Juggling Act: Finding Time for Grants in the Small Shop
We can all agree: No one in the nonprofit sector has a tougher time of it than the small shop development director. These are the dedicated souls juggling a variety of responsibilities, from individual giving to marketing and communications, to event planning, to public relations, to stewardship and more. How do they fit applying for foundation grants into their insane schedules? Is it even possible to include foundation grant funding into your organization’s funding stream, without hiring an outside grants consultant?
Yes. If you focus on creating a system for grant success, you can develop a reliable base of foundation funding. Here’s how.
Focus on General Operating Support
For seven years, I worked for a fairly large grantmaking foundation in programming and communications. I still remember thinking, as I first read the foundation’s guidelines, “Why don’t we fund general operating expenses?” It simply made sense to me that the best use of a foundation’s resources would be to provide unrestricted operating expenses to worthy organizations.
It turns out I was right. The nonprofit world has always followed trends, just as in business. Because foundation founders and their leadership tended to be from the corporate world, there was a major push in the 1980s through the ’90s for nonprofits to be accountable and goal-driven. Funding was directed to short-term projects—ones that could deliver measurable outcomes.
But we all know that project-based accounting often forced grantees to sacrifice long-term effectiveness.
After all, if your organization is continually adding more programming or sites while your underpaid (and frequently revolving) staff is working on obsolete computers without proper supplies, where will you be five years from now?
Slowly, but surely, the trend is beginning to reverse.
In 2004, the Independent Sector board of directors unanimously endorsed a statement to “opt for general operating support over project support when feasible, and when the goals of the two organizations are substantially aligned.”
And in November 2015, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, put out a call to address the “overhead fiction,” noting that the foundation intended to “double our overhead rate on project grants to 20 percent.”
Hallelujah! Are foundations finally beginning to recognize that nonprofit organizations don’t operate in a vacuum? Time will tell.
Yet, even before this shift in thinking began, my own “small shop” grants system strategy advocated targeting smaller to mid-sized foundations that supported general operating support. Why?
Put simply, when your time and resources are limited, it makes sense to tailor two or three boilerplate proposals for general operating support from 20 to 30 smaller grantmaking foundations than to spend that same amount of time dealing with the headaches of one proposal from a major funder.
Here’s an illustration of my point: In a single year, the Ford Foundation received 144,000 grant applications and made 2,000 grants.
While you’re in the process of evaluating what you want to achieve from foundation funding and setting up your calendar for the year, take into account the absolute best possible use of your time. After all, where’s the money? According to Giving USA, individual giving comprises 80 percent of total charitable giving. Foundations? A mere 15 percent. My intention is not to discourage you from developing relationships with foundation funders, but to think strategically about where you put your time.
By developing a solid system for researching prospective foundations—and consistently devoting two to four hours per week on research alone—you will eventually develop a core portfolio of foundation support. For every community and mission, there are the standard “known” foundations. Your job is to make the time to find the unknown.
Prioritize Foundation Prospect Research
How do you find foundations that will support your programs? The Foundation Directory Online, a database Foundation
Center offers, is a powerful tool and should be your starting point. Foundation Center also offers the Funding Information Network, a network of libraries, community foundations and other nonprofit resource centers.
Network partners provide a core collection of Foundation Center publications and a variety of supplementary materials and services in areas useful to grant-seekers.
Use your location to find a library near you, and schedule one or two full days a year for research purposes.
But don’t stop there. Make it a practice to regularly devote time to foundation research. Other tools for locating foundations include:
• NOZAsearch: Called “the world’s largest searchable database of charitable donations,” NOZAsearch offers a free grant database foundation search tool. While it can be somewhat glitchy, NOZAsearch can also be a remarkably effective tool for locating under-the-radar foundations.
• Grantmakers associations: Many private foundations, family foundations, community foundations, and businesses with foundations or corporate giving programs belong to regional grantmakers associations. Go to the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers to find out if your region has a grantmakers association. Foundations belonging to a grantmaking association will often accept one standard grant application, making your job easier.
• State and local foundation directories: Here in Pennsylvania, I’ve experienced great success using the Pennsylvania Foundation Directory (now entirely online). Many states still offer foundation directories. Find out if yours does.
In order to get the maximum number of solid, organized proposals out the door, you’ll need to be organized for success.
There are fairly standard items that most funders ask for that you should be able to access quickly. They are:
• Your organization’s 501(c)(3) letter
• Your organization’s audited financial report
• A printout of your organization’s Form 990
• Your organization’s current operating budget
• Any program budgets
• A listing of board members, along with their titles and occupations
• A listing of all staff members, responsibilities and resumes
• Letters of support
• Your organization’s annual report, if you have one
I recommend converting every item listed to a PDF file and maintaining a desktop folder containing these items. Not every foundation has an online application process, and you’ll be prepared. Print out at least 10 copies of each document and have them in a file nearby. While you’ll be surprised to find that some smaller foundations merely require a one-page letter application, having these items handy will save headaches.
Find your stories
So, what makes for a truly compelling grant proposal? How do you engage the program officer (your reader—your audience) when your proposal may be the seventh one he or she has read today?
Nothing accomplishes the goal of readability—or “fundability”—quite like effective storytelling.
Competition for grant monies is fierce. Our foundation funded hundreds of organizations every year, and we prided ourselves on conducting thorough evaluations.
One organization, however, was a standout. It was a nonprofit serving women and children in a faith-based setting, and every time a proposal came in the door from this organization, everyone—from the vice president of programs to the office manager—wanted to read that proposal. Why? This organization’s proposal never failed to touch the heart with stories of hope. When it was time, after five years of consecutive funding, to tell the organization to take a year off, we were truly saddened.
Wouldn’t you like to inspire and create that kind of rapport with your readers? Storytelling is key.
Build relationships With Foundation Funders
Here’s a little-known secret about the foundation world: It’s rare that the first-time grant proposal gets funded. In fact, “third time’s the charm” is an unspoken rule in the foundation grantmaking world. But don’t get discouraged. The director of a major foundation once let me in on a secret that has become one of the building blocks of creating my own grants system. What is it?
Simply this: persistence. Sometimes, you will be declined. Establishing your grants system takes time. It’s what your organization does following a proposal declination that sets you apart from all the others. As soon as the foundation’s declination letter is in your hands, call the foundation and ask to speak with the program officer who reviewed your proposal. After you’ve thanked the foundation for their thoughtful review, ask these three questions:
1. Is there anything we could have done differently in our proposal?
2. May we resubmit for your next funding cycle?
3. Are you aware of any other foundations that we might approach?
That’s it. This approach has never failed to yield a wealth of information. In fact, in one recent call to a foundation director, I was rewarded with two full pages of handwritten notes as I scribbled furiously all the thoughts that this kind gentleman had regarding other potential funders.
Follow up by dropping a thank-you note in the mail. You might be surprised at how this will set your organization apart. Everyone writes to thank the foundation for the grant—very few organizations follow through following a declination.
Pamela Grow is the publisher of The Grow Report, the author of Simple Development Systems and the founder of Simple Development Systems: The Membership Program and Basics & More fundraising fundamentals e-courses. She has been helping small nonprofits raise dramatically more money for over 15 years, and was named one of the 50 Most Influential Fundraisers by Civil Society magazine, and one of the 40 Most Effective Fundraising Consultants by The Michael Chatman Giving Show.