PSGA Ken's Corner

Observations and advice on grant writing from the other side of the desk


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Be the best grant writer you can be

A friend asked me the other day what her organization should be looking for in a new development/grantwriter. I’ve been asked this question many times. I have some general suggestions, but I always consider what I know about the organization. Organizations that rely upon government grants/contracts need skills that are different from ones looking for foundation and corporate giving program grants.

This time I gave the question more thought as it coincided with drafting an outline for a session at the Nonprofit Conference for Coastal & SW WA in September (Details here). I began the outline by updating a list I’ve collected over several years. Looking at a half dozen new sites pushed the list up over 30 items. While each observation was good, all the lists seemed disjointed. The traits didn’t flow together. Then I found something surprising. My aha?

All the lists mixed personal traits and skills.

I rewrote the list, creating two columns:

Personal Traits                                                                  Skills
• Autonomous                                              • Knowledge of the organization/area of service
• Persistent                                                   • Able to write clearly
• Enjoys writing                                          • Time conscious
• Creative/flexible mind                            • Learns from past performance
• Process/team oriented                            • Researching
• Detail oriented                                         • Balance perfection with good enough
• Personable                                                • Balance passion with practicality
• Ethical                                                        • Organization skills
• Organized

On the surface it might seem that this list relates to any job. Yet the first three personal traits and skills are certainly critical to succeeding as a grant writer.

What does this list mean to you as a grantwriter? First, don’t expect to check all these boxes. No one will. But you should acknowledge the conflict between two items on the list: the ability to work autonomously and the ability to be process/team oriented. You’ve got to be a self-starter and able to work on your own, that’s critical to writing and rewriting your work to get your best results.

Yet you also rely upon others in your organization for critical information as you prepare a grant, and to carry out the real work once a grant is awarded. In the end, success belongs to the whole organization, and you need to honor that.

Second, while the order of these lists is flexible, some personal traits are critical. You can learn to write more clearly—that’s a skill– but you won’t work at it if you don’t enjoy writing.

Third, you can use the list to evaluate how you might fit in an organization. Some organizations encourage creative thinking and flexibility; others stifle it. Some organizations know how to balance perfection with good enough while other’s will frustrate you because they strive for perfection, even at the cost of losing an opportunity.

Finally, the list may help you see what skills you might have to work harder. If you’re a bit disorganized by nature, you may have to concentrate harder on organizational skills. For example, rather than just noting a grant submission deadline, you may want to set up a series of reminders.

In the end, this list may also help you understand how to thrive in your job. Figuring out what skills your job demands the most, and how your personal traits match up with those, is a way to set goals for your personal growth as a grant writing and within your organization.

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Please, read the website first

I had a phone call the other day from someone who wanted to know about the foundation’s giving program. After three or four questions, I asked, “Have you read our website?” The answer was, “No.”

I told the caller that it would be best to look at the website first, then if there were questions it was fine to call. I added that, “…it’s bad form to call any funder with a significant website until you’ve read the information there.”

The caller seemed a bit upset. Perhaps the caller felt that since I had answered the call, why not just answer any and all questions. What do you think?

There are several reasons that I was candid with that caller, and I’ll say it again, “It’s bad form to call any funder with a significant website before you’ve read the website.”

Why?

The foundation I work for isn’t special. I have to assume that callers who call to ask me basic questions about funding areas, geography, and type of grants—all quickly found on our website—are probably doing so for all the funders they’re looking at. That approach to funder research reflects on an organization’s competence. Reading a funder’s website has become a basic step in any funder research. Is the organization overlooking similar steps in its programming? Governance?

That haphazard approach suggests that the organization isn’t using basic funder search tools. That may mean they aren’t looking very hard and may be missing some obvious funding options.

Finally, “What if just calling the funder became the default approach?”

I look at Google Analytics each month to see how the foundation’s website has been used. It tells me what pages people are using, what pages seem to get ignored. And again, I’d generalize what I see people doing on our site to what they probably would do on other funders’ websites. By far, the very page(s) that tell people where we fund, what we fund, and how to submit a request are the ones used most.

Websites are available 24/7; funders aren’t. If you convert webpage contacts into the average business week, the foundation where I work would get over 30 calls a day—almost 4 calls an hour. All asking the same basic questions. Imagine how hard it would be to get through to me at such a rate. And I get grumpy repeating the same information again and again.

When we designed the website—and I think this is true for most funders—we looked at those basic questions because they were the ones we’d been asked again and again back in the days before websites. And we wrote the best answers that we’d been giving time after time.

Websites are not perfect. And funders may not update them as often as they should. So most funders welcome calls with questions about their websites. For example, a good question might be “I heard you’re going to start funding X, but I don’t see it on the website. Is that true?” Or another example, “I just started writing grants for Organization Y. Unfortunately it isn’t clear if they’ve gotten a grant from you in the past. Can you help me with that?”

These types of questions show that you’re approaching grantwriting seriously, creating a positive impression with the funders you talk with.


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An Incomplete project

Here’s an adaption of a real request from outside the Pacific Northwest that crossed my desk the other day.

“We’re writing to request a capacity-building grant of $18,000 to assist in funding the following:

• A Development Director to help build our individual donor base and to write more grants,
• To engage a graphic artist to develop graphic designs and standards organization-wide,
• A contracted social media expert to launch our social media presence
• A new staff person to do outreach to various communities such as churches, retirement communities, and other groups,
• A new staff member to coordinate our box office; currently the box office is staffed by volunteers, and we rely upon a volunteer coordinator; our anticipated increase in ticket sales will make that impractical.”

Putting aside how compelling this LOI might be about the community need and the organization’s history in its community, what’s wrong with this ask?

Ask yourself, can this organization really do all of that for $18,000? I know grantwriters don’t make a lot of money, yet $18,000 isn’t enough for item #1 alone.

In general, funders want to fund accomplishments. It’s less about line items and more about understanding the entirety of a project and being a part of the project.

What if the LOI had said, “We’re writing to request a grant of $18,000 towards our $180,000 project for capacity-building.” From a funder’s point of view, that provides the context we need to evaluate the proposal. Now I know how much you think it will take to do all the items listed. I can also ask how you’re doing in raising the $180,000; if I know what your plan is I can evaluate it for practicality. For example, maybe it hinges on getting one big grant ($100,000) from one funder and the other $80,000 from a variety of funders.

It also provides a way to look at sustainability. Many of the costs cited are going to be year after year costs. Have you planned for how those will be supported after the initial grants are spent?

This lack of context in this was probably an oversight. But it’s always good to double check to make sure you aren’t accidentally failing to give a funder all of the key information it needs.


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Haiku Small Grants

For a few years now the Oregon Community Foundation has awarded three small grants through a haiku contest. The grant application is condensed into the seventeen syllable haiku format. Below is the outline for how the haiku should be constructed and an example. (Note: only Oregon charities are eligible. http://www.oregoncf.org/haiku-contest)

Title of poem = The name of your organization.
1st Line (5 syllables): Tell us about your organization.
2nd Line (7 syllables): What need does your project address?
3rd Line (5 syllables): What do you propose to do about it?

Example:
NORTH COAST FRIENDS OF THE VETERANS
We serve homeless vets
No one can find our building
We need a new sign

Goodwin Deacon and I used this at our PSGA Panorama session. We like the exercise because it reinforces two key ideas that are important for grant writing success. Look at the structure of the haiku again. See how you’re asked to cite a need before your solution?

That approach is the exact opposite of what I see in many LOIs. Too often an LOI launches right in to details about a project without shaping the need that the project is meant to address. That approach is the enemy of a compelling request. For example, read this slightly altered version of the example:

Example:
NORTH COAST FRIENDS OF THE VETERANS
We serve homeless vets
We need a new sign
No one can find our building

Does this feel as compelling as the original example? In writing, items that come first in a sentence or earlier in a paragraph or document shape the meaning of what follows. Here’s another short example. “Bill hit Bob” or “Bob was hit by Bill.” The sentence you would use depends of context. If you’re talking to a friend who knows Bill, the first sentence is better. If the friend knows Bob, then the second sentence is better. In fact, this is a great example of using the passive voice. If I know Bob, I’ll pay attention when I hear his name, even if it is in the passive voice. What does this mean to grant writing?

If you want to connect with funders, you need to appeal to why they make grants. I don’t know of any foundation or corporate giving committee that has a mission of buying trucks or helping to build buildings. But many, many grants from many, many funders have helped to buy vehicles or contributed to buildings. Why? It’s because of what those “tools” can help an organization achieve.

The other aspect of this exercise is based upon stating one simple “need” and a solution that is directly related to the need. When you pair that approach with the idea that you state your “need” in terms of what will catch the reader’s (funder’s) attention, you realize that each LOI–or application–needs to stand on its own. That includes LOIs that are for the same project. One funder may find one aspect of a project compelling while another funder may find another aspect, or the same aspect slightly restated, the best approach.

How can this help you in your work? Try writing a haiku after you draft your LOI, but before you do the first re-write. See if that helps you focus. Another way to use the haiku exercise is to think restating those second and third lines for various aspects of your organization’s work. For example, a Meals on Wheels program might see a need it faces as a lack of nutrition for seniors. But it also might look at the program as providing the benefit of companionship. Either can be correct.

This can be a great exercise to help you think creatively about your organization’s work and how an outsider–a funder–may look at that differently than you or others in your organization. That insight can be a great help  in the long run for you and your organization.


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The warnings come after the spells

“Yeah, you know, you really should have stolen the whole book because the warnings… The warnings come *after* the spells.” Dr. Strange in the Marvel movie of the same name.

I usually don’t watch movies based upon comic book super heros. But with nothing new on TV for the summer, I came across the Dr. Strange movie during some down time. And at the climactic moment in the movie, the hero utters the words above to the villain…revealing the fatal flaw in the villain’s plans.

The the words, stayed with me because they said something about one of the issues I’ve talked about with grantseekers for many, many years. These thoughts go back to the day when the Foundation Center wasn’t online; it published a book each year that ran to some 2800 pages. Like today’s online listings, they included the funder’s purpose, program areas, and types of support. And after all of that came the limitations.

Sometimes when I read an LOI it seems like the grant writer read just far enough on the grant listing to find one thing their request and the funder guidelines had in common. And with that match in hand, the grant writer started the LOI. What suggests that the writer didn’t read the warnings (limitations) is that while there is a program match, the request runs up against key limitation such as being out of the geographic area.

You can make the limitations work for you if you read them before you start to write. Here’s an example of a typical limitation from a private foundation:

No grants are made to environmental, arts, healthcare-related or political programs, or to religious institutions for religious purposes.

What if your organization sees itself as an environment organization; does that mean you’re completely out of luck with this funder? Okay, you won’t get a grant to help support your annual operating budget. But what if a part of your program provides after-school activities for at-risk youth (however you define that), and you have a goal of expanding the number of youth in that program next year.

If you pay attention to the limitations, you can avoid writing yourself out of a grant by focusing on the commonality and avoiding the limitations. The key is that the limitations can help you understand the funder’s mindset. And you take that mindset into consideration when you write your LOI. As Joseph Williams say in Style: Towards Clarity and Grace “We write a first draft for ourselves; the drafts thereafter increasingly for the reader.” In other words, your first draft gets you thoughts down on paper, and you revise that draft to suit the particular reader (funder) to whom you are writing.

So what can this environmental organization do to possibly get a grant.?

Its primary activity is cleaning river and stream banks, then planting additional native plants to restore the waterway’s ecosystem. In the course of its work the organization has partnered with local groups working with youth. The organization and its partners have seen these activities really benefit many kids who’ve been in trouble with juvenile court or who are seen as headed in that direction. Working in the outdoors and seeing the immediate results of clean river and stream banks and later waterways with lush native plant life has helped many of these youth see beyond today and begin to believe in a future.

The environmental group ran a small test program to see if it could increase the number of such kids it could work with, and now, with encouragement from the youth-serving agencies, wants to greatly increase the number of youth it can involve.

Is there any hope for this environmental group to get funding from a funder with the limitations cited above? Probably not if it the organization approaches this funder in the same way it approaches environmental funders. That doesn’t mean lying about your organization; it’s an environmental organization. But you don’t have to go on and on about that either. If you’ve read the warnings (limitations) perhaps your LOI might start like this:

The Open Rivers Clean-up Crew (ORCC) was formed in 2003 by a group of concerned outdoors organizations and citizens who saw that the streams and rivers in our area were being used as dumping grounds. In 2016 our volunteers cleaned up over 50 tons of discarded paper, appliances, tires, and other items from river and stream banks. Some of these items, such as discarded car batteries, were leaking toxic chemicals.

We are writing the XYZ Foundation to assist us in growing an important program for hard to reach youth in our community. Over the past two years we’ve learned that our activities provide a unique opportunity to help young people who are or have been in the juvenile justice system or who youth-serving agencies see as in danger of getting involved in criminal behavior. This effort began several years ago. A few youth-serving agencies brought groups out to our clean-ups. They reported back to us that the activities seemed to have a surprising effect upon many of the youth they brought out.

As we talked with them, and later some of the youth, we learned that being outdoors and seeing the before and after results of the work impressed many of the young people who some agencies felt were unreachable. We piloted a larger effort last year, which confirmed these results. While we don’t turn any youth away, we’re committed to recruiting youth who haven’t been reached by other programs or activities.

With the growth in the program, we’ve taken responsibility for coordinating transportation, and other services. One immediate benefit is that by word of mouth, the youths we recruited asked if friends could join in. This widened our influence far beyond what we or the youth-serving agencies expected. And the youth-serving agencies have reported back to us that they see the program having an even greater effect upon the youths who participate than under the old approach.

How do you feel after reading this? Is this a youth program or an environmental program?

I can’t guarantee that every funder with similar restrictions would be willing to read past the first paragraph, or even if they do that they’d see this as a worthwhile youth effort. But what if that second paragraph had launched into a longer discussion of the group’s environmental goals or a rationale about why cleaning river and stream banks is critical to the health of those waters, only to delve into the actual youth program in a fourth or fifth paragraph?

Remember, and LOI can’t answer all of a funder’s questions…so don’t try to. The purpose is to create interest and stimulate curiosity. By reading the warnings (limitations) you know what aspects of your request can generate interest and what aspects will generate a definite “No.”


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How and Why or Why and How

I’m finishing Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens, that I learned about from Bill Gates’ Gates Notes. Bill Gates’ review of the book is titled “How Did Humans Smart.”
One paragraph in the book caught my attention:

“What is the difference between describing ‘how’ and explaining ‘why’? To describe ‘how’ means to reconstruct the series of specific events that led from one point to another. To explain ‘why’ means to find the causal connections that account for the occurrence of this particular series of events to the exclusion of all others.”

As a person who reads grant requests every working day, I’m always looking for the ‘Why’ in the request. That’s the information that is both interesting and compelling to the decision-makers at a funder. And even though program officers read your LOIs and grant narratives first, they judge those requests based upon how interesting and compelling they think the request will be to the decision-makers.

Explaining ‘Why’ also builds the case for the specific steps you want to take, the ‘How’. I’ll paraphrase the paragraph in the context that applies to a grantwriter.

“Describing ‘how’ means describing the series of specific events that your organization plans to take to move from one point to another. Explaining ‘why’ means explaining the causal connections motivating your organization to pursue that particular series of events rather than other options.”

Which approach has the potential to be the most compelling? Think about it this way. Describing what you plan to do with a grant often raises the question why in the reader’s mind. For example, a line or two in your request for an after-school program describes how there will be food served each afternoon. A reader who doesn’t already know your community or who isn’t familiar with after-school programs wonder: “Food; why do they need to feed the kids?”

But if you explain your community, the challenges young people face, you show the reader (funder) how an after-school snack gets some of those kids who are iffy about coming to your program in the door. And then, how once a kid comes through the door, how you engage them and turn that engagement into after-school homework help.

Your goal when writing an LOI or the narrative of a grant request is to explain the ‘Why’ so that the ‘How’ seems inevitable. Yes, grant money often buys the ‘How’, but the reason most funders make grants is because they understand and care about changing the ‘Why’.


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Crafting a development program

Whether you are new to grantwriting, an experienced grantwriter working for a new organization, or looking for a new job with another organization, there are some basic things you should make sure you know. Also, if you’re hiring a grantwriting consultant, these are things that you can put together as an organization rather than paying a consultant to help you. These are all good steps to ensure that you’ll keep your whole organization involved in grantwriting, a key to consistent success.

First, be clear about the organization’s tax status and what it’s telling others about itself. Go online (GuideStar) and look at the past few years of 990 forms. If the organization files a 990-EZ or a Postcard N I’d know that the organization is pretty small. That would make me look hard at the organization’s business plan. Are they looking for grants just to keep the doors open? And if they are, I’d be looking at what stories they have to tell that makes them special. In this case, special may mean just showing that the organization serves an area that isn’t served now or that the service is different than other organizations that provide similar services such as working with people who’ve fallen through the cracks of other service systems.

If it’s a larger organization with a full 990, I’d look at the 990 for the following things, which tell you something about the organization’s condition:

  • How does the organization describe its mission on Page 1 and 2, and how does the organization describe its various programs on Page2? Are these compelling descriptions or just rote repetitions? Also, are they overwritten? Often I’ve seen organizations try to describe all their work in one paragraph on page 2, cramming so much in that it’s unreadable.
  • On page 1, how does the income/expense look for the tax year and the previous year? Is it consistently running a surplus or deficit? If the organization has been running a deficit, be sure to ask if the organization is looking at grants as a way to make up those revenues.
  • On page 9 you can gain some insight with how the organization brings in its income. The form outlines donated income, with a little information about the kind of donations, and where earned income comes from.
  • Page 10 tells you how the organization spends its money, along with a breakdown how it is spent between program, management & general, and fundraising.
  • On page 11 you’ll find a balance sheet. Does the organization have a positive fund balance? Where is it—is there cash, receivables, or is a large amount of it tied up in a building? Also, is there debt such as a mortgage?

Next, I’d learn about and write down the history and mission of the organization. Is there something about the organization’s history that might be the core of an interesting story, a story that could really say something about the current projects. A good example is community action programs. As a group, CAPs were created as a result of the War on Poverty so that the federal government could give grants directly to a community. They were created because the federal government didn’t trust the existing process that sent dollars to programs through state and local governments. A key feature of CAPs is that they have service recipients on their boards. While funding patterns have changed, those features are still a part of the DNA of CAP programs.

In support of the stories that might come out of the history and mission, I’d also want to look at service data. How does the organization count people served—individuals, families, households—and how does it count services—by appointments, bags of groceries, units of housing or visits? And how easy is it to dig into that data? Can you find the stories in the data? A food bank might have an average of five visits per year for the thousand households it serves each year. But looking deeper into the data, you might see three groups emerge: elderly, working poor, and emergency needs. Many of the elderly clients visit every month and have special diet needs or preferences. The working poor are mostly families with children and also visit monthly. The emergency needs are individuals and families that visit a few times and then aren’t seen again. Those are the seeds of three great stories. But you only know where to look if the organization has kept that data and has a way for you to look at more than just annual counts and averages.

In addition, I’d want to see a couple of years of operating budgets, and then I’d sit down with key people to see how they understand those budgets. Grants are an organizational endeavor. Carrying out programs requires the whole organization’s commitment. Too often organizations look at grants to supplement the work they already want to do. That works if your day to day work is wholly aligned with a funder’s vision for its work. But many times, the grants that are available ask you do something a little different or a little more than you already do.

Finally, I’d look at every piece of information the organization has on past funders. What did the funders fund, how many times, and how long ago was the last grant or gift was given. I’d look for lapsed donors, groups that had given several years ago, but not in the past year or two I’d also look at the total amount given by each entity. I’d take that information and sit down with key people in the organization to get their understanding of the how and why of those grants. I’d also use that list to set an agenda for my first few months of work. I’d call each funder, in order of importance, to set up a get to know you meeting with each funder. The point of these meetings is to get to know why the funder supported my organization and how they felt the organization did with the grants.

Grantwriting is an organizational endeavor, not just the responsibility of someone toiling in isolation.