When you think of getting money for your organization, where do you imagine the money coming from?
Many startup organizations think of grant funding as the silver bullet for their budget. They jump from planning programs to hiring a grant writer. There’s no way to beat around the bush: this is a mistake.
It’s easy to see the allure of potential grant funding. A grants program is an integral part of a robust fundraising budget, and billions of dollars are invested in grantmaking annually from major corporations and foundations (in 2014 more than $57 billion was given away!).
But winning a grant is complex and competitive. Grantmaking is not a silver bullet for start-up organizations - in fact, far from it. If you’ve started applying for grants, here are eight reasons
So, why aren’t you getting those grants you apply for? Below are seven common reasons that funders might be saying no to your grant application.
Reason #1: You don’t have a track record
Grantmakers are all about impact. They want to invest where they know their funding will get results, so they’ll want to see a few years of experience to make sure that your programs are having a positive impact. If you’ve just started, they have no way of measuring your success.
Your track record goes beyond just the impact of your programs. Funders also want to see that you manage your resources well, have the funding to be secure and sustainable, and are generally a well-run organization. A funder may ask for details including:
- Program results from the past year including the number of people served and other quantitative data;
- The goals you set and if you met them;
- Your objectives and goals for the coming year and how you’ll measure success;
- Your audited financials;
- A current list of funders; and
- A funding or strategic plan.
If your head is spinning, it’s an indication you’re not ready to dive gung-ho into the world of grantmaking. Instead, consider focus on creating a strategic plan, putting in place evaluation tools, and securing a few major individual gifts so you’re ready for the next grant cycle.
Next Steps: focus on recording and tracking your program results, strategic plan, and funding history for future grant applications. Don’t have a strategic plan? Consider working with a consultant to create one.
Reason #2: You don’t have the relationship
Like all facets of fundraising, grantmaking is strongly driven by relationships. So what does this mean when you want to apply to a grant?
- The grant is invitation only. Many corporations and foundations must invite you to apply before they’ll even consider looking at your grant application. They don’t publish their application online, and if you send them an unsolicited application, it won’t be considered.
- What does this mean for you? Get to know the funder and talk to them about what you need do in order to be invited to apply! You can reach out to program officers and ask for a meeting, attend any talks they might give, or work your network for an introduction.
- The grant is competitive. Grantmakers that accept unsolicited grant proposals are often inundated with thousands of applications. They prioritize the organizations they know already, so again, focus on getting to know them before sending in that application. Most first-time grant applications are rejected, especially if they’re submitted cold!
- They need a connection to your organization. Many corporate foundations (the foundation arm of major corporations) want to create a long-term relationship with their grantees. This often means having one of their executives serve on your board before they’ll even consider you as a partner. Talk to their grant officers and corporate social responsibility team about seeing if there’s an exec who might be a good fit to move the ball forward.
Instead of focusing on just writing and submitting cold grants, focus instead on cultivating relationships with funders you believe would be good partners. And remember that if you forge relationships with program officers “no” likely means “not right now.”
Next steps: Create a “relationship map” with each of your Board Directors and key staff members, and come up with plans to reach out to 5 to 10 stakeholders in your community.
Reason #3: You’re not following the instructions
Another mistake many first-time grant applications make is assuming they can write one grant and submit it to several funders.
Every grant application is different. Every one needs to be tailored, specifically answering the questions the funder asks. This may also include filling out specific budget templates and creating custom attachments.
It’s helpful to write a boilerplate grant that you can pull from, but keep in mind that following the instructions isn’t optional when it comes to submitting a grant. If you don’t answer the questions, submit different attachments, or just offer a boilerplate proposal, it will simply be ignored.
Next steps: create a boilerplate grant proposal that can be tailored for future applications
Reason #4: You’re not a good fit
Most grantsmakers are very specific about what they fund and will have a narrow set of parameters. If you don’t fit them 100%, don’t apply.
Here’s a few examples:
- The Janssen Charitable Giving Program indicates their funding interest as health. Drill down, however, and you realize they fund specific facets of heart disease including immunology, oncology, and others. They also only fund in specific geographic areas, and don’t fund unrestricted funds.
- The Paul M. Angell Family Foundation also has a narrow geographic focus and their funding priorities are the performing arts, poverty alleviation, and ocean conservation. Even within these three categories, what they fund is narrow: site-specific projects designed to improve the health of ocean habitats, for example.
Finding the right fit is an area where many applicants get hung up. The Angell Family Foundation may come up in a search of environmentally-minded funders, but upon closer look it’s clear they have a very specific funding interest.
Finding the right grant is challenging, and some nonprofits adopt the “throw the spaghetti at the wall and hope it sticks” approach of narrowing down the list. My rule of thumb: if you fit 90% of the grant parameters but aren’t 100% sure, don’t just apply. Reach out to the program officer and ask for advice. Funders are highly unlikely to fund outside of their stated area of interest, and if your application is a stretch you’v probably wasted your time and resources in applying.
Next steps: learn about prospect research and how to find the right grants for your organization.
Reason #5: You think it’s all about hiring a good grant writer
Grantmaking is only about 25% writing. It’s 75% project management. A grant writer's primary job is to take all the puzzle pieces of your organization: your programs, goals, financial information and fundraising history and put it together in a compelling narrative. But they’ll only be as successful as the information with which you provide them!
Newbie nonprofits tend to get frustrated when their grant writer isn’t winning them grants, pointing to them as the reason for the declines. However, most of the time it’s not the writer, but the information they are writing about. If you’re not providing them with in-depth program information and success stories, they can’t create a compelling grant application. If you don’t have a way evaluate your programs, they can’t write about it.
A good grant writer will tailor each application to the funder, but they can only do as good of a job as the information with which they are provided. If you’re getting rejections, take a look at what information you’ve provided to your grant writer before you blame them.
Next steps: consider auditing your grants program with Giant Squid Group for future success.
Reason #6: You don’t have a specific project you need funded
Many grantmakers are more inclined to fund specific projects or programs versus investing in unrestricted operating revenue that you use for day-to-day expenses. This can be a pickle for startup nonprofits who need to fund infrastructure and operating costs such as buying computers or paying an admin team. If a grant is restricted to a specific program, you can’t use that money for general bills.
Another aspect of grant-funded programs is that when submitting grant applications, you’ll need to supply a high level of detail. If you have a fledgling program or an idea you want to launch, you will still need to provide funders specific implementation timelines, staffing details, accurate budgets, goals, and your plans for measuring how those goals were met. And even if you are submitting grant applications for general operating, you’ll still need to provide a high level of detail when it comes to when and how the money will be spent.
Instead of throwing a wide net to blindly search for grant funding, instead focus on creating a strong and measurable program, and then find partners who might be a good match.
Next steps: make sure your programs are measurable and have clear implementation timelines and budgets.
Reason #7: Your grant applications aren’t polished and professional
Writing your grant may only be part of what makes your application a success, but the writing does matter!
It’s important your grant tells a compelling (and easy to understand) story about your work and its impact. Stay away from using industry jargon or trying to inflate your successes, and instead focus on making sure anyone who reads your grant can easily understand what you do - and why it’s worth funding.
Remember, also, that your grant application isn’t just a narrative. Attachments, financial overviews, a cover letter, and other requested documents are all part of the package. Make sure every part of your grant application is professional: that means typo free, easy to read, and well-formatted. This is the time to put your best foot forward!
Next steps: work with a grant writer or consultant to create a kick-ass grant proposal that gets you funded!
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