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Sheila Lischwe

About Sheila

Introducing a Grants Program at a Small Non-Profit: Opportunities and Challenges

Many of us are one-person development shops in small non-profits that typically rely on annual appeals as our main sustenance. Integrating a grants process into fundraising activity more than supplements these annual appeals -- it can take the organization to the next level of development. Before sending off that first proposal, however, there are some fundamental tasks that must be addressed before a full-fledged grants program can take off. Each of these tasks comes with their own opportunities and challenges.

I. Conduct a Due Diligence Effort with the Files and Database
The first order of business is to gauge the extent of any previous private support the organization has received, and the nature of any proposals that have been submitted. Small organizations typically do not have well-developed tracking systems, so it is crucial that you thoroughly review all paper files and record any previous grant support the organization has received, and what the purpose of that support has been. Submitting a proposal to a funder without acknowledging their previous support, even if it had been 10 years ago, could de-rail even the most persuasive proposal.


  • Having a fundamental understanding of the organization's constituency forms the foundation of your development strategy. Knowing what individuals and organizations have relationships with your organization informs the initial steps of your prospect-research, proposal writing, and solicitation plans.
  • Oftentimes, previous support has been received from only direct-mail pieces, or a "shot in the dark" approach. With some focused research and persuasive writing skills, a greater level of support may be secured.
  • Knowing which foundations or individuals haven't been approached, but should have been, gives you another starting point, and one of the best opportunities to bring money in right away.

This is a time-consuming but necessary activity that is well-worth the effort, but can tax the patience of any development professional wanting to get to business raising money right out of the gate.

II. Manage Expectations and Priorities
The terms "fundraising" and "development" can have many different meanings to people, from bake sales and raffles to seven-figure endowments. As the newly hired expert in the field, it falls to you to define what that means for your organization and communicate that to the staff and board.


  • Countering the expectation that all money raised will be unrestricted or dedicated to operating funds. As development professionals, we know that general support is traditionally the hardest category of funds to raise from foundations. Educating management and the board about this is imperative, but it doesn't have to be psychologically defeating. Placing the issue in the context of a one year time-frame, most board members will appreciate that foundations are more apt to fund a small, specific project first, so they can gauge the organization's ability to steward their funds adequately. It is acceptable to review operating costs and bundle those expenses that can be attractively packaged as a program or project. Once your organization has proven its metal, securing general operating support is much easier the next time around.
  • Unrealistic Timelines -- Staff unfamiliar with the grants process are likely to think that needs are identified, a proposal is written, and the money flows in almost immediately. Emphasize the presence of deadlines, the fact that it may take two or three months after a proposal is submitted before its reviewed, and perhaps as long to find out about the disposition. Grants programs typically are not they way to go for quick fixes, so ask staff to be thorough in anticipating all their needs.
  • Tendency to Think "Small" -- Most small non-profits are used to operating on a shoe-string budget, settling for the minimum quality of items and "making do". Helping staff visualize what the program would be like if they had all the money in the world, is not only a wonderful way to inspire creativity, but also inspires program improvements and ideas for fundraising.
  • No plan for self-sustenance -- Foundations are very interested in what plans an organization has to become self-sustaining. Requesting grant support to build capacity in an area that has revenue generating potential demonstrates to the foundation that your organization is thinking ahead and isn't relying solely on year-to-year grant support to continue operating.

These activities are paradigm changing -- requiring staff and board to broaden their perspective about the role and mission of the organization, and where it fits in making valuable contributions to the community. In addition to producing material for a compelling case statement, the thought process engages staff and board much like a strategic planning process does. It is likely that all those involved will enjoy the creative process -- seize the opportunity, then to make it an ongoing, if not annual, exercise in planning, with a 5-year vision of where the organization should be, each year considering what needs to be done to reach that goal.

III. Gather Content
Once the broader vision is set, you must now gather the statistics and data necessary to support your needs statement.


  • At a small non-profit, the folks who hold the supporting data, research, etc. are often too busy delivering their service, meeting with clients, etc., to write up their needs statements. Therefore, it becomes your job to conduct focused Q&A sessions with staff to answer the questions a funder might ask: What is the problem? How many people does it affect? What evidence supports the solution that your program offers? In addition to staff feedback, information supplied by the professional organizations or journals are valuable sources that can be used to develop background and supporting data.


  • Familiarity with professional organizations in the field is helpful for the "lay" person to quickly get up to speed on the critical issues facing provider organizations, and can lend a professional tone to your proposals. After all, it's hard to be persuasive about something you know little about.
  • Adeptness at communicating the problem and solution your agency provides also translates into effective public relations materials that will expand the awareness of your organization to the public at large, another "hat" that you will probably wear in your role as development director.

You are ready to compose that first proposal only when you have a complete knowledge of the organization's constituency, realistic expectations of staff and board, and a broad vision of the organization's reason for being supported with convincing data. Ready, set, write!



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