What Grant Funders Really Want
Whether your nonprofit is applying for a government grant or support from a private foundation, what reviewers are looking for in grant proposals can feel like a secret.
Grant writers are left scratching their heads trying to determine what buzzwords to use and how to polish their prose to make a better submission. Common complaints from funders are that narratives are vague, difficult to read, not feasible or worse — they don’t know how your nonprofit will use the money you’re seeking.
What grant reviewers are looking for is not a secret.
To be a successful grant writer, you should know what funders want to see in your grant proposals. I asked the experts — seasoned grants professionals and funders working in all fields supporting nonprofits — to find insider tips on what funders need to see in the grant submissions they review.
Here are five concrete ways you can improve your grant applications and give funders what they want.
1. Have a Plan
After reading your narrative, grant reviewers should see evidence of solid planning and not have questions regarding the primary details of the proposed project. Funders suggest answering the essential questions first: the who, what, when, where, why and how of your program. How this project fits into your organization’s mission and objectives is key.
“I want to know in what ways grant funds would advance the organization,” Ella Baff, an independent consultant and former foundation program officer in New York, said. “Is the timing of the grant particularly important to this advancement? I place high value on the quality of leadership thinking within the organization that led to the particular proposal.”
2. Match the Mission
Reviewers with hundreds of applications to read want to know quickly if your proposal fits their mission. You want to be sure the grant opportunity you’re looking at is right for your organization. Proposals that don’t match the nonprofit’s and the funder’s objectives are not successful.
“If the grant is for a specific project, I always look to see whether that project supports the nonprofit’s mission,” Ramona Baker, Master of Arts in arts administration program director at Goucher College in Baltimore. said. “If it doesn’t, then I wonder why it should have additional funds.”
Ann Arnold-Ogden, executive director of the Wichita Falls Alliance for Arts and Culture, a Texas grant funder, agreed.
“Mission statements must guide requests,” she said. “Your request will be stronger if you can clearly illustrate how your project or organization aligns with the goals of the donor.”
3. Be Honest
Funders say that nonprofits should be truthful about their organizational challenges in grant narratives — even if there are issues, like budget deficits and leadership changes. Reviewers appreciate the truth and see through details that don’t add up. They want to know how you are handling difficulties, and may even give you an added boost if they know you are facing particular challenges.
“I always look for honesty in applications,” David Lawrence, president of the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County, a frequent grant reviewer and a public grant funder in Florida, said. “I find it refreshing when organizations are confident enough to share struggles and the plans and innovative thinking on how they will address these challenges.”
4. Connect the Dots
A grant proposal’s narrative, budget, timeline, and work samples or documentation should all relate to the same program and develop a cohesive story. For example, budgets that differ from the narrative or are incomplete drive funders crazy.
“Too many times, I've reviewed applications where the narrative and the support materials tell contradictory stories,” Ernest Disney-Britton, a former public grant funder in Indianapolis, said. “If the narrative describes your organization as committed to diversity, but your support materials tell a different story ... it's a problem.”
5. Build a Relationship
Finally, grant-making is about relationships. Funders who have no introduction to your nonprofit and what you’re trying to achieve will reject your grant proposals.
Funders care deeply about their investments in nonprofits and want to know that they’ve made a good choice in supporting your project to benefit the community. Remember, too, that a foundation or business that gives you $1,000 today may become the funder who gives you $25,000 tomorrow.
“Get to know potential funders,” Greg Charleston, a grant reviewer and former public funder who is now based in Palm Springs, California, said. “Start by making an introductory call, communicate your program idea and actively build a relationship with them. No matter what, establish a connection before submitting a grant request.”
By following the advice of funding experts, you will put together a well-thought-out proposal that will convince any grant reviewer you have a project and a nonprofit worthy of their support.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Related story: Private Grants: Are They for Your Nonprofit?
Stephanie Minor is executive consultant of NPO Centric in Palm Desert, California, where she advances the work of nonprofits through capacity-building and technical assistance. Stephanie is an award-winning veteran fundraising professional, nonprofit executive and strategic development coach whose proven fundraising strategies have won big grants and gifts for impactful nonprofit causes. Through her many publications and online courses, she teaches nonprofit leaders, fundraisers and founders the best practices from her career in leading and raising millions of dollars for nonprofits.