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Grant Writing for Nonprofits: Our Top 10 Tips

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by Alexis Swenson
October 5, 2020
 Grant Writing for Nonprofits: Our Top 10 Tips

As the title of this blog post suggests, below outlines our top 10 grant writing tips for nonprofits. Grant writing for nonprofits is unique and warrants an intentional address. You are an Executive Director or Development Director or Grant Writer/Event Manager/Donor Relations Coordinator because you are massively passionate for your organization. You do this work because you love to help. You know there is a need in your community and because you’re a little bit sick and twisted, er, I mean, abundantly generous and kind, you have said yes h2>What You Can ExpectWe get it. You’re stretched for time. Sometimes your every action is reviewed by the Board, and you just got off the phone with a donor who received a Memorial Letter with their name on the card instead of the person who actually passed away. Another typo, another fire to put out—it’s just a typical day in the life, right?

You’re doing the best you can with your finite energy. We support you, and we’re rooting for you. Learn Grant Writing is here to help you in the most effective and efficient way possible. That’s why this post is dedicated to you, nonprofit professional.

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  1. Understand what grants are/are not

    Real quick: a grant is a gift of money awarded to an entity so that the entity can achieve a specific goal or purpose. Typically, this money is awarded from two primary types of funders:

    • Government (city, state, and federal).
    • Foundations (community and private).

    Listen, we know that you know what grants are, but we want to make sure you have a realistic expectation of what grants can do (and cannot do) for your organization.

    Grant funding can be an incredible strategic type of funding, but you simply cannot rely on it to get your organization out of the red. In others words, winning grants should be the icing on the cake, not the actual cake. Ideally, grant funding compliments your already existing development efforts.

    It is important to create a diversified fundraising plan, where grant-awarded money constitutes no more than 10-20% of your fundraising goals depending on your organization type. This is true for any part of your fundraising plan—for example, you should be nervous if a single major donor represented much more than 20% of your yearly revenue.

    We love grants. But, what we care about more is that you develop an organization that has a business model to cover your base costs. No matter who you serve, if your program is having a big impact, you should be able to demonstrate that for every $1 put into your organization, $X are returned. This is a blog post topic unto itself, so we'll set the topic down for now. The point we’re driving home with this tip is that grants should help your organization stabilize and grow - not make up the basis of your entire operating budget.

  2. Know Where to Look for Grants

    If you give an executive director an idea for a new revenue stream, they’re going to ask where they can tap into that stream. (We just know you so well!). The question is this: where does one find grants?

    One easy thing you can do is think about your network. Who is your banker, electric company, insurance provider, etc.? Do they have a grant program or a foundation established? Reach out and ask about the application process. Get to know what they’re interested in funding.

    However, the fastest way to find grant opportunities is to use a grant database. There is a time and place for Google searching, but it is ineffective to find grants that way exclusively. A database can do in seconds what could take you days; and visually, it's a much easier way to organize and track grant opportunities. But, which database do I use? Great question. We did the research so you don't have to. Check out this blog post for a review of 10 databases, plus our final recommendation. Hint: it’s Instrumentl. Pro tip: They provide a discount to students of Learn Grant Writing.

    instrumentl grant search database
  3. Build a relationship with the funder

    For many nonprofit organizations, relationship building is key to their success. The successful pursuit of grant funding is no different. They work to build relationships with funders throughout the year before, during, and after applying for grant funding with that particular agency.

    This is a blessing and a curse because it takes work to build relationships, but these connections can help you tremendously. Basically, do what you do best: care for donors as you care for your beneficiaries. Get to know them, invite them to partner with you in your mission, learn more about their funding goals, and engage where they do in the community.

    In the same vein, follow up and thank well. Do not just take their money and run. Be diligent in your reporting and evaluation measurements. Stay connected with the funder throughout the course of the funding cycle. Demonstrate your thankfulness and recognize their gifts how they prefer to be recognized: a press release, anonymously, a sign on the door, etc.

    Our most popular blog post is this one on strategies for “invite-only” funders. You will find tactical tips for relationship building regardless if the funder is “invite-only” or not.

  4. Find the right grants to pursue

    Relationship building goes hand in hand with researching the funder. As you whittle down your list of potential funders be sure to ask who and what they have funded in the past and how much. This will help inform your ask when you submit the application. You can also learn a great deal about a funder’s history with their 990-form data. Full how-to here.

    It takes all our might to not go off on this tip! In our opinion, this is the MOST important step you take to know you are focusing on the right grants in the first place. We dedicate an entire module in Global Grant Writers Collective to it.

    If you want to go deeper on this topic, check out Chapters 4, 5, and 13 in our book, How to Write a Grant: Become a Grant Writing Unicorn.

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    Once you have a manageable list of funders to consider, schedule a call with a program officer. Be sure to check if any of your board members already have a relationship with the funding organization. If so, ask them to coordinate an introduction. In this meeting, your goal is NOT to sell your organization/project/program. It is to be curious. It is to learn. It is to objectively evaluate if your organizations are a good fit for each other.

    If you bring this mindset shift to your meeting, you will have more honest and meaningful conversation. Nothing is worse than spending a ton of time on a grant you have no chance of getting. Be skeptical until you have enough positive data points to confirm the grant is worth your time and resources to pursue.

    A final note, if you find yourself stretching your programming scope or vision to make your ask fit within their funding preferences, stop. Let that grant opportunity go. If you’re stretching, you’re likely not going to beat out applicants who have missions that perfectly align with the funder. There are always other grants.

  5. Partner with other nonprofits

    This might sound scary, but hear us out. Other nonprofits are not your competition. We’re all in this together working to create a better community and world. Work to adopt an abundance mindset (there’s plenty of dollars available for us all) versus a scarcity mindset (there’s not enough money to go around).

    By partnering with other nonprofits on a specific project, the funder sees that you’re willing to work collaboratively (and isn’t that literally the definition of life at a nonprofit—collaboration?). Moreover, the funder has the opportunity to donate to and support multiple organizations in just one project. It’s hard to say no to a well developed, collaborative, and creative project that supports multiple organizations.

    Furthermore, working with another nonprofit grants you a greater reach in terms of providing service, but also in connecting with potential donors. This is just one more way of raising awareness for the great work your organization does.

    For example, I recently wrote two Housing and Urban Development grants for two different rural Alaskan communities. Per the funding guidelines, the proposed project required applicants to hire a Project Manager who would be a .5 FTE. The two communities agreed to share that Project Manager who would split their time between each village. These two villages were pursuing the same grant in the same funding cycle. Nothing but generous, the two village representatives attended our project meetings together and helped one another submit the best possible proposals. And, you know what? They both were awarded funding. ($1.3 million! #humblebrag) How much more fun that the two villages could celebrate together?!

    Don’t be afraid to collaborate. Choose generosity over fear of scarcity.

  6. Spend time on the grant application

    We’ve seen this before and it’s not pretty. That’s why we’re going to say it louder for the people in the back: spend more than five minutes on the application! I know, we’re getting sassy these days.

    Even a short application from a small community foundation takes time and intentionality. Even an “easy grant” that you’re confident you’ll win requires time. Tough love: you’re not doing yourself, your organization, or who you serve any favors by rushing through the application. Slow down and remember the basics of good writing. Complete sentences, the craft of story, persuasion, etc.

    Or, consider asking for help. Could you delegate portions of the grant application to a Board member, volunteer, intern, or other staff member? There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it. Rather, it highlights your character. You recognize your strengths and weaknesses. You recognize others’ strengths and by asking them for their expertise, while you pull it all together into a single, coherent message.

    For this tip to make sense, it is why we’re so keen on Tip 4 (funding research), so you are confident you are focusing on the right grants in the first place. It is best to do fewer, high quality applications, than throw everything at the wall and “see what sticks.”

  7. Recycle content thoughtfully

    We’re all for repurposing content. It saves a lot of time and energy to do so. However, you will still need to update any recycled content. Even if you apply to the same foundation year after year, find ways to improve and change your application. Grant reviewers notice when you submit the exact same grant application repeatedly. They can tell how much work you did or did not put into the application. This influences their final decision.

    It is key to ensure that the content you’re repurposing and using appropriately answers questions in the application. This will require you to slow down a bit and think through the questions, but again, it’s worth it. Your responses must answer the question. It seems silly to say that— “answer the question”—but it bears repeating because so often we’re tempted to plug in content we wrote for the last proposal we submitted. The problem with that is that the last proposal had slightly different questions meaning that you’ll need slightly different responses in the current proposal.

  8. Have an independent review of the grant application

    Per best practice taught here at Learn Grant Writing, we always recommend having an independent review of your grant application prior to submission. You live and breathe the mission, while an outsider will spot holes in the narrative and catch things you unintentionally missed.

    You might even collaborate with a fellow, trusted nonprofit organization (Tip #5 coming in hot again!). Perhaps the pair of you could exchange final drafts for an independent review. In fact, one of the first grants written by a member of our team was when she worked at a nonprofit organization. She was basically mentored through the grant writing process by a senior grant writer from a different organization. Both organizations were applying for the same grant funding. Different asks, of course, but, like our previously mentioned Alaskan communities, they were pursuing funding in the same funding cycle from the same funder (and, both organizations were awarded funding!).

  9. Get grant ready before applying

    Before diving into grant prospecting and certainly before tackling your first proposal, spend some time getting grant ready. Grant readiness can encompass a lot, but basically it’s the concept of being prepared financially and organizationally at both the program/project and organization levels. In other words, the back end of your organization should be in order before applying for funding. Of course you will still work through application-specific details, but the process is much smoother the more prepared you can be.

    Here’s a short, nonexhaustive list of key documents you’ll likely need when applying for grants:

    • Tax Exempt Status Letter
    • IRS Form 990
    • W-9
    • Strategic Plan
    • Organizational Chart
    • Board of Directors
    • Audited Financial Statements (if you are large enough to have these)
    • Annual Report
    • Program/Project details including a scope of work description, outcome measures, target population, relevant statistics, etc.
    • History of grants received
    • And much more depending on your grant!

    Also, if you aim to apply for federal funding, you’ll need a Dun & Bradstreet (DUNS) number and have a SAM registration.

    Proper preparation will help the grant writing process go smoothly for you. Ensuring you have all of the above information easily accessible is a great place to start getting grant ready. If you are finding that all a bit overwhelming, take a deep breath! It’s not nearly as complicated as it sounds. It is all about getting super organized so you can find the information you need to write grants efficiently and effectively. (We teach a file organization structure in our program called the Global Grant Writers Collective).

  10. Get professionally trained

    You might decide you are too busy to do grant writing yourself, but unless you have a proficient understanding of the grant writing process, you won’t be able to identify a stellar grant writer, from one that is terrible. And trust us, we have heard plenty of horror stories!

    You will save yourself thousands of lost dollars and years of frustration learning everything the hard way, by getting professionally trained to write grants. Spend three hours per week for 4-6 weeks, and you will know exactly the steps to take to stay organized, research grants, develop a funding strategy, and prepare winning applications. In short, you can become a grant writing unicorn faster than you might realize.

    Pre covid-19, live workshops were your most common way for receiving continued education in grant writing. The problem, however, is that our poor little minds can only soak up so much information in one sitting! Plus, what are you supposed to do when you get stuck on a real project. Grant writing can be lonely business!

    For that reason, we have opted to teach grant writing online. It gives you time to apply lessons to a real world project and ask questions when you encounter the hurdle in real-time. You can decide if the way we teach grant writing works for you by watching this 37 minute training or taking our free mini course on the 7-steps to writing a winning grant application.

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Summary Of Tips

To recap, remember that the top 10 tips for nonprofits writing grants are:

  1. Understand what grants are/are not.
  2. Know where to look for grants.
  3. Build a relationship with the funder.
  4. Research the funder.
  5. Partner with other nonprofits.
  6. Spend time on the grant application.
  7. Recycle content thoughtfully.
  8. Have an outsider read the grant.
  9. Get grant ready before applying.
  10. Get professionally trained.

As a nonprofit professional, you’re busy and your time is precious. These tips and considerations are designed to help you utilize your time well. Follow these 10 tips in your careful, strategic pursuit of grant funding. Go forth, win grants, and continue to serve your community well!

Keep reading our blog articles or check out our FREE Class on Writing Grants in just 7 easy steps!

About the author...

Alexis Swenson serves as Unicorn Coach and Content Director for Learn Grant Writing. The product of small-town northwestern Minnesota, she is a self-declared “old soul” and grounded free spirit. She has secured over $2.7 million in grant funding in her career. Alexis writes to help people learn, laugh, and not be so hard on themselves.

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