(Photo by athree23 from Pixabay)
When it comes to grant writing, there are some pretty standard gripes that we grant writers and fundraisers have with funders (and, I’m sure, they also have some standard gripes with us).
I too have those gripes and provide feedback to funders as often as I feel comfortably able to do so without jeopardizing funding for my organization.
Being able to provide feedback only when I am certain it won’t jeopardize funding is the most basic example of the inequitable relationships between funders and grantees. If I say the wrong thing to the wrong person, my organization (and, ultimately, the people that we serve) would suffer. People may lose their jobs because we could no longer afford their salary; programs may shut down entirely; participants could lose access to a vital resource.
But this very basic inequity doesn’t just show itself when a grantee says the wrong thing. There are so many ways that this process discriminates, and several things funders can do to try to mitigate those inequities.
Some funders — locally and nationally — are making a sincere effort to update their processes accordingly, but in my experience they’re in the minority.
For me, the best way to tackle this is to outline both the gripes experienced by seasoned grant writers, as well as the inequities inherent behind those gripes. I’m going to do my best to outline those things here, but this list is by no means comprehensive.
1. Host an open request for proposals, communicate the information widely, and provide ample time for submission.
Many foundations are clear that grant applications should be submitted by invitation only. Sometimes that’s because the foundation has limited resources and already has preferred grantees; sometimes that is because the foundation is so well known that they don’t want to be inundated with requests. Either way, it’s discriminatory.
A lot of the really impactful programs that provide the most direct service are hyperlocal.
Your foundation presumably exists to achieve a goal: end homelessness, end hunger, end poverty, end animal cruelty, or a combination of several things. How do you know that your current grantee pool are going to continue to be the very best at what they do in perpetuity? What if a newer, smaller organization has found a better solution and is serving twice as many people as your current grantees? What if an organization you are already aware of expands their services into an area you want to impact?
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You may never know if you don’t accept unsolicited proposals. Sure, it’s possible you’re on lots of email lists and you’re keeping your ears open for new developments — but, if you’re not active in communities that are different than yours, you’re most definitely missing out. A lot of the really impactful programs that provide the most direct service are hyperlocal, and it’s easy to miss out on them if you’re not in the ground in that particular neighborhood or part of that community.
When you announce your open request for proposals, make sure to communicate it widely. Sending an announcement only to those on your email list, or only through your personal networks, will not result in a diverse array of proposals. You’ll just get the same people applying year after year – and you’re likely missing out on some really rad things happening outside of your circles of influence.
It’s also important to provide ample time to apply, especially if your application will require non-standard questions or is longer than average.
I’ve known funders to open applications only two to three weeks prior to the deadline, which is a very short timeline for me to track down the statistics and program information required, reformat the list of our board members to include whatever very specific information this application requires (number of years on the board, affiliations, how many terms they’ve served, titles, no titles — there’s always one item that isn’t the same as the last four times I created this list and necessitates editing), get the most recent outcomes (because the funder’s fiscal year doesn’t match mine and they’ll only accept outcomes on their schedule), write the narrative responses (which are often the same 10 questions paired up differently — one has key staff included with history of the organization, while another may have key staff paired up with the section on program design and therefore I need to copy and paste and rewrite intros so the information makes sense).
If you factor in, again, that not all organizations have a full time grant writer, and that we all have competing deadlines and priorities regardless of our role, providing such a short application period automatically disqualifies applicants who just don’t have the bandwidth that particular week.
2. Communicate parameters, timelines, and next steps clearly.
Grant writers are often juggling multiple applications, deadlines, and reporting cycles at any given time. We all have our own preferred method for tracking those deadlines, but at the end of the day we need a clear schedule to work with from the start.
And, every nonprofit doing good work that is seeking funding doesn’t necessarily have a grant writer or fundraiser on staff — which is a thing that funders often don’t realize. When an org is just getting off the ground, we are often the last position to be funded. It’s a stupid conundrum that haunts all nonprofits: we can’t provide more or better services without more money, but we don’t have the money to hire a fundraiser to bring in more money.
So, imagine being the one over-burdened staff person, struggling to provide services all day and going home to teach yourself how to write grants at night — and then discovering that you are not actually eligible for the grant you’ve been working on for two weeks because the parameters weren’t provided until you were halfway through the application.
Another key to communicating is avoiding jargon. A seasoned grant writer knows what an LOI is, but does a first-time applicant know that it’s a letter of inquiry? Or what the function of an LOI is? Not knowing what an acronym stands for shouldn’t disqualify them from applying, and it doesn’t lessen their need for funding for their project or their expertise in their particular mission. But often these small hurdles can seem terrifyingly large to inexperienced applicants.
Communication doesn’t stop with the information provided on your website. Funders can, and should, host in person sessions for their grants that allow for questions and feedback prior to submitting a proposal. An inexperienced grant writer may put together an underwhelming proposal on their own, but given the opportunity to talk with the program officer at the foundation they could hone their idea into a strong application that exactly fits that funder’s mission and has potential for huge impact. Without that communication opportunity, funders are inadvertently discriminating against those who aren’t familiar with the process of applying for a grant.
Another option would be for the first step in the application process to be used to weed out those who don’t fit the requirements, to save both funders and grantees precious time. A quick proposal that takes no more than 30 minutes to complete, which outlines the project and ensures the nonprofit meets all of the guidelines, allows funders to cast a wider net, attract more (and more diverse) applications, but still ensure their own mission is met.
Now, if you really want to increase accessibility, it would be really great if more funders were open to funding on the nonprofit’s timeline rather than their own. Deadlines that fall just a few months before or after our fiscal year are tough, because we’re tracking how we spend those grants and the outcomes for those grants on a separate schedule from our own. Depending on the size of your organization and the number of grants you receive, you may be tracking a dozen or more separate timelines for each funder. It can be discriminatory to smaller orgs who don’t have the ability to keep track of all of that information.
3. Provide feedback to all applicants.
I’m so familiar with the standard rejection letter that I could reproduce one in less than 30 seconds. But telling me that you had a large number of qualified applicants and weren’t able to fund them all doesn’t actually tell me anything about the competitiveness of my application.
Did you fund the top four applications and we ranked fifth? Or did we rank 105th? Should I spend time applying again next year, or would I be completely wasting our time? Without any feedback, trying to answer these questions is taking a shot in the dark.
We aren’t mind readers and our resources are limited. It would be incredibly helpful if all funders would provide constructive criticism to every single applicant. I’ve gotten some in-person feedback from funders I’m familiar with or know well, outside of the official process, that I’m certain wasn’t provided to other applicants. Sure, I work hard to build and maintain relationships with our funders, but it’s not a very transparent or equitable process to only provide feedback to a select few. We all deserve to know where we stand so we can improve and focus our efforts appropriately in the future.
4. Provide multi-year, unrestricted funding and learning opportunities.
The process followed by most funders is annual applications with no guarantee of future funding. The constant grind of applications and reports, paired with the uncertainty of future funding, makes it very, very hard for a nonprofit to build the infrastructure needed to grow and provide the resources their constituents need.
Multi-year funding takes away a little bit of that uncertainty. It allows you to explore other funding opportunities and start to build new relationships without worrying about maintaining those that you already have. Receiving a three year grant means that you’re saving the time you’d normally spend applying for years two and three, and instead that energy goes into finding new funding streams to complement this one. Quite honestly, it’s a game changer. Especially for the grassroots organizations that consistently struggle with funding.
The foundation hosted a separate session for all of the grantees whose projects were not chosen.
Another game changer is unrestricted funding. Funders are infamous for being incredibly restrictive in what they’ll fund. They may fund supplies, but not transportation. They may fund housing vouchers, but not utilities. They may fund capital projects, but not new programs. They may fund innovation, but not existing projects. Any they rarely, if ever, fund staff. These restrictive requirements for budgets can be overwhelming and require quite a lot of puzzle piece work on the grantee’s side to make sure everything is funded — and more often than not, the smaller organizations will avoid applying altogether because they don’t have the resources to navigate the restrictions.
I was part of a program hosted by the Lancaster County Community Foundation last year that provided learning opportunities to their grantees. The grant itself supported a marketing project for each grantee, but prior to finalizing their projects the foundation provided several learning sessions with local experts. The presenters shared information and provided mentorship that ultimately helped to shape the projects for each grantee. It was a huge opportunity for nonprofits that didn’t have in-house marketing expertise to fully understand what would be most beneficial for their specific situation and flesh out the project with the support of trained professionals.
After the grantee projects were underway, the foundation hosted a separate session for all of the grantees whose projects were not chosen. While the learning opportunity wasn’t as comprehensive as the sessions for those funded, this free half day session still helped the applicants to hone in on what their nonprofit needed and connect them with local professionals. My hat goes off to the foundation for their inclusion of all applicants in the process and providing specific learning opportunities related to a documented need for their grantees. If unrestricted funding isn’t on the table, this is the next best option to advance diversity and equity for your grantees.
5. Partner with other funders to develop a common application with the same requirements.
The Philanthropy Network (formerly Delaware Valley Grantmakers) has a common grant application that was created for this exact purpose, and there are a number of funders listed towards the end that accept the application. However, I haven’t come across a funder who states that they accept the common application anywhere in their materials in at least the last three years.
Now, I’m not in love with this application. It states the narrative section should be no longer than three pages long, but it takes a full page and a half to explain the instructions — that’s going to be an exercise in formatting, editing, and word counts that could eliminate those who aren’t strong writers from the get go.
Why don’t we use the common grant application more often, Philly?
There are budget forms included for both the project and the organization, rather than allowing an organization to use their own format, which could be difficult for someone applying who doesn’t have a finance background. BUT, completing this application once and using it for six funders is certainly more accessible than completing six separate applications that all have different requirements. Why don’t we use the common grant application more often, Philadelphia?
If you absolutely need to require your own specific application, please make sure the paperwork is equal to the size of the grant. Many smaller and under resourced nonprofits are going for smaller grants — and I’ve found that there are more restrictions and requirements for a $1,000 grant than for a $100,000 grant.
6. Look at the funder/grantee relationship as a partnership where information flows in both directions.
Hold regular meetings with your grantees to really get to know their work, their struggles, and their successes. Go on regular site visits. Provide honest feedback, and be open to honest feedback from your grantees. If we can share things with you without fear of retribution, it would be revolutionary. You’d be so much more aware of what’s going on for your grantees and what you could be doing to support them (and ultimately, the people that they serve). You’ll undoubtedly develop new initiatives together, build new partnerships between your grantees, and overall ensure that your community has the support it needs.-30-
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