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[ASK AN EXPERT] What's The Average Portfolio Size For A Full-Time Grant Manager

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity. Today’s question comes from a nonprofit employee who wants advice on what the average foundation portfolio size is for a full-time grant manager:  

Dear Charity Clairity,

What is the average foundation portfolio size for a full-time grant manager? I can’t find an answer anywhere! I know this will vary depending on the GM’s salary and their fundraising goal, but there has to be a formula somewhere. I have been told by a higher up that our GM should be doing more. In FY23 they submitted 40 proposals for a total of $2.4M in asks. We received funding of just over $1M from their efforts.

— Need Direction  

Dear Need Direction,

While it’s generally a good idea to look for metrics against which to measure performance, in this case it’s a difficult thing to quantify. Which is probably why you’ve been unable to find a formula. And, as far as I’m aware, none exists. If I found one, I’d be suspicious of it. Let me tell you why.

What matters here is quality, not quantity.

Your grants manager could be sending out carbon copy proposals every day of the week, but that’s unlikely to improve your ROI. In fact, arguably, it could diminish your returns. Because it would mean you were not taking the time to make good matches, put together the most persuasive proposals possible, and do effective reporting to cement your relationship – and reputation for excellent execution and follow-through – with the funder.

What’s most important is you submit proposals only to funders likely to be a good fit for your particular project.

And this takes time.

  • This requires foundation research.
  • This requires internal research, talking to your own executive management to understand organizational priorities and your program managers to understand the depth and breadth of your organization’s services.
  • This requires tailoring your proposal specifically for each particular funder.
  • This requires reviewing your proposal – going over every element with a fine-toothed comb – to assure you’re explicitly addressing everything the foundation has asked for.

The grant manager must do even more than research and write.

These other parts of the grant process take more time.

  • They must put together strong supporting documentation. For example, grant funders often ask for your tax exemption letter; incorporation status; annual report; current year operating budget; vision and mission statement; list of board of directors with affiliations; bios and/or resumes of key staff; DEI policy, and even client stories. Sometimes they’ll also ask for a strategic plan; a current budget vs. actuals; profit and loss statement; 990; an audited statement, and letters of support.
  • They must prepare the budget that goes with the proposal. This generally fleshes out the narrative with figures and puts the project for which you’re requesting funding within a larger programmatic context. Generally, this budget also shows what funding you’ve already secured, who else you’re applying to for the balance, and how you hope to sustain this program after the grant expires.
  • They must provide reports to demonstrate outcomes. Annual reports are the minimum; some foundations require bi-annual or quarterly updates as well.

If your grant manager is responsible for putting these items together, they need the time to do so. Plus, they need access to the information necessary to provide accuracy and transparency. When it comes to supporting information, some documents will be standard; once they’re pulled together, they only need to be updated annually. Other information, like the project budget, must be created for every single proposal. For reports, often the grant manager will need to ask the program manager to submit information to them that addresses all key outcomes outlined in the grant application and award. They’ll then need to edit, massage, and rewrite to put your best foot forward. Will your grants manager do this? Your finance manager? A program manager? Ideally, it should be a collaborative effort.

The number of funders for whom you are a good fit depends on the who, what, when, where, why, and how of your mission.

It also depends, to an extent, on foundation priorities in any given year. These are both things no grant manager, no matter how skilled, can control.

  1. WHO: Are you well known? Is your reputation a positive one? If requested, could you support this with letters of recommendation?
  2. WHAT: What, specifically, are you asking for help with?
  3. WHEN: When is your funding needed, and how does this fit within the funder’s application and awards cycle?
  4. WHERE: Are you a local, regional, statewide, national, or international nonprofit? Funders have guidelines around these things, and it’s important to be aware and adhere to them.
  5. WHY: Why are you the best organization to do this? Can you distinguish yourself from other potential applicants occupying a similar space? Might it be beneficial to band together with some of these other groups to submit a joint proposal?
  6. HOW: Specifically, how do you plan to spend the funder’s money, and who will be in charge of implementation? Are they well known? Do they have a strong track record?

All these things being true, a “formula” isn’t really possible.

Some organizations will have more of the things foundations are looking for than others. Some will have a stronger track record, more seasoned leadership, more experienced staff, greater longevity, cover a different geographic area, focus on a different market niche… and so forth.

I only know what you’ve presented here, but at first blush it looks like a completely acceptable ROI. You’re bringing in a good sum of money (certainly more than you spend on the grant manager position). Plus, on average, you’re able to submit a proposal just short of weekly (with time off for vacation, holidays and sick time). And part of the grant manager’s job is also to submit reports for all grants awarded!

Have I seen grant managers do more? Yes. But rarely. And they’ve generally been with the organization long enough to know it very well and in their position long enough to have all the information they need at their fingertips.

Have I seen grant managers do less? Frequently.

Count your blessings.

— Charity Clairity (Please use a pseudonym if you prefer to be anonymous when you submit your own question, like “Need Direction” did.)

P.S. I did find one Foundation Center 2004 survey reporting the majority of foundations funded 25-49% of proposals. Additionally, organizations that gave out less funding overall (e.g., smaller community foundations) funded a higher percentage of proposals than larger organizations. I could not find similar data for more recent years.

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