PSGA Ken's Corner

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

Crafting a development program

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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.


Author: Ken Ristine

40 years experience in the nonprofit sector; Senior Program Officer for a Pacific Northwest family foundation. Co-author with Goodwin Deacon of the recently published Grantsmanship for the Genius.

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