The Secrets to Successful Nonprofit Grant Writing

One of the most common questions I get asked by organizations is how to find and win more grants.  For most fundraisers, nonprofit grant writing is incredibly frustrating: in many cases, it seems like a roll of the dice.

You spend hundreds of hours sending out grant proposals, praying that a few foundations will be interested in your work.  Yet there are ways you can stack the deck in your favor and have more success with winning grant funding for your organization.

In this article, I'm going to give you 7 different strategies for finding and winning more grants for your non-profit.  Here they are, in no particular order:

#1: Systemize Your Grant Fundraising Program

It’s important to remember that when it comes down to it, nonprofit grant writing is a numbers game.  No matter how great your grant proposals and letters of inquiry are, you are only going to win a small number of the grants that you submit.  For that reason, it’s important that you put your organization into a position where you can send out lots of grant proposals without overloading yourself with work.

The best way to do this is to systemize your grant fundraising program.  Take a look at the bandwidth of your organization and figure out how much time and effort you can put into nonprofit grant writing.  Then split that amount of time right down the middle: spend about half of your grant fundraising time searching for new grant options, and half of that time submitting grant proposals and writing follow-up reports for foundations that funded you.

Grant writing is not rocket science, and you don’t need to reinvent the wheel for each grant proposal.  Far too many nonprofits think they need to write 50-page bespoke proposals for each new foundation they approach.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The organizations that are the most successful with grant writing realize this is a numbers game – it’s better to send out 25 “adequate” grant proposals then to send out 3 “perfect” proposals.

#2: Do Grant Research on a Regular Basis

One part of your grant fundraising program that needs to be systemized is your grant research.  If you want to be successful with nonprofit grant writing, you need to have a pipeline of proposals to write – meaning you need to have a pool of foundations in place that you have identified that might be a good fit for your organization.

In order to have a steady stream of prospective foundations in place, you need to do grant research on a regular basis.  Many nonprofits think they can do grant research once, generate a list of 10-20 foundations, then just write proposals for those foundations each year until some of them start to fund the organization.  This is the wrong way to go about grant research.

Instead, your team should either be constantly researching new foundations, or you should be doing 3-4 rounds of grant research each year.  If you are systemizing your nonprofit grant writing the way we are talking about in this article, you’ll be able to send out lots of grant proposals, and you never want to be at a loss for foundations to approach as you seek funding for your organization.

#3: Network Your Way into Grants

As you perform your grant research, it is important to remember that poring through foundation databases and doing research online aren’t the only ways to find new grant prospects for your organization.  Every nonprofit should also be looking to network its way into new grant opportunities.

Just as with any type of fundraising, when it comes to nonprofit grant writing, who you know is often more important than what you know.  Your organization should constantly be on the lookout for ways to network with foundation board members and grant officers.  If you’ve ever looked through a grant  database and wondered how to reach all of those foundations that say “does not accept unsolicited grant proposals,” the answer is through networking and personal fundraising methods.

Reach out to your board members, donors, volunteers and other supporters to see what foundations they are connected with.  Ask for referrals to foundation boards and grant officers.  Try to set up meetings and phone calls to introduce your organization to the foundations where you have a connection.  Grant writing is fundraising, and when it comes to fundraising, nothing beats making a personal connection in order to secure a donation for your work.

#4: Have Several Grant Templates in Place

As mentioned above, there’s nothing that says you need to write a brand-new grant proposal for each grant you seek… in fact, doing so is likely a waste of time.  If nonprofit grant writing is a numbers game, then you need to get as many grant proposals out as possible… and the only way to do that is by having several grant templates in place that you can quickly customize to send out to potential funders.

Think through your most common grant requests and develop a library of 3-5 templates that represent your most common grant categories.  Spend time polishing these templates, because they will become the basis of the majority of your grant proposals.  I generally tell my clients that the templates should 85% of the way there… meaning that each time you submit a new grant proposal, all you need to do is take the template that most closely matches the grant you are writing, and customize it by 15%… then send it out

Building a library of grant templates will go a long way towards helping you systemize and simplify your nonprofit grant writing process.

#5: Nonprofit Grant Writing is 60% Emotion, 40% Facts

Many organizations forget that nonprofit grant writing is still fundraising – it relies not just on facts, but on emotion, storytelling, and casting a vision for your funders.  Many grant proposals read like academic papers… they are so full of facts, figures, and charts that the real purpose and mission of your organization gets lost in the shuffle.

Remember that foundations don’t make grant decisions – the people that work there do.  And all people – including grant officers and foundation board members – make decisions first with their hearts and emotions and only then look to back those decisions up with facts and figures.  Great nonprofit grant writing means eliciting emotions from the people reading your grant proposals.

Of course, grant proposals can and should include more facts, figures, budgets, and metrics than your average fundraising solicitation.  While most fundraising appeal letters should be about 90% emotion and 10% facts, your grant proposals should be about 60% emotion and 40% facts.  It’s important to notice those numbers: your nonprofit grant writing should still be more than half-focused on emotions.  In my experience, the average organization spends only 10-20% of each grant proposals focused on feelings, vision-casting, and storytelling, which is a huge mistake.

#6: Don’t Be Afraid to Pick-Up the Phone

Here’s another tip that falls into the “nonprofit grant writing is still fundraising – so treat it like fundraising” category: don’t be afraid to pick-up the phone and call foundations.  This includes calling grant officers to ask questions and see if your organization would be a good fit for the funder, as well as calling to check on the status of your grant proposal.  You should also call funders to thank them when they fund your nonprofit, and you should offer to update them on the funded project in-person or via phone, if they would like.

Some foundations have a “no phone call” policy, and others will prefer that you do all of your communications with them through snail mail and e-mail.  Of course you should honor the wishes of the foundation and if they prefer other methods of communication, you should stick with those other methods.  But all fundraising is based on building relationships – so don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call foundations to start (or continue) building relationships with them.

#7: Focus on Building Long-Term Foundation Relationships

Remember that as with all fundraising, when it comes to nonprofit grant writing, one-time gifts are not enough.  Your ultimate goal is to build long-term relationships with the foundations who are funding your work.  Many nonprofits are able to build successful partnerships with foundation funders and receive financial support on a yearly basis for decades.  It’s easier to get a “yes” from a foundation that has funded you in the past than it is to get a “yes” from a brand-new funder.

The best way to build long-term relationships with your foundation funders is to properly steward them.  This means thanking them for their support on a regular basis, recognizing them on your website, in your annual report, and other appropriate places, providing them with regular updates (without always asking for a new grant in every communication) and treating them like valuable partners and investors in your work.

Individual Fundraising vs. Nonprofit Grant Writing

One final thing that it is important to mention: no matter how successful you are with nonprofit grant writing, every organization should be focused more on individual fundraising than on foundation fundraising.

Yes, grant funding can be an important part of your revenue mix… and yes, most nonprofits should spend some time focused on finding and winning grants for their work.  But foundations are far more fickle than individual donors, and there is far more money available from individual donors than there is from foundations (individuals give about 4 times as much money each year, in the aggregate, to nonprofits than do foundations).

Thus, while nonprofit grant writing is important, your organization should be spending 3-4 more time and resources on individual fundraising than you do on grant writing.  That being said, both strategies can be powerful ways to raise more money to support your work.


Photo Credits: bruce mars and Katt Yukawa on Unsplash

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