When To Compete for National Grant Funding

“Why aren’t we getting grants from national foundations?”

Nonprofit fund development directors may get this question from their executive directors or from members of their boards. It’s easy to understand why nonprofit leaders want national grant funding: grants from national foundations are typically large compared to grants from local foundations and may come with prestige, credibility, and media attention.

But not every nonprofit organization is bound to get a grant from a national funder. And because applying to national funders is highly competitive and time consuming, it’s important that nonprofit leaders take a practical and realistic approach to vetting their chances.

Should your organization seek out grant funding from a national foundation? One of the key factors to consider is the reach of your organization’s impact. To appeal to a national funder, either one of these conditions should be true:

Either your organization’s service footprint is in a geographic location that matches to a national foundation’s area of focus OR your organization is addressing a high-priority problem or issue that isn’t tied to a specific location.

Most national foundations fall into one of these two categories:

  • National foundations that care what happens in a particular place. Organizations that focus their programs and services in a specific location may identify national foundations that have made that location a priority. The Kresge Foundation, for example, has a “Detroit” grant making area because the city is the foundation’s hometown. The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation is a North Carolina-based foundation that focuses its grant making in Central Appalachia and a handful of states.
  • National foundations that care about advancing solutions to a particular problem, regardless of where it takes place. Organizations that can demonstrate how their strategies can be replicated or expanded to different people and places may be able to attract “big picture” types of national funders. Foundations concerned with solving big challenges are focused on fixing the problem, not the place. Rockefeller Family Fund, for example, invests in improving workforce conditions for women by making grants to organizations across the U.S. taking steps to reform paid leave policies.

An additional category has emerged with the rise of “mega grants.” With increasing frequency in the past several years, national foundations have released high-profile competitions for extraordinary grant amounts. These competitions can be location-focused or problem-specific. The MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition, for example, awards a single grant of $100 million to any nonprofit or for-profit entity, located anywhere, with a compelling solution to a critical problem. Google.org meanwhile has zoned in on particular cities, recently including Cleveland, to award grants to nonprofits creating local economic opportunity. Most recently, JPMorgan Chase has combined place and problem in issuing its AdvancingCities challenge, which will award grants up to $3 million to nonprofits aligned both to the company’s geographic footprint and its goal to tackle persistent poverty.

There are other criteria an organization should meet to be most competitive for a national grant, including:

  • The presence of a human connection to the foundation
  • Strength of the organization’s track record
  • Reputation of its team
  • Evidence of impact
  • Sophistication of evaluation methods and metrics
  • Savviness of staff and board leaders to build and maintain relationships

All these are indicators of a healthy organization that is more “ready” for a grant from any funder, especially a national funder. But a national grant is unlikely to come based on the merits of the organization alone. Like any grant funder, a national foundation decides to make grants that will further its own mission and priorities.

The starting point for a hopeful grantee must be identifying an alignment to a national foundation’s funding focus—which is typically about solving a problem or fixing a place.

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