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Baby Steps in Grant Planning

Even the most seasoned development professional can become a deer in the headlights when thinking about the prospect of grants planning and writing. I know how this feels. From day one of my career, it has been a challenge to hone the right system for doing this planning for each unique group with whom I worked. Not everyone in the organization has the same priorities as I do – even though they consistently chant the mantra “We need more money!”

So, how do you get your system in place to make sure that you are comfortable with your own timetable, and communicating in a way that gets you what you need for a high-quality grant application that has a higher probability of being funded?

Laying it all out

Here are some steps that will help you avoid some of the frustration and delays that make you want to scream into a pillow. This is by no means an exhaustive list – that would take an entire book or several books to describe – just ask the folks who’ve written them.

Get started before the next fiscal year

Get started before the next fiscal year by talking with the key staff and volunteers. In my case, these are the CEO, development committee chair, finance officer, and head administrators) who helped set our development goals; Get their feedback on the broad goals of the organization. Are they looking to build infrastructure; seek more program funding; do a capital project; or do something altogether different. Explain why you are asking them for this information and be sure to tell them how important they are in the development process. Most people in nonprofits don’t understand development or know how they fit into the development process.

Sketch out your broad goals for development

Start sketching out your broad goals for development because not all of the funds you need to raise may fit into a grant category. There are some great articles and templates for development planning at the following sites:

  • Creating a Fund Development Plan That Produces Ownership and Results. [Article]
  • Strategic Planning for Your Organization and Its Fund Development [Article] (pay particular attention to page 18 – grants planning steps)
  • Columbia College Chicago, Grant Planning & Development Checklist [Article] (a more detailed sample of grants planning)

Review the plan

Review with the key staff and volunteers the plan you have created to make sure that you have captured their thoughts.

List the categories

List the categories of projects for which people have requested funds and evaluate them alongside the kinds of fundraising activities of your organization. Some questions to ask yourself are: What blend of activities (major gifts, grants, planned giving, special events, sponsorships, direct mail, etc.) does your group perform? Which of the needed items lend themselves to grants? Some activities may be good fits for several types of “asks” including grants.

Create a calendar of grants

Create a spreadsheet calendar of grants. Include the following information:

  • due date
  • sent date
  • probability of funding
  • foundation name
  • contact name
  • contact email
  • contact phone
  • grant type (corporate, private, donor advised, federal, state, etc.)
  • funding category (program, capital, etc.)
  • actual name of project for which you are requesting funds
  • amount of funds that you are requesting
  • date grantor makes grant decisions
  • notes
  • amount awarded

Research online

Do research online under the categories for which you need the funds. Be sure you are looking under the right general category for the funds (education, housing, elderly, youth, etc.). Sub-categories that fall under the type of organization tend to be things like programs, general operations, special activities such as extra-curricular projects, professional development/training, and capital projects.

Some great places to find grant leads are:

  • Local grant managing organizations whose function it is to manage donor advised funds or corporate grants. For me, it is Greater New Orleans Foundation.
  • Foundation Center (you have to be a member).
  • Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (over 1,900 federal grant opportunities listed with summary sheets – a real asset considering the incredible nightmare it is to slog through federal grant applications).
  • State grants sites (for me it is the LADOE).
  • Your board of directors! You’d be surprised what leads you can find from them if you poke them a little.

Gather summary sheets

Gather the summary sheets for each of the relevant grants to put with the calendar. Assemble the application pieces.

Call ahead to each grantor

Call ahead to each grantor contact to make sure that you are eligible. Establish a relationship with them. It will be the most valuable time you invest to make the grant successful.

Post the deadlines

Post the deadlines on your calendar to remind you that the grant is coming up. I use Outlook for my reminders.

Keep a computer file

Just to save time for any application processes, keep a computer file of the usual attachments for applications. These generally include the IRS tax determination letter, audited financials, operating budgets, program budget, grant budget (you will usually be asking for partial funding for the activity so they want to see how your request fits into the actual project budget), board list, key program staff list, and an IRS Form 990 for your organization.

Re-read the application

Read, re-read, and read again the application. There are almost always things that need clarification before you can request monies from others or begin writing.

Outline project narrative

Sketch out your outline for the project narrative. This will help crystallize your thinking in both the actual writing and for data gathering from various sources.

Gather statistics

Start gathering statistics that you will need for each grant. You will usually have to ask others for their statistics and for their program budgets. We all know that this takes oodles of time.

Start writing

Start writing.

Final thoughts

The main things to remember are that you will need a lot more lead time than you think to plan out and write a grant (especially for government applications). Grant competitions sometimes overlap. People from whom you need information often take a long time to respond with information you need. There is a nearly endless list of reasons that you will run short of time if you haven’t planned enough writing time.

It is much better to submit ahead of the grant deadline because it makes you look more organized and better prepared. You may even get feedback from the group to help better develop your application before it is submitted for final consideration.

Murphy’s Law of grant writing will almost always apply: anything that can go wrong will go wrong. And if you feel the need, scream into your pillow just as a therapeutic step. It will all work out.

In short, plan ahead, be prepared, and jump in.

Jeanne Huber

About the Contributor: Jeanne Huber

I have been a nonprofit manager for over 23 years. In addition to actual workplace experience, I have advanced education in nonprofit management and an MBA and a professional certification in fundraising.

My experience includes work in arts, animal welfare, education, and human service.

My background includes program development and management, volunteer coordination, major special events (including a one-day, multi-parish volunteer project for United Way), marketing, fundraising, budget management, staff management, board development, major gift development (gifts up to $2 million), capital campaign management, database management, and crisis communications.

I have written newspaper columns, an article for a national organization’s newsletter, and been a published poet. During two of my positions, I did television and radio segments for animal welfare groups.

During a brief period, I was a nonprofit consultant to several groups in California during which I consulted on fundraising, marketing, and budget management.

I have also held many volunteer leadership positions in local community organizations in each of the five states in which I lived.

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