So, your community has a number of needs and you have some amazing ideas about how to address them. Maybe the river that runs through your town needs to be cleaned up. Maybe kids in your neighborhood lack positive things to do on the weekend and after school. Whatever these needs are, if your ideas to address them benefit the community as a whole in any quantifiable way, you should apply for a grant. You have heard about the millions of dollars in government grants that go to social causes every year and you’ve probably made some calls to grant writers and consultants. But unfortunately, despite your incredible enthusiasm and terrific idea, you may have heard consultant after consultant tell you that you have a lot of work to do before you even think about applying for a grant. There are a lot of consultants and grant “experts” truly and deeply invested in what they deem to be “the process.” And, if you haven’t followed it, they’ll tell you that you need to start from the beginning… their beginning. Before you know it, your idea isn’t the organizing principle, and the need isn’t the foundational cause. Rather, the consultant’s “process” becomes the focal point, and literal years will pass before your idea is funded.
I’m here to tell you that if you have the vision you are ready to get started. Grant writing can and should begin at the same time that you identify the problem you would like to solve and a grant could pay for your costs associated with solving the problem. There are a number of things that you need to do to prepare, but not having these things in place does not mean you are dead in the water, and it doesn’t mean you have to do them all one at a time, in a specific order.
Jump in and Get started
You are never going to be perfectly ready, and you don’t have to have everything perfectly in place to apply for grants. Dr. Deborah Montgomery, founder of Resource Associates, always reminds our clients that a grant proposal is just that: A proposal to do things. You do not necessarily have to be doing them already. That is what the grant money is for. For most grants, as long as you demonstrate a need in the population that you propose to serve and you demonstrate that your organization has the ability to lead the program to service this need, then you have a competitive chance to win most grants. Remember, you do not have to do everything yourself. This is what partners are for.
What follows are the various activities that go into grant writing but they are not as hard as people might have led you to believe and they do not have to be complete in order to get started on writing and submitting grants.
1. Mission Statement and Goals
This does not need to be very complex at all and you don’t need to labor over this or hire someone to do it. You just need to understand what it is that you are trying to accomplish and have some general ideas about what it is you need to do to accomplish it. This step could literally take you 5 minutes. Don’t be too narrow in this and don’t worry if you are too broad. Many nonprofits run a myriad of programs because their mission statement is broadly stated to solve problems in a community or specific population in any way that is needed that they are capable of. By leaving a mission statement relatively open in this regard you are now able to implement all kinds of programs to serve this broad need. If you don’t have a nonprofit organization, simply work with a existing organization whose mission aligns with your project idea. Many existing nonprofits are stretched very thin and are not applying for all of the grants that they should. They are often happy to serve as your fiscal sponsor and let you do all of the work if your passion is to do that work. The grants will usually pay you for most if not all expenses associated with your project activities including salaries for yourself as the Project Manager and others that are contributing to the project goals.
A Case Study
There is a nonprofit that I work very closely with whose mission is to “Transform Native American Youth and Communities.” They have been successfully operating a number of grant programs in a rural, low income community near the Navajo Nation tribal reservation. The way they go after grants is the perfect example of how an organization needs to think about grant funding and how they need to go about getting these grants.
Their process starts with a company they have on retainer that provides them a weekly report identifying and summarizing current grant opportunities as they are released that the consultant thinks might be of interest. You can find a person or a company to do this for you at a very low cost. This person or company is going to do all of the heavy lifting for you. If you have ever poked around on grants.gov you will see that it is very confusing. Even when you do get proficient at navigating this website when you see a grant that looks good for your organization you won’t know for sure until you read through the 75+ page Request for Proposal. If you are the Executive Director or Program Manager of a nonprofit you have other things to do. Let someone else read them and if it is determined that the opportunity would be of interest to you, you can then dive into the details.
For this particular nonprofit, once they get this information, if at that point a grant looks interesting a “Grant Champion” is assigned from within the organization. That person’s job is to research the opportunity more thoroughly and make a determination if they think it is something to pursue and then to report to the group. They start by asking themselves two questions. First they ask “Is this a good opportunity for us?” What they are asking here is if they align well enough with the opportunity to be competitive and are they offering enough money and enough grants to put forth the time and effort to apply. If the answer to this question is “yes,” the next question is “Do we want to do this?” Will this serve our community in the way we want to serve them and will it produce worthwhile outcomes?
About a year ago this organization saw “The Farmer’s Market Promotion” grant program offered through the USDA. It occurred to them that there were a lot of Navajo Farmers at roadside stands selling their produce. They did not have any experience in farming and no one in the organization was a farmer. They said even though we don’t farm ourselves we know all of the positive benefits that a farmer’s market can offer to a community where fresh food is scarce and to the actual producers themselves. They said we can organize and manage a thing like that and it will be great for everyone. They did their homework on best practices, organized local producers and community leaders, and applied for and won a $100,000 Farmer’s Market Planning grant. The program has been a great success so far and at the conclusion of this grant they will be eligible for the next level Farmer’s Market Expansion Grant for up to $500,000! For a grant like this one you do not even have to be a 501c3 nonprofit.
What I want you to take from this example is that you do not have to be a farmer or have any experience farming to win a grant that supports farmers and fresh, healthy food for the community. You just have to demonstrate that your community has the need and you have the capacity to serve that need. This is true in many situations for many grants. Also, the organization did not have the coalition of small producers all in place before they started writing the grant. Instead, they identified the grant they wanted, then as part of writing the grant they began to contact everyone they thought should be part of the project. They just jumped in.
2. Grant Research and Analysis
Grants come from three primary places: Federal agencies, state agencies and corporate and family foundations. The way grants from any of these sources are given is by way of a Request for Proposal (RFP) or Request for Application (RFA). You need to have someone reading these on an ongoing basis and look at what kinds of programs provide available funding that would pay for what you are doing. This should happen at your vision stage. It is never too soon for you to get educated about what these funding opportunities look like so that you can start to look like the kind of organization they want to give money to. As you begin to understand grant funding you will begin to see a pattern for the kinds of things that you should be doing or planning to do that all funders are looking for.
3. Networking for Community, Donor and Partner Support
Another thing you need to do is network and gain community and partner support. You need to make yourself known in your community for several reasons. You need donations and local fundraising and, if you do not yet have your 501c3 in place, you will want to know of these other organizations that might serve as the fiscal sponsor for a grant you may want to apply for. Also, some grants will not fund 100% of a project. You will have local operational costs so you are going to need some local cash. Make sure your community knows who you are and what you do. In addition to supporting local fundraising efforts, you also need the network for partnership building. Many grants require or can be won with the help of partners. You might see a grant that requires a range of services and you can only handle one or two of the tasks. That is where partners come in. Partners that you should begin developing a relationship with and that should know you exist and what you do include: representatives of local governments, social service providers, neighborhood leaders, members of the faith community, nonprofit organizations, business leaders, educators, and healthcare providers. Remember that this does not all need to be in place before you start writing a grant. This is something that happens as an ongoing process and while you are applying for grants.
A mailing campaign to all business and/or homes is relatively low cost and effective. There are plenty of marketing companies around that can help you with this. You should also be a member of your local and/or state association of nonprofits as well as the Chamber of Commerce. A mailer to these memberships should be done as well or at least an email campaign. The nonprofit association and Chamber of Commerce offer these services.
You should be speaking and attending all of the networking events that they have such as “Business After Hours” and “Lunch and Learn” or whatever they provide in your community through your association. If they don’t provide this then you should offer to handle it for them.
4. 501c3 Paperwork in Order and Up to Date
Not all grants require that you are currently a 501c3. But many do. So you do want to get this in place as soon as possible. But you can still apply for a number of grants that do not require it at the submission of the grant or might not require it at all. Also, in many cases you can apply through a fiscal sponsor like a United Way or other 501c3, as discussed earlier. Start doing all of these other things at the same time your 501c3 is processing.
5. Financial Transparency
You do need to make sure that your organization’s financials are in order and that you are financially transparent. You might have heard that some funders, such as many foundations, will not provide funding to a nonprofit unless they receive audited financial statements. This is largely true. So this is something you want to get prices on from local CPA’s and get into your budget as an operational cost as soon as possible. However, if a nonprofit has an annual income of under $100,000 it may not be required. And, in this case, there are two less expensive alternatives that might be acceptable. The first is called a review, which is like a mini-audit. Many funders will accept this. The other alternative to an audit is a compilation. This is where an accountant assembles your financial statement. Anytime you see a foundation grant that says you must have audited financial statements, call them and see if you can provide one of these lower cost alternatives. But definitely plan on getting this service done. You are going to need it at some point and it is possible that once you move into the big money grants that this could be paid for out of the grant as a capacity building service. But remember that not having it is not necessarily a deal breaker for many grants if you are a smaller or newer organization.
I bet that you have already done one or more of these things already. Get to work on the other steps Even if you only have a vision, you are grant ready. You can begin doing the grant research or hiring a grant researcher while still generating community support and while continuing to network and before you have a 501c3. All of these steps are part of an ongoing, continuous process to make your nonprofit viable and effective.
I hope this will inspire you to think in new ways about the things your nonprofit can do and I encourage you to take chances and get started.
Good Luck and thank you for everything that you do!
If Resource Associates can help you any way or if you have any questions about anything reviewed here, do not hesitate to contact me: John Nawrocki, 505-326-4245 firstname.lastname@example.org.