As diligent grants magic-makers, we’re used to asking “How well does what we’re setting out to do match the mission of Grantmaker A, B, or XYZ?” But there’s more to good stewardship in the grants arena than simply finding a good mission match. Here are the 10 questions we need to be asking to make sure our best intentions keep us on track, rather than lead us astray.
A wise young person I know (my son, actually) once said:
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
Certainly truer words were never spoken in the context of grantseeking and grantsmanship:
Just because you have the ability to seek grant funding from a specific foundation, corporation, or government funder doesn’t mean the opportunity is a good fit for your organization.
As diligent grants magic-makers, we’re used to asking “How well does what we’re setting out to do match the mission of Grantmaker A, B, or XYZ?”
But there’s more to good stewardship in the grants arena than simply finding a good mission match. And there are more questions we need to be asking to make sure our best intentions keep us on track, rather than lead us astray.
One of the most popular, thought-provoking checklists we teach at GrantsMagic U is called: “Is This Opportunity Right for Us?” More than a few grant practitioners have shared that this worksheet has, literally, saved their jobs if not their nonprofit from disastrous consequences.
It’s likely these grant practitioners have felt beleaguered by well-intentioned, enthusiastic board members or executive staff who can’t understand why theycan’t just “go out and get a grant” from Grantmaker A, B, or XYZ.
This is what we call “chasing the dollars,” or “dollars-first” grantsmanship – the very antithesis of a healthy, sustainable, mission-first approach. But mission-first grantseeking takes time, lots of it. And not all funding opportunities are equal in terms of their potential payback for the time invested.
The questions posed by the “Is This Opportunity Right For Us?” checklist help us maintain that all-important mission-first, clear-eyed, and clear-headed stance toward our grants research and the grantmakers with whom we choose to invest our valuable resources of time, energy, and connection.
A simple recommendation
The questions on the “Is This Opportunity Right for Us?” checklist didn’t just come from nowhere.
Each one represents a grants horror story or near-horror story from a nonprofit or community organization that failed to ask the right questions, at the right time – that became too focused on getting the money and lost sight of common sense and its own best interests.
A simple recommendation:
Once you’ve identified a promising funding opportunity (or had an eager constituent bring one to your attention), look at it closely through the lens of the questions on the “Is This Opportunity Right for Us?” checklist.
Be honest – brutally honest! If your honest answers cause concern in any areas, don’t ignore these concerns or brush them under the table.
Deal with them, right now, up front.
Sometimes “dealing with them” may mean saying “No, thank you, this won’t work for us,” and walking away. If your organization is truly mission-first, you and your team will know when walking away from a seemingly attractive funding opportunity is the best, most empowered choice.
Here, then, are the checklist questions – with some commentary and a couple horror stories thrown in for good measure. Reader, beware!
1. Is the purpose of the funding opportunity compatible with our mission, vision, values?
Here’s that straight-out-of-the-box question whose answer, one would think, separates the grant pros from the amateurs. Without mission match, we don’t have a match at all.
This one makes so much common sense it hurts.
Yet common sense doesn’t explain why major foundations across the country still routinely report that, despite all their best public-information efforts – websites, community meetings, newsletters, and so on – a full 75% of the proposals they receive bear no resemblance to anything they’ve ever expressed an interest in funding.
Makes us grants program officers go “Hmmm …”
2. Is something similar to this already part of our long-range or strategic plan? If so, how high a priority have we given it? If not, is it something we should consider incorporating into our strategic plan?
This question gets to the heart of mission-first vs. dollars-chasing:
Where does the inspiration, the impetus for a new program or service idea come from?
Does it flow naturally and easily from our own best understanding of what it is we’re here to do in the world – our mission? Or is it something we’re making up in order to take advantage of an attractive funding opportunity?
And even if it is already on our radar screen, is it a significant enough match with our strategic vision to warrant investing the resources into developing a competitive proposal? Or was it really just a “blip,” somebody’s momentary good idea – here today, gone tomorrow?
3. Is our organization eligible to apply? If not, can we partner with an organization that is?
Here’s another question that falls squarely in the common-sense camp – separating the pros from the amateurs. If you’re working for a tribal agency and the RFP is open only to institutions of higher education only, you’ve just bumped into a closed door.
Maybe. Or . . . maybe not.
Grant veterans know that this is one area where creative collaboration can really make a difference. Connecting with an agency that is eligible to apply, even when yours isn’t, can keep that door open and may well result in a terrific grant-funded collaboration.
4. Is the deadline a realistic one, given the resources and time available?
Sometimes you just have to turn and walk away.
There are no hard and fast rules for this one. Whether a deadline is “realistic” depends on a whole slew of factors – including how much advance work is already in place to support the proposal development process.**
In my experience, nobody is served by submitting a half-baked proposal, “just for practice” or on the off-chance that it will fly. Funders keep files, and we have long memories. Turning in a less-than-strong effort because the deadline wasn’t realistic is short-sighted at best.
**Want to be able to get a high-quality proposal out the door in hours, not days? Do the planning before you ever have a proposal to work on. We teach you exactly how in GrantsMagic U’s free video course, The Quick-Start Guide to the One-Page Grant Proposal: 10 ‘Magic Wand’ Questions to Jump-Start Your Grants Success. You’ll learn the 10 key planning questions at the heart of every grant proposal you’ll ever write – and how using these questions to prepare a source document we call the “Master Proposal Blueprint” can cut your proposal-writing time for Grantmaker A, B, or XYZ down to literally hours.
5. Is the amount available through this opportunity compatible with our funding needs?
True story: In my grantwriting days a nonprofit I worked with was seeking $5,000 for a community project. One board member pressed us to submit a proposal to a very large foundation who stated that they only awards grants of $100,000 and up.
“They’ll never notice,” this board member said, completely serious. “We’ll fly in so low we won’t even show up on their radar screen.”
“What,” I almost said out loud, “and somehow they’ll accidentally write the check and never know it?”
It simply doesn’t work that way.
The opposite dynamic happens all too often too: A grant proposal comes in requesting $1.2 million to construct a building (often from a nonprofit that the funder has never heard of before) – when the most that funder has ever awarded in a single grant is $25,000.
These examples represent extremes, I know. But the message is:
Just. Do. Not.
6. Are we comfortable with the mission, vision, and values of the funding organization? Is there any potential ethical conflict between our mission, vision, and values and the source of this funder’s philanthropic dollars?
The grants community has been buzzing with conversation about this controversial topic for years.
Asking this question is especially important when the prospective funder is a corporation or corporate foundation, whose products or services might not align with your organization’s values. A tough prospect in this post-corporate-merger-mania era.
And with more family/private foundations taking overt social policy and political positions in their grantmaking, we simply can’t afford to be anything less than 100% conscientious in our due diligence around values and ethics.
Because the reality is, at least in part we’re judged by the company we keep. And for better or for worse, who we accept funding from sends a message about who we are and what we stand for.
It’s up to us to make sure that message says what we want it to say.
7. How “competitive” will the funding process be?
Generally I avoid using the word “competitive” in the context of good grantsmanship, choosing to focus on collaborative, enough-for-everyone thinking.
Here, though, it’s worth asking the questions:
- What, really, are our chances of winning an award in this funding round?
- And is that chance worth the time and resources it would take to get a top-quality proposal in for consideration?
In this sense, “competitive” simply means: How many eligible, high-quality proposals will be received, and how many will be funded?
You always want to make sure all your ducks are in nice neat rows for all your proposals. They just need to be all the more so if there will be lots of other high-quality proposals in the mix. A funding process that’s likely to attract 50 proposals and fund 30 of them (a 60% funding rate) is a very different prospect from one that will attract 300 and ultimately fund 15 (a funding rate of just 5%).
Yours can be one of that 5%, for sure. But only if you’re ready and willing to put in the extra effort to round up all those rowdy ducks.
8. How complex or involved are the requirements for supporting documentation? And do we realistically have the time and resources to meet those requirements?
Anyone who’s pulled together a major federal or state proposal knows what this question means. Sometimes the required attachments, appendices, and certifications can literally outweigh the proposal narrative and financials.
Paying attention up front to the time it will take to meet these requirements is a wise reality check. Pulling this kind of documentation together can be costly, not only in terms of time, but often in outright cash expenses when you calculate in the cost of, for instance, site surveys, public polls, community meetings, environmental assessments, and so on.
Take the time to be especially clear-eyed about this one.
9. Are we prepared to live up to the terms of a grant award from this agency?
This is the “what are the strings?” question.
And there are always strings, always – expectations of the funder’s that must be met.
It’s awfully easy to become so excited about the funding prospect that we forget to look carefully at the strings – which is a little like signing a pre-nup without reading it, in your rush to the altar.
The terms and conditions can include reporting requirements; accounting or fiscal responsibility; evaluation requirements; and certifications and assurances of various sorts.
Don’t make the mistake of tossing these all off as “boilerplate” and sleep-walking through them!
One agency I know of neglected to read carefully the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements of accepting a Federal award. Later, during a monitoring visit, they learned they were out of compliance because their second-floor main office was accessible only by a flight of stairs. They were given a choice: Return the whole grant award – including every dollar they had already spent; spend tens of thousands of dollars of their own money to install an elevator; or move to an ADA-compliant building.
The bottom line
When all is said and done, the questions on the “Is This Opportunity Right For Us?” checklist are about making sure we are indeed acting as good stewards in our grant practice. The final two checklist questions bring this bottom line into focus. They are:
- Overall, how well does this funding opportunity fit with our mission, vision, and values? and
- Do we have the resources needed to prepare a technically qualified, highly competitive, and timely proposal?
These aren’t easy questions to answer, and there are few if any rules to guide us through this territory.
Just because we can – doesn’t mean we should.
What it does mean is that we must go into any new funding relationship with our eyes wide open – and our feet firmly grounded in the best interests of our organization, our cause, and the community we serve.
Happy (thoughtful) grantseeking, my friend!
If you enjoyed this post, please share! For more great grants tips and training from GrantsMagic U, please visit us at Go.GrantsMagic.org. And if you’re new to grantseeking and could use a getting-started boost, be sure to check out GrantsMagic U’s free Quick-Start Guide to the One-Page Grant Proposal – a simple, powerful proposal planning tool plus three-part video training to get you on your way to success!