I recently got a call from a board member of an organization with one paid staff person, less than a $200,000 operating budget, and no history of winning grants. This well-intentioned board member wanted to pay our grants consulting firm to write a proposal that the organization’s staff could use to “shop out” to potential funders.
My response? Don’t do it.
My reaction took her by surprise, but this is advice we sometimes give to organizations who call on us for help getting their first-ever grants. We understand the impulse (hire an expert!) and sympathize with their need (please help!), but even the best grant proposal in the world isn’t a direct link to grant funding.
More often than not, we kindly steer organizations in this position away. Here are the reasons we tell them not to hire a grants consultant—at least not yet—and what they can do instead:
Grants aren’t part of a disaster plan
This kind of call often comes at a point of desperation: the organization needs funds and needs them now. When we hear “We need a grant!” without any particulars of which funder or why, it can be a clue the caller misunderstands the grant funding process. Funders aren’t waiting with their checkbooks open to fund an organization for that organization’s own sake; they exist to catalyze the impact nonprofits can have on the world.
What to do: Not every organization or project is destined for grant funding, so before you dive in, take a hard look: what makes you fundable? To be competitive, you’ll first need compelling answers to these questions: Do you provide a solution to a recognized problem or need? What makes you unique in the nonprofit marketplace? Do you have evidence of your qualifications (such as through accreditation, awards, or letters of commendation)? Can you demonstrate your impact in ways that are clear and measurable?
Grants are never a fast funding fix
Boards that aren’t grant savvy can put impossible expectations on staff: “Just go get a grant!” But it doesn’t work that way. Effective grant seeking is more akin to a marathon than a sprint. The waiting time between proposal submission and the funder’s decision can be long, and many funders decide grants only at scheduled times of year. Furthermore, getting traction in the grants game takes time—new grant seekers should brace themselves for plenty of rejection the first year or two.
What to do: Invest in building your individual donor pipeline, which is where financial sustainability begins. Aim to build a broad base of low-dollar donors through time-efficient tactics like crowdfunding and direct mail. Then make a priority list of donors who have the potential to give more. Focus on growing these relationships through personalized touches over the year. Be realistic about how many you can manage—you’ll see better results by following through with ten priority donors than if you spread yourself too thin with a hundred.
Grants don’t start with the proposal
The board member in the example above assumed grant writing was step one, but there’s important work that comes before preparing the application. “Shopping out” a proposal with fingers crossed will yield little if any success. Which funders do you intend to approach–and what makes them a potential match? A proposal is worthless if you haven’t done enough research and preparation to have an actionable plan. If you are serious about grant seeking, you’ll need to conduct some very detailed research into potential funders. (See our advice on researching grants.)
What to do: Once you’ve done your research and have a list of prospective funders, you’re still not done. You need a strategy for approaching each one. What will you ask for? Look at past grants to see how much they’ve given and for what. You also need a strategy for relationship building. A conversation can warm up a request and turn a program officer into an ally who may provide helpful information or advocate on your behalf. Some foundations make themselves unreachable, but many will take your call. Unless a funder explicitly prohibits contact, pick up the phone and try. From there, you can invest your limited grant writing time and dollars only where you’ve gained a relationship foothold.
Grants require all hands on deck
Getting a grant can be a big undertaking: not just applying for the grant but managing it. That’s not something you want to wing and get wrong—not following through on a funder’s expectations can damage that relationship and attract a poor reputation among other funders.
What to do: Before you begin pursuing grants, work on becoming “grant ready.” That includes educating your board (and staff) to understand the appropriate place of grants in an overall sustainability plan, the centrality of relationship building with funders, and the realities that grant seeking comes without guarantees or easy wins. That also includes preparing systems and staff to manage the financial tracking and reporting requirements that come with grants.
Grant makers want to see an existing grants track record
New grant seekers face a dilemma: funders often want to see that an organization has been successful at winning and managing grants before putting their own funds on the line. That’s because most foundations think and act like savvy investors, not angels. But then where does an organization get started—how to crack that first nut?
What to do: Individuals in your inner circle may hold the keys to unlocking new sources of funding—but only if you get in the habit of having philanthropy-focused conversations with donors, board members, and volunteers. Leverage these relationships to discover who may be on the board of a family foundation, give through a donor advised fund, or work for a business that will match employee contributions or make company-sponsored grants.
The bottom line: getting into grants is challenging. Before investing precious resources in a grants consultant, make sure you’ve taken these steps to shore up your development operation and strategy, strengthen relationships, and improve your chance of winning grants.