Grant Writing—A Reality Check
Aug 10, 2018
By Carolyn Appleton
I began my career in the nonprofit sector in the mid-1980s at a small art museum in Austin, Texas. First working as a volunteer, I eventually moved into half-time, then full-time employment. The organization was kind enough to fund my participation in a grant-writing workshop hosted by The Grantsmanship Training Center in Los Angeles, California, for which I will always be grateful. During that weeklong, intensive course I gained a thorough understanding of how to organize my thoughts, and to compose a comprehensive written document designed to secure funding from a potential donor. At the time, I had just completed my master’s degree in nineteenth century American art, so I was adept at academic research and writing. But The Grantsmanship Training Center helped me hone my writing skills into a more marketable product.
Since that time, I have written hundreds of grant proposals for individuals, foundations, government agencies, and corporations. Through these experiences I have learned that while formal training helps one understand the basic precepts of grant writing, real life informs the context. And real life may challenge some of these basic assumptions.
Flexibility and attention to detail-particularly those relevant to the individual, foundation, or corporate donors you are approaching—are also essential. It is important to accept some measure of personal responsibility for the content of the grant documents you are composing.
It was created for a workshop hosted by the Texas Historical Commission a few years ago. The idea of the daylong educational program was to provide formal training to fund-raisers working in historic sites across Texas. My role was to point out the reality of grant writing and how one must remain flexible when circumstances require it. I am pleased the slide presentation has had more than 3,400 online views, and that it has been embedded in other websites.
Brief takeaways from the presentation—including a few additional thoughts—include the following:
- Grant writers should not attempt to write grants if they do not fully understand the subject of the proposal themselves. If you do not understand it, you cannot write about the topic adequately.
- Grant writers should understand the proposed budget and how funds will be spent should a grant be awarded. Questions may be asked later, and accountability for what you have written is key. Your organization’s bookkeeper or accountant should become a close ally.
- If you are unable to secure a meeting in advance with the prospective funder (or a phone call with the prospect or their professional advisor)—which is often the case today because of the increased number of nonprofits and grants being submitted—you may wish to go ahead and submit an application. But I would only do so if the potential donor's guidelines seem to be a very good match. It may be that you will peak the donor’s interest, and if funding is not possible the current year, perhaps you will lay the groundwork for future funding.
- The person writing the proposal should assess whether the project is a good fit for the organization’s mission, and if it does not seem so, ask for clarification from the organization’s leadership. In other words, do not write a proposal for a member of the staff that has not been approved by your nonprofit’s leadership. Do not waste the time (and potentially, get into trouble later).
- Grant writers should feel confident the proposal on which they are lavishing so much attention is not a “shot in the dark,” but rather meets the interests of the potential funder(s). Appropriate groundwork should have been laid through advance research, written or telephone correspondence, and best of all, a meeting in person with the potential donor or their designated representative.
- When writing, put yourself in the shoes of a layperson and explain your program clearly. Do not use a lot of abbreviations or acronyms. This is particularly important if you are working with college and university academics and government executives. I have found they often enjoy abbreviating program and other names, but these abbreviations are incomprehensible to your potential donor(s). Surprisingly, after all these years working with nonprofits, I find they still cling to abbreviations that only insiders can understand. But it frustrates and infuriates outsiders.
- Follow the guidelines provided by the potential donor; do not create a proposal without identifying how they wish to receive information (and what kind of information to provide, and in what order). For instance, formal grant-writing training did not prepare me for one corporate donor’s request to fit all project documentation into one single-spaced, typed page (no enclosures), for a $1 million request, no less (which our organization did ultimately receive). But there are certainly cases where the prospective funder has no form. If you have taken a grant-writing course such as I have mentioned above, then you will be well prepared to respond in an organized fashion.
- Keep in mind traffic on the “fund-raising highway” is intense and growing in volume. If you receive a “no,” think of ways to turn that response into a “yes” the next time you apply. The increase in requests for nonprofit support also means you should get to the point in your cover letter. Do not bury your urgent case for support in the text, as your proposal may find itself in a large stack of similar documents on the desk of the potential donor—try to stand out. Follow this link to my cautionary post, “Grant Writing and Storytelling.” You may have noticed that marketing experts stress one must tell a story to grab the attention of one’s reader. This is particularly true of social media communications. Do not confuse this type of communication with grant writing, as my blog article points out.
- The economic environment continues to present challenges to nonprofits seeking financial support, but try not to become discouraged. I have seen donors rise to the occasion for a truly worthy need that fits well with their mission and goals. I have also spent hours writing a lengthy proposal—and providing extensive supplemental information—when in my heart I felt there was no way the donor would fund the project. In one case they did, happily, and to the tune of $1.375 million. Don't lose hope, but also be sure to respond courteously and quickly to requests for more information.
Email is one casual way to thank donors for their grants, but it is best to send a formal thank you letter via regular mail (signed on letterhead). If donors wish to take a charitable deduction for tax purposes, this kind of document is required to substantiate a contribution to charity, for instance. Additional handwritten thank you letters from members of your board and staff are also nice, but don’t overdo it, as I’ve seen that backfire, and donors become overwhelmed when too many thank you letters are sent. Social media can be used to acknowledge the support of donors generally, especially if they are actively using those venues. Be careful with your donors wishing to remain anonymous before posting their names on public venues like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Video can also be a fun way to acknowledge donors. See my blog article, “Thank You” for a host of resources on this topic.
A caveat when it comes to approaching some high tech entrepreneurs: I have heard some say pointedly they will only accept requests, reports, and correspondence via email. Hence, be sure to learn your donor’s preferences. They will not all be the same. Today, those of us involved in grant writing are being asked more often to complete and submit grants online in formats that do not allow for a great deal of explanation, sadly. Some advance preparation and communication can help overcome this obstacle.
- Don’t take the money and run. Stewardship is an essential but tragically overlooked part of the grant-making process in many instances. I once worked for an organization that had to return $1 million because the director did not read the original grant contract, nor did they provide the routine annual written updates requested. They were not mean people; they just didn’t think these things were important. When I came on board, my first task was to try to get that grant back, and then some—a challenging assignment.
- Keep contributors informed about your progress regarding the project they funded; if you depart the organization, make sure someone follows through in your stead. Here is some good advice from GiftWorks in, “Panning for Gold Nuggets.” They wisely note, “Because you never know when this cultivated relationship might be interrupted, due to staff turnover or when Mr. Donor goes to Florida for the winter, it’s vital to think about how your donor knowledge is captured and how it can be transferred to others inside your organization.”
Regular communication binds donors more closely to your organization and can lead to additional financial support. I can’t say that strongly enough.
I regret to report, I have worked on significant fundraising campaigns and some of the major donors have continued to ask me what is going on with the nonprofits they funded, long after I have completed my consulting work. Despite my best efforts to urge nonprofit staff to continue communicating with their donors, some of them refuse. Don’t let that be the case with your organization.
Carolyn Appleton is a nonprofit fund-raising and communications expert based in Texas. She helps communities and nonprofit organizations with their fundraising, communications, and public relations. She is a blogger and public speaker. Visit Carolyn's blog and website. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @CAROLYNAPPLETON.