Navigating Grant Seeking Staff Shortages
How nonprofits can avoid common pitfalls and sustain grant funding success.
By Scott Armstrong
Nonprofit organizations must come to terms with the fact that staff shortages and turnover are not a pandemic induced trend, but a persistent issue. According to a recent study by the National Council of Nonprofits, more than half of nonprofits reported they have more vacancies now compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Leaders in a constant staffing crunch can struggle to maintain their grants program – and they risk missing deadlines and losing grant revenues as a result. In our work advising hundreds of nonprofit leaders through shortages, transitions, and related staffing issues, our team at Grants Plus has identified the four most important tactics for avoiding common pitfalls to grant seeking amidst persistent staffing challenges.
Recognize the limitations of pay increases
While it may be tempting to address staff shortages through pay increases alone, this solution is often not viable for many nonprofits. Budget constraints and limited funding for staffing and overhead can make it unrealistic for nonprofits to compete in the wage market. Moreover, relying solely on pay increases to retain and attract grants staff may not address the underlying challenges of workload management and sustainability.
Note from the author
"I spent more than a decade in Executive Director and Development Director roles at various nonprofits. The current staffing environment is by far the worst that I have encountered."
- Scott Armstrong, Engagement Specialist at Grants Plus
Protect the Executive Director's role
Too often, the Executive Director or Development Director may try to bridge the gap themselves by taking on grant responsibilities. But this is at best a short-term solution with long-term costly consequences. Deviating from strategic plans and becoming overwhelmed with additional tasks can hinder long-term organizational success. These leaders should prioritize delegating grants work to dedicated staff or outsourcing to professional grant seekers to ensure a sustained focus on strategic goals.
“Not everyone can conceptualize and see the bigger picture required…having Grants Plus as a member of the team in this capacity has been transformational.”
- CEO of a human services nonprofit
Prevent employee burnout
Nonprofit leaders may try shifting staff with no or limited grants experience into the grant seeking roles, piling grant deadlines on an already-full plate. Continuously relying on a few individuals to shoulder additional responsibilities creates a strain that may ultimately result in employee burnout and resignations. Recognizing this risk, it becomes imperative for nonprofit leaders to identify a trusted individual or team to whom they can confidently delegate grants work, with limited to no trade-off implications for competing organizational priorities.
A shared concern
A recent report on the State of Nonprofits in 2023 by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that 68% of nonprofit leaders are somewhat or very concerned about burnout.
Don’t allow staff shortages or turnover to stall your grant seeking progress. Whether you plan to build your grants department through internal restructuring, external hiring, outsourcing, or some combination – and regardless of your timelines for doing so – it’s important to keep your grant seeking active so you don’t lose out on crucial funding during transition periods. Missing reporting and renewal deadlines will not only hurt your bottom line but can also damage your relationships with funders. When deciding whether to handle grant seeking in-house or outsource, assess the expertise, experience, track record, and diverse backgrounds of potential candidates or service providers. If your goal is to build an effective and sustainable in-house grants department over the long-term, consider leveraging a mix of in-house and outsourced grants support to navigate short-term or temporary staff shortages. This approach allows for flexibility while maintaining a focus on organizational objectives.
Navigating grant staff shortages is a relentless challenge for nonprofits. By acknowledging the limitations of pay increases, avoiding overburdening executive leadership and top performers, and continually advancing grant seeking capabilities during periods of transition nonprofits can not only achieve grant funding during temporary staffing shortages, but also position themselves for sustainable grant funding in the future.