The Five Rs of Grants

It's been a tough few months in the grant writing business. Our clients have received far too many "no thanks." I hear the same thing from other fund seekers; the trend, more and more often, is "no." We even had a client receive the postal return receipt and a rejection letter from the funder on the same day, this being prior to the application deadline. Hmmmm…

I got a phone call yesterday from a guy wondering whether he should sign up with this company that practically guarantees him an $80,000 grant to fix up his house. All he has to do is slap down $5K on his credit card (by tonight, there's so much demand), they'll find him a $5,000 matching "grant" that he can pay back later, and "they'll turn me into a grant writer." He wanted to know if it is a scam. I told him to sign up for my $75, eight-hour, talk-as-fast-as-I-can grantsmanship class and I'll tell him everything I've learned in 20 years of working with grants. With all humility and honesty, I doubt they will provide him a whole lot more insight.

A very successful fundraising friend tells me that he considers one out of five a good "yes" rate in grants; for years, we at Third Sector Innovations have boasted two out of three. I see stuff on the web where services claim they've never once been denied funding as a result of one of their applications. I also see stuff that warns, "Don't even think about using Miss So-and-So because she's just gotten out of federal prison for fraudulent grant submittals to our agency."

Where's the sanity in all of this? Where's the truth? Not that I'm looking to reach the highest levels of Mazlow's hierarchy via my grant-related endeavors. But I would like to offer wise counsel and assistance that actual pays off.

It strikes me that it all comes back to the basics. Grants should only be considered a small part of a far bigger game called fundraising. Which is only a polite, nonprofit-y way of saying SALES. Good sales requires a good product, or at least an adequate product backed by a sales and marketing machine to move it out the door.

I go into every encounter with a nonprofit assuming they have a good product, but not necessarily the machine to move it out the door. My job is to help create the machine, or at least contribute to its creation and operation.

That said, I have decided that the "grants machine" consists of Five Rs; more clearly stated, five words that begin with the letter R that make and break the grantsmanship effort. While everyone always wants to focus on the writing - finding the perfect, magic words - I contend that wRiting is arguably the LEAST IMPORTANT of the Five Rs:

RESEARCH - Spend the time to find the right funders. Those who are actually interested in what you are doing. Make sure they are interested. Constantly remind yourself that some people like to give their money to dogs and cats, some do not. Your perfectly-written proposal is not going to change their minds on this.

Tip of the day: Think like a funder. Take an hour or two and compose in your mind - and on paper - how you'd distribute a million dollars a year, every year, given the opportunity. I can guarantee that those perturbing quirks you read in funder guidelines will come shining through in your own priorities and preferences.

RELATIONSHIPS - I have said this for years, now I really truly believe it: Don't write grant proposals expecting magic mailbox money. People who love to write generally don't like to sell. They dread picking up the phone to inquire anything of a funder, much less shaking his/her hand at a social event. Theirs is a world of keyboards and computer screens.

Someone needs to communicate with funders, not just ask them to "show me the money." Build trust and build external credibility. How do you do this? Get your name in the paper. Pick up the phone and give a call. Put your best prospects (there will only be a few) on the agency mailing list. Plan to accidentally run into funders at events, and invite them to yours. Meet them, be nice to them, get to know them. "It's not what you know, it's who you know" applies to fundraising as much as it does to any other part of life.

WRITING - OK, it doesn't really begin with an "R," but close enough. The writing needs to be solid. Succinct, understandable, clean. There are no magic words and there are no secret formulas.

A written proposal is a sales tool, nothing more and nothing less. Just like a resume or a well-done brochure, it is admittedly an exceedingly important part of your sales effort. Solid communication can sell your great product; it sells an inordinate amount of merely adequate product, as is evidenced everyday at McDonald's restaurants around the world. Without solid writing, you're sunk. But likewise, relying solely on solid writing, you're sunk.

ARITHMETIC - Another "almost R" word, I cannot stress enough how important your financial presentation is to grant funders. Rumor has it that, in the foundation world, this is always the first part of your proposal reviewed. They'll know how solid you and your proposal are based on a quick review of the numbers.

As I was recently told, there are three types of people: Those who understand math and those who do not. Hear, hear. Guaranteed, though, you'll find those who really DO understand math when you start asking them for their money.

Tip #2 of the day: Find someone who can recognize a balance sheet, even in a dark room. Who can make sure the budget adds up and actually reflects the need for grant funding. Who doesn't run for cover when asked if you're on a cash or accrual system.

RECORDING AND REPORTING - Ah, follow up! Everyone's favorite activity. It really is more in our make up to follow the advice of The Steve Miller Band: "Go on, take the money and run; Woo Woo Woo!"

It ain't your money. You're the middle man. More accurately stated, your agency is the middle man. Middle men get to account for their actions, tell 'em what you did with their money, show 'em that you were a worthy executor. Particularly if you ever want to be entrusted again.

It really is important to keep track of things. How did you spend the money? How did it help? How do you know it helped? These all are questions that are of concern to funders, and that should be of concern to you.

Tip #3 of the Day: If you want to avoid a few lousy months like mine, get smart and put grants in their proper place; as part of a diversified, systematic and long-term fundraising plan. Heed the Five Rs of Grants. Finally, get out there and sell your fantastic product!

Strong Leaders / Strong Stories

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