A Secret to Grant Success: Cultivating Grant Resources

Shhh… I have a secret. Are you ready? Grant funders are people too!!

Not a revelation, you say? The way that most fundraisers treat their grant sources, one would assume that robots – or worse, faceless bureaucrats – make all of the grant decisions. But they don’t. Grant funders are people like you and me. (And, truth be told, faceless bureaucrats are people too!)


So how can we put this newfound knowledge into practice?

Simple. Call or visit a funder before, during and after you write. A grant funder can answer simple questions about the application process, let you know if your organization and project fit their criteria, and start a long-term relationship. They do not want to recite their website or RFP, so do your homework first!

Why is this important? Four reasons immediately come to mind.


1. It saves you time and effort.

It seems counterintuitive, but ADDING a cultivation step saves you time and frustration in the long run. How many of us have time to waste on a grant that cannot succeed?

Grant funders will help you structure your program or project in a way that best meets their goals. I work with two organizations who grant funds (a great way to see the process from the other side… I highly recommend it!). Like all grant funding organizations, both want to use their hard-raised money to benefit the community in specific ways. A colleague recently told me about a grant application he received that clearly missed the program’s purpose. A 15 minute phone call would have saved that grant writer countless hours of wasted effort because the grant could not receive funding as conceived or turned them into productive hours by better matching the program to the goals of the RFP.

If you do not meet their criteria, a funder will let you know that as well. I tell clients that a funder will not tell you that they WILL fund a program, but they certainly will tell you when they will not. (Sometimes I hear, “I never tell a potential grantee NOT to submit an application, but…”) I tell clients to aim for a “not no” during their conversations, although either response lets you move forward with confidence.


2. It prevents mistakes that might disqualify your grant

Many years ago, I worked closely with a foundation to submit a rather lengthy, significant application, not our first to them. When our program officer called me a few days after the deadline to say she could not find a required form, I confessed that I had not included it because I did not see it in their list of required materials. At that point, she could have disqualified the grant. Instead, she gave me a few days to get it in. We had developed that kind of trust.

In her recent blog, Heather Stromberg, GPS, of Just Write Solutions provides some other examples of how a phone call prevented a late application, another disqualifying mistake.


3. It provides readers with insight into your organization

You only have so much room in an application to describe your organization and program. When you get to know a funder, it allows them to fill in some of the blanks that written communication can leave. When I worked in higher education, I brought some faculty members to visit a foundation. They wanted to expand a science education program for elementary school children and teachers. They brought some of the materials used for the experiment and explained their process. How fun to watch the interaction between the faculty and the foundation executives who had their hands on the same materials their funds would provide. (We got the grant.) When I have reviewed grants, inevitably prior knowledge about the organization and its programs enters into the discussion. That is just human nature.


4. You develop a long-term relationship

When you treat grant funders as people, they respond in kind. Soon, a relationship develops. I have worked with some local funders over the last 15+ years and have developed this kind of relationship. Now that I have become a consultant, I call them on behalf of my clients and ask them what they think about a given project. I have developed sufficient social capital with them that the conversations have become more open and honest. One time I had a client who used their grant money for a program other than the one intended. Although not from this foundation, I called a program officer I know to ask her – from her perspective – how they would like to see that kind of situation handled. Having people you know and trust – and who know and trust you – in the funding world can give you perspectives that no one else can.

Do you know all of the grant funders in your local community? Do they know you? If not, pick up the phone and invite them for coffee. Ask them their passions. Ask them their pet peeves when it comes to grant applications. Ask them about themselves. You will find the $5 and hour a worthy investment.

The simple axiom that people give to people underlies this entire concept. Having a relationship with a grant funder is no different than any other major donor. Would you send a proposal to an individual you have never met to ask for money? (OK, that’s called direct mail, but do you want a success rate that mirrors the return rate for acquisition mailings?)