Three steps to winning more grants

Grants are not a game of chance -- but, even so, you can improve the odds of being funded if you play by these rules!

1) Have a conversation with the funder prior to developing your proposal

It can be tempting to jump into the deep end of writing a proposal without talking to the funder first. But even if you think that you understand the guidelines and that your project is likely to be a good fit, it always helps to have a thoughtful and thorough conversation with the funder before doing the time-consuming work of proposal writing.

Except in the rare cases when a funder's guidelines explicitly discourage grantseekers from contacting them, most private foundations and grant-making public agencies are open to hearing from potential applicants. Some even hold public information sessions to explain their RFPs or new initiatives. You can expect funders to have a system in place to answer potential grantees' questions, especially if they have professional staff.

Be sure to take the following steps prior to contacting the funder:

  • Read the grant guidelines carefully and highlight anything that is unclear.
  • Research the funder's prior giving history to determine patterns in grantmaking and how your organization might complement their docket.
  • Confer with your program staff to determine which projects that meet the guidelines are of highest priority to pitch.
  • Write a set of talking points/questions, to be followed as you talk to the funder. This will ensure that you cover all the bases and bring good information back to your colleagues.

2) Document that your nonprofit's board provides strong support -- including, ideally, 100% board giving.

For valuable insight into how foundation leaders think, check out this ten-minute video from Movie Mondays featuring Craig Stewart, the president of the Apex/Bruce & Jolene McCaw Family Foundation.

As Stewart explains, grantmakers look for evidence that a nonprofit's board is truly committed to the organization.

Before a foundation will be willing to write a check to a nonprofit, the foundation typically wants to see that the board members themselves are also writing checks. They want to know that each board member prioritizes this particular nonprofit above others.

As a grant proposal writer, you don't necessarily have much control over how the board interacts with the nonprofit's Executive Director and Development Director -- and, indeed, whether 100% of the board does give. But you can create proposal documents that demonstrate your board's commitment to the organization, presenting this information in the best possible light (while still being accurate).

One piece of paper that can make or break your grant proposal is the board giving statement.

Often, grant proposal guidelines require you to state what percentage of the board has made a financial contribution in the current or prior fiscal year. Even if the foundation doesn't ask for this information, it can be advisable to include it, either in the section of the proposal that provides background information about your nonprofit or in a stand-alone one-page document.

If your organization has a Development Director or individual gifts staffer, you'll want to work with this person to write the board giving statement. No board is perfect, and if you find that your board falls short on the 100% board giving ideal, you should briefly explain extenuating circumstances as seems appropriate.

Along with the  basic financial information documenting board members' direct cash donations to the organization, you may want to include supplemental detail that helps to tell the full story of board commitment. You can include quotes from board members about why they value serving on your board, and data on how board members have advanced the nonprofit in recent years (such as number of private fundraising events hosted by board members).

3) Follow up assiduously after you submit the proposal

Your job isn't done when you hit "submit" on the online application or when you put the proposal in the mailbox. Tenacious follow-up can get you funded. 

While being respectful of a program officer's time and being tuned into social cues, you can still persistently track the progress of your proposal and be ready to address any issues that come up along the way from the funder's receipt of the proposal to its ultimate funding decision.

Many successful grant professionals have the habit of contacting the funder to confirm that they received the proposal and ask if there were any initial questions about the project. You can do this follow-up about a week after submitting the proposal.

Through this conversation, you might be able to find out the date of the board meeting at which the proposal will be considered.  Depending on your rapport with the program officer, you can then plan to follow up shortly after this board meeting to ask about the status of the application.

If the application was funded, your job is to say thank you! But if it was not funded, then you can find out what went wrong and if it can be fixed.

Among the reasons that a proposal is turned down for funding are:

  • The funder simply didn't have enough money to support all eligible projects. Some private foundations have more money to distribute early in the fiscal year, so a program officer might advise you to re-submit the proposal for the first board meeting of the next year.
  • Your proposal didn't comply with guidelines or didn't make a compelling case for funding. If this is the case for you, honestly assess whether these issues can be addressed in order to re-submit a more competitive version of your proposal. In the best scenario, the program officer will tell you candidly if it will be possible to modify the proposal to be a better fit for the foundation.
  • Program staff or trustees liked the overall application, but didn't want to support one part of the project. In some cases, a foundation will turn down a proposal because certain budget line items (anything from staff training to software upgrades) raised a red flag. Simply removing these line items from the budget and project plan can get your proposal approved in a future funding round.