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LET’S ASK FOR ONE MILLION DOLLARS Or Why Successful Grantsmanship Isn’t like Buckshot

Early in my career as a paid grant writer I had a client who was very charming. Too charming, really, to his deficit.

When his group retained me, I immediately began to research potential funding sources for grants for his programs. They did technical assistance in a very specific area for a very specific population in very specific states. I found potential funding sources that would be likely to approve funding in the $5,000 to $100,000 range.

Included in my background sheets at the briefing meeting were the raw data lists from the database I used. My client saw that I had not briefed him on a Prominent National Foundation that was on the list. I didn’t because the fit of their desires versus the program specifics of my client did not make a good fit.

“Kathie, they have deposits in the trillions of dollars,” he said, “Kathie, it says here that they gave billions of dollars in grants.” I swallowed deeply. I explained that they weren’t a good fit, and it would be best if we focus on the smaller groups that are more closely focused on serving our demographic groups, or are interested in the kind of services we are providing.

“No,” he said earnestly with a maniacal glint in his eye, “Monday morning we are going to start work on a proposal to the Prominent National Foundation for One Million Dollars. One Million Dollars is just change to them.”

“Okay,” I squeaked replied thinking of all the reasons this was doomed to failure.

So how did it work out, you ask? Not well.

Why was his tack wrong?

1. He assumed that because the Prominent National Foundation was large, with lots of money, and that they were not actively looking for good programs that fit with their priorities any more. In truth, it is probably more difficult to get a grant from a large foundation like the Prominent National Foundation. One Million Dollars might have been right in the middle of their grant range, but I’d venture a bet that the other large grants were part of an existing relationship and to institutions that are larger and have a stronger track record than my client did. The foundation has probably spent a great deal of time and resources in defining its grant programs and refining their evaluation measures. The grants officers are very professional, sophisticated and able to spot an excessive “stretch” a long way away. Moreover, do you think my client was the first person in America (not even taking into account the international granting they do) to figure out that the Prominent National Foundation had money? They get tons of proposals everyday. Only a small percent of them are funded.

2. He thought that he could simply send a proposal without developing anything like a relationship with them. The foundation requested that an inquiry letter be sent first, but my client was so convinced of the value and excellence of what he did, that he simply paid no attention. Beyond ignoring a simple request on the part of the funding source, One Million Dollars is a little cheeky to ask for in the initial approach to a new funding source. The million dollars could be seen, as my client did, as leveraging great resources to his clients. Or, as I suspect it was, as an unreasonable request for the foundation to underwrite the entirety of the organization’s costs, which were, essentially, administrative.

3. Grantsmanship research is more than simply plugging a couple of search parameters into an expensive database and then mass-mailing a standard proposal to all of them. You must then narrow down your list of likely candidates by choosing those who are more closely interested in what you are doing. Then, you have to tailor each proposal you send out to the requests of its target. I have written 40-page proposals that requested and were funded for less than the one-page-with-a-cover-letter-proposals. Relationship has a great deal to do with grantsmanship success. Each funding source wants to be approached in its own way. They will tell you, and you should follow.

Sadly, after a month of work, staff expense, extensive copying and other costs, the polite rejection letter arrived before my return receipt postcard got back to me.


About the Contributor: Katherine Driskell Felts

While a graduate student at the University of Miami, Katherine Driskell (Felts) served as the interim Executive Director of a small non-profit organization.  She helped that organization refocus on it’s mission, planned and hosted a wildly successful board member retreat, redesigned its logo and letterhead, developed board member recruitment strategy and packages, cleaned the database and sent two successful select mail pieces.  

Ms. Felts then worked as a policy intern in the office of a United States Senator before being hired onto a political campaign in Arkansas.  As Campaign Finance Manager, Ms. Felts managed the phone solicitation and two constituencies of direct mail solicitation.  She identified lists, helped to recruit volunteers, trained phone solicitors, developed suggested scripts for each list, ensured successful follow-up on pledges and phone solicitation contributions and helped coach the candidate on key major donors from each list.  She also wrote two different direct mail pieces to two different lists she identified and acquired, oversaw logistics of personalized printing of the pieces, stuffing, addressing and ensuring bulk mail regulation compliance.  Ms. Felts also took on some responsibility as the traveling aide, cultivating key supporters and prepping the candidate for speeches.

As a volunteer, Ms. Felts has helped numerous political campaigns, church committees and non-profit organizations including stints as a Sunday School teacher and volunteer on a mission trip.

In the past year, we have raised over $800,000 for our clients.  Since founding kdfconsulting, Ms. Felts has developed grant proposals, research, and inquiry letters for numerous organizations including public and private schools; an excellent pre-school serving low-income families of student-parents, a counseling agency; an emergency shelter for troubled teens; and a medical, humanitarian and housing organization with major projects in six states.

As a member of the Orange County Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Ms. Felts has availed herself of many seminars and conferences on topics from fundraising post 9-11, major donor prospect research, legal issues for fundraisers, creating a fundraising plan, individual donor cultivation, and more.  She has attended conferences and seminars on planned giving, training, and, one of her favorites, the inaugural Charity Channel Summit

Committed to  developing skills and abilities for herself and others in the profession, Ms. Felts teaches a beginning grant writing class at the Volunteer Center of Greater Orange County, and is a  contributor to the Grants & Foundations Review, published by CharityChannel.  She also works to help interested members of clients’ staff and other novice grant writers increase their writing skills and ability.


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