By Marci Bernard, Rolfson Group Foundation Specialist

The lure of a big payoff in the form of a grant is attractive to anyone charged with the challenging responsibility of running a small non-profit.  Although the majority of the charitable contributions in this country come from individuals, there is certainly a role for grants to play in your fundraising plans.  Beginning your quest for grant support with an understanding of the steps involved and a realistic expectation of success will increase your chances of securing support for your proposal.

Begin With A Strategy

Before starting down the road to securing grant funds, first answer these questions: Do we have the capacity to do this? And, if so, who is going to shepherd the process from start to finish?

Capacity is always a challenge for small organizations. If you have a staff member who would like to assume responsibility for submitting a foundation proposal, there are a number of free or relatively inexpensive seminars or one-day courses available.  You also might find that you have a board member who has the time and expertise to help secure grants. While not the most difficult of tasks, grant-seeking does take preparation, time, and skill to do it successfully. If you do not think that you have the bandwidth to tackle proposal preparation and submission with your current staffing, there are consultants and freelance grant writers who can help.

Build a Strong Case

If you are confident that you have the capacity to move forward in your grant-seeking effort, the next step is to determine exactly what you want to achieve through grant funding. It is tempting to think, well everything of course! It may even seem possible as you begin to sift through foundation guidelines and read about an interest in arts education and no geographic restrictions.  But, more on that later.

For the most part, foundations would prefer to fund a project or a program.  Many will consider capital requests for new construction or renovation. Some will consider requests for operating support, but those awards are rare, small, and most often made to small non-profits well known to the funder.

What is the most important and well-defined priority that your organization has? Does it respond to a need that you can articulate and for which you can make the case that your project/program addresses that need? Does it have a well thought out budget?  And, here is the real challenge: If the effort you have proposed is funded, is your organization prepared to continue the program beyond the funding period?  If so, how will you ensure sufficient resources to do so?  Likewise, if your request will be for capital support, you will need to have a well-articulated plan for how the new building or renovation will be maintained and how you will ensure sufficient resources to do so,

Do Your Research

Strategy, check. Project plan, check.  Now you need to identify the foundations that have interest and priorities that best match your project.  

There are on-line databases to which you can subscribe.  They can be costly, and until you have an idea of how extensive your organization’s grant seeking will be, there are less expensive and even free options that can help. The Foundation Center on-line offers subscription levels that start at around $400 annually.  This on-line database allows you to search by keyword, interest, geography, and name of a funder.  The Foundation Center also offers limited ability to search its database without a subscription. GuideStar also offers the ability to conduct limited searching without a subscription.

Once you have a list of potential foundation funders, you should delve into what they have funded, which is often not all of what they canfund.  For example, a foundation in Georgia might have an interest in arts education and no geographic restrictions on where it can make grants. A closer examination of its grant history might reveal that all its grants for the last five years have been made to organizations in Atlanta, and thus, it is unlikely that they will fund an institution in Maine. You can find information on grants that have been awarded on a foundation’s website, although many do not have an on-line presence, or on their 990 tax returns on which they are required to list their awards. Both the Foundation Center and GuideStar offer access to foundations’ 990s.  Non-profits in Maine also can access information on funders through the Maine Philanthropy Center, which offers access to the Foundation Center on line and hosts information sessions that allow firsthand access to foundation staff..

Make Contact

Now that you have gathered information on the best foundation matches for your project, you can use a spreadsheet to help organize your information by priority and deadline. Include the foundation’s leadership, board and staff, for you may find that someone from your organization knows someone at the foundation.  These connections can be helpful in learning more about the foundation and gauging whether the request you have in mind is among their current priorities.  

Even if there is no clear-cut connection between your organization and the foundation, it is a good idea to call before you start the proposal preparation process—some foundations will say specifically not to do this, heed their warning.  Otherwise, if there is contact information listed and you can reach someone there, there is often useful information to be gained, such as what the trustees are particularly interested in or perhaps a recommendation to wait for the deadline that falls just after the start of the foundation’s fiscal year because there is a larger pool of funds available.  

Write the Proposal

Once you have determined to submit a proposal, you need to lay out a timeline for producing the proposal, ensuring that everyone involved is aware of their responsibilities and when their pieces are due. 

When you start to draft the proposal and assemble the required pieces for submission, follow the foundation’s guidelines no matter how difficult it makes your job. Provide all the information requested and address all the things that are needed to successfully carry out your project. Writing a proposal is a bit like writing a term paper.  Identify the problem and define the severity of it.  Propose the solution—your project—and describe all the pieces of that project that are needed to solve the identified problem. Include how you will assess the project’s success:  What are your goals and how will you tell if you met them?  

Write in the active voice whenever possible.  Using the passive voice can cause a reviewer to question who is doing something. If the responsible party isn’t identified, will it really get done? Make sure everything that is in your narrative is accounted for in your budget, and make sure that nothing appears in your budget that was not included in your narrative. Work with your finance staff to ensure you haven’t left anything out. If there are staff or board members whose review of the proposal could be helpful, invite their input.

Finally, proof your final version, proof it again, submit, and wait.

Follow up

If your proposal is successful, congratulate yourself, acknowledge the award quickly, and familiarize yourself with the foundation’s reporting requirements.  Set up a stewardship calendar to remind you and others from whom you will need information of the dates on which you will require program and financial materials.  Stay on top of the dates and remind people of them. Everyone is busy, and you want to make sure that the project is moving forward.  If you do encounter any delays or setbacks, reach out to foundation staff to request a “no-cost extension” of the award, which will give you time to adjust and move the project toward its goals.  The successful completion of a foundation-funded project will serve you well for receiving future funding.  Remember to add foundation staff to your mailing and invitation lists. You want them to know you well.

If your request is not funded, don’t be deterred by a negative response.  If possible, follow up the denial by calling or emailing to ask for feedback.  What could we have done differently? Some foundations will say clearly in their guidelines that they may not even let you know that your request was declined, let alone be available to offer individual feedback to those that were declined. Even if you cannot get feedback, keep in mind that the most frequent reasons that foundations reject proposals are: They don’t have enough funds to accept every request; the request falls outside of the funder’s giving interests; or the applicant didn’t follow application guidelines. 

No matter the outcome, be pleased that you have officially begun to seek foundation grants. But remember, beginning a program is not one-shot experiment. You don’t write a single grant proposal; you write many of them. Proposal writing should be an integral part of your overall fundraising program and, when done correctly, will pay off for your organization in the long term.

During more than 25 years as a fundraiser, primarily in corporate and foundation relations, Marci has secured more than $50 million in grant support for a wide range of institutions and organizations, including the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Harvard School of Public Health, and Emmanuel, Bates, and Colby colleges. She is a skilled researcher and strategist, capable of designing and implementing foundation plans to match institutional needs with funders’ priorities.