What makes one grant proposal successful while others fall miserably short despite lovely prose, ingenious grants searching techniques, and stunning adherence to grantmaker guidelines?
Thomas Wolf, author of How to Connect With Donors and Double the Money You Raise (Emerson & Church, 2011), provides some clues in his chapter, "Grantmakers Need Attention Too."
- Write the grant proposal with real people in mind.
Wolf says that certain grant applications stand out because it is obvious that the grant writer understands that real people are behind the grants, and that they have opinions and feelings. Grant proposals that speak directly to those people are usually successful. They are not the grants that are "cut and pasted or assembled by formula."
- Find ways to get to know the people behind the grant giving apparatus.
Wolf suggests that once you decide to seek a particular grant, the focus must be on the people who will make the decision. He asks, "Who are they? What can you learn about them? What excites them? What kinds of organization are they funding and for what? Is there a pattern? Is there some way you or a member of your board or a volunteer can get access to them? Is there a strategy to build a relationship?"
Wolf relates how, when he was a grant seeker, he would not submit a proposal until he had talked with someone at the foundation or company to which he was applying. If there was any chance that he might be able to meet with an individual personally, he would put off submitting a proposal even if it meant waiting for months.
- Make sure that grantmakers are part of your professional and social circles.
Wolf points out that there is a new trend in philanthropy called "initiative" grant making. The old way (and still the one many foundations follow) was "responsive" where foundations basically posted their interests on their websites and then waited for charities to send in proposals.
The "initiative" approach is completely different. Grantmakers identify an area to fund and then seek out nonprofit partners they think will do a good job in addressing that priority. There is no application process for the first round. Rather, proposals are invited from a pre-selected group. Not on that foundation's radar scope? You're out of luck. The only way to be in that loop is to find ways of interacting with the funder on a regular basis.
- Find out who really calls the shots and to whom you should be addressing your appeals, questions, and friend-making efforts.
With small foundations, that is fairly simple, but for large, more complex foundations, it can get pretty difficult. The program officers are often good bets although not always. Again, if you have already made some contacts with the foundation's board members, program officers, and even other grantees, it will be easier to figure out who are the most important people.
The most important does not always mean the most highly placed. Wolf recounts sitting in on a grantmaker session and found that the receptionist was at the table. When one nonprofit's name came up, the receptionist related that the contact person there had been rude, insistent, and difficult. Guess whose proposal was squashed?
- Always follow up after a grant proposal rejection or acceptance.
Never burn your bridges even if your proposal is at first rejected. Most first time proposals do get turned down. Instead call and say "thank you for considering my proposal." Then ask for some constructive criticism. You may learn something crucial that will make your second proposal click. You may also learn about other grantmakers that might be more appropriate for your needs.
If your proposal is funded, do a dance through the office and then call with a sincere thank you. Follow that up with a written thank you. Remember, grantmakers are people. They like attention as much as your regular donors do.
After reading Wolf's book, I got in touch with him and asked for a few more specifics about just how nonprofits can get personal with foundations. He answered:
"There is nothing mysterious about the process of getting to know people at foundations. It is similar to networking to meet other busy people. What makes it somewhat easier is that you are doing it on behalf of an organization that, presumably, is doing good work and the business of people in philanthropy is to find such organizations. What makes it harder is that you will have a lot of competition for the time of foundation people.
"My own experience is that nothing is more effective than using the name of another grantmaker-colleague. If such a person is willing to make an introduction for you, so much the better. Unless your organization has never received a grant, you have a built in place to start by discussing your challenge with the grantmakers who have already funded you.
"Another approach is to look at the contacts that your own board has with people in philanthropy. Still another is going to grant-maker sessions at conferences and introducing yourself at the end of a presentation to line up a follow-up. The strategies are endless and are only limited by time and energy."
Wolf's book, How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise is full of practical advice on how to engage with donors, large and small. It's not another tome on social networking, but a call for a return to face-to-face engagement with the people who fund your organization.
- 8 Grant Writing Myths Busted
- Is Your Nonprofit Ready to Apply for Foundation Grants? 10 Questions to Ask
- After the Grant Rejection
Disclosure: I was provided a review copy of the book from the publisher.