Let’s pretend you’re the person in a nonprofit organization charged with seeking grants and that your boss is going to hold you accountable to one or more of the following standards.
- You must get _____ proposals “out the door” every_____.
- You must get ____% of the grants for which you submit proposals approved.
- You must raise a minimum of $_____ as a result of your grant proposals.
I don’t think there could be three more dismaying demands. Using any of these too common absolutist metrics to evaluate a grant seeker’s performance is more than formidable. Depending on how the fill-in-the-blank numbers are determined, it can be flat out damning.
Such demands, more often than not, lack a footing in reality. They are unlikely to show even a rudimentary understanding of which grant-making organizations are awarding grants to what initiatives, projects, and organizations.
Demands such as these are unlikely to be based on any true market research looking at the way in which grant-making organizations value the purpose to which the requested grant will be put. And this is research that has to be done for each grant-making organization taking into account the operating context of the nonprofit seeking the grant. That is not research which can be done in a half hour on the Internet. It takes time and effort—a lot of time and effort!
Too often such demands come out of the poorly informed view that:
- Success or failure can be measured simply by looking at the “numbers.”
- Those numbers need to be tough.
- Grant-proposal writers need to be pushed to “stretch” their goals and increase their effort.
If the goal of these demands is merely to create an easily implemented, seemingly straightforward accountability measurement, then yes such absolutes do that. But if the goal is to raise money, then strictly numbers-based metrics will get in the way, and no matter what the goal they will not deliver a fair and balanced measurement of performance.
Quotas that are unfair and often unreachable can make a grant-proposal writer’s job all but impossible. A discouraged grant-proposal writer, like any other discouraged development professional, is less likely than an encouraged one to deliver stellar results.
So, how do you respond when the boss issues one of the above “you-must” statements with its accompanying number? That depends on the strength of the “must.” Is the number a goal or an edict? Is it based on your organization or developed from some industry benchmark?
Benchmarking is the examination, study, and comparison of the previous efforts of others to improve future results. One of the problems with benchmarking, when it comes to fundraising in general and grant-proposal writing in particular, is that data from different organizations are not truly comparable. On the surface the “numbers” may seem to address the same points. However, different approaches to fundraising, institutional environments, and donor bases will yield numbers unlikely to be relevant to any institution other than the one that produced them. The labels applied to the numbers may be the same, but the underlying variables defining them are likely to make such comparisons invalid.
As a result, credible industry benchmarks cannot be assumed to exist for:
- The number of grant proposals written and submitted.
- The ratio of grants awarded to those submitted.
- The total money awarded.
Directly comparing one organization’s performance to another’s, when it comes to grant solicitation, will not deliver a valid metric.
Sure, it’s possible to set arbitrary goals for the number of grant proposals written and submitted. After all achieving such goals can be just a matter of moving paper. However, while such a goal is quantitative, it is not qualitative. And when it comes to grant writing, quality counts more than quantity. It’s not how many proposals you send out, it’s how good, how responsive, how effective they are.
The greater the number of proposals that must be produced, the more likely that the quality of all will lessen. If you have 100 hours to devote to proposal writing and you are under the gun to produce five proposals rather than two, you simply will not have the same amount of time to allocate to each, and the amount of time and effort that go into a proposal are components of its quality. No grant-proposal writer should be placed in the position of producing a high quantity of proposals, rather than proposals of high quality. Poor quality proposals yield poor results. They are a waste of time.
A budget for grant revenue cannot be set arbitrarily. Not if you want it to produce a number that you can count on and that maximizes results. Once you’ve committed or been committed to a budget for grant revenue, the pressure is on to deliver those results. If that budget is unrealistic and if those charged with achieving it don’t simply give up, there is a great danger that they will panic, and panic is never conducive to maintaining quality of output and results. Sooner or later the goal of effectively seeking grants for specific purposes is likely to be replaced by an effort to produce proposals just to get them out the door and in the hands of prospects. This scattershot approach does not deliver grants, even if it does meet an arbitrary goal for the number of proposals out the door.
Grant makers are smart people. They review numerous proposals from many, many organizations. As individual philanthropists and/or stewards of other peoples’ philanthropic assets, they are extremely diligent about how, when, and to whom they give money. A quick perusal will tell them whether a proposal has been crafted to their sensibilities or is a generic request that has simply had the names, addresses, and a few pieces of window dressing changed. Knowing that the same material was mailed to other grant makers, will leave a bad taste in their mouths. Such a proposal can result in a negative impression that far outlives the time it takes grant makers to toss it into their circular file.
The submission of “cookie-cutter” proposals to every grant-making organization in sight is bad strategy. It should come as no surprise that grant makers talk to one another, and yes, they do share experiences, are likely to discuss proposals received, and complain to one another about “proposal spam.” They are after all human.
Furthermore, it’s possible that in haste and anxiety to meet a poorly set money goal some of the proposals written will be for ill defined or contrived purposes. Far too many grant-proposal writers are victimized by the edict to get “X” number of proposals written and out the door. I’ve known more than a few people who send “cold” proposals without prior cultivation, or even investigation, thinking that the project will sell itself. It won’t!
Whether an organization’s leadership has mandated that an unrealistic number of proposals be sent out, or demanded that a ridiculously high level of income be derived from grants, the results—a turndown for the proposal and damage to the organization—are likely to be the same. The organization’s reputation will be weakened and relationships with funders will be harmed. Neither of which bodes well for future funding efforts.
Budgeting Grant Income
It is hard to budget for a specific level of grant revenue to be achieved consistently year after year. The number of projects and initiatives available for proposal development could vary greatly. Maybe 30 last year and only ten this year.
It should be obvious to all grant-proposal writers and made obvious to their bosses that:
- Funding wishes will influence the number of proposals that can and should be developed each year.
- The availability and willingness of viable grant-making prospects to give money to fund those initiatives is ever changing.
- Even when an organization decides to award funds, the grant can’t be counted on to be for the amount requested.
In the end the process of seeking grants is not about the number of asks made, but about who is asked, for what, and when. It’s about the quality of the argument for support and how the expressed need resonates with those deciding whether or not to award and if so, how much.
Working to meet a quota, whether it is proposals sent, percentage awarded, or total dollars received, can blur the lines between what an organization:
- Has to have.
- Wants to have.
- Can actually get.
Concentrating on what seem to be the fastest and easiest dollars can be detrimental to setting and fulfilling mission priorities. What is the value of an organization’s long-range plan if easily found funding drives what is to be accomplished?
Grants come with strings attached. The money must be used to accomplish the purpose for which it was asked. Most grant-making organizations are reluctant to award grants for general operation, and woe to the organization that spends grant money for purposes other than those outlined in the letter of award. On the other hand, it is possible to seek grants to support the most important needs.
But before doing so, a fund-raising officer had better determine whether the grant-making organizations available have indicated a willingness to support what is sought and if so, how enthusiastic that willingness is. The danger lies in being held accountable to a support number that, while based on critical need, does not take into account the degree to which funds are available.
Seeking a general amount of money from grants and assuming that grants can be found to support specific initiatives are two flawed budgeting processes. Each will lead to the real failure to raise needed funds and to the perception of failure when arbitrarily set numbers are not met. Those failures will fall at the feet of the fund-raising officer who agreed to be measured by the numbers—to be held accountable to a metric that was either ill conceived or arbitrarily set.
Success or Failure Is Not
In the Hands of the Grant Writer Alone
Whether an organization gets a grant or not is subject to many factors far beyond the control of the grant-proposal writer. Measuring success for a grant-proposal writer by a hard set of numbers such as dollars in or a ratio of grants awarded to proposals submitted, holds proposal writers accountable for conditions beyond their control. It fails to take into account the reality that:
- The awarding of grants has more to do with function than form. You can put together the “perfect” proposal—one that follows guidelines to the letter. However if it does not match what grantors want to support, all that perfection of form does little or no good.
- Grant-proposal writers are not the ones who make recommendations about policy and practice that lead to a search for funding. They do not decide which projects, programs, or services will be undertaken in accordance with long-range planning.
- Poorly delineated projects, “soft” budgets, and a host of other weaknesses cannot be overcome by a well crafted grant proposal, even one that was is well researched as possible.
- An ineffective “selling” job might be made during a presentation meeting or other communication by an organization’s officials.
- Timing, as good comedians know, is everything. You have to be in the right place with the right proposal, but unless the timing is right, it won’t yield a grant. Timing is up to the grant makers.
- You do not know in advance which foundations are over committed and which will not have funds available at the time of your submission or for some time to come.
- Your research can be impeccable, your recommendations absolutely correct, and your objections and cautions right on the money, but project directors and leadership may still insist that the grant proposal be written in spite of flaws and concerns. “We’ll send it anyway,” they will say.
- Grant proposals are not presented in a vacuum. Too often they are prepared and presented when an organization has little or no, support from others—especially the board of trustees. Chances are slim to none for a grant when there are few other visible and viable sources of support.
- Competition with other non-profits for dollars may be especially intense.
- The current state of the local economy may be weak. Maybe a large business just closed.
- The perception others hold of your organization may not be strong enough to entice a grant maker to step forward with funding.
Realistic Goal Setting is the Answer
Goals need to be set for each aspect of a non-profit organization’s fund-raising efforts. Annual fund, capital, and endowment goals are built on a known base of support, and there is a realistic funding expectation. Goals for raising funds from individuals are more likely to be met because individuals often have a proven and repeatable history of giving and because they can give any time they wish.
Goal setting for funding from foundations, however, is a different story. It can be very difficult. In most cases there is not a historic body of viable ongoing support for the organization from a specific foundation to build upon. Forecasting income from foundations is more reliable when an organization plans to approach foundations that have supported it in the past.
In addition, foundations have strict guidelines. They require that several trustees approve a grant. Each trustee may be protective of the foundation’s funds in different ways for different reasons and accessibility to each trustee may vary. Trustees may meet and determine grant awards infrequently. All of these conditions may make matching up an organization’s specific project/initiative with the right foundation, at the right time a tricky task.
So how do you budget grant income? With great care, avoiding as best you can a goal setting process that demands income guarantees rather that sets targets.