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Nonprofit Grant Seeking: Engaging Funders During a Pandemic

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The COVID-19 crisis is creating unprecedented interruptions and uncertainty across the globe. Worry has spread in every community, not only about how we slow the virus but also about how we maintain momentum during the disruption.

Within the nonprofit sector, social distancing and shelter-in-place orders have led to the cancelation of fundraising events and concerns over how organizations will stay afloat during these trying times. Unfortunately, many organizations are facing staff furloughs and complete operational shut-downs due to the circumstances.

This is not the first time that nonprofit grant seeking has faced severe challenges. If history has taught us anything, it’s that foundations step up, not back, during a crisis. In response to the current pandemic, many grantmakers are offering funding to help their nonprofit partners make it through.

How can your organization be proactive to take advantage of support from grant funders? 

We recommend these key steps nonprofits should take to maintain funder relationships and keep seeking grants at this time:

  1. Communicate sooner rather than later with current funders.
  2. Seek emergency funding opportunities.
  3. Continue identifying and cultivating new funders.

With the COVID-19 crisis threatening to stop us in our tracks, the nonprofit sector is struggling to maintain momentum. By incorporating these tips as well as those on this helpful resource page created by Grants Plus, you’ll be well-equipped to navigate the grant-seeking process. 

Let’s take a closer look at the steps you can take to better engage and connect with funders at this time.

1. Communicate sooner rather than later with current funders.

The most important first step during this crisis is to assess your current grants and seek out conversations with your top grant funders. 

If the COVID-19 pandemic is preventing you from following through with the terms of an active grant, contact the grantmaker. Share how you’re coping with the pandemic, including any challenges you’re facing and your plans to address them.

Grantmakers recognize that many organizations have been significantly impacted by current circumstances. Overwhelmingly, funders are showing tremendous willingness to be flexible. But you first need to reach out and be upfront about your challenges and needs.

The best overall communication method continues to be a phone call. However, many foundation representatives are juggling their work and home lives just like fundraisers and may be unable to speak on the phone. If you fail to make immediate contact, email is your next best option. Prior to reaching out, develop a plan and proactively communicate your needs. Consider discussing:

  • Potential changes to existing grant terms
  • Flexibility to use the grant funds for a different purpose or program
  • The possibility of emergency funding to replace lost income or to fund a direct response to the crisis

Don’t wait until you have a “perfect plan” though. Right now, it’s much more important to give funders timely updates rather than waiting on an in-depth, multi-year plan. 

In short, a plan for consistent and transparent communication is paramount in a nonprofit-grantmaker relationship, now more than ever. By being open about your needs and any challenges you’re facing, you’ll develop and maintain an open line of communication with current funders. Once you’ve established a foundation of trust, you may gain the flexibility to use funds in the ways they are needed.

If you’re struggling to communicate effectively with funders, a consultant may be able to help. Many recognize the current financial situation nonprofits are facing and are offering free insights and suggestions to help. Check out re:Charity’s list of top nonprofit consulting firms to find one who may be able to assist you. By taking every step you can right now, your team will be well-equipped to form a solid line of communication with funders.

2. Seek emergency funding opportunities.

Communities across the country are reeling from crushing needs, including hunger, childcare, and health services. In response, hundreds of foundations are acting quickly to disperse emergency grant funding to nonprofits on the front lines.

What should your organization do to secure emergency funding to respond to the crisis?

First, find out if there is a rapid response fund in your community. These funds are often coordinated by community foundations or local United Ways, and many represent a coalition of philanthropic, business, and government partners. Search for emergency funding in your community by reviewing the list of crisis grants that Grants Plus has compiled. You can also check the websites and social media accounts of your top funders and of other large funders in your area to see if they are releasing emergency funds.

Some emergency funds are being proactively directed to pre-selected organizations while others are more competitive. If your community’s emergency fund opportunities are competitive, determine if the terms match your organization’s mission and focus first. Then, proceed with the application as soon as possible. If there isn’t a defined application process, identify any existing contacts within the list of funders supporting the crisis fund. This enables you to enter a two-way conversation that may put your nonprofit up for a successful ask.

Additionally, in response to COVID-19, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill known as the CARES Act to provide emergency financial support for nonprofit organizations. At this time, the bill provides support through a variety of small loans, including but not limited to:

  • Paycheck protection program loans. Nonprofits with 500 or fewer employees may qualify for loan amounts up to 2.5 times their average monthly payroll costs.
  • Economic injury disaster loans. Nonprofits with 500 or fewer employees may apply and receive a $10,000 advance on an economic injury disaster loan.
  • Fully refundable tax credits. If an organization is subject to a shut-down order and has lost 50% of its revenue compared to last year, they may be eligible to receive up to a $5,000-per-employee tax credit.

Explore further with a more detailed analysis of the CARES Act here

As we mentioned earlier, a fundraising consultant can help you locate and secure emergency funding. Those with deep experience can bring crucial guidance during this time. Some are even extending their services free of charge to account for the current financial situation. That way, you can make the most of your available resources and can stand apart from the competition.

3. Continue identifying and cultivating new funders.

As the immediate shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic begin to subside, we expect competition for grants to be even greater than before the crisis. That means it is even more important that you keep up a practice of identifying and cultivating new prospective grant funders.

While we expect most funders will come back to funding their traditional priorities, it’s also possible that some may shift their funding in lasting ways. Because of this, you must continue building a pipeline of new funders to replace funders you could lose. To help narrow down your list of likely funders, determine what makes for a quality prospect. Keep in mind that when it comes to grant seeking prospects, quality trumps quantity.

Time is a valuable resource, and nonprofits can’t afford to waste it in the current economic climate. So that you don’t waste time pursuing unlikely funders, consider the following signs of a strong potential grant funding prospect:

  • Relationship: A positive history between your organization and the foundation means they’re more likely to award you a grant—especially if they’ve funded your organization before.
  • Mission match: There should be a clear alignment between your organization’s mission and the foundation’s mission and goals. Consider if they’ve adjusted their focus in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Geographic focus: Ensure the funder has invested in programs, projects, and people in your organization’s geographic area of focus.
  • Similar funding: Consider if they have a track record of awarding grants to organizations and programs similar to yours.

Focusing on these criteria will enable you to locate more funders whose priorities align with yours. Once you’ve identified your targets, you can shift your focus to applying for funding. Comply with any guidelines. Then, craft an effective proposal by following the tips covered in this complete nonprofit grant writing guide by Grants Plus. Implementing these best practices will help you convey your core mission, your unique alignment with the foundation’s mission, and your urgent need for funding.

If you’re struggling to navigate the current landscape, consider hiring a fundraising consultant or seek advice from those who are currently offering free services and resources. Those with deep experience can bring crucial guidance during this time. That way, you won’t waste time and resources engaging and crafting tailored proposals for unlikely prospects.

No one knows when things will return to “normal,” but we do know foundations will do what they can get us there. The best approach your organization can take is continuing your grant seeking efforts during this time. Having a proactive grants plan that prioritizes funder engagement puts you one step closer to securing funding. Especially during times of financial crisis, nonprofits need to do everything they can to continue striving to fulfill their missions.

Remember, don’t stop communicating with funders, cultivating opportunities, and taking proactive steps to secure grant funding. Otherwise, you’ll risk sacrificing grant revenues and the relationships you’ve worked so hard to develop.

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