Grant Development Finding Operating Support through Grants


Finding operating grants is the bane of nearly every grant writer’s existence. Funders want something new and exciting, but how are we supposed to develop a new program when we need to keep the lights on?

In my nearly 30 years writing grants, I have come up with a few tricks that have allowed me to successfully secure operating grants from foundations who do not provide operating support. Let me share a few tricks I’ve learned through the years.

Before I jump into the tricks, one thing we never EVER do: lie or apply for one thing and use if for another – that is a quick way to find yourself banned from a funder or from lots of funders – or worse! Instead, re-frame your needs in terms of programs rather than operating support. Aren’t your programs part of your operations anyway? Talk about them that way! I work with a client who helps women find jobs. What does it take to fulfill that mission? People, staff, and operating costs. Instead of asking for operating support, she divides up her activities into programs and has figured out the cost to help one women. When she asks for a grant, instead of asking for support for staff – or better yet, the light bill – she can ask for a grant that will help a certain number of women find a job. Much more compelling, partly because it focuses on the why not the what, the subject of another blog post!

How can you do this for your organization?

  1. Rethink the division between operations and programs. Separate what you do from why you do it. Do you provide programs for different ages or to reach a similar goal in different ways? Do you serve clients in different communities or geographic areas? Consider each a separate program rather than putting them under a single umbrella that you previously called “operating costs.”

  2. Figure out the cost of providing a single unit of service for each program. If you want to pay the light bills and pay your executive director, you need to add those indirect costs in as well. Once you know your cost per unit of services, you can ask a funder to help under write so many units of service. If each unit of service costs you $500 (with indirect costs), then a $5,000 grant will reach 10 clients. Funders who like specificity will like that approach anyway.

  3. Know your clientele. You should know the basic demographic characteristics of your clientele so you can focus your ask to the funder appropriately. Do they like to fund people from a certain geographic area? Ask them to fund your clients from that geographic area? Like to fund a certain age group? Ask them to fund your clients who fall in that age group. Have a particular focus that falls within your mission? This might be victims of domestic violence or breast cancer patients. If you know how many or what percentage of your clientele fit that criteria, you can ask the funder to grant you funds to serve that percentage. That is, if 50% of the women you serve have experienced domestic violence, ask them to fund 50% of your program costs.

  4. Think creatively about your program needs. I have one client who needs operating support. This client serves people coming out of rehabilitation. Clients have to pay a modest fee to join the program, and many do not have the funds to get started in the program so never receive the program’s benefits. But, once they get into the program, they become more self-sufficient which ultimately helps get them back on their feet. Taking a page out of my higher education experience, we asked a funder to provide “scholarships” or funds from which the organization can draw when they have a client who cannot pay to enter the program but otherwise qualifies or experiences a financial hardship in the middle of the program. How does the organization use those funds? As operating funds. Win-win-win for the organization, client, and funder.

  5. Think creatively about what’s new, interesting and exciting about your program. Back to my original premise: funders like something new, interesting and exciting. What ways has or will your program expand or try something new? Expanding into a new geographic area? Serving new clients? When I worked in higher education, we had a science camp for teachers and elementary school children. We received essentially operating support by creating new science experiments to pilot at the summer camp for three years. You may think you are doing the same old, same old, but look at it with fresh eyes to see what other ways you might view your programs and make it new, interesting, and exciting.

These tips do not work with every funder, every organization or in every circumstance. But I have managed to raise significant revenue for organizations to support their ongoing operations using this approach.

How might you rethink your operations as programs to raise more money for your organization?