Grants are the catalyst for much of the change that non-profits create and sustain. But the process of applying and receiving a grant is no small feat. After nearly 25 years in the field, the grant making process of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation has become a well-oiled machine. Having given over $100 million in grants, here are some pieces of knowledge we wish every grantee to know before applying.
First and foremost, grant makers want to get to know you. The President of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, Malcolm Macleod, puts it this way: “The application process is our way of saying, ‘Let’s dance.’ If we enjoy dancing together, then we’ll ask if they want to go steady.” A grant agreement is an offer to “go steady.” Wise grant makers won’t ask to be in a relationship with a grantee before first getting to know them, so do your best to build that relational collateral. Be confident in what your organization or program has to offer, invite them to be a part of the impact you intend to make, and be patient in awaiting a response.
Similarly, grant makers want you to get to know them. Letter of Intent and grant applications from organizations or programs that have little or nothing to do with the grant maker’s goals almost always lead to immediate rejection. To work collaboratively, you have to be heading in the same direction on the same road. Before applying for a grant, make sure that you do your research and get to know the mission, values, and grant qualifications of the grant maker. How do your organization or program goals align with theirs? Websites and social media are good outlets for this type of information.
While you are researching, note that every grant making process is different. There’s a saying that “If you’ve met one philanthropic donor, then you’ve met one philanthropic donor.” The same goes for grant making processes. Not only should you get to know the organization from which you are asking funds, you should also get to know their processes. Do they prefer an online application or a hard copy? Are unsolicited requests welcomed or is it invitation only? What is the time frame of the process? Finding these answers will affect the appeal and success of your request.
Next, know what you’re asking for. Whether it is a foundation or a private donor, someone has worked hard to earn the money you are asking for, so it is important that you know exactly what you plan to do with it. When engaging in the grant making process, be sure that you have a detailed budget ready to share with the grant maker at the appropriate time. A detailed, thought-out budget lets the funder know that they can trust you will take care of their money.
It’s always a good idea to be straightforward. No grant maker wants to read your organization’s life story. Know what you want to say and do so clearly and concisely. Always pay attention to word counts when answering application questions.
Remember, a good grant maker will recognize the power imbalance. Money should not equal power. A grant maker should not pretend to have the expertise and know-how of your organization’s vision, but they do need to have confidence that you know how to implement it. When building a relationship with a grant maker, find ways to assure them of your expertise. This will give them confidence in you, your program, and the promised impact of their dollars.
In addition to your expertise, commit to being a financial partner. Make sure that your organization is financially investing in the program. Grant makers want to know that organizations are also stakeholders in their programs because it creates a partnership, helping to answer the question of post-grant sustainability.
Remember that communication is key. To a grant maker, effective and clear communication is a good indicator of who can become a trusted grantee. Ask questions. Often, grant makers are happy to make accommodations to grantees who are upfront, honest, and good at keeping the grant maker in the loop. The desire to communicate is always appreciated.
Finally, get inside the head of a grant maker. Giving is an investment. Investments are calculated risks that result in an expected return. Similarly, giving money to non-profits is an investment. Good grant makers want to make sure their money is actually making a return in the form of sustainable change and impact. Questions about evaluation and sustainability are necessary drudgery. Grant makers are investing in the potential impact of your organization. Be sure to have a good system of evaluation set in place. Make it clear that you understand this and are joining them in the mission of achieving a high return on their investment.