Successful Grant Wrting

You have a project in mind. A magnificent project! Modest in scope, yet brilliant in structure-capable of improving the lives of every single one of your members/clients. No one else in your community has ever even considered solving this problem in this way. The only hitch is the money thing. As in, you and your organization don’t have enough to even start your project. Time to consider fundraising options and one you’ll definitely want to look into is grants.

NO INTEREST! NO MONEY DOWN! NO PAYMENTS UNTIL… never. Grants are donations of money that you never have to pay back, although you will probably have to provide an accounting of how the money was spent. Over 30,000 agencies, foundations, trusts and non-profits are in the business of giving money to deserving organizations for worthy projects and programs. With a little planning, research and careful proposals, there is no reason your organization cannot obtain some financial assistance with your dream project. An association or organization cannot live by grants alone, but don’t rule them out. While they cannot be counted upon for steady income, grants can be very useful for specific projects or program start-ups.

You have to have an idea to get a grant. An idea that leads to change, that creates something new, that fills a need or solves a problem. Nobody will give you money to bail you out of a hole you’ve dug yourself or just to run your organization. Grants are for funding ideas, and contributors look for ideas that attract them. Ideas should be original. Contributers have looked at a lot of ideas over the years and have a pretty good idea of which ones are likely to work and which are not. Original ideas, particularly if it provides a fresh approach to a known problem, will engender interest and excitement. Problem-solving ideas are also welcome, especially if the idea takes a track that nobody else is following. If there are 37 AIDS education programs in your town, one more isn’t going to elicit much attention or interest unless it takes a completely different approach than the others. If you come up with an idea that takes an original, fresh approach to solving a problem, is timely, and will reach out to affect many people, you may have a project that will seem almost irresistible to contributors.

Make sure your organization is capable of working up to the standards of the agency or agencies you are asking to fund your project, though. No organization wants its name associated with a program that turns into a train wreck. Faith, conviction and enthusiasm are integral as well. If you do not believe in an idea 200 percent, do not pursue it. You can have insecurities and doubts, but you must always believe in what you are doing, be prepared to carry it through, and be able to communicate your enthusiasm.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s say you are in charge of fundraising for the Gotham Gardeners, a non-profit association dedicated to education, decoration, and personal fulfillment through plants. In the past the GG has done things like field trips with inner city elementary students to nurseries and farms, donated free vegetable seeds to low-income families and staffed educational booths at community fairs. Now you want to go bigger, have a more positive effect on more people in Gotham. You want to create a huge community garden in which every inner-city family can have a plot to plant and nurture. It’s never been done in Gotham, but you’ve read that similar programs in other places have been successful in building community, cleaning up inner city areas and promoting a sense of pride in people who participate. Below, you’ll find out what steps the Gardeners go through in order to fulfill their dream.

First, don’t limit yourself to cash grants. Other donations are possible, available and sometimes, easier to obtain. In the early planning stages, the Gardeners meet and iron out every detail of how the project will work. They determine what they already have, what they can pay out of their own budget and what, exactly, they will need to buy, borrow or beg. A three-year plan is decided upon, as it is a reasonable time frame and the program’s success should be starting to show within that time period. They determine what items they may be able to obtain with in-kind or non-cash donations and what cash they will need. They assign a "cash volunteer" to research funding sources for cash grants and a "materials volunteer" to explore corporate and big business sources for the other things on the list. These two volunteers will work closely together, sharing information and adjusting their goals as new information is obtained. For example, the materials volunteer finds that she cannot get anyone to donate trowels, so the cash volunteer adds that to the list of cash requirements. The materials volunteer does, however, find a landlord with a large vacant lot he is willing to donate for the garden, so he can have the donation tax write-off and so he no longer has to pay property taxes on the land. The cash volunteer now adjusts the cash list to remove "rent" and add "tax considerations."

While the cash and materials volunteers are investigating sources, you (or the Gardener’s treasurer, if numbers aren’t your cup of tea) should be taking all the notes the group has made regarding what will be needed and creating a detailed line-item budget or expense list. One reason a detailed budget or expense list is important is, well, you aren’t going to look too good if you ask for too little, then run out of money halfway through your project and can’t finish it. Consider all costs – space, special equipment, paid staff – and don’t forget to adjust for increases in costs over time. Your budget will need to be adjusted several times; when the cash and materials volunteers have completed all their research, when you receive the grant information from your potential sources, and after you’ve written your proposal. The budget is the plan you have for the project, expressed in the language of dollars. The best budgets translate the method section of the proposal into money.

The two volunteers now launch into their research. They get on distribution, bidder’s and mailing lists, to get information on existing, new and emerging funding programs and sources. They check out publications such as The Grant Advisor (The Grant Advisor, PO Box 520, Linden, VA, 22642, (703) 636-1529) and The Government Assistance Almanac (Omnigraphics Inc, Penobscot Building, Detroit, MI, 48226, or Foggy Bottom Publications, PO Box 23462, L’Enfant Plaza, Washington, DC, 20026). One calls The Foundation Center (1-800-424-9836) and orders a copy of their free catalog, Fundraising and Nonprofit Development Publications and Services. The Foundation Center is a clearinghouse for information about the fundraising world.

There are some things to remember when doing the research on contributors. First, the research will take longer than you think. Period. Account for this in your planning. There are literally thousands of potential contributors out there and finding one or two will lead you to others, which will then lead to others and so on. Newspaper and magazine articles can be good places to spot potential contributors. When you see an article about a new community service, theater or art project, or charity event, check to see who funded it and add them to your research list. The categories of support are operating/general support, which provides unrestricted cash to cover the day-to-day operating expenses of the program; special projects, funds earmarked for particular parts of the program; capital/equipment, which can only be used toward the items specified in the grant approval; and endowments, which can, depending upon the organization making the grant, fall into any of the first three categories.

Research geographic location too. Some agencies only fund programs in certain areas, regardless of how virtuous the program; other agencies fund programs that meet their goals regardless of where they are located.

On the topic of goals, government agencies are interested in their goals, not yours, and may not publicize what they have to give, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get the money, if you find a good match. Remember, too, that interest in a program is not the same as demand for the program. Few people or groups will "demand" a program they cannot personally identify with in some way, so you may have to make some changes to your program or market it differently to create demand out of interest. Business leaders and board members are people too; if you show them a program or service they can apply to their own lives, you improve your chances of getting your grant. Because philanthropy is good business, large corporations are inclined to give to worthy projects; however, they will want input into how the money is spent. This isn’t a bad thing – often they can offer streamlining, restructuring and other value-increasing suggestions, or other new ideas your organization may not have considered. You may, if your project can benefit both organizations, even receive valuable volunteer help from the corporation’s employee base.

Once our Gardeners have created a list of potential sources, they begin creating a chart to track all agencies, foundations and organizations from which they plan to obtain additional information. They have winnowed out groups with whom they have no mutual interests or those who do not fund projects in Gotham. Right now, the chart is only half full-it has names, addresses, sketchy funding requirements and blanks that will eventually contain deadlines, proposal guidelines, other information requested by the agency, people willing to provide testimonials, endorsements and other supporting documents, and notes about funding preferences in terms of style, tone, format, etc.

The next step is to contact every one of the organizations on the list. Contact them by letter and keep it short and simple. Request grant guidelines, forms and a copy of the organization’s annual report. Don’t mention your idea at all at this stage. Once you have received the information you asked for, you may eliminate a few more organizations from your potential donors list. Create a data sheet for each potential funding. Include names, addresses, total assets, total grants given, grant ranges, priorities and preferences in funding, populations served, officers, application requirements, information sources, etc. Check out the structure and stability of the organization from whom you are considering requesting funding. While they may have a mandate in their charter or bylaws to provide grants, if they’re scrambling for every penny themselves, they may not be the most dependable source of funding for your organization. EVERY individual who has helped the Gotham Gardeners will be receiving a handwritten thank you note from either yourself or the president. Not only are thank you’s the correct, polite thing to do, but they will make your organization and your project stand out in a positive way in the person’s mind. Even if, after you have solicited feedback about your proposal, you receive negative comments, the person still gave you their time and expertise and should be thanked with a note.

Having trimmed their list to a few likely possibilities, the Gardeners divide those possibilities up by the type of donation they may be able to obtain. One group contains a foundation that gives to community projects, one that contributes to urban improvement projects and two that have supported a number of small association projects. This is the "cash grant" group; the group from which the Gardeners hope to obtain money for the costs of their project. The second group includes businesses from whom the Gardeners hope to get in-kind donations. That group includes a nationwide hardware chain, a national seed company and a company that makes organic, all-natural agricultural products like fertilizers and weed-killers. You, as project funding coordinator, ask for a volunteer that can write well, to make the initial contacts with these potential sources. A volunteer, a retired English teacher, comes forward. She drafts a letter to each potential donor, requesting only grant-application information and a copy of the organization’s annual report. No mention is made of your project at this stage.

It is best to make your initial request for information in writing. There is an etiquette to communicating with contributors, and the worst thing you can do for your cause is to harass an overworked foundation worker. Don’t telephone for information. In general, don’t call too often, although a follow-up call after you’ve submitted your proposal is fine, to demonstrate your continued interest and concern.

At the same time she is composing the information/contact letters, the letter volunteer is also composing letters to leaders of groups with which the Gardeners have worked in the past, former members of the Gardeners (only those who left on good terms), community leaders who are familiar with the Gardener’s past works, and anyone else who might have a good word to say about the group. Each of these people will be asked to contribute a testimonial letter or endorsement attesting to the dependability, commitment, dedication, capability, and/or other virtues of the Gotham Gardeners. These testimonials and endorsements will form the core of your supporting documentation when it is time to put your proposal packets together. Human nature being what it is, even the most well-meaning supporter may be late in getting you the letter you requested, so ask early. Because these letters will be about the association as a whole, rather than the specific project at hand, they can be used for any foundation you will be soliciting for grant funds.

Some professionals are frantically busy, and some people just hate to write anything longer than a grocery list, so if someone offers to sign a letter of recommendation or endorsement if you will write it, take them up on it. Get some suggestions from them on what details they would like included, write the letter, and get the signature. Some fund raising coordinators have questioned this practice, but as long as the person signing the letter has a chance to read it before putting their name on it, there is no moral, ethical or legal reason not to take advantage of their willingness to lend their name to your cause.

Local newspapers, national newspapers, web articles, and magazines are all good sources for articles either showing your organization’s accomplishments or articles illustrating the need for the project you want to fund. Clip them and file them neatly as you find them so you can have them all together when you need them for your proposal. Articles showing the success of similar projects in other cities or regions are also helpful, both to demonstrate that your project can work too, and as a possible source of another testimonial or endorsement. Track down the person responsible for the featured project and ask them for a letter confirming the positive results of the project in their area.

Don’t be afraid to contact prominent people in the field (the worst they can do is say "no") and ask a lot of people. As endorsements come in, read through them carefully. Weed out anything that doesn’t really address the strengths pertinent to the project or any that are less than glowing. A lukewarm endorsement, no matter how well-known the writer, is no help. Don’t forget to send a thank you note to anyone who contributes a letter or endorsement, whether you ultimately use their letter or not.

At this point, the Gotham Gardeners have completed about half of the steps required to get their Group Garden project off the ground (or into the ground, as the case may be.) They’ve decided on a project, researched the viability of the project and figured out what needs to be done to make it work. They’ve researched dozens of potential funding resources and narrowed the field to those organizations most likely to be interested in their project, see the need for it and be willing to help make it a reality. They have a first draft of a project budget, charts and worksheets to track information about potential contributors and information received from those contributors. A filing system has been set up to organize project-related materials and testimonials and endorsements have been solicited. A Gardener volunteer is watering her begonias with one hand and reading newspapers and magazines for relevant articles with the other. Thank you notes have already been mailed to anyone who has helped in any way with the research or the documentation. The groundwork has been laid for the remaining steps: receiving and reviewing proposal guidelines from each potential funding; writing proposals, completing application forms, and assembling proposal packets; giving presentations (in some cases-not every foundation requires a personal presentation); implementing the project, and following up on the outcome.

Foundations and contributors vary in their requirements. Some have only an application form to be completed and submitted; others require a written proposal; some will want an abstract with a description of your project before they proceed with a form or proposal; some want a proposal and an application; some want a live presentation; some want all of the above or a combination of these items. You should have received the requirements and forms, if any, along with the organization’s annual report. Now, the most important thing to remember is this: Follow The Instructions! Most federal agencies and many state, local and corporate grantors have very specific guidelines on the information they need and the format in which it should be presented. If a 200-word abstract is requested, a detailed 15-page proposal won’t do. As a grantor may receive anywhere from 10 to 30 or more proposals for every grant it has to give, they will not waste time with submissions that don’t meet their criteria. They tend to assume that if you can’t read the instructions, you aren’t what they are looking for. Your proposal won’t even get read if it doesn’t follow the guidelines.

No matter what format is requested, there are a few basics to keep in mind. Keep it simple and clear. Write the proposal in plain language. Resist the urge to promote projects with pompous piffling prose that may perplex potential presenters of pelf. If you don’t already have one, invest in a good quality word processor or work with a typist. Handwritten proposals are frowned upon, and there is no excuse for grammatical errors, misspellings or typographical errors. Titles count, spelling counts, clarity counts. Eye-catching is good, busy, cluttered or tacky is bad. Clichés are not good, but using buzz words important to the funding is good. "Multicultural" "empowerment" and "accountable" are good examples. Use an energetic, positive writing style. If you have any doubts at all, ask what the funding wants. Most are limited for time and would much rather get a proposal that gives them the information they want, in the format they want. Don’t overwhelm your prospect with information they don’t want, need or ask for. Ask if you can send a draft on which they can scratch some notes and return to you for revision. Also, ask about tone – would they prefer academic, folksy, more or less detailed?

The Gardeners have turned the proposal-writing honors over to you, their fundraising coordinator. You may wish to make an outline for your own use, to make sure you don’t forget any required information as you are writing. "The devil is in the details." The devil, maybe; the money, definitely! The first step is to write for yourself a "mission statement" for your idea. This statement should be brief, yet effectively convey what the project or program is, and why it is unique. This mission statement will be your base, a touchstone to which you can refer as you prepare the details and "how-tos." Also, have one writer, and a review team of several people. That gives the writer an opportunity to get needed feedback from "fresh eyes" and make corrections and clarifications before sending the proposal off.

It is a good idea to use graphics to make your proposal eye-catching and easy to read, but be consistent and use good, basic layout principals; i.e. balance, careful use of white space. Use shaded headings, boxed sections, italics, boldface, but not all of them at once. Flowcharts are quick and easy ways to depict the procedures a program will follow.

Start with a need statement. A need statement describes a critical condition affecting certain people or things in a specific place at a specific time. The need statement (generally one to three pages) has four requirements: relate to the purpose and goals of the organization; be supported by organization experience; be realistic for your organization’s size and scope; and be stated from your client’s perspective and express a client need, rather than an organization need. The statement of need should follow the basic newspaper format of who, what, when, where, why, and how. Who needs help, where are they, when is the need evident, why does this need occur, and how is the need linked to your organization. Supply evidence that there is a problem and information on the consequences of meeting the need. If no one would be affected if the program didn’t happen, why do it? And why expect someone to give you money to do it?

Next is the Goals and Objectives section of the proposal, to give a clear picture of the desired results. One easy way to ensure you are writing a good objective is to start your objective with wording such as "To reduce…" "To increase…" "To decrease…" Goals and objectives should be written focused on the outcome. You need to answer these questions: Areas of change, target population, direction of change, time frame, and degree of change.

Next comes the Methods section. A "method" is a detailed description of the activities to be implemented to achieve the ends specified in the objectives. First, specify what kind of grant you need. Give the funding a clear picture of all the steps you will take to accomplish each objective you have listed in your goals and objectives section. These items should be clearly tied to your budget lines or expense list. Justify the cost. Every dollar a foundation or agency gives to you is one less they can give somewhere else, so they must see that you are worth the cost. This is also where a timeline for the project should be included. Some no-no’s to watch out for when approaching corporations: don’t ask for too little or too much – you may appear either dishonest or unrealistic; don’t have a track record of hurdles knocked over instead of jumped; don’t expect a big response for controversial projects; you’re almost sure to get turned away if you’ve never heard of quality management or performance measurement.

Finally, the proposal should wind up with an evaluation plan, so you can effectively demonstrate that your program was successful. Contributers expect to know the ways an organization will measure the success of a project. You can’t just take the money and run. Most contributors are accountable to the people who gave them the money in the first place, and will expect you to get cracking on your project just as you specified in your proposal time line. If you get the money, then sit on it, you’ll probably never receive another dime in grant money. In giving you money, the funding is saying they have faith in your project and your organization’s ability to do it well. Don’t break that faith. You can’t tell if you’ve achieved your aims unless you have some method in place for evaluating success. No one will give you money for something you cannot demonstrate worked.

The final narrative section of the proposal should also include future funding strategies, showing how you plan to keep the program running. The more specific you are in citing your future funding strategies, the more confidence you will inspire in your potential contributors that the project will continue after they go away.

Some contributors require a presentation, some don’t. As a rule, there’s no need for personal contact with contributors unless they initiate it. "Don’t call us, we’ll call you" really works with contributors. They may contact you for more information, but if they do not, it is not an indication that they are not interested in your proposal. Some foundations just do everything on paper. One follow up call from your association is usually enough, and make sure you keep a phone log of everyone you speak to, when, and about what.

If a presentation is requested, make sure the person chosen to give the presentation is passionately committed to the project (most likely, the person who came up with the idea), able to effectively communicate that enthusiasm, and very, very well-versed in all the details of the project. For the Gotham Gardeners, that will be you, their fundraising coordinator. You want to be able to answer any question the potential donors may have without shuffling through a stack of papers or forms. Answer only what the funding asks. Most of their questions are purposeful and they won’t be overly impressed if you run on and on or move in different directions. Keep to the point (this is also true for proposal forms and questionnaires). If you are asked questions, answer with the same language and style you used in the written proposal.

The Gardeners have submitted all the right forms to all the right people. Detailed proposal packets with supporting documentation have been submitted. One of the businesses asked for a presentation and you did a stunning job. Time to relax and wait for the checks and donations to be delivered? Not at all! Don’t waste the "free" time you have while you are waiting for a decision from the organizations you solicited. Get feedback on first-draft proposals you’ve submitted (using your one follow up phone call). Ask what you may have left out or on what areas they would like more information. It provides you with valuable information while showing the prospective donor that you are serious about meeting their criteria as exactly as possible. While you don’t want to do anything that might be considered as "bribery" – taking a donor coordinator to lunch, for instance – sending reprints of articles pertinent to the agency’s interests or that will stimulate interest in your project is not considered questionable, and is often appreciated as a professional courtesy. Use this waiting time to update the proposal, if needed; update all charts, forms and files; create a fallback plan in case you aren’t funded, and do your research on other likely contributors, in case you need to try somewhere else.

The Gotham Gardeners succeeded beyond their own expectations. After receiving hearty checks from the community projects donor, the urban improvement donor and both small association donors, as well as donated rakes, seeds and barrels of fertilizer and weed killer, their inner-city garden is sunning its leafy self in the summer sun. Teens who, before the project, had little to occupy their time during the summer are learning how to raise a respectable tomato and families weed and water together in the evenings. As a result of the documented success of the project, a couple of agencies have actually approached the Gardeners about funding future gardens.

You can accomplish your project too, if you believe in it and are willing to do the work to make it happen. A prospective donor may say no, but they can’t say yes unless you ask.