Are You Grant Ready?

When I talk to organizations about grant seeking, I usually hear one of two responses: over-enthusiastic support (“Let’s get a grant… it will solve all of our problems!”) to abject resignation (“We can never get a grant”).

Admittedly, I tend to fall more toward the former than the latter, seeing grant possibilities all around. That said, even I admit that not every project or organization should apply for grants or focus on grant seeking to fund their activities.


The following five questions will help you decide if your organization or project has the qualities needed for grant success.


1. Do you have access to a good writer?

It should go without saying, but trust me, it needs said: good writing lies at the heart of grant seeking. The poor quality of some of the grants I have reviewed for different organizations astonishes me. Incomplete sentences, poor grammar, and narratives that do not come close to answering the questions fill these applications. If you do not have good writing skills, look to staff with other responsibilities, volunteers, clients, or even your local college or AFP chapter for assistance. If you do not have someone who can write a coherent argument, look for funds elsewhere (while looking for a good writer or honing your own skills).


2. Do you have a well-defined program? 

Grants require that you clearly articulate the identified need and how you plan to meet that need. Having a formal strategic plan that verifies the organization’s capacity and desire to undertake this project helps your case, but you can proceed without such formal documentation (although I strongly urge you to create a strategic plan to guide your organization regardless of your funding strategy). If you cannot clearly express the need for your program beyond “we want it,” define who it will benefit, or how you will implement and sustain it, you need to go back to the drawing board. Most reviewers quickly spot an underdeveloped plan and will reject your application.


3. Do you plan to undertake this program anyway? 

Too many organizations chase grant dollars, creating programs to fit the needs of the funder instead of finding funders who will support the organization’s plans. I wholeheartedly advocate changing the way you describe a program to meet the needs of a funder – focusing on how it will help children for one funder and how it might serve older adults for another – but this should not change the fundamental nature of the program itself. I believe too many people who shy away from grants have burned themselves by creating extra programs and then finding the grant requirements as a burden rather than a boon to their bottom line.


4. Can you describe the program as new, sexy, innovative? 

Unfortunately, most grant funders want to move the needle on an issue by funding a new approach. While some have begun to recognize the need to sustain current programs, those funders remain in the minority. Even with funders who underwrite current operations, many prefer that you eventually wean off of their dollars so they can spread their wealth around more broadly (literally!). Sometimes you can describe a certain aspect of your program as new (e.g., the topic for your annual educational series) or reach out to a new population (e.g., a way to get older adults involved in your existing arts program) to keep funders engaged. However, if you continue to offer the same program year after year, you may find it time to switch from grant funding to another avenue. I work with two local organizations facing this dilemma. Both offer high quality programs and have for 25 and 30 years, respectively. Each year they find more and more grant funders denying their funding requests. What to do? Look to question #5.


5. Does another – better – avenue exist for raising funds for this program or organization? Does the project have broad community appeal or exposure?

Look at corporate sponsorships. You will want good demographic data on your participants so you can approach companies who want to reach that audience. One of the organizations I mentioned above has begun to transition to more of a corporate strategy with great success. A long-standing community event, companies want to affiliate themselves with the event and with its participants. But, it takes a different set of skills and time commitment from your staff and volunteers to cultivate and solicit corporate sponsors. If your program does not have such a wide community appeal or exposure, start to identify personal donors with an interest and passion in this type of program. Invite them to underwrite a portion of the program for a few years then ask them to endow it so it can continue well into the future. With that program’s funding taken care of, you can focus on the next project for the organization. I know of few non-profits with a shortage of ideas to improve their mission!


When looking at your priority projects, ask yourself, “Are you grant ready?”