grant writing

How I learned to write grants

When I worked for the U.S. Defense Department, each fall I helped build the defense budget for the next fiscal year. Me and thousands of others. The process we used was identical to writing and submitting grants.

It began with military organizations (like a nonprofit) identifying their unfunded needs. I summarized the unfundeds in issue papers, which had almost the same format as a grant request. I submitted the issue papers to the comptroller organization who considered funding the request (like a foundation would).

After many years, I learned to marry the unfunded needs with current politics and projected Defense Department requirements. In the issue papers, I put in key words the comptroller organization and politicians were looking for and addressed the new priorities of the administration. I altered the unfunded needs only enough to be acceptable to the comptroller organization. Yet, not enough to change the submitting organization’s ability to complete the mission. I use this process today.

The most important thing I learned in the Defense Department, which I apply to writing grants, is that the process is not about numbers and words. It is all about people and relationships. Whenever there is money involved, there are a lot of competition. The perfect issue paper or grant request may not be enough.

A nonprofit should communicate with a foundation with more than some pieces of paper. Like it was for me in the Defense Department, many times personal contact can determine success or not.

Let me know how you, as a grant writer, started your career or livelihood writing grants.

Too Much Money

Some nonprofits rely on donations and the occasional fund-raising event to cover their expenses. They maintain the same level of funding each year that is enough to meet their needs. Then, either the need changes or a board or a staff member decides they want additional funding.

I am cautious about submitting a grant for a nonprofit who never submitted one before (or it has been a long time) and their funding has been steady for years. Additional money is not always a good thing. Once they receive the money, the nonprofit must spend it and the process to do so (tracking, reporting, etc.) can be overwhelming.

Increasing a nonprofit’s funding above their normal operating budget should be carefully planned. When submitting a grant request, I usually do not let the funding increase the nonprofit’s budget by more than a third. Past this amount, the expenditure of funding becomes increasingly difficult to manage for a nonprofit. Sometimes more people need to be hired. (A substantial increase is also more difficult to justify in a grant request.)

Besides managing the money, excess funding can lead to personnel conflict among board members, staff, and volunteers. However, a nonprofit can benefit from submitting a grant. The submission process forces them to get organized.

Any major funding changes to an organization, nonprofit or a business, can lead to disaster if not planned carefully. A grant writer should consider the impact additional funding will have on the nonprofit and advise the nonprofit if you have concerns. Sometimes it is better to not increase funding and look at other resources, such as in-kind donations, to satisfy additional needs.

A Nonprofit’s entrance looks like this without volunteers

Salaries are generally the largest cost for a nonprofit. The more paid staff there are, the less funding toward the mission. That is why volunteers are crucial for the continued success of a nonprofit.

A business can pay more salaries by selling more goods and services. Nonprofits usually do not have that capability. They must rely on grants and donations. They need volunteers to keep costs down and to remain attractive for foundations and donors who generally want to fund mission expenses, salaries not included.

Also, grant writers should be careful working with nonprofits who lack volunteers or do not have a program to manage volunteers. Is the grant writer finding money to pay the staff so they have a job or to achieve mission goals?

Also, if a nonprofit has volunteers, why are they volunteering? Is it because they receive benefits from the nonprofit and feel they must “give back”? This enters legal issues a grant writer should be aware of before working with a nonprofit.

When working with a nonprofit, there are several conditions to consider. One of the most critical is their volunteer program. Is there a robust number of volunteers and a program to manage them? Without volunteers, there could be other problems with the nonprofit.

So, I stay away from nonprofits who have few or no volunteers. Every mission requires a certain number of people to succeed. Without volunteers, nonprofits hire staff. The added cost is difficult to justify for funding or ethically.

I got behind on grants

I did not post a blog last week because I got behind in writing grants for two nonprofits and the deadlines were a week away (today).

It was my own fault. I knew about the deadlines, but I procrastinated. Well, that is not entirely true. I was working on my novel and trying to finish the editing by the end of this month (self-imposed deadline). Somehow September will stop being September sooner than I thought.

I realized I needed to finish writing the grants so I would have time to send them around for comments and signatures by Thursday. I always schedule extra time before a deadline to take care of any problems like getting signatures.

The grant applications I worked were not online. The completed application and supporting documents had to be printed, tabbed, and packaged for delivery to the foundation office. Although these types of applications are more work than online applications, I like them better.

Non-online applications feel more personable to me. Like letter writing before emails. Also, fewer people make submissions that are not online, reducing the competition.

I did successfully complete and deliver both grant applications by Thursday. However, I will not be successful in finishing the edits of my novel by the end of September. This makes me wonder:

I volunteer to write grants, but my desire is to write my novel.