Getting a grant in a tough economy

January 6, 2009

The economy’s downturn is apparently leaving few unscathed.  Charitable foundations say they are feeling the pinch in terms of  fewer, smaller donations and diminished investment returns. That means that nonprofits looking to foundations to fund new initiatives are swimming in an increasingly competitive pool. As resources become tighter, granting bodies will become even more discriminating when evaluating proposals.

One of the ways for your proposal to truly stand out from the crowd is to make a very strong case for why your initiative is beneficial. It’s also important to outline how you will measure success. These areas are vital in grant proposal writing but they are not always given the attention necessary.

When I write a grant proposal, I generally use the following outline:

  1. Introduction – paragraph or two describing what the initiative is and how much money I am seeking.
  2. Defining the need – several paragraphs describing why this initiative is needed.
  3. Description of project – emphasize why the initiative will be successful and back it up with research.
  4. Specific goals, objectives and method of the initiative – outline of how the initiative is going to meet the above need.
  5. Evaluation – details about how we will measure success.
  6. Budget – how much it is going to cost broken down into component parts and including other in-kind and monetary contributions.
  7. Summary – a paragraph or two summing up the project/initiative and why it will be beneficial and successful.
  8. Financial statements and other organizational reports – include any supporting documentation the granting body requires.

Some private and community foundations have specific forms or formats to follow when applying for a grant but generally, the above components are present in most proposals. In my experience, nonprofits just beginning to apply for grants spend most of their time outlining the details of the initiative along with the budget but don’t put enough effort into selling it—the “defining the need” part.

Let’s look at a simple example. Say a community resource centre wants to begin a lending library of books for children. How would we define this need? The answer is not that the centre needs a library so that children and families can borrow books. Don’t make this mistake. Building a library is the answer to the need, not the need itself.

Defining the need in the above example would speak to things such as the literacy rate in the resource centre’s community. We might mention that the nearest public library is not within walking distance of most residents. We would also likely site research indicating that exposure to books at an early age improves school performance and  aids reaching other developmental milestones. Have families at the centre requested a library or been consulted about it? Include their feedback. Remember that stories are a powerful selling tool. Talking about the needs of specific families or children could nicely illustrate our case. Don’t be afraid to “pull at the heartstrings” in this section. There’s room for a bit of  drama (not too much) to persuade the reader that this resource will really make a difference.

Evaluation is the other section of a grant proposal that requires thoughtful attention. Most granting bodies require a follow up report once they have made a contribution. This report can influence decisions on further grants. Clearly stating how we intend to measure our success can go a long way towards enhancing our organization’s credibility and accountability. When the economy is tight, this is very important. Granting bodies want to be able to demonstrate the success of what they fund.

This doesn’t have to be complicated. In addition to coming up with our own measurements, we can research similar initiatives to find out how they were measured. In our library example, we could do a baseline survey of families to find out how many books they read with their children each month and then compare that after 3 or 6 months when the library is up and running. If we have the resources, we could also evaluate reading levels prior to and after the establishment of the library. Qualitative measures based on feedback from the library’s users would also be helpful and could provide some compelling follow up stories about the impact of this resource.

Pulling together a grant proposal is often a time consuming process with no guarantee of securing funds. Make sure that the investment of time focuses on the most important aspects of the proposal. Without a compelling case for  why the project or initiative is going to make a difference for your stakeholders, your proposal will likely be bulldozed by the competition.

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