When non-profit organizational leaders are talking with me about grant funding, I often hear them make statements like this: “We need to get a grant soon or the board is going to have to lay off half of our education department.”

While that might the painful, truthful reality of why you need this grant, imagine that you are a funder and you see that statement in the cover letter for the grant proposal. Of course, you would never write something like that in a cover letter, or anywhere else in your proposal, for that matter. Still, that kind of message often comes through in more subtle ways throughout your response, and you want to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Getting your intentions and intended impact in the forefront before you start writing can change how you and your team view why you’re going for this grant. That preparatory process can keep a statement like the one above from being the major force driving the proposal, overshadowing the thoughtful process that should be behind your response.

Before you go out to Grants.gov or GrantWatch, or other sites to find the grants that will keep those vulnerable positions staffed, you need to step away from the computer, get in a huddle with your people and start asking some questions.

What does your education department (or whatever team you’re working with) do best in alignment with your mission? Which of their programs have created the greatest measurable direct benefit for people? Do you have good data on that? Think up front about how you are going to handle reporting to the funder, and be realistic about your resources and technical capabilities in this area. Grant administration is all about reporting, and not getting this element together up front can make you regret getting this grant in the long run.

Which programs run by this team have worked most seamlessly? Often, the most successfully administered grants are for programs that have already been humming along and that your team has the mechanics of down to a science.

Of your team’s projects or programs, have some involved considerable collaboration among your organization and others? Many government grants absolutely require that you collaborate with other organizations, many times through official memoranda of understanding among you and the other collaborators. These partnerships require some work and willingness to share funds, but they can take some of the strain off of the organizations involved through sharing complementary resources and capabilities.

Finding That Grant

Now you are ready to go out to those sites and search for grants for which your organization has “the right stuff.” Once you find grants that fit what you can offer, you need to pay close attention to the eligibility criteria, because this can stop you cold before you even start. These not only tell you what types of organizations are eligible, but they can include other criteria such as the collaboration element I mentioned before. If you don’t find anything that excludes you, or that might cause you to have to fudge on your qualifications for your project, then you can dive into the details.

Keep in mind that the key to successfully conveying all of the elements of a grant—the Goals/Objectives, Executive Summary, Need for the Project, Project Proposal, Budget and Timeline, to name some typical parts—is to tell the funders over and over again what you are going to accomplish for them, and convince them you are more than capable of doing it. They don’t want to hear what their money is going to do for your organization. They are risking their funds on you, so they want to be assured you are going to spend them well.

Show them you have the right stuff. Good background for doing this effectively can be found by researching the funder and this type of grant. Go to the funder’s online presence and look at what types of projects and programs they normally fund, and specifically what this grant has funded in the past, if possible.

Getting this information gives you an excellent starting point for developing your own successful messaging, which I detail further in part 2, Eight Tips for Responding to a Funding Opportunity.

Lee Reeder has extensive grant writing, proposal development and grant management experience with clients, and also as an executive director and associate director of non-profit organizations.

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