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Four Truths About Grants that Board (and Staff!) Members Should Know

“Just get a grant!” Have you heard this before from a board member or senior staff leader? This statement—though well-intentioned—often suggests that the speaker may misunderstand the grant seeking process and assume getting a grant is easier said than done. Clear misconceptions out of your way by challenging them head on and championing what it really takes to get grants:

1. Grants don’t come with a guarantee.

A rule of grant seeking is never to take a grant or a funder for granted. Grant funding should always be viewed as a tentative source. Don’t bank on getting first-time grants from new funders when setting your annual budget. And stay on your toes with your current funders because repeat grants are almost never guaranteed. Review the funder’s guidelines for changes each time you submit a grant report or renewal request and make sure every proposal you submit is as stellar as your first. Funders’ grant making interests can and do change. If you’ve made the effort to build a trust-based relationship with a funder, your program officer may warn you if the foundation’s priorities are shifting—giving you an opportunity to plan an alternative route to funding.

2. Successful grant seeking is built on relationships.

Is it possible to pick out a funder, submit a proposal, and get the grant without first establishing a relationship? It’s possible—but rare and unlikely. Funding decisions are made by people, and most people tend to be influenced by human interactions. Unless a funder explicitly prohibits personal contact, attempt to build a relationship with a funder before submitting the proposal.

At the heart of a solid relationship is trust. A funder wants to trust that an organization offers a sound approach to a real need, has responsible leadership and a strong reputation, and will make good on its plans and promises. Seek to build relationship by looking for existing connections—who on your staff or board may know one of the foundation’s trustees or program officers? If you don’t have a connection, forge one. Send an email or call the appropriate program officer to offer a site visit or request a meeting to discuss ideas. If you find yourself at an event with someone from the foundation, introduce yourself. Remember: funders are people too.

3. Grants are a team sport.

Effective grant seeking is not accomplished by a solitary grant writer, trapped in a room with a computer. Rather, great grant seeking is a dynamic endeavor that engages leaders across the organization, including:

  • Senior staff leaders, who determine the organization’s direction and funding priorities.
  • The executive director and board officers, who may serve as chief relationship builders with foundation trustees and staff.
  • All board and staff members, who can open doors and hold relationships with foundation program officers, organizational partners, and other constituents.
  • Program staff, who design programming and ultimately fulfill the promises made to grantors.
  • Finance staff, who understand how to accurately reflect the organization’s planned and actual income and expenses.
  • Development staff or outside grants consultants, who are the experts to advise on grants strategy and approaches with specific funders.

4. Every grant opportunity has an opportunity cost.

For every grant you seek, there’s something else you could have done instead. That makes it important to consider each grant opportunity in context and confirm that it is reasonable and worthwhile to pursue. Factors to consider:

  • Are the resources and time needed to complete the application process appropriate to the reward? Even small foundations sometimes have complicated guidelines. Determine that the value of the grant is worth the time and effort before diving in. This value can include the size of the potential grant as relationship and reputation gains. Also remember that a small grant from a new funder can lead to larger grants over time.
  • How competitive is your organization for the opportunity? Gauge your chances by considering: Does the funder award grants to new grantees or the same organizations every year? Has this funder funded similar projects or organizations? Can you leverage a connection or relationship? How strong is the fit between your mission and priorities and the funder’s? If your resources are tight and you determine that a grant opportunity is a long-shot, you might wait to apply until you’ve established a relationship or taken other steps to tip the odds in your favor.
  • Is this the most strategic grant opportunity to pursue? Have answers to these questions so you can target your grant seeking accordingly: What are the organization’s most crucial programs and needs? Which of these needs are most likely to attract grant funding and which will likely need to be funded with other resources? Will this grant opportunity help further these priorities? Follow your organization’s strategic plan and overall objectives as your North Star.

Your grant seeking time and resources are limited and must be carefully deployed. So the next time a board or staff member excitedly suggests a potential grant funder and encourages you to “just get a grant!” you can thank her or him sincerely for the thought and effort. Then go back to your desk, read the funder’s guidelines, weigh your opportunity costs, revisit your grants calendar, and make a decision with confidence. Along the way, find opportunities to educate your board and staff about the truths of grant seeking so that together you can build a more principled, informed, and successful grants program.

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