Secrets to Securing Foundation Funding
February 12, 2016
Foundation funding is extremely beneficial to nonprofits. It can sustain an organization’s work, and is often the driver of growth. Foundation grants should be a healthy proportion of any nonprofit revenue portfolio.
Grant-seeking is a complex process with many moving parts. Success requires, among other things, a healthy pipeline of funder prospects, proposals in production. Keeping the pipeline full is essential to future success.
The deadline-driven nature of the work can be overwhelming for staff. There are two periods where the volume of deadlines spikes dramatically: 1) in the spring (February to May); and 2) during the fall (September to December). Very few deadlines occur over the holidays or during the summer months.
Nonprofits can make critical mistakes as they sort through an ever-increasing number of opportunities. As someone who has served on the grant-making side of philanthropy, there are some common mistakes that can be avoided. The following are some helpful tips to improve your grant-seeking success:
1. Be prepared: Timing is everything.
As mentioned above, there are two peak periods of private foundation deadlines each year. In anticipation of these periods, devote time to adequate advance planning to ensure you will have the proper resources and support to yield the best results. Resources to consider are: staff time for grant writing and editing, potential use of freelance grant-writers, time to work with both program and finance staff, and anticipated attachments or any collateral needed. Planning ahead will help you avoid unnecessary urgency or activity conflicts later on.
2. Required homework: Funder prospect research.
Prospect research should be done continuously throughout the year and recorded in your database or on a funder prospect matrix. The task is to identify funders whose guidelines best align with your work. Organizations can use expert freelance researchers (like Prasad Consulting & Research) or they can do their research in-house, using web-based research tools such as the Foundation Directory Online. It is also important to subscribe to list-serves that will deliver RFPs and ongoing grant opportunity announcements to your inbox. Qualifying your prospects may involve contacting the funder with questions, attending pre-proposal meetings for funders that offer them, and/or speaking with colleagues who have secured grants from the funder. It is always helpful to check if your board has any relevant connections to the foundation’s board or executive staff, which can be achieved by using LinkedIn or by circulating an informal survey of funding prospects to your board members.
3. First things first: Prioritizing funder opportunities.
After identifying the most promising opportunities, it is time to take a hard look at their deadlines and submission requirements. Use this information to prepare a Proposal Production Schedule, with which you can view aggregate activities on a timeline, and project-manage the work with an eye toward the potential need for additional resources, if needed. Be realistic. If you discover multiple opportunities with the same deadline, you might want to consider outsourcing some of the work. Or you may decide to forego one or two of the opportunities to focus on what you believe to be the most likely opportunity. Whatever strategy you choose, be sure to build in contingencies to assure strong, compelling, on-time submissions.
4. A bird in the hand: Renewal funding.
While we are discussing timelines and proposal production for new prospects, let’s not forget our current foundation funders, as their reports, deliverables, and renewal requests should be a key part of your production strategy. It is far easier to keep a current funder engaged, than it is to find and engage a new one. Don’t take current funders for granted. And by the way, deadlines are just as important to your current funders as they are to your prospective future funders. I’ve seen many agencies ask current funders for “extensions” of three to six months largely due to their inability to project-manage deliverables. Nonprofits must realize that, while extensions are sometimes a necessity due to circumstances beyond its control, they should not be used to make up for poor planning. Grant extensions create a “funding vacuum” where you are operating without renewal support for the extension period, which essentially is decreasing your grant value (for example, that $25K grant over 12 months, becomes a $25K grant over 18 months when you receive a six-month extension. As a result, you’ve effectively reduced its value, and incurred an opportunity cost by not securing a renewal on-time).
5. Devil in the details: Proposal production and submission.
If you’ve done your planning well, you are simply left with execution. The task is here is to create a compelling case for funding by creating a solicitation per the funder’s specifications. It may feel like you are home free, but here is where things often go awry. The most common errors at this stage include:
a) Formatting Folly: Foundation grant-seeking is a competitive process. Foundations are concerned about comparing apples with apples. Play by their rules. Make their job easy by following instructions exactly. Most requirements specify maximum length, font, margins, attachments, and number of copies submitted. Many foundations now employ online applications, which enable them to control the proposal format and length.
Application Tip: If a funder doesn’t specify formatting requirements, keep it simple. I suggest including an executive summary, and using twelve-point font, one inch margins, double spacing, and featuring numbered sections, pages, and attachments.. Focus on the utility of the proposal adjudicator.
b) Just the Facts: Respond to each question asked of the funder, but refrain from providing any additional information. If they have questions, they will reach out. Supplying unnecessary information is annoying from the funder side, and can signal your inability to follow directions. Worst case scenario is that you provide unsolicited information that somehow immediately disqualifies you from consideration (yes, this happens).
Application Tip: If an online applications requests attachments, there will be a size limit. You may need to re-size or reformat your documents to be accepted as part of an online application. If you are unsure how to do this, find help online. Do not ask the foundation for assistance. It reflects unfavorably on your technical ability (and besides, the other applicants figured out how to do this without special help…).
c) In Other Words: If you have been paying attention to the funder’s guidelines and how they describe their funding priorities, you should be able to make minor adjustments to your narrative to assure a more aligned fit to the funder’s focus. For example your organization provides an “after-school educational program for children aged 11-17.” but the funder you’d like to apply to refers to this age group as “adolescents” and funds exclusively “youth development educational programs.” A simple re-casting your work, using the funder’s preferred nomenclature will assure there is a clear, easily identifiable match. This in no way changes your work, but allows flexibility as to how your funders interpret your work in terms of their own funding priorities and needs.
Application Tip: This often happens when using proposal template: Busy staff send the same template to multiple funders without adjusting it. Big mistake. Templates need to be customized.
d) Focus on Funder Fit: Take care to address the mission of the funder and explain how your work is aligned with it. It’s surprising how many applications do not take this extra step. Foundation program officers are accountable for the aggregate impact of their grantees, so let them see the great fit and value you will add. Discuss your logic model, anticipated impact, similar successes, as well as the qualifications of the project manager responsible for the work.
Application Tip: Foundations want to see their funds highly leveraged. Mention partners you work with, and how they will contribute to (or benefit from) the project, if applicable. Note if your project is scalable and/or replicable, and express your willingness to share your program model.
e) Stress How You Assess: In addition to overall goals, include the objectives of your work, and how you plan to evaluate the success of your efforts. If other organizations are doing the same work, include your track record of success, if applicable, for comparative purposes.
Application Tip: Evaluation is particularly important for renewal proposals. Submit Grant Reports on time, and be sure to critically assesses your grant performance. If evaluation methods are not your strength, consider retaining a program assessment expert as an objective third-party evaluator.
f) The Final Countdown: As you monitor your production progress, be sure to adjust timelines and roles, as needed. If you’ve built in a sufficient cushion of contingencies, you should be okay. If you weren’t realistic about how much you could accomplish, you may end up working long days — and nights. Instead of losing sleep, consider outsourcing some of the work to get caught up.
Application Tip: Use proofreaders that have not been involved in writing. Their fresh eyes will ensure you have no typos or other errors in your submission. Always double-check that the application is complete, and that the budget formulas (sums, percentages) are correct.
g) Submit Prior to Deadline. Seems kind of obvious, yet it is astonishing how many organizations send applications at the very last minute. Foundations typically receive an avalanche of proposal submissions at the eleventh hour. Waiting until the last minute will decrease the amount of time a program officer has to review your submission. Further, applications that are “rushed out” are more prone to potential typos or other errors, and can signal a difficulty with deadline compliance. Seriously, think about it: If you were the funder, might you think that an eleventh hour, messy submission might be predictive of how a potential grantee would comply with reporting deadlines?
Application Tip: In the case of online applications, last-minute submissions are ALWAYS problematic. You may underestimate the time needed to become familiar with the submission software. Problems also arise with eleventh-hour submissions because of increased site traffic, which can cause system delays or unexpected crashes. Do not let this happen to you.
We truly are in crunch season for foundation grant-seeking. To succeed, it’s important that your organization is continuously reviewing and prioritizing these opportunities. Success will depend on your ability to proactively select the most promising opportunities, and systematically ramp up your proposal production process to handle the increased work volume, and meet those very important deadlines.
If you are considering using outsourced assistance, arrange it early. It is surprising to me how many calls I get for proposal production when the deadline is less than a week out. While there may be some freelancers who can assist you at the last minute, the good ones typically are not available. You will want to anticipate your needs months ahead and secure the support you need in advance. I urge you to keep a consultant on retainer: It is a wise investment in a strategic thought-partner who is expert at ramping up institutional revenue. It is surprisingly economical, too, providing you with maximum flexibility for a minimal investment.
Don’t procrastinate. Start planning how you will secure a larger portion of Foundation funding today! If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you organize, prioritize, and maximize outreach for your organization, contact us to set up a free consultation. But don’t just take our word for it: Check out what our clients are saying about our ability to maximize their resource development efforts!
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SOLUTIONS NEWSLETTER, February 2016
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