PSGA Ken's Corner

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

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PSGA Spring Funders Forum

The spring PSGA Funders Forum is coming up soon. It’s on Friday, May 13th, and there’s still time to register.

Funder Forums are important even if you don’t have a project on your desk right now. Since it can take from three to nine months for a proposal to navigate the process at some larger funders, what you hear at the May Forum may be important to ideas you’ll be working on for late 2016 and on into 2017.

I just did a funders forum in southern Oregon and it reminded me about the questions grant seekers tend to ask. Here are a few examples:

  • Will you fund salaries?
  • Do you make grants to capital campaigns?
  • Will you make a grant for a vehicle?

While many funders fund buildings or salaries or vehicles, they fund them because they believe in what an organization promises to achieve with that tool. In fact, when you ask funders if they will fund a new building, you may be asked, “Why do you need a new building?”

Your answer might be something like, “We need more room to serve more people.” In that case, you might make a stronger case by not asking about building grants, but starting instead with a question like, “Our community needs more after-school activities for middle school youth; would you support a building campaign to help us do that?”

And if you listen for the right things, you may find that you get the answer to your questions before you even ask them. Here’s some ideas about what to listen for when funders make their presentations or when they respond to questions from other grant seekers.

  • Why does the funder make grants?
  • What are the funder’s priorities?
    • Geography
    • Type of program
    • Type of grant
      • Operating support
      • Capacity-building
      • Capital grants
      • Project grants
    • What’s the process for an initial approach?
    • Deadlines, if any
    • Range of grant amounts
    • Frequency of grants

Also, I encourage people to sit at one table that may not be directly related to their current work. Why?

  • The more funders you hear from the better idea you have about how funders work in general
  • Your organization may have a project in the future that is relevant to that funder
  • You may change jobs, and this funder might be important to your work in the future

Finally, just being there as the face of your organization can be helpful in the future when a funder becomes relevant to your work.


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What we can learn from Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire’s reputation for grace and style survives his generation. He may be less familiar to people born after 1980, but you can find his best dance routines on YouTube. If you take a moment to view a couple, here’s some things you may miss unless you are looking for them.

Fred Astaire’s best moves make his partner the center of attention. He moves smoothly to guide her along, keeping his dance moves clean and simple.

When Astaire guides his partner into a spin, he centers the spin and she moves around him. On the surface that may seem to make him center of attention.

It actually causes us to focus more on her because of the way our eyes work. We see large movements better than small movements. At the center of the spin Astaire minimalizes his role while his partner, spinning around him, catches our eye.

Some people will disagree with me, claiming that they focus on Fred Astaire. But would you think he was stylish and graceful if he made his partner look like a bag of potatoes?

Why am I sharing this observation with grantwriters?

Think of Fred Astaire’s dancing as an analogy for your organization and the community it serves. Just as Fred Astaire made his partner look great, your job is to feature your community—its needs and opportunities—and how your organization gracefully enables that community.

Look at these two examples:


The ABC Organization is writing for a grant to acquire and install two new refrigeration units in our main food warehouse. These units will provide refrigeration and freezer capacity for our food program. We need these units to get more donations from food brokers that require freezing or refrigeration. We can’t serve the people in our area until we get this additional space. We get these large donations and break them into distribution size units for the local food banks and food pantries we support.


During the course of our work we’ve found that our community can benefit from increasing donations available through food brokers. These foods are better for the people we serve because they are either fresh or frozen, thus having far less salt than canned foods. Your own local grocery store is probably giving far more space to fresh and frozen goods because of this shift in the food system. That’s why such foods are available from food brokers. By increasing refrigeration and freezer space more donations can be safely stored and distributed to food banks and food pantries serving our communities.


Aside from the second example being slightly longer than the first, the key question is one of approach. Which passage is more Fred Astaire? Which passage features the community you serve?

Stylistically, the first passage is about buying refrigeration equipment. The second passage is about tapping a source for greater donations to feed your community. Which approach probably aligns better with a funder’s point of view?

Even if you don’t feel there is a difference, do you think using the second approach would cost you a grant that the first approach might win?

What does this mean in practical terms? My point is simple. Funders who are open to looking at grant proposals beyond pre-selected groups or RFPs talk more and more about supporting outcomes, not agencies. Featuring your community and a positive impact that could occur is a way to align with that approach to grant making.

When you show funders the positive impact that is possible, you may find them more flexible in what tools they will allow you to acquire with their grants.