Rachel Sacks, MPH will help demystify all five phases of the grants lifecycle: identifying well-aligned prospects, cultivating funder relationships, preparing compelling submissions, maintaining grants through stewarding and reporting, and submitting renewals.

Full Transcript:

Steven: All right, Rachel. I’ve got 1:00 Eastern. Is it okay if I go ahead and get this party started officially? 

Rachel: Absolutely. Let’s do it. 

Steven: All right. Awesome. Well, good afternoon, everybody. And good morning, I should say, if you’re out on the west coast. If you’re watching this recording, I hope you’re having a good day no matter when and where you are. We are here to talk about “Demystifying the Grants Lifecycle.” Oh, yeah. We don’t want any mystification there. So we’ve got a true grant expert here to talk about some tips for you. 

I’m excited. I’m so happy you’re all here. And if you’re watching the recording, like I said, thanks for tuning in. 

I’m Steven, I’m over here at Bloomerang, and I’ll be moderating today’s discussion as always. 

Just a couple of quick housekeeping items. Just want to let you all know that we are recording this presentation and we will be sending out the slides as well as the recording later on today. So if you have to leave early, or maybe you get interrupted, no worries, we will get all that good stuff to you later on today. Just look for an email from me a few hours after we adjourn today. 

But most importantly, we love these sessions to be interactive, so please do chat in your questions and comments. There’s a chat box and a Q&A box. You can use either of those. We’ll see them both. But we are going to try to save some time at the end for Q&A. So don’t be shy. Don’t sit on those hands. You can send us a tweet. I’ll keep an eye on the Twitter feed as well. 

We’ve got some polls for you. We want to hear from you. Introduce yourself if you haven’t already, because we’re going to be asking you some questions later. 

And if this is your first Bloomerang webinar, just want to say an extra special welcome to all of you folks. We do these webinars just about every Thursday throughout the year. And like I said before, we’ve been doing them a long time. It’s one of our favorite things we do here at Bloomerang. 

But if you’ve never heard of Bloomerang beyond this webinar series, we are first and foremost a provider of donor management software. So check that out if you are interested. Maybe you’re shopping before the end of the year, and you want to make a switch. You can even do grant tracking in the database, which is germane to this presentation. So check that out. 

But don’t do that right now because this is a special one. This is one where Rachel and I had been talking about this session for . . . it feels like over a year. I’m so glad it’s here because I love the topic and I’ve been getting to know Rachel over the long period of time here. 

Rachel, how are you doing? You’re doing okay? Thanks for being here.

Rachel:  I’m doing great. I’m excited to see more Chicagoans in the chat. Hi, fellow Chicagoans.

Steven:  That’s cool. They must have known. I was actually born in Chicago. I moved two years after, when I was 2, but still a special place in my heart. So it’s nice to talk to a Chicagoan. 

I say this on most of my webinars, but when I’m looking for guests, it’s people who’ve done the thing they’re talking about. And Rachel is no exception. She has gotten over $25 million in grant dollars for her clients and her workplaces. Really cool thing is she’s got like an 83% . . . Is “win rate” the right term to use there, Rachel?

Rachel: Yeah, you can say win rate.

Steven: I’ll say win rate. It sounds cooler anyway. So definitely knows what she’s talking about. Definitely involved in the healthcare space. So any of you listening in who are in the healthcare arena, you definitely want to check her out. But if not, and you need help with grants, you’re going to want to follow Rachel later on after this presentation as well. 

So I’m going to pipe down. They want to hear from you, not me. So I’m going to stop sharing here, Rachel, and I’ll let you . . .

Rachel: Wonderful.

Steven: . . . bring up your slides. 

Rachel: I will go ahead and share mine. Thank you, everyone. Thanks, Steven. So glad that all of you are joining today. I’m just going to make sure that I can see my slides. Okay, fantastic. 

I’m so excited to join you to talk about grants today. And I really wanted to do this session because grants can feel so mysterious to so many nonprofit leaders, even ones that have some degree of grant success. 

As Steven mentioned, I have been writing grants specifically for health and human services nonprofits for about 15 years now. So I can definitely appreciate that grants can be challenging. They can feel really confusing and really burdensome, especially if you don’t have a game plan or a process in place. 

In my work, I’m constantly fielding questions about grants from busy executive directors without formal grants training. Development directors who wear many hats, entry-level grant staff who don’t have much experience, and even program staff who get thrown into grant-writing roles. So I don’t know if any of these roles describe you, but feel free to throw in the chat what role you hold in your organization, and what your role in grant seeking is. 

Let’s see if anyone . . . Oh, yeah, being thrown into a grant-writing role is that something that . . . I don’t know if Chantal has experienced that themselves, but that is definitely something that we see a lot. 

We’ve got people who are executive directors. We’ve got development staff. We’ve got development coordinators, grant managers, all of these types of roles. We’ve got some freelance grant writers. Awesome. You might know some of the things I talk about today. Whole bunch of development and executive director type roles. What a great group. Director of foundation relations, so you’ll probably know a few things we talk about today. Fantastic. I love this. 

And some people without grant experience, which is completely okay. This is for everyone. 

Yeah, board members, organization managers who assist with grants. Wonderful. A nice mix of roles. And definitely, we’ll be looking forward to hearing a little bit more about what your specific grant questions are. 

So what are some of the main questions I hear from folks like you? They want to know, “How do I know what to apply for? How do I find funders to whom to apply? How do I navigate and write grant applications? And how do I sustain my grants and get renewals?”

I don’t know if these questions sound familiar to you, but we’ll just do a little poll to see which of these questions you have about grants. So go ahead and let us know which of these are questions that you have about grants. You can select as many as you want. “How do I know what to apply for? How do I find funders to whom to apply? How do I navigate and write grant applications? How do I sustain my grants and get renewals?”

Maybe you have a completely different question about grants, which you can feel free to throw in the chat at any point. Or maybe you don’t have any questions about grants whatsoever, which then I wonder why you joined us today, but welcome to you as well.

Let’s see what we have here. I’ll give another moment for a few more people to answer. Let’s see. Most of you have answered, so we’re going to just end the poll. Sorry if you didn’t get to answer in time. But it looks like the question that most of you have is “Where do I find funders to whom to apply?” So we are going to be talking about that today for sure. 

Also, a lot of you have questions about sustaining grants and getting renewals. And the “How do I navigate and write grant applications?” over 60 of you have that question. Over 50 of you have the question about “How do I know what to apply for?” Some of you have different questions about grants. So I hope that some of you will put those questions that you have in the chat, and maybe I’ll address them anyway. 

Some of you don’t have . . . at least one of you doesn’t have a question. But I see Adriana says she doesn’t know anything about grants, so she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. Hopefully, we’ll be able to address some of the baseline information so that you have a little bit more basis and you know what you don’t know, and you know what you need to learn.

So what do I mean when I say the grants lifecycle? We’re going to try to tackle these questions through the lens of the grants lifecycle. When I say the grants lifecycle, I mean the whole process of finding, acquiring, and maintaining grants. So not just the part where you sit down and write. 

My team thinks of the grants lifecycle as having five phases. So it starts with identifying well-aligned grant prospects, and then cultivating relationships with those potential funders. Next is preparing compelling and competitive grant submissions, and engaging in stewardship and appropriate reporting, and then finally, completing renewal applications.

So today, I want to help you understand all of these phases, including the ones that don’t rely on writing skills, and to gain some really concrete tips, tricks, and pitfalls to avoid for each phase so you can be more confident in your grants game plan and more effective at securing funds. 

We’re going to do this through the lens of the four common questions that I just shared and try to help you unlock these four grant mysteries: what to apply for, where to apply, navigating applications, and keeping it going.

I see we have some additional questions about competitiveness and finding your right niche, and tips for getting unrestricted grants, and writing grants in a compelling way. So I think we’re going to be able to bring in a few of those questions as well.

So let’s start with our first grant mystery: what to apply for. I shared that there are five phases to the grants lifecycle, but there is one thing that’s truly the key to all of the phases, and that’s really having a solid program. Your programs and services are the cornerstone of the whole grants lifecycle. So designing a highly effective program that you can apply for will make winning grants that much easier, especially given the competitiveness.

So what does an effective program look like? An effective program should be responsive to community needs, have a well-defined scope, and have well-defined realistic operations, including staffing, timeline, and budget. 

The ideal program for your organization to seek funding for fits right in the center of this Venn diagram, where there’s a lot of community need, there’s funding and funder interest in meeting that need, and where your organization is the right one with the right capacity to meet the needs.

A lot of organizations are tempted to create new programs just to get grant funding on a hot issue, right? They hear that people are funding in a certain area, and they want to go after it, whether or not there’s sufficient need in their area and whether or not it makes any sense for their organization to be the one meeting the need. 

It’s great if you have programs that are exciting to funders or that are on a hot topic. That’s very conducive to winning grants. But please don’t be tempted to chase grants for things that aren’t a major need, or aren’t realistically in your organization’s capacity to address, or aren’t realistically in line with your organization’s mission.

Make sure that before you go to write grants, you’ve defined your program or services clearly. You’ll know you’ve defined your program clearly and really thought through your operations well when you’ve asked and answered all the five Ws, or five question words: who, what, where, when, why, how?

Who are the program participants? Who are the recipients being served? What are their needs and characteristics and criteria for participating? Who are the staff doing the serving? What are their backgrounds and qualifications? What services are being offered? What activities make up these services? 

Where are you delivering the program? Where is the geographic area being served, and where are the activities happening? 

When is the program starting and ending? How frequently does it happen? Why should this program be offered? And why should your organization be the one delivering it? 

Finally, how will it be done? How will you measure quality and outcomes? And how will you track participation? And of course, how much will it cost?

So if you’ve answered all those questions, you’ve designed an effective program. And now that we’ve done so my first pro tip would be to use this single program to apply for many different grants. You probably have thought of this before, but this really makes it so that you only need to actually define the program, write out all the key core elements of it, the need, the program design, the staffing model, the budget, you only need to do that definition work once and then you can efficiently adapt that to many different applications for many different grants. 

I call this developing core narrative materials. And we’ll talk about how to do that a little bit more in a few minutes.

But if you take this approach, you’ll want to make sure to be consistent. It’s important to tell the same basic story to every funder so that you can be clear in who your program serves, what your goals and outcomes are, and your overall messaging. And you don’t have to remember, “Which funder did I tell what to?”

Now, of course, the program might evolve over time, right? So if a program is further along or has loftier goals when you apply to your second or third or 10th funder, you should definitely adjust the information. You always want the information you provide to be really current. 

And you may wish to highlight different aspects of a program to different funders. So we’ll talk about that in a few minutes too. 

But you still want to be sharing the same basic overall story.

Steven: Hey, folks, sorry about that. It looks like we lost Rachel. I’m not sure if any of you are still seeing her, but let me know if you are. We’ll try to get her back in here real quick. It may have been something on her end. There she is. Hey, Rachel. 

Rachel: Hey, sorry, I have [inaudible 00:15:28].

Steven: It’s okay.

Rachel: So I’m hoping I’m back on now. 

Steven: I think so. You were just about to start that new section. So it was kind of good timing.

Rachel: Perfect. Okay.

Steven: There you go. 

Rachel: Hopefully, I was here. So what I was going to say for this is that you want to make sure to not ask every funder for the exact same thing within your program budget. So even if you’re asking them to support a single consistent program, you want to make sure that you’re not sort of duplicating funding, and then leaving other parts of the program unfunded. 

So you don’t want to have three funders funding 100% of a single staff person’s salary, while travel, supplies, other staff, or whatnot have no funding, and that salary is being double or triple counted. So that’s not appropriate and it’s also a reporting nightmare. 

So I like to think of this as building a quilt. You’re asking every funder to support the overall same quilt by contributing their individual piece. And you should ideally be asking funders for additional missing pieces so that you end up with one single cohesive quilt, one single, cohesive program that has all of its pieces funded.

All right. Any questions about programs while we’re on it? I love that everyone loves my slides. Thank you so much. Fantastic. So let’s carry on. 

Our next grant mystery is where to apply. I know a bunch of people had questions about this one. How do we find grants to apply for and decide if we’re going to pursue them? 

So I’m actually going to launch my second poll. Go ahead and let us know how you find funders or grant opportunities to pursue. You can answer as many of these that are relevant to you. So maybe your board members randomly tell you about grant opportunities. Maybe you read about them on the news or hear about them on NPR whatever you listen to. Maybe you Google search grants plus wherever you live. Maybe you use a structured process and a grants database. Or maybe you’re new to this, and you’ve never actually looked for grants at all. 

So let’s see what we’re getting here. I’ll give everyone one more minute to share how they find their grants. All right. Let’s see what we’ve got. 

I’m glad to see that more than half of you are using a structured process and a grants database. Of course, a lot of people are Google searching around. We also have a third of you reading about things, or hearing about them on the news, having board members randomly throw grant suggestions at you. All of that is pretty common. Of course, some of you are new to this, so you don’t necessarily have a basis for how you look for grants. 

I will say that it is not a problem whatsoever to find funding opportunities through multiple channels, organically through hearing about something, somebody emailing you an opportunity, etc. But if you were among the half of people that apply for opportunities arbitrarily and you don’t have any structured process in place to find opportunities that are a fit for you, you are definitely missing out.

So the first phase of the grants lifecycle is identifying well-aligned grant prospects to whom we could apply. We want to find the best grant prospects for you and your program before you apply. 

I like to use the analogy of planning a vacation. I know with COVID probably some of us haven’t planned a vacation in a very long time, but get yourself in the mindset. If you were planning a vacation, would you just pack your bag and then wander off arbitrarily and hope that wherever you end up is a match for what you’re looking for out of vacation? No, you would probably not do that, right? 

If you are like most people, your first step would be identifying a destination. You might use criteria like the kind of weather you want, types of activities you want to do, how long you have available, your budget, things of that nature. And you would identify some vacation spots that align with your criteria before you headed there. 

I think this is the same with applying for grants. Rather than just arbitrarily applying anywhere that you or your board can think of, you want to use a structured approach to finding funders that align with your criteria before you apply. 

With grant prospect research, we do just that. We systematically review potential funders, identify well-aligned funders based on this systematic review, and ultimately develop a pipeline or a prioritized shortlist of funders.

Why do we bother doing this? Well, there are a few reasons. First, grant prospect research increases your chances of succeeding and winning grants because you’re only going to apply for opportunities that you have a realistic chance of winning. 

If every grant you apply for is a good match for your organization and your program, you’re much more likely to be funded. It’s really just like how you’re more likely to have a great vacation if you head to a destination that’s a match for what you’re looking for.

And then on the flip side, grant prospect research helps you avoid wasting time and resources applying to poorly aligned funders that are really not likely to ever fund you. 

Although researching funders can take some time, and I know it can be a little bit of a burden on small organizations especially, it also saves even more time because once you determine that a funder isn’t aligned, you stop putting any energy into them. 

In our vacation analogy, you wouldn’t waste your time or your money buying a flight or researching activities for a destination that isn’t a good fit. If it’s too far away, if it’s out of your budget, if it’s closed to Americans due to COVID, or whatnot, if it’s not somewhere you want to go, you would probably stop wasting energy planning a trip there.

Ultimately, the reason to identify well-aligned funders is so you don’t fly blind. We don’t want you to arbitrarily and blindly head to a location and pray that it works out to be a good vacation. And we similarly don’t want you arbitrarily and blindly applying for random grants. We want you to find funders that are a good match so that you have the best chance of success.

So here are some pro tips for this part of the grants lifecycle to make that happen. First, I mentioned you should use a database and a structured process to search for funders. 

I’m hearing that there are some folks talking about grant databases in the chat. So hopefully I’ll help you make this a little bit less overwhelming or give you a little bit of guidance for this.

We recommend that you develop a list of search terms including keywords, geographies, similar organizations, and known funders. Keywords are things like overarching topics that describe your work, like health or food. Potentially populations served, like children or people with disabilities. They could be specific programs or services, like job training or health education. And they can also be settings, things like schools or homeless shelters. 

Geographies would be the cities, states, countries, other jurisdictions where you’re located, where your services are offered, and where your served populations live. We want to make sure that the funders on your list are actually funding organizations in your area.

Some similar organizations would be names of organizations that are similar to yours in terms of these topics, population, services, or geographies. Looking for foundations that fund similar organizations means that those foundations might be well aligned for you as well.

And then we do want to add known funders to your list. These are your current funders, the funders that your board members, or staff, or volunteers are connected to, and the random ones that you learn about and you want to research. 

You’ll then ideally use a database to search these terms. And I see some people are already talking about the database that I’m going to suggest, which is Foundation Directory Online, now part of Candid.

This is a list of some different databases for finding grants. Foundation Directory Online, which I’ve listed as number one, is our very favorite. We consider it the gold standard. It is now part of Candid. That’s a merger of Foundation Directory Online and GuideStar. I’ve included a few other grant databases of various different price points. 

It’s also worth noting, as I think Crystal mentioned in the chat, that yes, many local organizations in your community often have their own memberships to Foundation Directory Online that they can provide you either for free or as a member benefit. Or there may be local organizations that have their own databases. 

So you don’t necessarily need to sign up for one of these. You certainly can. It sort of depends on your budget and your needs and if you’ve got access maybe through a library or some sort of collaborative organization, a membership to Foundation Directory Online. 

Oh, I’m seeing a few other ones suggested in the chat as well. So that is fantastic. I welcome learning about new databases. Foundation Directory Online is just the one that we use.

Now, my second pro tip is to aim for a manageable list size, because you’re going to have to review and evaluate each of the funders. So if you’re using search terms that are resulting in a couple thousand funders instead of a couple hundred, try to narrow in. I know some people said it’s really overwhelming, so we like to use search terms that will give us a really manageable list size. 

Then once you have a manageable list size, you’ll need to quickly screen and call these funders. We recommend never spending more than one or maybe two minutes maximum, just really fast, skimming the funder’s face page for possible exclusions. 

We want to move really fast through an initial sort of efficient refinement of our list, because then we’ll analyze in a little bit more depth the funders that remain. And that’s how we get through this really, really fast and efficiently.

Then that’s my third tip, which is to evaluate the shortlist of potentially aligned funders. Use funder websites and 990s. So funder websites are usually the very best place to start. And you can use them to look for the five things that I’ve listed here: their mission, their grant-making areas, their grant guidelines, their deadlines, and their current grantees. These are great ways to evaluate their alignment for you. 

What a lot of folks don’t realize, though, is that even if a funder doesn’t have a website, or even if their website doesn’t have a lot of this information and it’s super sparse, you can actually sometimes find some of this information in their 990. 

So these U.S. documents . . . I know this may be less relevant for some of you who are not in the U.S., but if you’re in the U.S., Foundation 990s can come in very handy for understanding funders who do not have websites, or whose websites are very sparse. You can find things like the types of organizations they funded in the past, the number of organizations, the locations of the organizations, and the award size of their grants. 

And I see some people are sharing in the chat a number of places that you can go to publicly find 990s. It is all publicly available. So they’re part of Candid, a free part of Candid that you don’t need a subscription to. You can find funder 990s. 

And then based on what you can glean from websites and 990s, you can better evaluate which of that list of potentially aligned funders should kind of move into your likely aligned, into the next phase of the grants lifecycle.

Some of the things that people have been saying in the chat are going just to me and some are going to everyone. So feel free to share with everyone your recommendations and your advice in the chat, because we all benefit and learn from each other.

What’s the next phase of the grants lifecycle? The next phase is cultivating relationships. Once you’ve used your grant prospect research to identify a shortlist of funders that seem like they may be worthy of pursuing, or at least on paper they seem that way, it’s time to actually connect with the funders to see if they’re truly a fit.

So what’s involved in cultivating relationships with funders? It entails reaching out to well-aligned funders via email and phone, sharing information with them, and, perhaps more importantly, listening very carefully to them, and incorporating feedback from these conversations into your grants, your reports, and your programs.

Why do we do this? Well, holding a relationship-building call offers a simple way to introduce your mission, programs, and services to a funder in an easier and more engaging way than a written application. This can potentially help them to understand and to remember what you do and why you do it. 

And just like with grant prospect research, cultivating relationships with funders helps you avoid wasting valuable time and resources submitting grants to funders that aren’t likely to fund you. 

As disappointing as it is to speak with a funder and find out it’s not a match . . . and I know. I have done this many times. It is so disappointing. But it is even worse to waste the time pouring energy into an application that was never going to be funded from the beginning.

In many cases, a call with a funder not only encourages an application, but it can also yield incredibly valuable insights. In my experience, I, my team, my clients have learned many things over the years from funder calls: which of several funding areas the program best fits with, which of several deadlines are best aligned or are least competitive, what’s an appropriate dollar amount to ask for, and which of several different programs would the funder be most excited about.

Finally, a call with a funder also provides opportunities for clarification of any misunderstanding the funder may have about your organization or programs. And it helps ensure that you know about these areas and address them in your applications.

Ultimately, funders are people, right? They’re just people. So please don’t be afraid to talk to them. Calls with funders are your opportunity to tell them about the amazing work that your nonprofit is doing and to get them excited about it, just like with your board members, donors, volunteers, or any other stakeholders.

What are some of my favorite tips for this phase of the grants lifecycle? Well, one is to make the funder’s life easy when you’re scheduling calls. I personally love to offer 20-minute calls. It feels like it’s a really modest ask of them in terms of the amount of time, and I find that they’re the perfect length for covering everything a typical funder call requires. If they run a little short, no problem. And if they run a hair long, it’s usually no big deal because usually the funder has blocked a whole 30 minutes.

I also like to offer two or three specific time slots so that the program officer can just say yes or no to it to really take the burden off of them. If you use a scheduling app like Calendly, that can be a good way to make scheduling easy for them. You can offer them a Calendly link or something like that. 

And if it’s a bigger foundation, you can additionally offer to connect with their administrative assistant for scheduling purposes so that you don’t put the full burden of scheduling on the program officer.

My next tip is to make sure to prepare yourself and others who will be on the call. You’ll need to decide what programs or services you wish to highlight or request funding for. 

You’ll also want to become really, really fluent in describing your work in terms that resonate with the funder’s mission, or the funder’s priorities. What do I mean by this? 

So, for example, if your program is a mental health group program for adolescent girls, and the funder’s mission is to empower women and girls, you might say to them, “We have this great mental health group program for adolescent girls that really empowers them.”

Whereas on the other hand, if the funder’s mission is to improve access to mental health services, you might instead say, “We have this great group program that helps adolescent girls better access behavioral health services.”

It’s the same program, but just a slightly different way of framing it so that the connection to the funder’s mission is crystal clear.

You’ll also want to identify any clarification questions you have about their grants processes, program alignment, or anything that emerged from your research. And you’ll want to make sure that anyone else who’s joining you on the call, like if you’ve got a board member or another staff member doing the call together with you, everyone knows their individual role in the call and everyone is on the same page about who will do what.

Probably my most important tip for funder calls is to really, really listen. Really listen. On the call, it’s great that you get to tell them a little bit about your organization and the services that you think they might want to fund. But really, you also want to learn about their foundation and their grant-making priorities. 

You need to hear what the funder has to say and listen for the right match. Are they coming back in supportive alignment with the program that you proposed? Or are they coming back with different ideas or with concerns?

Depending on what they say, you’ll need to be prepared to politely address potential areas of misunderstanding or potential areas that need clarification. Funders are people, right? So sometimes funders can misunderstand things, and if, when listening closely, you hear that they don’t really understand your program, you might want to restate something in a way that’s clarifying.

You also want to listen to hear, “Does this seem like a yes or no?” If it seems like a no, maybe you want to pitch an alternate program that could align better, or ask them if they have recommendations for other funders that you could speak to. 

If it seems like a yes, you might want to ask follow-up questions based on what they’ve shared, or maybe you want to adjust your eventual application in some way. 

So you really want to listen very, very carefully.

We’re getting a couple questions about if these tips vary between private and family foundations and corporate partners or corporate foundations. And another question about how often you actually get a call. 

Let’s say you are applying to a foundation that’s run by a bank. It’s a small family foundation and Bank of America is sort of managing the grant. I do find that you’re a little bit less likely to get a call in that sort of situation. They may not have a program officer that is able to give strategic advice or provide that kind of conversation. They may just sort of have administrative pieces and say, “Just apply.”

Certainly, when you get into bigger foundations, when you get into . . . I work a lot in healthcare, so health conversion foundations, community foundations, you’re much more likely to get a call with those and be able to speak to someone who is an actual program officer who can provide more strategic insight. 

It is pretty variable and I don’t think that you should be too bent out of shape if you don’t get a call. You do not get a call with every single funder that you request a call with. But I think it’s really important to at least try to pursue a call because you never know, and it is really worth it for those that you do have a call with because it can provide such a great opportunity for insight and relationship building. 

If you don’t get a call, you have to just make a decision based on what you know from your paper or online research whether or not your program is a fit, and whether or not it’s worth the effort of applying cold, as it were.

I’m seeing if there are any other questions about either the grant prospect research piece or the funder relationship piece that we want to tackle right now. 

A question I see in the Q&A about aligning geography when searching if you’re a national organization. So in all of these, you can certainly just search national, like the U.S. I would say that if you have particular areas where your program is the most active, or where your headquarters is located, you can try doing some of those geographic searches. There are sometimes funders that will only fund in specific geographic areas, and where your headquarters is might make a difference. 

You can also think about if you are hoping to launch a program, or maybe you have programs running in 10 states or 10 cities, and you want to launch in some new ones. It might depend on exactly what funding you’re seeking. But if you’re seeking funding for a specific expansion, you can try to target it that way. 

Otherwise, if you’re searching the whole U.S., obviously, that’s going to pull in a lot of funders that are going to have specific geographies that you’re not really doing work in. So you might want to have some more non-geographic search terms that help narrow.

We’re going to get into some of the grant-writing pieces right now in terms of how to sort of customize your application and what approaches to take in terms of the application. So let’s go into that. 

We’ve got some funders to apply to and now our mystery is how to navigate and write grant applications. 

Actually, I think I’m going to launch my third poll. Why don’t we go into that? I want to know how you get started with a grant application. Do you start searching for the required attachments? Do you start typing directly into the grants portal? Do you start panicking about the deadline? Maybe you read the instructions and confirm your eligibility. Or if you’ve never written a grant before, you can just say so. Feel free to answer as many of these as apply to you. 

I’ll give it just another minute. 

I’m seeing some people saying, “I do panic about the deadline, but I don’t want to answer that because it makes me feel better.” I have definitely been known to panic about deadlines first. That has happened to me 

Okay, most of you have participated, so let’s go ahead and end the poll and see where we’re at. 

A non-trivial number of you are panicking about the deadline first, and that is for sure a thing that happens. And we’ve got a few people who start typing directly into the grants portal, or start searching for their attachments, or don’t have any experience writing grants. But I am very, very heartened to see that the vast majority of you read the instructions and confirm eligibility first. That’s really the best answer here. 

So let’s talk about some of this. Let’s discuss the major steps in preparing submissions. The six steps in preparing submissions are to read the instructions, confirm eligibility requirements and steps in the application process, draft and assemble the application, do revisions in partnership with the whole team, ensure approval of all the application content, and finally, submit, especially doing any entry into online systems. 

Let’s start with reading the instructions, which is the most important step. Whether it’s a federal grant with 40 pages of instructions or it’s just a paragraph on a family foundation’s website, always read the instructions first. I know this seems so obvious, but you would be surprised how often people neglect to read the instructions carefully. 

And actually, even for seasoned grant writers like myself, like my team, we have to go through the instructions very carefully more than once to be sure that nothing is missed. 

We actually think of reading the instructions as not only the first step in applying, but often the last step as well, because we’ll read the instructions at the beginning of writing a grant, and then also at the time of submission to make sure we didn’t miss anything. And honestly, if it’s a really big federal grant, we might be referring back to the instructions daily over the course of weeks or months. 

Step 2 happens in conjunction with reading the instructions. You want to confirm your eligibility, that you meet all the requirements, and what all the steps in the application process are so that there are no surprises later. 

And in terms of eligibility, you might think that you’ve kind of sussed that out in the grand prospect research process, but some organizations maybe only fund specific organization types or geographic areas and that’s not apparent until the application, the opportunity. 

There can also be exclusion criteria specific to that opportunity. And it can also be the case that an organization is eligible, but the specific programs or services you want to apply for, that you want funded, are not eligible. So it’s really important to check out the eligibility for any specific application. 

You also might need to have certain registrations or certifications in place to apply. So you might need, for example, SAM registration for federal grants. 

You also want to make sure that you understand all the steps in the application process. Is it a two-tiered submission? Maybe there’s a first LOI and then there’s a later deadline that’s contingent on the first one. Is there an informational webinar that you are allowed to or you have to attend? Do you need the board chair’s signature on something? Do you need letters of support, anything else that might maybe take a few weeks to get? Do you need to map out some other steps in the process? Definitely want to do all of these so you’re not surprised. 

And yes, I’m seeing people noting SAM registration can take a long time. So if you’re applying for state and federal grants, better to do that months before you need to. There are certainly a number of things that you might want to have in mind to do earlier in the process. Yeah, it can take six weeks for SAM registration, for sure. Anna is correct.

Step 3 is what most people think of when they think of preparing a grant application, right? The part where you write the application. So the first thing that we recommend here is that you start with creating an application template even if the application is submitted online in a grant portal. 

We recommend that you use something like Word or Google Docs to set up a template that you can then use for drafting the application. It should include all the sections of the application, the exact questions from the guidelines or instructions, and very importantly, any word or character limits. 

Now, some of you who work in very small organizations might think it isn’t necessary to draft your application in a separate file, especially if maybe you’re the only person involved with grants. This seems like extra effort. But I still really encourage everyone to draft their applications outside of an online portal for a few different reasons. 

One is it will help you stay organized. It’ll reduce the amount of time you’re spending logging in and out of portals. You can also take advantage of spell- and grammar-checking, word counts, etc. It also reduces the likelihood of losing your work if the funder’s system times out, or crashes, or malfunctions, or you lose your internet like I just did. So it can really address some of those challenges. 

Drafting outside the portal also avoids unintentional accidental submissions of your application before you’re ready, since you will only put your material into the grants portal when it’s final, or really close to final. 

This also helps you hold on to your work after the fact. Some of you may have experienced that not all online portals provide an easy or user-friendly way for you to save or export your final submission. So this is a great way for you to keep your work somewhere for future use. 

And then finally, even in a small organization, even if you are the only staff person, you still might have people to collaborate with, whether it’s sharing a grant or part of a grant with a board member or a partner organization or a consultant. There’s always a chance that you will need or want someone else to review or provide feedback on a grant at a future point in time. So this is a way to make it easier to do so. 

And then, once you have your template in place and organized, start writing. Now, there is no need to write every grant from scratch if you’ve previously written on the topic. So one of our top recommendations for drafting grants is to develop a core narrative document on your programs so you have materials to pull from. 

What is a core narrative document? Some people say boilerplate. I don’t like the term boilerplate all that much. I think of a core narrative document as a big file of content that covers all the major narrative sections that you can expect to see in most grant applications. So it’s kind of your starting point for the narrative for any grant on that same program or topic. It can make it really efficient to then pull the relevant sections into your grant application template, and edit and customize from there. 

In many cases, it’s actually easier to have a core narrative document to pull from rather than what a lot of us do, is pulling content from your last grant submission. 

But your last grant might have been shorter, or it might have been longer, or it might have omitted specific questions. You might find yourself trying to remember, “Which application asked that specific question?” So instead, I like to have a core narrative document that’s a go-to source for all the more common questions that you may be asked. 

And what are those major questions you’re going to see again and again? Well, different funders ask things differently, but we find most questions in grant applications do fall under one of these six broad areas. We have introductory sections, which include questions like executive summary or brief description of request. Many grants also have background questions like history of your organization, or mission and vision. 

Then we’ll usually want to discuss the need, which is perhaps the most important part of an application. So this is where you really make the case for why your program or services are needed and why you should be funded. Such an important part of the application. 

The types of questions you might see here are things like statement of need, or scope of problem, or population affected. This is really the area where you want to include those heart-wrenching statistics on the population you serve. You want to include other data or research that points to a gap or a need that you could fill. 

And then after that, there are typically questions about your solution or your response to the need. Questions asking about your response might ask for your methodology, program approach, intervention, strategy, or program components. They may ask you to describe your staffing plan or personnel and their qualifications. You may even need to discuss your partnership or collaborations. 

The exact questions will vary from funder to funder, but you really want to make sure to cover the nitty-gritty of your program, those questions words, in the section here. 

Then the next major section in most applications is evaluation. They’ll ask questions about your program’s goals, its measurable outcomes, its evaluation methods. 

And finally, you can expect every application will ask some questions about budget and funding. Typically, your organization’s budget, your funding request and your specific program budget, other sources of funding you have, and sustainability. 

I’m seeing some other comments. “Core narrative document can also be known as a case statement. There are lots of great samples and guidance out there.” Yes, although I actually think of our core narrative materials as . . . I don’t want to say less polished than a case statement, but I think of it as like the more the merrier. Extra questions, questions that may just be phrased slightly differently, things that are additional. It’s not something that you will ever use exactly . . . It may be 20 pages long because it’s really your source that you’re going to pull from. It is not a polished document in and of itself. 

And to Amy’s question, the response section would be the types of questions that are asking about the program: program components, approach, intervention strategy, your staffing. What is your response to the need? How are you responding to the need? Your solution. Exactly, Dina.

Actually, in terms of the way I think about core narrative materials or stock content, again, a big repository of content that you’re not going to use exactly that way for any grant. It’s not going to get used for any funder. It’s going to be really customized or edited. You should always customize or edit the content for the specific application. 

So when you’ve got your outline, you want to pull in the relevant content, the things that best address the questions that that funder is asking, the things that best address the mission and priorities of that funder. 

It could be rewriting some of those questions to phrase it to meet a funder’s exact question and requirements. It could also be emphasizing alignment with a funder’s mission or the opportunity’s purpose. 

Of course, some of you are talking about character limits. You always want to make sure to edit down to any character limits, any word limits, page limits. 

And you also want to make sure that you’re incorporating anything that you gleaned from that conversation with the funder or past applications to the funder. 

There also may be times when a funder asks something that you’ve never been asked before, and you have to draft something from scratch. And that is okay. That is not a failure of your core materials to not anticipate every question under the sun. 

But I will say if something new that you write for a specific grant seems really good, seems like it might be relevant for another opportunity going forward, go ahead and update or add to your core narrative. Throw it in there. 

Again, I don’t think of the core narrative as a polished letter of inquiry. For people who are asking what LOI stands for, letter of inquiry or letter of intent. I don’t think of it as a polished case statement. I really think of it as a file of source material that I can pull from for the right application and the right question. 

So after you draft the application, you want to get revisions made. You’re going to want to circulate your draft to key team members or partners from whom you need feedback. Ask them to make edits in line, put questions in an email, ask them in a phone call, whatever works for them.

Do make sure that if there’s anyone that needs to review the whole application, they have an opportunity to do so. 

And then I like to get all the feedback from everyone at once, and then incorporate the revisions, edit down to the appropriate character, word, or page limits, and then proofread. 

Now, this process might have to happen more than once, depending on the length of the application. So if this is a longer, more detailed application, if it’s very specific, or on a new program, you definitely may need to go through a couple of revisions processes. 

When you’ve completed all your revisions and get to what you believe is the final version of the application, then it’s time for approval. And I mean internal approval. Who needs to approve an application within your organization is going to vary by application and by your own organization’s structure and who you are. 

So if your organization is very small and you are the executive director, it may be extremely rare that you need anyone’s approval, your board’s approval, to submit an application. If you are a grant writer in a bigger organization, you may need your supervisor, like a development director, to approve all of your submissions. 

Similarly, it may depend on the opportunity, right? So if you’re submitting a huge multi-million-dollar, multi-year federal grant, this might require board approval. And if it’s just a small renewal grant or a one-page letter of inquiry, that might just need the development director’s approval. 

Whatever your internal approval process is, just make sure you have set a realistic timeline based on the size of the application and who’s doing the approving. 

I’m seeing a lot of people talking about timeline and deadlines. It just depends. It may be reasonable for a development director to approve a one-page LOI on a day’s notice. But you can’t expect them to review a 30-page application on a day’s notice. And you need much more time if the board is involved for some reason. 

So it’s really going to depend. But do establish the timeline early and make sure that everyone, the program team, the budget team, understands what the timeline is so that you don’t have a chaotic run-up to submission.

And then the final step in submitting is submission. There are three main methods that we see for submitting an application to funders: online portals, email, or paper. But regardless of which method, do make sure that you have answered all questions, that you have proofread very carefully, that you have met all requirements regarding word, character, or page counts, and also that you’ve adhered to any formatting or attachment or file requirements. 

And always submit on time. I know this also sounds like a no brainer, but you would be surprised how many times people miss deadlines. Particularly with online portals or email submissions, I recommend budgeting at minimum a few extra hours, but ideally an extra day or two for any technical issues with the submission. I always prefer to submit the day before.

Make sure to check the time zone on the deadline, because I have had people realize after the fact that they have already missed it because of a time zone situation.

Then with paper submissions, make sure that you budget time for the mailing or the delivery process. 

One final pro tip I have for this phase of the grants lifecycle, and I think there may have been some people talking about this in the chat earlier, is to keep track of all your attachments. There are many common attachments that you need again and again for almost every submission. So things like your 501(c)(3) letter, your board list, your audit, these are needed all the time. Store your most common attachments together in a consolidated folder. 

When a document is out of date and it gets replaced, pull it into the subfolder labeled “old,” or “obsolete,” or something so that you still have it for reference, but it won’t distract you. 

And then when you receive a new file, like you get maybe your newest budget or annual report, just pull that right into the folder as soon as you get it, or as soon as you remember it. 

I recommend naming each file clearly, ideally with dates, so that you can easily and quickly tell how up-to-date a document is or what year it pertains to. 

Then just check that folder periodically for anything that needs to be updated. It might be like checking it after board meetings, or it might be when you do your semiannual reporting, or at the end of the fiscal year. 

But definitely quickly check that to make a mental note of if there’s something that you never pulled in, grab a few recent documents from a board meeting, etc., so that you can keep it as up-to-date as possible. 

That was a lot. Steven, I know we’re close to time. Can we go a few minutes over?

Steven: No problem. Yeah, let’s keep going. I know you’ve got some good stuff here.

Rachel: Yeah, we’ve got one more phase of the grants lifecycle, so I don’t want people to miss out, though I understand if you have to leave. Let’s keep going. 

Finally, you get some grants submitted, but that’s not the end of the process. We want to keep our grants going. That’s where our last two phases of the grants lifecycle come in: engaging in stewardship and reporting, and eventually completing renewal applications. 

So why are these phases important? Well, stewardship and reporting give you the opportunity to highlight the successes of your grant-funded program and the ways in which the money the funder provided is advancing not just your but also their mission. 

Funders want to know how their money did good in the world, and you can help them see results of their funding by providing them information about what you did, served, and the successful outcomes that you achieved. It helps them know that they’re fulfilling their mission, and it’s also great for getting your organization’s story and its amazing accomplishments out into the world. 

At the same time, we all know things don’t always go smoothly. Stewardship and reporting can help alert funders to challenges that your organization might be experiencing, changes that you’ve had to make to program implementation or your staffing, maybe other things that didn’t go according to plans. Communicating this information to funders upfront can help them help your organization through its challenges, while also being good stewards of their funding resources. 

And staying connected to funders can also lead to valuable insights both for you and for them. 

I am seeing a lot of feedback in the chat. Thank you to everyone who said it’s a great webinar. 

Yeah, funders live in the real world. They’re aware of the coronavirus pandemic. They know that changes may have happened to your program that you proposed in 2019 or early 2020. So don’t worry. They all recognize this. 

Funders can be really valuable sources of information to you about what they’re seeing in the world. They may have insights about how you might adjust your program to be more successful. They might be able to recommend other funders or organizations that you can collaborate with. 

And then also, you can be a valuable source of information for funders about the on-the-ground needs that you’re seeing in the work, the challenges that your program has faced, and how they could have a bigger impact with their funds. 

Finally, strong stewardship and reporting practices help your organization win a renewal grant when this one is up, and they can position your organization for other opportunities in the future. 

There are funders that invite grantees to be part of a pilot program or a learning collaborative. They might highlight grantees in a webinar, or newsletter, or program. They even might push out proactive funds to specific organizations they’ve worked with in the past. 

I’ve seen this a lot during COVID, where they know they’ve worked with an organization, it’s responsive to needs that are extra important right now, and they’ve just pushed out dollars to them proactively or with a very simple application. So your reporting, your grant stewardship, can really set you up for successful future applications and future partnerships with that funder. 

So a couple pro tips for this phase. My first is around stewardship, and that is to follow up on an award decision whether you’re awarded or declined. You want to thank them if you’re awarded, and you want to ask for feedback if you’re declined. 

I know a lot of you are wondering if you would even get a call on the front end with a funder, so you might be wondering whether a funder would respond on the back end if they’ve declined your application. Would they actually email back to provide any feedback or have a call?

Indeed, some funders won’t respond at all. There are other funders that will respond, but not in a particularly helpful way. Maybe they provide a generic response, like, “It was a competitive year,” or something like that. 

So do not worry if that happens, if you can’t actually get a response from a funder afterwards. But I do really think that this pays off with the occasional funders who do provide valuable feedback because it can help you improve your future applications, both to them and to others.

Another recommendation is to really prioritize your reporting, because really, the best way to be renewed for Year 2 is to have strong outcomes in Year 1. 

So set yourself up for timely report submissions by putting your reporting deadlines in your calendar, or your project management software, grant-tracking software, whatever you use to track things. Put that in right off the bat. 

Then make sure that the team is tracking data from day one. So if there are evaluation tools that you need to put into place, or baseline data you need to gather, you really need to do those upfront so that you can actually report on the outcomes you describe in the grant. 

Make sure that the development team and the program team are in agreement about what you’re going to be tracking, and that the program folks are not surprised by what you promised a funder. Hopefully you talked with them during the application process. But if you haven’t, as soon as you get awarded is the best time to talk to them. 

And then, of course, you want to communicate regularly with the program and finance teams, not just right before a grant is due, but really all the time. So having regular check-in calls internally with the program, finance, and development teams can really be helpful in making sure that you address any issues as early as possible. 

If there are issues that need to be addressed, my last tip is to communicate with funders early and often. Remember, funders are people, right? They want to know what actually happened in your program and they want to understand any reasons that you’ve made for changes. They’re not trying to put stumbling blocks in front of you. It might seem that way, but they really just want to understand what you’re doing, what challenges you’re experiencing, why you’re doing what you’re doing. 

And your reporting can help them know the good that their dollars have done in the world. So the earlier and the more clearly you can tell the story of your successes, and the earlier you can communicate about your challenges and the need that remains, the better they can understand the impact of their dollars. 

Have we demystified grants and the grants lifecycle a little bit today? For those that are still here, go ahead and drop something in the chat that you learned or a favorite tip that you’ll take away from today’s conversation. I’m curious what you found most clarifying or interesting from today’s conversation. 

I know that we didn’t get to every single question in the chat, so I hope that we addressed enough of them. 

Questions about equity. I will say there are a lot of funder grant-making structures that are inherently inequitable. Questions sometimes about sustainability or expectations that they have for your infrastructure can inherently bias towards very inequitable things, put a lot of burden and really put a finger on the scales for organizations that are less grassroots and that already have a lot more resources. So it can be very challenging.

I think the equity question is important. I’m not sure if there was a specific question about how you should make that case for equity in a funding situation that is sort of inherently biasing towards organizations that are maybe a little bit less close to the ground and that maybe don’t have an equity lens. 

But I will say that I’ve seen a lot of funders try to put a little bit more emphasis on equity, whether that is by asking explicitly questions about your approaches, how you’re listening to participants, how you are ensuring that your board is diverse and reflects the community served. 

There’s definitely a lot of movement towards being a little bit more responsive to organizations that might be a little bit closer to the needs in the community, and not just funding large national organizations that already have a lot of resources. So I hope that’s helpful. 

Unfortunately, a lot of funding practices are not ideal. But I want to make sure that you can succeed in the current funding environment while still advocating for funders having a more equitable approach in the future. 

I’m so glad that some of these tips were helpful about aligning with the funder’s mission and thinking about your program budget as a quilt. I’m so glad that this was so valuable. 

So given that it’s already seven minutes after and I want to get you out of here, we can just wrap up. If you found this to be helpful and you want to dive deeper, because I know this was a very fast overview, my team actually offers an online program called Grow Your Grants that might be right for some of you. And I can go ahead and drop in the chat . . . Let me see if I’ve got that link. Let me grab a link so that you can go ahead and if you’re interested in . . . There we go. 

If you’re interested in learning a little bit more about that, you can go on our website to the link I just sent to watch a little video, or schedule a personal discovery call with me to discuss if this program might be a fit for you and your organization. 

We are currently accepting new participants in the program. I would love to share more about it with anyone here today and offer a discount if you want to sign up in October. 

And then a few ways other ways . . .

Steven: Rachel . . .

Rachel: Yeah, go ahead.

Steven: . . . that was awesome. Oh, keep going. Sorry, I thought . . . keep going. 

Rachel: Yeah, just two more things. Our team can help with some of the other areas that we discussed today, too. So if you found the grant prospect research section overwhelming, we can conduct customized grant prospect research that you don’t need to be the one searching in Foundation Directory Online. 

We can do coaching and advising about your organization’s grant positioning and readiness, we can develop core narrative materials for your programs, and we can complete large one-off submissions, especially for those of you who are in the health and human services sector, which is our area of expertise. 

I’ll put my email and website here. We love helping organizations get the tools they need to be successful in grants. I’m so glad that this was so valuable to so many of you today. 

So go ahead, Steven. Wrap us up.

Steven: I’ll just say you’re awesome. This is such good stuff. I am not in possession of any mystification, so you did it. That was great. I know you see the chat. I’m getting a lot of good emails too. So I appreciate . . .

Rachel: Wonderful.

Steven: . . . all the advice and all of you for hanging out and soaking up all this knowledge. It was really fun. 

Do you reach out to Rachel. She’s obviously a wealth of knowledge. Really active on LinkedIn as well. Reach out to her if we didn’t get to your question. But you answered a lot of questions, Rachel, so that’s awesome. 

I’m just going to talk folks really quick about a webinar we’ve got coming up on peer-to-peer fundraising, specifically how to hold on to those folks. It’s year-end. Maybe you’re doing Giving Tuesday, might be doing some peer-to-peer campaigns. You want to hang on to those folks, which is not easy without some guidance. So my buddy Abby from Qgiv is going to join us. She is my go-to for this topic. 

So join us on October 14, just one of many webinars we’ve got scheduled between now and the end of the year. I know it’s heating up, it’s getting busy, but if you’re free on a Thursday afternoon, I’m always here with a super smart person talking about something cool. So you’re free to join us anytime. Even if you can’t make it, register anyway. We’ll get you the recording. 

Speaking of that, I will be sending out today’s recording and the slides here in just a couple of minutes, so be on the lookout. You’ll get an email from me, I promise. And hopefully we’ll see you on the next webinar. 

Thanks, Rachel. Thanks to all of you for hanging out. We will catch you on the next session. See you.

Rachel: Take care.

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.