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Stories of Smart (and Not-So-Smart) Grantseeking in a Tough Economy

Reprinted from Opportunity Knocks

Working smart is a familiar expression. Grantseeking smart is one of mine. Recently, three different nonprofit agencies asked for my advice on three different issues that illustrate some of the pitfalls (and opportunities) in raising grant funds in today's turbulent economy. As one who promotes storytelling as an effective way to inform, entertain, and persuade (particularly in grant proposals), I'd like to share these stories with you.

The first involves a client I've worked with for five years. For more than a year, this client had been planning to launch an exciting and much-needed new initiative, and had allocated agency funds to get the program started. They had spent a great deal of time designing a strong program and building collaborations with appropriate peer agencies. Nevertheless, they still needed to address a few key questions concerning the program and how it would be managed—issues I was certain a potential funder would want answered. But the executive director was nervous. The board of directors was pressuring him to get busy raising funds for the initiative. They wanted him to apply to as many foundations as possible, even long shots. He asked me what he should do.

After weighing the pros and cons, I advised the executive director to resolve the programmatic questions first before submitting requests—and to carefully target his requests to those prospects most closely aligned with the agency mission. I used a familiar cliché: "You only get one chance to make a first impression." Unfortunately, the executive director bowed to board pressure. He sent inquiry letters to 20 foundations (in my opinion these included only 4 or 5 strong prospects). So far, he's received 4 outright rejections and has had no favorable responses.

What are the lessons? (1) Patience. A fundable program is one that doesn't leave key questions unanswered. Wait until you have those answers. (2) Fit. What's important is not how many proposals you submit but whether or not they are the best fit. More submissions does not equate to more acceptances. Apply to your strongest prospects.

The second situation concerns a new grassroots agency. Given their lean budget, they found it more cost-effective to work with a contract grantwriter rather than hire someone on staff. I received an e-mail from their executive director asking how best to utilize the contract grantwriter's time. Initially, the agency had budgeted a certain amount of her time to prepare a detailed annual grants calendar, one including prospect names, contact info, deadlines, grant ranges, and the like. The agency wanted to adopt and follow "best practices" from the beginning, which is applaudable. However, they had a problem. The executive director had learned of a grant opportunity with a quickly approaching deadline; however this funder had not been previously identified. (The agency was closely aligned with the funder's giving priorities and the average grant to be awarded was significant.) If for budget reasons he had to choose between a carefully prepared, detailed grants calendar or getting an unexpected grant proposal out the door, which should he choose?

This one was easy. I told him to forgo the gold-plated grants calendar and direct his grantwriter to draft the strongest, most persuasive proposal she could. The lesson here is simple: it is always better to have viable proposals in the pipeline than the alternative.

The third situation involves an agency with which I had no prior relationship. The executive director was simply calling names from a list of consultants. Her agency has been in existence for many years, funded almost exclusively by government contracts. Neither she nor the board had devoted any time to fundraising. Unfortunately, government funding was being severely cut (no surprise today) and the agency was in jeopardy of not making its payroll. She wanted to hire someone to write proposals and raise money—fast. Another easy one. Even in the best economic times, securing grant funds is never a quick process. Successful grantseeking requires a strategy, a commitment to the process, and a plan for long-term agency sustainability. Her agency had none of these. Sadly, I told her what she already knew: the agency was in a vulnerable position and was unlikely to find a foundation "angel" to rescue it.

No doubt about it. These are challenging times to be raising grant money. Smart agencies know when and to whom to tell their proposal stories, and these are the ones that will survive.

Cheryl A. Clarke
© 2009, Cheryl A. Clarke. Reprinted from Opportunity Knocks; reprinted with permission.

Cheryl A. Clarke is a fundraising consultant with more than 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. She works with a wide range of nonprofit agencies to improve their fundraising capacity. Clarke is also a much-in-demand trainer and speaker and has presented at several international conferences of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. She is the author of the newly released Storytelling for Grantseekers: A Guide to Creative Nonprofit Fundraising, 2nd edition, and is co-author of Grant Proposal Makeover: Transform Your Request from No to Yes (both from Jossey-Bass).

Topics: Fundraising