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Grants, Step by Step

September 14, 2015

Grants can be a viable source of funding for both new and established nonprofit organizations. There are several steps your nonprofit organization can take to strengthen your ability to seek and secure grant funds.

  1. Be eligible. To be eligible for grant funding, you likely need designation as a 501(c)(3) organization from the IRS. Being incorporated as a nonprofit in New Mexico and having a business license is not enough – get the federal designation or partner with an organization that can act as your fiscal sponsor.
  1. Be competitive. Half of your success in grant seeking is applying to the right funder. Look for those that have both an affinity for your work and the capacity to support your project. Affinity means doing diligent research into examples of past grants (by type of project and type of organization), if they make awards in New Mexico, their funding preferences, their willingness to review proposals and/or accept unsolicited requests. Capacity means their typical grant award ranges and the total amount of money they distribute. Then, consider any wildcards like your gut feelings, whether you, your board, or staff have a relationship with any of their board or staff members, or if they have a special RFP out. Weigh all this against the complexity of actually submitting an application.
  1. Know the mode and process of applying for your target funder. Thinking about applying for federal grants? They have a very specific process and procedure you need to know in order to submit a grant application. For example, most federal agencies use Grants.gov. The process for registering requires three separate registrations that can take at least a month to complete. Are you submitting to a funder that accepts online applications? Walk yourself through the entire system – don’t rely on their preview questions or applications – before you even start writing. Numerous funders provide a preview document, but while entering responses online, you may find that one answer triggers new questions or space limits. Test the entire thing before beginning so you avoid missing a crucial element you didn’t know about.
  1. Follow ALL of the instructions. It does no one any good to submit a grant application that does not follow the directions given by the funder. Simply following directions makes you more likely to meet requirements that earn application points. Literally, many grant awards are point-based – use it to your advantage. Don’t spend 75% of your time (or available space) in the application if a section is worth 5 of 100 points. Conversely, if a section is worth a large number of points, make sure you provide every single piece of information they are asking. In your template, use headers as signposts that help readers see the information more easily. And remember, the deadline is not a suggestion.
  1. Specifically explain the need that you’re addressing. Here is what your need is not: Your need is not for a new staff person. Your need is not for ten more computers. Your need is not for general operating support. Instead, focus your need on the end user. What problem are you trying to solve? Leave your organizational infrastructure or duress out of it because the need is the problem or cause your organization is addressing in the community. Use the community you serve as the anchor for the request.
  1. Then, focus on the solution over the need. There’s data everywhere. It’s online, it’s in your program records, it’s in the periodicals and journals. With all of this access to information, it’s tempting to dwell on the need. And when there’s a lot of need (as can be the case in certain issue areas in New Mexico) it’s easy to expound on the need to show how fully you grasp the depths of the situation. But, grant applications are most successful when a thorough understanding of the issue is displayed and then the rest of the document focuses on exactly how you’re going to “fix it.”
  1. Edit and double check. Re-read your application. Read it as if you were a complete outsider to your field and geography. Then ask someone else to read it through the same (outsider) lens. Take suggestions and don’t get your feathers ruffled. Use spell check and grammar check, cross-check your budget forms, and check your reading level so you’re writing somewhere near an 8th-12th grade level (8th – journalism, 12th – slightly academic). You want your words to be clear, concise, and easily digestible to the average person on the street.
  1. Be honest about your capacity. Make sure you include indirect costs, if they are allowable, especially with federal grants. Take time to get a federally approved indirect cost rate. Calculate the amount you consider admin is actually directed to the program being funded so you legitimately call it a program expense to allocate funds honestly. If you know the grant you are applying for comes with high levels of evaluation or reporting requirements, write those requirements into the budget, upfront, to avoid scrambling to meet performance criteria later. Know the national and local going rates for staff positions. Don’t shortchange your staff by setting them up for low pay from the get go.
  1. Meet the deadline. We submitted 140 grant applications in 2014 and some went in well before a deadline and others were submitted with only minutes to spare. In the former, enjoy the breathing room. In the latter, enjoy the adrenaline rush of having planted the seed for funders to become aware of your work and (hopefully) support it. Even if they don’t, there is more value to writing a grant than just getting the money (easy for me to say, I know). More often than not, you’ve created a viable program plan, have movement and buy-in from partners, have articulated your vision into concrete steps, and have a logic model and theory of change that will make the next one easier. Tell your team and partners thank you and be proud of what you’ve done. Reflect on the process so that next time it’s even better (in my theatre background, we called this post mortem and I still like to use that phrase for reflection time).
  1. Be proactive when you are notified on the outcome. Whether you are awarded or declined, there are vital steps to take. If it’s awarded, write a thank you note to the funder, notify your team, and get ready for the work. Grants management is a whole new ballgame, so take the time to set things up for success. For example, federal funds can’t be commingled, so open a new bank account. Some funders require an external evaluation. Get that evaluator on board at the outset so they are setting up your data tracking instead of trying to make sense of it later. If you are not awarded the grant, contact the funder and find out if it’s a no for now (usually an indication of a writing/compliance issue or just lack of funds for all the worthy organizations) or a no forever (they just aren’t that into you). Either way, investigate to discover why. Public agencies provide written feedback and reviewers’ comments. Use these reviewers’ comments to your advantage by setting aside your bruised ego and learning what to do differently next time.

Interested in learning more? The Grant Plant maintains a blog, grassroots. Planted. with more in-depth advice. It has also recently launched its nonprofit arm, The Grants Collective, which is designed to close the philanthropic gap facing New Mexico.

About The Grant Plant, Inc. The Grant Plant (TGP) is a women-owned small business dedicated to providing superior and affordable resource development services designed to assist nonprofit organizations in enhancing the quality of life for New Mexico residents. TGP has a 13-year history that has resulted in more than $56 million in funding to New Mexico nonprofits. In 2014, TGP successfully helped garner more than $10.2 million, 85% of which was from out-of-state funders, contributing to the economic base in New Mexico. TGP is led by Tara Gohr, President/CEO, and Erin Hielkema, Vice President, and employs a team of 10.

About The Grants Collective. TGP has recently formed a nonprofit arm called The Grants Collective. The Collective is designed to close the philanthropic gap in New Mexico by bolstering development professionals to become high-performing grant writers through a talent academy, creating a cooperative network of nonprofit organizations that has access to shared grant seeking resources, and hosting a collaborative impact fund to secure catalytic funding opportunities that have the potential to make large-scale change in New Mexico.

For more information, please visit www.thegrantplantnm.com, www.thegrantscollective.org (in development), or email mail@thegrantplantnm.com.

Contact: Tara Gohr, tara@thegrantplantnm.com

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