005: Expert Advice on Nonprofit Grant Writing For Long Term Growth

Dr. Randy Dirks has done a lot of grant writing for Bethany International. 

There may be no better person to explain what a grant is, when nonprofits should apply for them, and what major mistakes they should avoid in grant writing.

Randy is Vice President at Bethany International. When I interviewed him recently on the Nonprofit Growth podcast, he shared expert advice on how nonprofits can use grant writing for long-term growth.

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Here’s what he shared.

A grant starts with an organization, which may be large or small (a “family foundation”), that wants to give money away to a cause aligned with its values.

Randy gave the example of a company in the food industry that wanted to be generous with their profits. So they started a foundation to give their profits to nonprofits. The profits they now give away are called grants.

What is Grant Writing?

So, what is granting writing? Grant writing is the act of requesting grants in writing. The success of grant writing depends on what the granting organization sees as important. What do they want to accomplish through the gifts they are giving back? 

If you want to apply for a grant, you’ve got to know those requirements and follow them strictly.

For example, the Lilly Foundation focuses on providing better education to high school and college students to prepare them to become leaders. If I wanted to apply for a grant from them, I’d make sure that what I’m writing has to do with leadership development for young, emerging leaders. 

Usually the grant writing process, in the beginning, involves a roughly two-page inquiry. You don’t have to go into full detail at first. But you say who you are and what is unique about what you do.

In grant writing, you want to:

  • Be concise.
  • Meet the foundation’s criteria.
  • Share the amount you are asking for.
  • Share how you will measure the accomplishment of your goals after receiving the grant.

You want to ensure that what they’re asking for, you’re delivering,” Randy told me. “And you want to do it in their language—not yours.”

Why Would a Nonprofit Apply for a Grant? 

Short-term money is not the only benefit of grants. When you apply for and receive a grant, there is the potential to develop a long-term relationship with the foundation. 

In the example of the earlier food company, Bethany’s first grant from them came in 2003. Since then, they’ve received 8 more grants, some of them very sizeable.

By building the relationship over time, Bethany has been given the opportunity to do things they couldn’t have without the grant funds. 

Some people don’t realize it, but foundations are obligated to give some of their funds away. They don’t hold onto them. They are looking for organizations to give grants to. 

Relationships with foundations are like relationships with people. Once that trust is in place, you have the opportunity to see a long-term relationship that could produce significant resources for your organization. 

Why You Wouldn’t Apply for a Grant

Getting a grant takes a long time. You’re not going to get it in a month. 

One of the keys in getting a grant is figuring out if you know someone in that foundation. If you don’t have a foot in the door, the grant process will likely take even longer.

You have to be persistent. You’re going to get lots of No’s in the beginning. If you can’t handle that, you probably shouldn’t try.

Where to Find Grants

Early in his time at Bethany, Randy subscribed to a publication that lists granting foundations. It was a helpful place to start, but despite spending a great deal of on that list, he didn’t seem to get anywhere.

One other way to begin finding grants is to reach out to organizations similar to yours and ask about whether certain foundations would be a fit for you and vice versa. 

Another is to become a part of community organizations. Rotary Clubs are a good example. If you attend a Rotary function, there will be business leaders there. There may not necessarily be a foundation leader there, but the attendees will have connections.

Again, this doesn’t happen overnight. You have to build relationships over time, and only after some time should you ask if club members know anyone who serves on a board for a foundation. It’s a long game. Then, see if the Rotary member will open a door for you.

If you identify a foundation, see if you can learn the names of their board members. Then go back to your Rotary Club or business leaders in the community and say, “Do you know anybody on this board?” If so, you’ll have an open door.

In other words, finding grants is a networking process.

The Grant Writing Process

Grant writing starts with a letter of inquiry. Again, this is a short letter. Find out what sets you apart in the foundation’s field, and put that in your letter.

You’ve only got a few paragraphs, so your writing needs to be compelling. It needs to distinguish you from the 30 other grant applications that person is going to receive every month. 

You may not have the name of the person who will read your letter at the foundation. If you don’t, call the foundation and find out who the person is. Often, they’ll let you know. Get through to the person, then ask them if they read your letter and if you missed anything in that letter.

After you get your first rejection letter, call the foundation back. See if you can talk to somebody. Find out, “What did we lack? What could we have improved on?” 

Once you get a letter of inquiry, you’ll get an invitation to make a proposal, which usually means responding to about 15-20 questions.

Common Mistakes Nonprofits Make in Grant Writing

  1. Impatience. Grant writers have to be persistent. Don’t become discouraged. Plan on getting rejected; don’t take it personally. Get feedback, and improve.
  2. Not providing needed documentation. Grant specialists will throw your application to the circular file if it’s missing common requirements like budgets or names of board members.
  3. Imprecision. Applications that are too general don’t tell the foundation what you will do to make a difference in the world. Be specific about what you are going to do. Tell them the 4-5 things you will accomplish, as well as how you will measure the progress.

How to Get More Than One Grant From a Foundation

If you do receive grant money, here’s how to increase the odds of getting another grant from that foundation.

1. Thank Them

This seems obvious but is so often forgotten. Immediately after you receive a grant, whether for a small or large amount, show your thanks. Send a letter of appreciation to the foundation or family right away. Also, call them within 24 hours. Don’t put it off for weeks or months.

Amazingly, some foundations have given sizeable grants and never received a thank you back.

2. Send Them Regular Reports

Often, foundations require an annual report from organizations that receive grants. Randy recommends sending these 2-3 times a year. 

In the example of the educational organization, they would show what happened to students a year after graduating to demonstrate the impact the organization has had on them. Maybe it’s not a lot, but there should at least be a few stories and photos to share. 

3. Make a Visit

Wherever the foundation is, make sure to pay them a visit in person. Foundations are simply made up of people, and people base relationships and transactions in light of trust. If they see you, know you, and trust you, the next time they are giving out a grant, they will be comfortable choosing you.

Conclusion (The 3 C’s of Grant Writing)

Your grant writing needs to be:

  1. Concise
  2. Clear
  3. Compelling

In any grant writing process, you want to help people understand your vision statement—what you’re all about. 

If you can do that, you’re ready to reach out to anyone.

Dan Sanchez, MBA

Dan Sanchez is a marketing director, co-host of the B2B Growth show, and blogger. He holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and BS in Marketing Management from Western Governors University. Learn more about Dan »

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