2021 Grants Planning

So, one of your nonprofit fundraising goals for next year is to increase your agency’s income from foundations. After all, according to Giving USA, foundations account for 17 percent of the charitable dollar. And they tend to give larger, major gifts. And, according to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, it only costs, on average, $0.20 to raise a dollar through grants. If only you could find a way get more successful grants. How do you find the time? What tools can you develop that will help you get those grants more easily?  

Start by Visiting your Agency’s Strategic Plan

A strategic plan contains your agency’s mission, vision and values statements, telling you your organization’s purpose and guiding principles. The plan tells you what community needs your agency meets and the programs and services in place to meet them. A strategic plan also states the goals the organization is working toward and the future plans of how to get there, providing the roadmap to how your agency will achieve its vision. It is important, in both researching available funding and writing the respective proposals, that you as the grant writer be familiar with all this information. The better you know your agency’s strategic plan, the better your grant submissions will be.

Adhering to the mission as communicated through strategic plan will help you avoid mission drift in your foundation grants. Which you want to do at all costs. Mission drift occurs when agency resources are used for things other than mission. For example, a youth counseling agency implementing an after-school program or a community food bank running a cooking school. The danger is that the after-school program or cooking school swallows up the respective counseling services or the food bank. You have to be careful. Services may be complementary and feel like a natural fit. But if the ancillary programs eclipse your core mission, you’ve lost your way. And foundations are keen to that. Foundations like agencies that have a strong identity and stick to their missions. Sticking to your mission is your best fundraising strategy.

Knowing your strategic plan has other benefits too. As we saw in Building Relationships: Foundations, matching your mission to those of potential foundation donors you apply to gives you the greatest chance of being awarded the monies you’ve asked for. Don’t just apply to anybody. Apply to those foundations who are interested in your nonprofit’s mission. And when you state you mission, get your agency's vision in there too. Articulating your agency’s vision of the future communicates plans for longevity. As does having the strategic plan itself. More and more foundations want to know if your agency has an updated strategic plan, particularly those foundations with bigger payouts.

The foundational values stated in the strategic plan help steer you in determining who to ask for funding. For example, is your health and wellness nonprofit really going to accept an award from a tobacco firm? If you did, what kind of message does that send to your clients? To your other funders? To your community?

Not to mention the benefits of how the information in the strategic plan gives you the information you need to write your grant narratives. Depending on how comprehensive your agency’s strategic plan is, you may have the start of your proposal’s community needs assessment, organizational description and sustainability plan already written.

The strategic plan is a godsend when updated and used regularly. Read your nonprofit's strategic plan. Update it regularly. Let it be the master guide it is supposed to be.

Then Look at Your Agency’s Chart of Accounts

I cannot tell you how many times I have seen good programs get funded but the agency financially fails because the grant budget did not include all of the direct and indirect costs to run the program. We talked about the importance of calculating total costs in Developing a Nonprofit Fundraising Strategy that Optimizes Fundraising Performance. To maintain the financial health of your agency, it is crucial that your total program costs are covered, not only the direct costs associated with program operations. When you don’t ask for enough money, you run at a deficit and may not know it. You may, by looking at the amount of revenues coming in, think that you are doing well when, in actuality, you are doing more harm than good. I always ask for a chart of accounts so that I know what line items I need to include the grants budget so that the organization stay solvent.

What about when line items in your chart of accounts aren’t allowed by the foundation? Well, then you have line items that you can include as part of your agency’s contribution to the program. And you know you need to find other funding, maybe through your other fundraising activities. Which helps the sustainability pieces in your grants. A variety of fundraising methods shows a diversified portfolio, which really helps when presenting your requests, particularly to corporations. Also, a multitude of donors shows broad community support, which helps your proposal's background and credibility piece.

Next Develop a Master Case for Support

What developing a master case for support for grant writing means is that for each program your agency runs, you develop a comprehensive document that can be used for the different proposals you will write. You are not writing a grant that you use and reuse, slapping on different contact mailing information. You are writing are a master document that you have at hand that can be customized for each grant submission. After all, if you know one foundation, you know one foundation. You will still need to customize each proposal.

In your case for support answer the questions related to why your nonprofit is doing what it is doing where it is doing it and what makes it uniquely qualified to do it. Answer the questions: Why this community as opposed to others? Why these clients and not others? Why this strategy instead of that one? Why these programs and not those? Why do your clients come to your organization and not go somewhere else? Why do community partners collaborate with you and not someone else? What makes you stand out above other of your kind? What you’re getting at is the question the foundation will have, “Why should we fund your program as opposed to the hundreds of others that we’re looking at?” When the decision makers prioritize the list of programs they will fund, you want to be at the top of their list, before they run out of money to give away.

What kind of data will need to support your argument of why you’re the best? You will need community data. You will need client data. You will need staff data. You will need program data including history, processes and procedures, outcomes, evaluations, costs and financial performance. You will also need organizational financial and community partnership data. Sometimes you need board data and data on governance structure and processes. I have seen requests for market and branding data, public relations processes and outcomes and asset and debt information, usually in corporate foundation applications. In government grants, you may also need legislative data. For your master document, get and source as much data as you can. Research, research, research. Document, document, document. The more objective data you have to support your argument for funding, the better.

Gather data and craft a narrative for each program you will write for. It will save you time in research, helping you find time to write a greater number of grants. Referring to the master document will also help you maintain consistency between all your grant narratives. Consistency is important so that as foundation officers talk to one another you maintain a steady reputation and organizational identity.

Now Research Foundations

It’s now time to figure out who your potential foundation donors are. To research foundations, it is best to go through their 990’s. The 990’s are chock full of information about the mission, contact information, application procedures and who they have funded for what in what amount. Nothing beats a 990 for information on potential foundation funders.

Problem is, you may not be near a library with access to the 990’s. A foundation may publish their 990’s on their websites, but many foundations don’t have a website. Even if they did, how would figure out how to focus your time on those foundations who are interested in your mission without having to go through every single 990? You may want to invest in a good foundation database. There are several out there. I have used Foundation Search and Foundation Directory Online and found them both extremely helpful. You can search for information based on foundation funding interest in certain issues and geographic areas. And you can weed out those foundations who do not accept unsolicited proposals. A foundation database gives you summary information which you can drill down on and confirm in the attached 990. I swear by foundation databases. Usually I find a good number of prospects that I can then further research.

Once I have the database and 990 information, I go to the foundations’ websites. I am looking for their mission statement, application guidelines and any information additional to the 990 I can get. Particularly information that disqualifies me as a good fit for them. Like they give to biodiversity but that only means zoos and I am a botanical garden. Or they give to education but that means university research and I am an after-school program. The last thing I want to do is waste my time writing a grant that doesn’t have a chance of being funded. I am too busy for that, particularly if I am an executive director, part-time fundraiser or one-person shop.  I also don’t want my organization to get a bad reputation. Foundation funders are a pretty small group. They tend to network with one another. I don’t want to be known as the agency who doesn’t do their homework. 

By visiting their website, yes, I want to know I will be of interest. And, if I am, how I can apply. But I am also looking for clues as to how the foundation talks about issues: how they categorize information and what values are important to them. I visit every page on their website. I read their annual reports and white papers, if they have them. I am looking for how I might write my proposal narratives so that program officers and board members best relate to them. I want my mission to match their mission. I want my values to be similar to their values. I want my information to be categorized in the same way theirs is. I want to use some of the same words and concepts they do. I want to come across as understandable and relatable as I can.

After I have looked at their 990 and visited their website, if a foundation is a good match and they allow it, I also call the program officer. I may have questions. I also want to confirm my interpretations of all the material they have provided. And I want to make a memorable impression. I want my proposal to be the best it can be. I also want that program officer to advocate for me when the funding decisions are being made. Usually I call the program officer a few months before deadline, after I have a grants calendar and before I start writing the grant.

Finally, Record Information, Create a Calendar and Track Progress

Whether you use a commercial donor database or an excel sheet, you need to record the information you have gathered. You, of course, want the name and contact information of the foundation, the foundation’s areas of interest, the type of funding they award (program, seed money, general operating, equipment, etc.), and the range of funding they give. Knowing the range of funding is not enough though. Sometimes those ranges are $250-$2,500,000. You need to know what amount you should ask for. You know the amount to ask for by going through the foundation 990’s list of funded programs, finding one similar to yours, and seeing the typical amounts given towards them. And look at several years’ worth of giving data. You want to know whether they are a one-time funder or a foundation that likes to build relationships (and award progressive amounts) over the years.

You will want all this information in some kind of summary format so that you can easily see when submissions are due, proposals are submitted, awards are received, thank you letters are sent, payments are received, and reports are due. And you want to be able to sort that information both by name of foundation and date due. You want to sort by foundation name so you can see the foundation’s history with your organization. You want to sort by due date so that you have a ready-made calendar.

If you can afford a donor database, get it. It will save you time and might be able to be integrate it with your accounting software. But if you don’t have the budget for one, an excel sheet can suffice.

I used an excel sheet for years. Sorting by due date gave me the calendar I needed. Every year, I’d make a copy the current year’s sheet before I started my next year’s research, and label it the next year. That way, I only had to format once. For example, I would take my 2019 sheet, make a copy and label the copy 2020. Then I would just change the due dates to 2020. Looking at different years gave me the history I needed.

Wrapping It Up

Do you want to realize more grant income next year than you have this year? To maximize your time and increase your chances funding:

  • Use your agency’s strategic plan as a guide for your grant writing efforts. 
  • Make sure to present total costs in your grant budgets.
  • Develop a master case for support that can be used to customize your grant submissions.
  • Research potential foundation prospects’ 990’s, websites, annual reports and white papers and then contact program officers.
  • Use a database or excel sheet to record information, create a grants calendar and track progress.
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