell you that while there really isn’t any mojo involved in the grant process, there is lots of hard work, and a good bit of frustration.  That being said, most mid- and large-sized non-profits find that grants make up 15-25% of their total fundraising revenues.

If you’re really new to fundraising, and aren’t sure what grants and the grant writing process are, it’s fairly simple…  Grants are simply sums of money given by a “grant-maker,” usually a non-profit, corporate, or family foundation.  In order to be awarded the grant, the charity seeking the grant must go through an application process, which is sometimes short, but often long and laborious. The grant-maker then makes a decision and awards the grant.

Types of Grants

Grants take on an unlimited number of variations, types, and mutations.  Some grants are one-time grants, others are multi-year.  Some grant-makers fund capital projects, others fund growth initiatives, while still others only fund general operating expenses.  Some grants are given on an ongoing, rolling basis, meaning that you can apply at anytime during the year and decisions are made several times per year, while others only decide on proposals once per year, or even once every two or three years.

Types of Grant Applications

Just as the type of grant offered varies from grant-maker to grant-maker, so does the application process.  Some foundations allow you to simply submit an application, which may range from 1 page to 10 pages or more.  Other foundations may ask that you submit a “letter of intent” (LOI) or query letter that summarizes your request, and then, once that letter is submitted, you may or may not be invited to submit a complete grant application.  Other foundations may even require a site visit as part of the process.

Follow the Program

No matter the type of grant or process for application, be sure to follow the directions of the grant-maker exactly.  I often tell charities that writing grants is like applying for the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.  There are lots of hoops to jump through… lots of things to place here, attachments, schedules, financials, signature pages, checklists, etc.  Follow directions to the letter, if you want to have the best chance of having your grant funded.

Research is Key

Perhaps the most important step in raising money through grants comes before the grant proposal / application is even written.  Before you apply for a grant, do some research, and be sure that you meet the foundation’s criteria.  Grant-makers have lots of different areas of specialization, and a single grant-maker may offer three, five, or a dozen different grant programs.  Be sure that your charity and project meet the objectives of the foundation, or else all of your hard work will be for naught.

Most foundations list their criteria on their websites.  Do some research to find out what the foundation’s area of interest is, what programs they offer, when their deadlines are, and what their average grant size is.  There’s no point applying for a grant from an organization specializing in funding dog shelters in southeastern Kentucky if you are running a high school arts program in Maine.  Likewise, if you’re looking for $200,000 to start a new homeless shelter, it will take lots of time and efforts to raise that money if you are applying to foundations with an average grant size of $1,000!

Writing Grants: There is No Secret Formula

Once you’ve found a program that you think you qualify for, it’s time to write the grant proposal.  The truth is that there is no secret formula to writing successful grants.  The only true do-or-die for grant writing is to follow the directions of the foundation offering the grant, and make sure you include all of the information they request.

Some other tips that will help you succeed are to be sure you write in good, crisp, readable language, to make sure you present your proposal in a business-like fashion, and to use emotion… foundation executives receive lots of proposals, so to make sure yours stands out, you’ll need to tug on the heart strings a little bit (but not too much).  Finally, if you have questions, go ahead and pick up the phone and call the foundation to ask.  They won’t bite, and often, calling will help you get a leg up by letting you tailor your proposal exactly to the objectives of the foundation, instead of what you think those objectives are.

Recommended Resource on Grant Writing

For more information on how to write funded grant proposals, I highly recommend Pamela Grow’s 5 Days to Foundation GrantsClick here to read my review.

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