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Approaching Foundations in the Age of Tech Seven Tips From Seasoned Grant Writers

By Susan Fields, CFRE

AFP-NYC Educational Program Recap

Notes from the AFP-NYC Educational Program, March 2019

There has never been a more optimal time for nonprofits to embark upon a grant writing program or step up what they are already doing. Over the past seven years, the number of grant making organizations as well as the funds available to them has shown considerable growth. In 2017 alone 86,726 foundations contributed approximately 66,900 billion dollars to charitable causes—representing 16 percent of all philanthropy. In addition to providing funding for your nonprofit’s programs, support from foundations will enhance its reputation and credibility. Check out the ideas and strategies below to maximize your organization’s success in obtaining both one-time and recurring funding through this lucrative source:

1.        It’s more than writing a proposal. Whether you have one person assigned to this task or an entire team, the grant seeking process requires more than just writing a traditional proposal or filling out an online application. With the possible exception of the CEO, the grant writing staff should know more about the nonprofit than anyone else. Spend time with your program staff in learning what they are trying to achieve and how they measure success. Detailed program information, impact data, and budgeting charts all factor into writing a winning proposal.

2.        It all begins with research. The more you know about a potential funder, the greater the chance of getting the grant. Resources for identifying and researching foundations include The Foundation Center, Foundation Directory Online, Philanthropy News Digest, GrantScape, and State Associations of Nonprofits. Learning as much as possible about a foundation will set the stage for a positive relationship going forward. Once you have determined that the funders goals align with those of your organization, the next step is to learn the application protocols and deadlines.

3.        Make it personal. If at all possible, avoid sending a “cold” proposal. Communicating with the program officer of a foundation that you are approaching for the first time increases your chances of getting the grant. Making a phone call to ask a question about information on their website can open the door just enough to draw attention to your application. If a conversation isn’t possible, try an email with a subject line reading “meeting request” or the name of a person on your board or program staff who has agreed to serve as a contact. The simplest of communications can go a long way in establishing the groundwork for a relationship.

4.        Technology, technology, and more technology.One of the most significant changes in the world of grant seeking is the transition to online applications. Lengthy explanations regarding your organization’s programs are often discouraged, with character and space limits as well as an emphasis on metrics and outcomes. Some foundations have short turn-around times with the opportunity for submitting a new proposal every few weeks. Don’t be surprised if you are asked to provide a “elevator pitch” in the form of a video. Some foundation websites erase what you have already written if you backtrack to make changes. It’s always best to map out your proposal in a word document and cut and paste the various sections once it is complete.

5.        Maximize space considerations. One of the challenges grant writers face in the age of tech is describing a complex program within the limited number of characters allowed in the application. In these situations is sometimes possible to include outcome matrixes and timelines along with the budget which is most usually uploaded in an attachment which has no restrictions. A follow-up email with a cover letter to the program officer can also be used as a tool for including material that couldn’t be squeezed into online the application. Keep in mind that attachments draw the reader away from the application text and can sometimes be passed over.             

6.        Put your best foot forward. Your proposal will tell a great deal about your organization and its commitment to excellence as well as its reliability in fulfilling its promises. Fill out the application in a manner that scrupulously follows directions and makes it easy to understand the information provided. Approach your narrative based upon how your nonprofit is going to serve as opposed to what it does. Accurate and compelling data with an emphasis on impact maximizes the chance of getting funded. It is also important to make certain that your proposal is proofread by one or more staff members to avoid errors that will undermine your efforts.

7.        Keep up with trends. Take a step back from your busy schedule to learn more about what’s happening with foundations you are already working with as well as potential funders. Talk to the program staff who know the landscape and can keep you abreast of possible strategic changes in their priorities. Google alerts can be an excellent tool in learning how foundations are branching out into areas that might include your organization. Sign up for foundation newsletters, read annual reports, review websites, and use your board to provide inside information regarding funders with whom members may have contacts.

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