No one ever said that rolling out a grant writing program is easy.
Unfortunately, many smaller nonprofits think that it is impossible and thereby pass up an inviting source of funding for their causes.
I asked Pamela Grow, of Pamela's Grantwriting Blog, to debunk the myths surrounding grant writing and provide her expert advice about setting up a grant writing program.
Pamela has been on both sides of the grant writing process, having evaluated grant applications for a foundation and then setting up a grant writing program for a nonprofit. She now consults on a variety of fundraising issues and writes about them at her website (see her terrific email course on grant writing).
Pamela says that the following eight myths often hold nonprofits back from seizing their share of the grant giving pie:
- Writing a grant is an instant solution to our money problems.
You don't really try grants...you make a commitment to creating a grants system or program where you're researching grants consistently and making applications for grants frequently. Pamela points out that rarely does a first time grant seeker get funded. Unfortunately, many nonprofits give up after their first grant is rejected. What if you searched for a job in that way? You would give up after the first turn down. But we keep sending out resumes, working our contacts, upgrading our skills, and hanging in there until we get a break. It's the same with grant writing.
- Grants aren't like other fundraising...it's a different animal altogether.
Don't fall into this trap. Grantwriting is just like other types of fundraising. It is all about relationships. It is crucial that you build relationships with funders, just as you do with individual donors. You can start the relationship with the search for funders. Don't hesitate to call a foundation to test the waters...would they welcome your application? Strike up a conversation with a program officer or the founder of a small foundation.
If your grant is rejected, find out why, and if there is anything you can do better or different. Always ask if there is another funding source that they can recommend. Pamela said one such call that she made yielded a 20 minute conversation with a program officer and information about several prospective foundations that she did not know about. Pamela's Grant Proposal Checklist is a big help with this.
- The tough economic climate has caused foundations to cut way back on funding, so what's the point?
It is true that foundation grant making goes up and down, depending on the economy. But don't be discouraged by tough times...you have to start somewhere. Investing in a grants program is like investing in the stock market. Just keep it up through thick or thin. Eventually, it pays off. Remember too, that it may be a year or two before any grants start coming through in any case. Some foundations only meet once a year to make funding decisions. Anticipate the lag time.
- We need operational support and foundations don't provide that.
There has been a shift from programmatic funding toward funding operating costs, which is healthier for organizations. Some organizations have built up program after program in order to get grants and then have trouble supporting the overhead. Fortunately, more and more foundations are now including funding for operational support. Check out how one foundation is doing this.
- We don't know anyone at any foundations.
Actually, you might. As you do your ongoing research for funders, take note of foundation trustees and forward those names to your board to see if there are any connections. One may well turn up. If so, see if your board member will make a call to find out more. Even if you start out with no contacts, you can still get funding, and as you gain experience your contact universe will grow.
- We don't know how to search for funders and the databases are expensive.
Your public library may have the Foundation Center's database which you can use for free at that site. Spend a day or two trying it out. The Foundation Center also offers free online tutorials and webinars in using its database. There are also free databases that will provide basic information on foundations. Pamela offers an online video tutorial using some of these that is very helpful.
- It is too complicated to write a grant proposal.
It isn't. Pamela says that the biggest problem she saw when reading proposals at a foundation was that organizations simply did not follow the guidelines. Foundations typically provide very detailed guidelines and following them is much more important than flowery prose. You can also read sample grant proposals. Pamela's Grant Proposal Toolkit provides several samples of grant proposals as well as a sample database to track your research.
Grant writing is also about simply telling stories. People are going to be reading your proposal and people can be touched by those stories. Use statistics, but then illustrate them with inspiring stories.
- We don't have anyone on staff to write proposals and professional grant writers are too expensive.
First look internally for someone who could learn to write grant proposals. It might be someone you hadn't thought of...even a volunteer. But, if you do feel that you need a professional, don't hire one because you think it is going to be an instant solution. If someone promises that, beware. If your organization has never applied for foundation funding, look for a grant writer who will work with you on educating your staff and transitioning your organization to doing it in-house. Typically, professional grant writers charge $50-$150 an hour while others charge a flat fee for an entire project. You can also hire a grant writer on a monthly basis. See the advice in If You're Looking for a Grant Writer... for more tips about how to find a grant writer.
Don't let your preconceptions keep you from tapping a funding source that could be a vital part of your fundraising mix. Grantwriting takes some work, but it gets easier as your organization gains experience and sets up ongoing systems. The trick is to start today.