How can I make my nonprofit's grant applications more attractive to philanthropists? - Generocity Philly


Apr. 27, 2016 8:54 am

How can I make my nonprofit’s grant applications more attractive to philanthropists?

Budget narratives. Plus, how to break up with a nonprofit that's hounding you for attention (and dollars).

Lansie Sylvia.

(Illustration by Hannah Agosta Illustration, based on a photo by Jessie Fox)

How to Give is a biweekly column by local philanthropy wizard Lansie Sylvia. In it, Lansie answers readers’ questions about millennials, philanthropy and engaging the next generation of givers. To ask her a question, email or tweet @FancyLansie.


I work for a small art nonprofit that serves teens in North Philadelphia. Are there ways to make our grant applications more competitive and attractive to philanthropists? I feel like we just aren’t on any philanthropists’ radars.

Getting onto philanthropists’ radars is often a separate issue from creating winning grant proposals. Personally, I think that if you’re at a small nonprofit, most of your time should be spent courting individual donors because they are a more reliable source of sustainable support than foundations are. But that’s another question for next time.

My #1 tip for writing a winning grant proposal is to include a budget narrative, sometimes referred to as a “budget justification.” A budget narrative primarily serves three purposes: It explains how you created the costs in your budget, it justifies the needs for those costs, and it explains any weird or surprising line items.

Always include a budget narrative within the same document as your budget. For example, if you’re using an Excel spreadsheet, create an elongated cell with the narrative at the top of the sheet, and then go into your costs, line by line. Why? Well … this is a hard truth … 

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… not everyone is going to read your grant proposal.

I know. I KNOW! It’s a terrible truth to face. You spend hours and hours writing a gorgeous grant narrative with clever turns of phrase, inarguable facts and figures, and ample justifications for your organization’s need and deservedness. But sometimes, perhaps even most times, your grant reviewer is going to look at the budget first.

So your budget becomes the place where you can WOW the grant reviewer. Consider it your First Impression. By including a succinct budget narrative, as well as justifications for specific line items, you demonstrate the thoroughness of your program preparation. You demonstrate that every aspect has been considered and that you’re confident in your ability to deliver a program or service for an appropriate amount of money. That level of preparedness breeds confidence in the minds of your funders.


I have a few nonprofits that I donate to regularly, but it seems like my support of those organizations has gotten me onto the mailing list of 10,000 other ones, and now I feel guilty that I’m not donating to those organizations, too. What should I do?

Let’s start off with the Lansie Sylvia mantra, the one I taught you oh-so-many weeks ago in my inaugural post.

Repeat after me: “That is a good cause, but it is not my cause, and that’s okay.” 

Here’s a slight tweak as well, because these new organizations might be in your cause area, but they just aren’t the organizations you are currently supporting: “That is a good nonprofit, but its not my chosen nonprofit, and that’s okay.”

Deep breaths. Do you feel a little bit better? I hope you do, because you’re a wonderful person for supporting nonprofits in the first place, and you’re made doubly honorable by having an existential quandary about what to do with this new, unwanted attention.

The way I see it, you have three alternatives:

1. Stop it in its tracks. Nonprofits do not want to waste their marketing dollars. When I was fundraising, I always preferred a donor who told me that my organization wasn’t a priority to a donor who stayed silent but never gave. Call each nonprofit that you’re receiving solicitations from and ask to speak with their development director. Once you’re connected, kindly tell them that while you do support X cause, your giving priorities have been determined for the foreseeable future, and you no longer wish to receive updates from them.

2. Keep calm, and read on. You don’t have to feel guilty about being on these organizations’ mailing lists. They’re taking a calculated risk by contacting you. Their hope is that once you’ve received enough information about their outcomes and successes, you’ll start to support them, and that support will justify their cost of acquisition. Considering the fact that you’re passionate about a certain cause area, you might be interested in the work that they’re doing. So stay on their mailing lists, read up on them, and consider including them in your philanthropic budget for the upcoming year.

3. Reevaluate and communicate. It’s also possible that these organizations might be more effective than the ones you currently support. Now, we’ve already discussed that giving is a very personal decision, but as a philanthropist, you’re allowed to change your mind about what organizations you support and when.

As a former development director, my only request is that if you do decide to switch up your annual giving, let the nonprofits that you’re leaving know about it. Breaking up is hard to do, but a quick email to their development staff halting your monthly contribution and explaining that you’re changing your giving patterns will help them to save time and resources courting you in the near future.


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