I have the benefit of a few months’ worth of experience now as a grant writer, so I feel qualified to spout off on the topic. I was inspired to do this today because I decided to see whether there were any professional organizations for grant writers. One thing led to another, as often happens with Google. I found myself reading a blog post with many comments from grant writers about whether certification should be required. One guy said “it’s more art than science,” which is of course what every professional resisting standards or evaluation of any kind says, and it set me off. It’s “art,” all right. And we all know that the purpose of jargon is to keep it that way, and befuddle potential clients.
Well, I’m not an expert of course, but I’m going to spill the beans. It’s nothing special! It’s hard, but it’s just like a bunch of other things. I’ll share what I think are the basic skills required for the job some other time, but for now, just advice for people who want to get grants.
1. Good luck getting a grant for your for-profit business. It doesn’t matter how wonderful you or your idea is, most grants are intended to further a public or charitable purpose, not your personal business. There are some, of course — loans, tax breaks, and grants to encourage the development of certain industries (wind turbine manufacture, for example), and some private foundations that want to help you — if you are disadvantaged in some way — start businesses. Have a good business plan and demonstrate that you are the BEST of the pack, most likely to succeed. Then you will have a shot.
2. There’s “lots of free money out there.” Well, yes and no. There is money available. There’s also a lot of competition for the money. You will need to stand out.
3. Grant-makers are looking to further THEIR missions, not YOURS. Be careful whom you ask for money. You need a near-perfect match to the grant-maker’s mission. It doesn’t matter how worthy your project or cause. If it isn’t something that will further the grant-maker’s mission, it ends up in the circular file. You will have wasted your time, and annoyed what might have been a source of funding for a different project.
4. State the Problem. You will need to articulate clearly what the problem is that you are trying to solve. You probably don’t think about things in that way right now if you are a non-profit. You take the “problem” for granted. You won’t like being pinned down with specifics, but you will have to. And you’ll need to do it with statistics and research, because numbers sell. Just like writing a college English paper. It gets harder …
5. Define programs, that is, bundles of objectives and activities with budgets and timelines that address the problem you just defined. Most nonprofits don’t think in terms of “programs.” Can’t do it? Maybe you’re just doing things that seem important to you each day, and you really don’t have good programs. Grant-makers don’t fund nice people who do wonderful things each day; they fund organizations that can accomplish specific things in a specific period of time.
6. You need a logic model that links your mission to the problem to your goals to your objectives (what you want to accomplish this year, or over the next couple of years) to your programs. For example, if someone says “how is this program going to help you solve this problem,” you should have an easy answer. A diagram on one page is frequently helpful — the problem connected by arrows to your programs, each of which has objectives, etc. More and more often now, you will need to be able to demonstrate that your programs do in fact address the problem, that they are effective, so …
7. You need data. We restored 1 building, preserved 14 volumes of township records, and had 7 speakers on different topics under our public education program. We implemented an environmental curriculum in 3 local middle schools and trained 16 teachers to teach it. We provided mentoring services for 85 at-risk youth, who improved their language GPAs by 0.8 points, and math GPAs by 0.5 points. You need to have a plan for tracking your own accomplishments in a systematic way.
8. Grants are awarded based on your capabilities, not your need. Remember, the grant-maker isn’t looking to help YOU, he’s looking to help your constituents. If you offer job training to unemployed folks, then the grant-maker will give you money if he thinks you’re the best organization to do that, and will help the most people. Every organization needs money. If you’re having a particularly difficult time getting it, maybe you don’t enjoy community support. Maybe you don’t manage your money well. Maybe you’re misspending it. In short, YOUR need will raise more red flags than sympathy. Focus instead on selling yourself as the best, most likely to succeed, at what you intend to do. Sell your past successes. Sell your ability to plan and think through issues by putting together a dynamite proposal. Sell your ability to collaborate effectively with other organizations and to muster community resources to your cause.
9. Get your organizational ducks in a row. You will need audited financial statements; a current board of directors list; your 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS; program plans and budgets; your current operating budget; letters of support from community members and organizations that support your programs; a concise written history of your organization; resumes for key employees and board members; short descriptions of all recent programs or projects and their outcomes; and a really good English-paper type writeup of the problems you are addressing, to demonstrate your expertise and thoroughness. If you have all of this together, grant writing will be a breeze.
10. Cool stuff on the Internet Yes, there is a lot of innovation going on. Ben & Jerry’s, where you fill out a short application pitching your idea, submit it online, then mail a 1-page letter, and a group of employees, not a Board of Directors, meets monthly to make decisions. Chase Giving, where people vote on a website for the best projects, and 10 are funded. It probably pays to have someone create a cool movie about you and post it on YouTube. Then you Facebook and Twitter the heck out of it, marketing your organization on the Internet. Make sure your website is good — bad website means floundering organization. Things like that. It really does come down to marketing.