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Hello again, grant fans! This is Deb Montgomery, CEO of Resource Associates grant writing firm. Today, I’m blogging on the topic of “Sustainability of Grant Programs.”
As many of you know, I have worked as a grant writer for well over 25 years. Most of my career has involved full-out grant writing for clients/employers in my immediate community. Although my organization, Resource Associates, offers grant writing services to entities throughout the world, it is much easier to identify needs and really talk from the heart when the grant impacts your own back yard so to speak.
The concept of sustainability to a professional grant writer can be vastly different than one of an executive director or nonprofit board member. As a grant writer, the easy solution to sustainability is just…EASY. Simply write more grants! The higher quality of proposals written (including re-submissions after analyzing reviewers’ notes of non-awarded proposals), coupled with the higher volume of submissions, coupled with the discussion of proven outcomes and capacity one could demonstrate in a proposal after prior successful programming should lead to continued funding and long term sustainability. Right? An aggressive grant writing strategy would make up for any potential lapse in funding according to my grant writer brain.
After founding my nonprofit, Capacity Builders Inc., I realized there was a lot more to an effective grant program sustainability strategy than aggressive grant pursuit. The strategy needs to be comprehensive AND include what I call the “of courses.” Here are my “of courses:”
- Of course you need to demonstrate program validity and results for continued and additional funding
- Of course the program must be needed and relevant to the target service community
- Of course you need stakeholder buy-in and consider program income options (which, don’t jive for my nonprofit since it primarily serves the poorest of the poor)
- And, of course, there are a million other strategies which may or may not work as you are not getting a paycheck (or may soon not be getting a paycheck) while your grant funds run out.
The “of courses” are the strategies used by most nonprofit professionals who are NOT professional grant writers. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. So let’s put those aside for a future discussion about sustainability because they are relevant to a comprehensive sustainability solution.
Sustainability of Capacity Builders Inc.’s very important programs was somewhat up in the air for a while since we only had a handful of staff operating grants as opposed to doing what we did best (writing grants). Other than the creation of Gym Lou’s as a community sustainability funnel (see my last blog), and other than the “of courses,” my brain circled back to my original instinct to plan out a high volume grant writing strategy in advance. This would include the production of beautifully written proposals truly relevant to the community and the aggressive pursuit of discretionary grant funding. My organization already had the “results” information in place on our grant programs because we used one of the best evaluation firms in the US (ACT Investments). We had tons of partnerships and stakeholder support due to the extraordinary need in the local community and lots of potential helping hands. So why not try an aggressive grant writing approach?
Unfortunately, I learned the hard way there are a few downsides to this approach. I’m writing this blog to share those experiences with my nonprofit professional friends so they are aware and prepared.
The first shortfall deals with grant writer cost and resource. Every year, Capacity Builders writes 50 plus grants. We often write these in house but sometimes rely on Resource Associates to write the grants via arm’s length contracts. Internal time and effort research on resources spent per grant demonstrates an average investment of $4,500 per grant write. This is the “mean” between 100 page federal grant applications and two page foundation grants. This is a lot of money for a nonprofit to incur so I would often try and push for the writing to take place in house. This leads to a different resource complication. The average time to write a quality proposal for Capacity Builders is 42 hard straight hours. This is too much time for our programmatic staff to dedicate to a non-implementation project.
In addition to these resource deficits, consider if only 10% of the many grants we were pursuing were awarded (note: the typical grant award average for non-Resource Associates’ affiliate agencies is 10%). Capacity Builders’ staff would be overwhelmed with implementation and lack of job security because we would never know what funding to expect or if it would be continued.
Because of these obstacles, Capacity Builders dedicated some significant time to work “SMARTER” not “harder.” We chose to:
- Reduce the number of overall grant submissions per year
- Only go after grants allowing us to continue or expand our existing initiatives (NO NEW PROGRAMS UNTIL NEXT YEAR’S STRATEGIC PLANNING)!
- Only solicit grant funds providing multi-year funding with a dollar floor minimum of $100,000
- Include indirect costs into every grant which is now allowed under the new FFR guidelines at 10% for those institutions without set indirect cost rates
- Continually track new (and appropriately fitting) grant opportunities by monitoring Resource Associates’ Grant Siren, a grant alert service.
With all of these strategies in place, Capacity Builders Inc. was (and continues to be) able to properly cover grant expenses of its existing grant employees and resources. By writing fewer yet higher dollar multi-year grants, we are able to dedicate the time to track out the dollars needed to pay for those employees whose current salaried grants expire as well as incorporate these expenses in future grants to hopefully be awarded next year. We are able to examine the areas of our grant-awarded budgets which are lacking and don’t contribute to agency sustainability. Such areas include one-time web development services where the organization would be forced to hire an outside subcontractor to provide updates and maintenance by means of agency operational resources. By properly budgeting and selecting the right multi-year and high-dollar grants, a part of the sustainability task was fulfilled.
Essentially, Capacity Builders was able to implement my original idea of an aggressive grant writing approach to accomplishing sustainability while protecting staff time, staff resources, and overall staff sanity from not being overworked.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. You can always email me with questions about grants and sustainability through Resource Associates’ grant expert at: firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you and sharing additional insights.