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Do’s and don’ts of grant seeking–from the horse’s mouth

28 Mar

I told you so.

While RFPs vary from funder to funder, there are some basic tenets that never change. I ran across this nice little list of do’s and don’ts of grant seeking, as published by the ASPCA. Yes, that ASPCA.

Now, just because you aren’t an animal charity, don’t think this list doesn’t apply to you. It does. It’s all common sense and things I tell prospective grant seekers all the time. But I always love when I run across advice like this presented by an actual funder. Gives me my “I told you so” moment.

Basically, you need to follow the instructions and complete the application in full, answering each question as they ask it, not as you wish they had asked it. It seems like such a simple request, but it is the single thing that people struggle with the most in grant writing.

Not answering the question in the way it is asked will really hurt you. The funder is trying to gather information that is important to them, even if it makes no sense to you. It’s your job not to circumvent that process, but to fully disclose the information they need to make a decision.

I admit, sometimes, the information they ask for seems odd. You are allowed to roll your eyes from the privacy of your desk. But then you simply have to suck it up and answer the question. If you’re not prepared to do so, then you have to be prepared not to get the money. Remember, it’s their money until it’s yours–and even then, it’s still their money.


Involving boards in grant seeking–and avoiding micromanaging

21 Mar
Not an equitable division of labor…

Everyone beats the drum about involving your board in grant seeking, but exactly what should that look like? It’s a great idea, but it’s rife with the possibility for micro managing and over stepping of boundaries. First, let’s talk about what it should not look like.

I won’t say that they shouldn’t ever be involved in grant writing–if, and I repeat if, they either have expertise as successful professional grant writers or have high content area expertise. Inexperienced board members will be no more successful than inexperienced staff in writing or editing grants, so don’t defer this job to them because it just sounds like some big, scary thing that important people like board members should do. In fact, they will inherently be worse at describing your programs and internal processes because they don’t live it every day. And then there’s the awkward mess of having to rewrite their narrative that just doesn’t work.

Plus, there are staffing and program decisions to be made. Grant writing is part fact telling and part program design. Sometimes its up to us to help figure out exactly how the magic is gonna happen. And that means decisions about staffing and other day-to-day happenings.

I also don’t think they should be writing or approving grant budgets for largely the same reasons. If you are writing for existing programs and your grant budget reflects that, then your board should have already approved the larger agency budget into which that program budget fits. You’re covered. Drilling down into line items for grant budgets is the definition of micromanaging. And I promise you they won’t read the RFP well enough to know what is allowable and what is not. Which is just not helpful.

Strangely, one of my clients has a funder who specifically asks what the role of the board is in approving grant budgets. My internal response is: “Um, none, I hope!” Okay, okay, I give. If you are creating a budget for a brand new activity that is not reflected in your board-approved agency budget, getting the grant would increase the agency budget and/or affect cash flow patterns (if say, the grant is awarded on a reimbursement basis), you need to give the finance committee and the executive committee a heads up. And be prepared to have them torpedo the project, as is their prerogative.

Oh, wait?  Isn’t that micromanaging? In this case, no. The board is about big picture and policy, staff is about process and making it happen. Policy may influence process, but process can never trump policy. So if you have a directive from the board, like an approved agency budget, that’s your policy for the year. Any changes to that are not yours to make alone. And monkeying with cash flow affects fiscal responsibility, which is the purview of the board.

So in short, the board should not be involved in that portion of grant writing that takes them out of the realm of policy and direction and into the day-to-day world of how their group directive is implemented. Next–what is an appropriate use of your board in grant seeking.

How to win friends and influence funders

10 Dec

We're all in this together.

How many of you know your funders? I mean, really know them? Getting cozy with foundation officers is always helpful, and it’s something we’re all told to do.

But how exactly is that done? Beyond simply saying hello to them at community events and receptions and such?

Recently I had the opportunity to make a new friend. And I noticed that there is a little dance we all do when forming a new relationship. And, well, gaining a funder as a professional ally is a lot like making a new friend in your personal life. Consider these six basic principles:

1) Discover Commonality: Your personal friends are your personal friends for a reason–you have a lot in common. Be sure that the funder is revelant to your mission. I don’t mean you should think of it from the position of “what can you do for me,” but rather, is this relationship meaningful for my organization? If a foundation officer works with a funder that is so far removed from what you do that the relationship has nothing to offer your or your agency, you may be better off putting your time into someone closer to your cause.

2) Create Mutual Benefit: This is a natural offshoot of #1. Create a connection with commonalities and then look for ways to be of service to the funder–not just for how they can help you. They hold the purse strings, but you are the content area expert on your cause. Be a resource for them.

3) Ask for Advice: When you seek someone’s opinion, you’re saying you value them. Having them weigh in on a decision creates buy in. Just remember that people often expect you to take their advice once offered. Spend some time working on #1 and #2 before you potentially bind yourself to someone.

4) Tell Them a Secret: Confiding in someone creates intimacy. Sharing something confidential with a funder, which often happens while seeking advice, tells them “I trust you.” Just be careful what you share. Never, ever share anything gossipy or about other people, whether they are staff, board, volunteers or other funders. Never share anything about other nonprofits. Consider the timing–is it too much too soon? Are you straying into TMI territory? And consider who you’re telling. Foundation officers are just people, and some people are vaults and some have loose lips. A good example of sharing a secret is my being able to see lion cubs up close and personal at Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary before the general public knew about them. The Executive Director and I already had a good working relationship of several months, and she knew I could keep my mouth shut until she was ready for the world to know.

5) Just Hang: Not everything has to be a visit in a foundation office or a site visit at your agency. Take your foundation officer for lunch or coffee–especially if you’re asking for advice or sharing a secret. Don’t feel like you have to take her to a schwanky place. It’s not necessary, and in fact may make her wonder how you spend your organization’s money. Coffee is plenty and it’s efficient. If she only has half an hour to spare, meeting her for coffee near her next appointment is thoughtful and respectful. Don’t forget those community events and receptions. Let’s face it, sometimes those things are dull and seeing a friendly face who can offer real conversation is refreshing.

6) Keep It Real: The trick to all of this is–it has to feel natural. Foundation officers are like the prettiest girls at the dance–they get offers all the time and they’ve heard every line. The suitors who win fair maiden are those who are sincere, honest and trustworthy. We all know what’s on the table, that’s no secret. Just approach the situation with an open mind and a willing heart and you’ll have yourself a healthy relationship that benefits you both.