I think there is a moment in every organization’s life when grantseeking is not just something that is on the list of things to consider, but when it becomes obvious that the next step in growth is to pursue grant support. Sometimes this happens as a reaction to a financial crisis, but most often it occurs because the growth of the programs and services being offered outpaces current revenue. You can count on fundraising events, soliciting individual donors (small and large), and program revenue to take your organization to a certain level, but when it comes time to engage in the next phase of development, you have to look to other sources such as grant support.
According to the Fall 2017 State of Grantseeking Report by Budget Size, published by GrantStation, grant support made up a larger percentage of the annual budget for medium to large organizations.
This makes sense, as small organizations may lack the staff for grantseeking. Organizations with annual budgets over $10,000,000 report a larger budget percentage funded by fees for services. For this report organizational budget ranges were defined as:
Applying for grant support relates directly to the budget and staff size of an organization, with larger organizations consistently reporting higher application rates. However, you can see from this chart that small organizations are active in the grantseeking field and continue to build and maintain those relationships as their organizations grow.
Deciding to weave grantseeking into your current fundraising strategy can be easy if you keep your expectations low for the first year or so. Too often the board of directors will consider staff engagement in grantseeking to mean you are going to secure an additional $50,000 or more in support that first year. And we all know that is highly unlikely.
Because there are a lot of existing materials you will need to polish before you can use them in your grantseeking efforts, and because there are a lot of new materials you need to develop. This takes time. This takes patience. And above all it takes thought. It’s important to ask yourself (and other leadership), how do you want grantseeking to fit into your overall fundraising efforts? What percentage of the staff’s time should be dedicated to this effort? What sorts of outcomes can you expect?
For example, in the Fall 2017 State of Grantseeking Report it is clear that submitting at least three grant proposals in a given year increases the frequency of winning awards. In fact the frequency of winning at least one award increases to 88 percent if an organization submits three to five applications. Knowing that you will need to write and submit at least three grant requests means dedicating a significant amount of time to this new revenue stream. It’s this type of consideration that you have to take into account as you launch a grantseeking program.
In addition, larger awards tend to be awarded to larger organizations; the board of an organization with a small or medium budget may be unrealistic (at least initially) in its expectations of $50,000 in grant funding.
Milton Berle once said, “If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door.” And that is probably what you will need to do. It is unlikely that a grantmaker will approach and ask that you submit a proposal (although it does happen!), so it is going to be on you to decide exactly how you are going to “build the door.”
There are a number of ways to go about this but I’d like to offer you a bit of advice from 40 years of grantseeking experience.
First, keep your expectations, and the expectations of your leadership, for year one well in check. It is tempting to dive into writing a few requests (which, of course, takes a lot of your time) with big numbers attached. So if the average grant award for an organization of your size is about $50,000, then you probably need to set a goal about half, or less, for your first award or two.
Second, identify a few grantseeking opportunities where the application process is easy and the likelihood of success is high. For example, let’s say you run an after-school program for young children in K-3 grade. You may want to apply to the Toy Industry Foundation’s Toy Bank that offers a very simple online application form, plus you attach a few documents such as your IRS tax status and bios for your board of directors. And if you qualify, the likelihood of receiving the award is very high.
You want to identify a few sources where you will probably have success, like the Toy Bank, which will give you a chance to hone your grantseeking skills. The Toy Bank’s online form, although quite easy to fill out, requires you to present your case succinctly and it allows you to polish one of your attachments—the board of directors’ bios.
Third, realize that you are building a new program. You aren’t just scatter-shooting proposals out the door hoping one or two get funded. You are taking the time to think through what your organization’s needs are, and how to best meet those needs via grant awards. Carefully consider the role you want grant support to play in your overall operations. You may decide that grantseeking should focus on general operating funds, and nothing else. Or you may decide that grantseeking will be the main vehicle for launching new initiatives. Or you may want a combination of the two. However you decide to approach grantseeking, just remember this is a program. And like any program it needs to be managed as a whole, not in bits and starts.
Cynthia Adams is founder and CEO of GrantStation, a premiere online funding resource for organizations seeking grants throughout the world. Providing access to a comprehensive online database of grantmakers, GrantStation helps nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, and government agencies make smarter, better-informed grantseeking decisions. GrantStation is dedicated to creating a civil society by assisting the nonprofit sector in its quest to build healthy and effective communities.