PSGA Ken's Corner

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

The warnings come after the spells

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“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.”


Author: Ken Ristine

Over 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.

One thought on “The warnings come after the spells

  1. Very helpful blog post, Ken.

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