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If The Grant Fits, Write It

Every year hundreds, if not thousands, of grant opportunities come across our desks. Choosing the right ones to pursue can be a daunting task.

Some decisions are easy. A community health center in Florida, for example, is probably not going to submit a proposal for wildlife preservation in Northern Canada.

On the other hand, some grant opportunities may, at first glance, seem beyond the scope of the organization, but, on closer examination, are a fit. A children’s museum may initially pass on a grant to fund the development of arts programs for retirees. By putting a little more thought into it, it may realize that this could be the avenue by which it can finally provide some intergenerational programs—an initiative that has been on its table for some time.

How to Know Which Grants to Go After?

So, how do you know which grants to go after and which ones to disregard? While there are no hard-and-fast rules, there are certain guidelines to which I have tried to subscribe.

First and foremost, I have always believed that chasing grants solely for the sake of the dollars is hardly ever a good idea. Many are the times that I have seen organizations, including ones where I have worked, submit proposals for programs or services that are miles away from the organization’s mission, scope of work, or even its geographic area. Seeking funding for planned expansion is one thing, but forcing the organization to play catch-up to meet the requirements of a new funding source feels too much like the tail wagging the dog.

Before we get into the specifics of the decision-making process, we need to consider some general organizational infrastructure questions:

Is There a Long-range or Strategic Plan?

Does the organization have a long-range or strategic plan? If so, are there provisions within the plan that speak to identifying current and possible new funding streams? Are there guidelines that permit or restrict certain types of funding? I know of one organization, for example, that will not apply for any federal grants. Are there guidelines within the plan for any proposed expansion?

Is Board Approval Needed?

Does any new funding source or new initiative require the approval of the board of directors or other governing body? Some grant proposals actually require a letter signed by the president of the board or a copy of meeting minutes stating that the submission of the proposal was approved. Short of that, the organization itself should have a procedure in place for preapproval of any grant submissions. This can get sticky when grant deadlines don’t coincide with meeting schedules, but I believe this is a very necessary step.

Who Writes the Grants?

Some organizations have dedicated grant writers. In others, the responsibility falls on the CEO. Others delegate it to the particular director or manager of the program or service for which the grant is being written. For me, a team approach is always the best.

How about Demographics?

Does the organization have ready access to client/consumer and community demographics? Demonstration of need is always a big issue in most proposals.

Technological Capabilities

Are the organization’s technological capabilities up to speed? Are the writers adequately trained and experienced in using word processing and spreadsheet programs? Do the writers know how to complete on-line applications, insert documents into the application, and perform other related tasks? Is the organization able to submit electronic applications? More and more grantees are going to a paperless submission process.

With all of that in place, and probably more, you are now ready to make some decisions about which grants to pursue.

Guidelines and Suggestions

Here are my guidelines and suggestions:

Before you even start to write, thoroughly read the entire grant request. Better yet, have two or three people read it. You may find something in it that, for whatever reason, makes you decide to pass on it.

Don’t be thrown by potentially large funding levels. People sometimes write proposals with only dollar signs in their eyes only to regret it later.

If the proposal supplements an existing program or service, is the program or service in a position to expand? If, however, the grant will fill a gap in an existing service or enable it to improve in some way, all the better.

If the grant will create a new program or service, does that service fall within the parameters of the organization’s mission? New initiatives can be a good thing, but not if it takes the organization in an entirely new direction with no consideration as to whether it even wants to go there. Taking on a new focus solely for the sake of the funding will have both short- and long-term implications. If the money is the primary reason for doing so, I’d pass.

Does the grant require matching funds? This is more typical in state and federal grants. Some will allow what’s referred to as in-kind match, such as devoting additional staff, or even volunteer time; facility and other operational costs or other expenses that are not covered under the grant. The question to be answered is, does the organization have the ability to meet those match requirements?

If the grant is for a new program or service or for the expansion of an existing service, is your organization in a position to take on the additional load of that new or expanding service? Some considerations to make:

  • Are your financial staff able to take on a new or expanding budget? Do you even have a finance department?
  • If you are hiring new or additional staff, can the human resources staff manage more people?
  • Do you have adequate management staff in place or will you have to add more directors, supervisors, etc.?
  • Do you even simply have enough additional office space?
  • Can any grant funds be used for additional support staff, extra office space, furniture, equipment, etc.?

What are the reporting requirements for the grant ? Usually, there are program and/or service as well as fiscal reporting requirements. Often these are also tracked electronically. Does the organization have the ability to meet those requirements?

Many grants, particularly from foundations, are time limited. In those cases, the funder will often want to know your plan is to sustain the program or service once the grant is finished. Are you in a position to provide a concrete answer to that question that will satisfy the funding body?

Not so Simple! A Quick Story.

So, you thought this was going to be easy? I find a grant. I write the proposal. I get the funding. Not so simple, is it?

A quick story. While I was working for a large mental health agency, we always had thoughts of opening a satellite clinic in one of the more geographically challenged communities in which we had a presence. After several years of research, along comes the newly formed ABC Foundation. It loved funding mental health services, especially for children, which was our specialty. And it was in the community where we wanted to open our satellite!

The process of submission could not have gone better. We were assigned a liaison who not only reviewed our proposal but provided us with feedback to tweak it before it went to the foundation’s board. The grant was approved for three years as a step-down, meaning that each year the funding would be gradually reduced as the new office eventually became self-sufficient.

The first year of the grant not only included 100 percent of operating expenses but also included funding for start-up expenses , such as furniture, equipment, office renovations, computers, etc.

This experience was one of those “pinch me” moments. All grants should operate this way!

It Takes Time and Patience

Ninety percent of grantsmanship is research. Finding the right grant to fit your needs or priorities takes time and patience. Occasionally, like the example above, an opportunity falls into your lap. Don’t be discouraged if that never happens. It rarely does.

There is also no question that the actual writing of the grant application is a challenge as well, but deciding on which ones to go after is probably the most crucial step in the entire process. The fear is always that if we don’t do it, we will somehow miss the boat or someone else will cash in on dollars that could have been ours. The question remains, though: Is that boat worth getting on? You have to decide.

Tom Butero, LICSW

About the Contributor: Tom Butero, LICSW

Tom hold a masters degree in social work from George Williams College in Illinois and is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) in Massachusetts. He is a member of the National Association of Social Workers.

Tom’s clinical knowledge and experience are extensive, with specialties in the areas of family therapy and treatment services for adolescents. Tom also brings a wealth of expertise in organizational development, administration, and management training. He has served as a program director for several community-based agencies and was the executive director for a youth service agency in Newport, RI.

Tom has taught courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels at George Williams College, the University of Illinois, and Boston University and has presented at numerous local, state, and national conferences on various topics. He has published two articles on diversity training for the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Social Workers and an article entitled "Don’t Chase the Dollars" for the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation & Inspiration (SOFII) in Great Britain.

Tom is currently self-employed as trainer and consultant to both for-profit and nonprofit organizations.

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