Grant Preparedness: 12 Questions to Ask Before Writing

Be prepared: the motto for every grant writer.

Most of your grant writing success isn’t found in the writing at all.

Strange, huh? It’s called “grant writing.” You would think that the writing part is what it’s all about. Yeah, myths are funny that way.

No, grant writing’s real success comes from what you do before the pen hits the paper or, these days, before the electrons hit the screen.

It’s all about being prepared.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what that means in practice. Before getting started with your grant application, ask yourself these twelve questions.

1. Does the project align with your mission?

You may be surprised to know how many projects are proposed in grant applications that are not really aligned with the nonprofit’s mission. Why? Maybe someone at your organization sees that XYZ Foundation has a lot of money to give and wants you to get your share. Or, a board member knows a “sure thing” from a friend who has a foundation. Perhaps a staff member is bored with their work and wants to explore a new area of service. These are just a few reasons.

Yet you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that funders actually look at your mission statement and compare it with your proposed project. Unless you have a great reason for any differences, your chances of being funded go way down if your proposed project is in no way connected to your mission.

2. Is your nonprofit an expert in the proposed area?

Chances are that you know what you want to fund before even starting the process of developing a proposal. But do you know the details? Probably only in the most general terms. Now is the time to dig into the details.

Keep in mind that everyone writing a grant proposal is “well intended.” That’s not good enough. It’s like my driver’s ed teacher used to remind us, “Everyone says ‘I’m a good driver.’ How many of you are defensive drivers?” Just like being a defensive driver reduces your chances for an accident, showing expertise in your proposal increases your chance of funding. Expertise is gold in grant proposal writing.

The problem is that nobody can be an expert in every aspect of your nonprofit, even with developmental training (though it can help!). If you’re a staff or contract grant writer, you probably have a wide variety of proposals on your to-do list. Over time you’ll develop some detailed knowledge of the programs you support. And while that’s good, you’ll need more.

Does your organization have a history in the area you propose to work in? Do you have statistics that prove your expertise in the proposed work? These will be great to support your proposal.

3. Do you have strong internal relationships?

Now is the time to enlist the help of your colleagues. How? If you don’t have them already, build internal relationships.

Having strong internal relationships is a great way to keep your job and be happier at work (or, if you’re an outside writer, keeping a client). It also wonderfully contributes to successful grant proposal writing. Forming relationships starts with building a reputation based on trust. The program expert staff need to trust that you will do the right thing and properly reflect their work in your proposal.

Of course, they have motivation to help you—the money you’ll bring in for them!

Most will want to bring in that money, and nearly everyone loves to talk about themselves and what they do. But some people have been burned by your predecessor, don’t think they have time for what appears to be a long-shot, or simply don’t understand that you need their expertise. They may even think that you’re asking them to do your job for you. You’re not. You’re the translator between them and the funder.

With your program expert’s help, do the research so you can present their work with enough detail to demonstrate that your nonprofit has expertise to carry out your proposed project. However, you’ll still need to share these details in a way that ensures any intelligent layperson can grasp the concepts.

Yes, it’s a tightrope.

4. Who is your funder?

“Spray and pray” doesn’t work in direct mail, and it definitely does not work when seeking grant funding. Grant proposal work is not a “numbers game.” It is all about targeting, and the better you refine your target, the more successful you’ll be.

There are a lot of dynamics in play.

Thanks to tools like Instrumentl, researching funders is not nearly as hard as it used to be. However, you still need some skills, and you definitely need to keep some basics in mind, like…

5. Do they fund your kind of program?

This may seem like a no-brainer, but the number one complaint from funders is getting proposals for issues they don’t even remotely fund. “They need to give out money” is not a rationale, nor is “they’ll look good by giving us money.” No, you’ll look bad for asking, and funders talk.

Keep in mind that most funders have mission statements, too. They are giving money for a reason. They look at their mission statement and your project and ask themselves, “Do these align?”

In their mind, funding your project is not for helping you achieve your goal, but theirs. You need to view your project with as much of a critical eye as they will. If you were to plot your project and their mission on a Venn diagram, how much overlap would there be? The more the better.

6. Are you in their geographic area?

Many grant makers have geographic parameters for their funding. There are lots of reasons for this. For example, their founder may have come from a particular community. A business might fund where they have employees. Or even someone on the board had a vacation home nearby, etc.

Regardless of the reason, they have defined a footprint for their philanthropy. It's probably a waste of your time to ask them to go outside that area.

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7. Are you asking for the right amount?

This can seem like an odd question to a lot of people. Any money for your cause is good money, right?

It turns out that asking for less than a funder gives may seem like a nice gesture, but the funder has probably determined that anything below a certain threshold is too much work to administer. Therefore, they’ll probably decline your proposal if you under-ask.

Asking for too much is a problem, too. Most funders will not say, “Here’s a portion of your need,” unless they state as much in their materials. From their point-of-view, a press release saying “Funded in part by…” isn’t nearly as attractive as “Funded by…”

8. When do you send the proposal?

Every funder will have different dates for when to submit your proposal. Some take proposals anytime. Others monthly, quarterly, or annually. You don’t want to hear the words, “We just closed our cycle,” after all of the hard work you put into creating your proposal.

And, by the way, funders’ deadlines are real. A community foundation might be known for setting a timer on their proposal window. If their deadline is 4:00 and the FedEx driver shows up at 4:10, better luck next time!

9. Do they take calls or emails?

Some will communicate with you. Some won’t. If they will, then make sure you ask any questions ahead of time. In fact, some will wonder about you if they never heard your name or received any communication before the day your proposal lands on their desk.

Don’t be afraid of the funder. They have jobs and bosses just like you. Their success is built on your success. The more they get to know you ahead of your proposal submission, the better in many cases.

10. Can you prove that you’re legitimate?

With more than one million nonprofits in the United States alone, any funder can be forgiven for not knowing your organization’s specifics, or even not having heard about you at all. That’s why they ask you to prove you are who you say you are.

How can you do this? They want the papers. They’ll have a list of accompanying documents they’ll need you to submit. It could include your IRS determination letter, recent 990s (nonprofit tax filings), some form of financial audit or review, a copy of your budget (for the nonprofit—the project budget will be in the proposal), a copy of your board list, a mission statement, an annual report, your bylaws, leadership names and titles, and more.

It's best to have a file of these close at hand for any proposal that needs all or some of these specifics. And here’s a hint: do not put your funder’s staff or board members on your mailing list for annual reports or similar mail, whether electronic or paper, unless you check with them first. Like all of us, they’re burdened with mail and could easily see your promotions as spam.

11. Do you have a relationship with the funder?

As noted above, funders, despite their control of funds that could help your organization, are not demi-gods. Most have a sincere interest in doing their best to meet their mission and see you as their means of doing so. That means you need to take a respectful approach to their work and not come across as either arrogant (you have to give us money!) or sycophantic (pleeease give us the money!).

One of the most important ways to do this is to follow their rules of contact. For example, if they don’t want you to speak to any board members, then don’t (yes, certain members of your board or staff will find this a hard pill to swallow). Many point out their need to follow an unbiased, ethical process and will exclude anyone on their board from decision making or declare your nonprofit toxic for making unwanted contact.

12. Have I read their instructions?

This question is far above all the others in importance before you submit a proposal.

There probably isn’t a day that goes by without funders, crunched for time while reviewing the onslaught of proposals, yelling, “Didn’t they read…?!” in frustration.

Many of the questions above are probably in their application instructions. Yet in your haste, you missed something. It’s human to do so. Make sure that their instructions are the first thing you read. Write the proposal. Then make sure to read the instructions again and compare your product with what you just read. 

Wrapping Things Up: Grant Preparedness Questions

“Be prepared” is more than a trite saying attributed to kids who help old people across the street. It’s a path to success for every grant writer. What you read above is just the start to a successful grant proposal. But like you’ve probably heard, well begun is well done!

This article is a guest post by Matt Hugg. Matt is the founder of Nonprofit.Courses, a source for on-demand, educational resources for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members and volunteers.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy his free grant workshop with Instrumentl, Behind the Grantmaker’s Curtain: What Funders Want.

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