Grant Writer Ask Me Anything Session! w/ Breanna Polacik, Lori Fabian & Melissa Reams
In this 1-hour AMA, Instrumentl teams up with three of its partners to give you actionable advice when it comes to your research process, grant writing process, budgets, and grant management and reporting.
Stop by for a casual lunch or break, to get the answers to all the big questions you may have around grantseeking and grantwriting.
By the end of this Instrumentl Grant Writer Ask Me Anything, we'll answer:
- What best practices are for researching opportunities
- What are some helpful tips to write more concisely and persuasively
- How to make better budgets
- What are the best ways to complete grant reporting?
- And more!
Create your Instrumentl account using the link above. Save $50 off your first month should you decide to upgrade when your trial expires with the code AMA50.
Our featured partner panelists include:
- Breanna Polacik is the Founder & CEO of The Dotted i, a grant writing firm that helps nonprofits pave the way to a better future. Bre is one of only three Grant Professionally Certified professionals through the Grant Professional Certification Institute in Montana and excels in crafting a budget that tells a story, tugging at the heartstrings of funders, and finding those hidden grants that are gems.
- Lori Fabian is the President of Fabian Consulting, Inc. and has over thirty years of experience as a professional grants manager, writer and counselor, having helped raise nearly $80 million. Ms. Fabian is a specialist in outcome measurement and program evaluation and has served as an external evaluator to many regional and national conferences.
- Melissa Reams is the founder and principal consultant at Upstream Consulting, a grants consulting firm dedicated to helping health and social service nonprofits win more grants. Since 2017, she has helped nonprofits throughout the U.S. secure more than $7.7M.
Instrumentl Partner Webinars are collaborations between Instrumentl and its community partners to provide free educational workshops for grant professionals. Our goal is to tackle a problem grant professionals often have to solve, while also sharing different ways Instrumentl’s platform can help grant writers win more grants. Click here to save a seat in our next workshop.
Click the video link below to start watching the replay of this free grant workshop, or check out the transcriptions below the video.
Instrumentl Partner Workshop Replay
Instrumentl Partner Workshop Slides
Click to find the best grants for your nonprofit from 12,000+ active opportunities.
Search 150+ subcategoriesExplore More Grants
Grant Writer Ask Me Anything Session! - Grant Training Transcription
Will: All right. And with that, I'm going to go ahead and get this kicked off. So, hello everyone. And welcome to our Grant Writer Ask Me Anything Session with Bre, Lori and Melissa. This workshop is being recorded and slides will be shared afterwards. So, keep your eyes peeled for a follow up email later today, so that you can review anything that we went over today. In case it's your first time here, this free grant workshop is brought to you by Instrumentl’s partner workshop. And the goal of these is to essentially talk about problems that you guys are commonly facing in the grant writing world to help you solve those problems, build community and learn something along the way. And Instrumentl is the institutional fundraising platform. If you're looking to bring your grant prospecting, tracking, and management into one place, then we can help you do that. Nonprofits that use Instrumentl are able to increase their grant application output by 78% within a year of using us and also save on average three hours a week for every single team member that uses us.
Now with that housekeeping out of the way, I want to go ahead and introduce our three panelists for today. First up we have Bre. Bre Polacik is the founder and CEO of the Dotted i, a grant writing firm that helps nonprofits pave the way to a better future. She's one of only three grant certified professionals in the state of Montana and excels in crafting a budget that tells a story that tugs at the heartstrings of funders and finding those hidden gems that are grants. And so, if you have particular questions around storytelling, Bre is a great person for that. Lori is the president of Fabian Consulting, Inc. and has over 30 years of experience as a professional grants manager, writer and counselor. She has helped raise nearly $80 million. And Ms. Fabian is a specialist in outcome measurement and program evaluation and has served as an external evaluator to many regional and national conferences. And then lastly, we have Melissa Reams.
She is the founder and principal consultant at Upstream Consulting, a grants consulting firm dedicated to helping health and social service nonprofits win more grants. Since 2017, she has helped nonprofits throughout the United States secure more than $7.7 million. Today we ask that if you have any questions for folks along the way that you use our standard model of three-pound signs in front of your question. We are going to be splitting up today's agenda into four blocks of questions. We have some preset questions and then also some questions that you guys have fed in. But just to get us kicked off first Bre, Lori, and Melissa, why don't we start with an introduction to everyone in the audience with guys just sharing a little bit more about your grant experiences in grant writing. And then for folks in the audience, if you aren't already joining in, there are tons of folks writing in as to where they're coming in, from what organization they're part of, as well as some other good questions on the screen.
Bre: Thanks Will. I'm Breanna. As he mentioned, I go by Bre and I founded the Dotted i in 2014 to serve nonprofits, helping them find the right fitting grants for them and secure funding to reach their mission and goals. I started out in 2008 as a grant writer for municipalities and tribal entities, and I worked a lot on multimillion dollar projects for water and wastewater. And I have a ton of experience when it comes to all different types of grants, whether it's federal or all the way down to the very small LOIs when it is for a foundation. So, I'm just really excited to be here with this panel of amazing women and to answer all of your questions.
Lori: Hi, I'm Lori Fabian. Like Will said I have over 30 years of experience, which I realized makes me have probably been a grant writer for longer than some of our listeners have been around which is kind of daunting. I think like Bre, I've done pretty much foundation corporate government, the whole gamut. Also, as an external evaluator for federally funded programs, I find that I really have a good perspective on having been on both sides of the fence as far as writing evaluation sections and then having to implement them. I can really bring a lot of experience in that particular arena.
Melissa: Hello everyone. My name is Melissa Reams and as Will said, I'm the founder and principal consultant at Upstream Consulting. We're located in Savannah, Georgia, but work with organizations throughout the US. And I got my start in the grants world as a grant manager for federal grants and then transitioned to writing federal grants. It actually took a few years before I tried to tackle my first foundation grant. And I know that probably sounds very backwards, but I still to this day find that federal grants are easier to write than foundation grants. So if you're struggling with foundation grants, maybe try federal grants, I think they're easier. But I'm really appreciative of the opportunity to be here today and looking forward to answering everyone's questions.
Will: Awesome. So with that, we're going to go over the agenda for today. Pretty much what we're going to be covering are best practices in terms of researching opportunities, helpful tips for writing things more concisely and persuasively, as well as better budgets and the best ways to complete your grant reporting. Those are going to be the themes for today's panel. So with that, we're going to go ahead and kick things off by hopping into the research process and discussing just some of the ins and outs of the best piece of advice you guys would have. And with that, that leads us to our first question today which is: when it comes to researching potential new funders or opportunities, what are the top three things that you guys always do in your processes?
Lori: I'll go ahead and jump in and start. I find the first thing that I usually do is ask if the agency itself, not to paraphrase Elaine from Seinfeld, but are they grant worthy? A couple of my colleagues and I have put together sort of a vetting tool that we review readiness for grant funding, because as you know, the grant funders look at this as an investment rather than as charity. And so we have to make sure that the agency is ready. That's the first thing. Second thing is we work very hard with the agency to prioritize their funding needs. What is lacking income streams, what are some core things that they really need the funding for? And then we try to look at it from a funder point of view, is this saleable, is this something that is going to be attractive to a funder? So that's the second thing. Third thing is we look around to see who in the agency or associated with the agency might be able to advocate with funders for these particular projects. And once we get those three things down, then we're ready to find our keywords by going to Instrumentl or whatever other databases might be available. I do like Instrumentl. I find that it really cuts a lot of the lead work and time. And then we're ready to really launch into our research.
Melissa: And I would add to that on top of the things that Lori mentioned, obviously, grant readiness is very important. If you're not grant ready, then you're really just wasting your organization's time and resources, by assuming your organization is ready for grants. I definitely log in to Instrumentl first because the platform really makes the things I want to look at very easy to see. And the three big things that I typically look for first would be priorities. I want to make sure that the organization that I have in mind for this grant opportunity is aligned with the funder’s priorities. The second thing I look for is the geographic area in which the funder has historically funded or states that they fund in. And then the third thing I look for is the grant size, because I want to make sure that the average grant size, which you can see in Instrumentl, is going to support enough of this project that I have in mind to make it really worth the time to submit a proposal.
Bre: Yeah. I second everything that both Melissa and Lori just said. I think I would just add in that reading through the guidelines, when you have gotten to that step, to really ensure that you're clear on your goals and your needs and that they're aligning with the funder that you've found with their goals for funding. Because I think one of the biggest mistakes that people make when writing and applying for grants is applying to the wrong grant, applying to a grant that's not even a good fit in the beginning. So I think this research process is so important in first identifying grants that truly are a good fit, not ones that you're just trying to make a good fit.
Will: And with that, when you're using those 990 reports in your prospect research, what are some pieces of information that you find most valuable? I know Melissa, you just spoke to some of the average meeting grant amounts and things like that, but are there any certain trends that you might be looking for from a multi-year horizon or things like that, that you would say are always kind of sweet spots of data to look into?
Melissa: I really like looking at where the grantees have been in the past over several years. You know, for some foundations, that information is on their websites, but many foundations don't have websites. So the only source for finding that information really is the 990. And I think that looking at the specific city in which grantees have been located in the past is so important because I've found that sometimes foundations will state that they fund throughout a state or maybe a couple of states. But when you look at their grantee list, they've actually only ever funded in maybe one or two cities. So knowing that upfront helps you do a little bit more research and definitely connect with the funder. I always recommend that anyway. But that should give you an idea as to whether or not this is a good fit which goes along with what you mentioned earlier.
Bre: Yeah. I would also say, I look to see what types of organizations they've been funding. Are they similar organizations to mine, or are they way different than what they're actually saying they like to fund? And another thing coming from Montana, I feel like everybody knows somebody and I really do feel like it is a small world, right? So I like to scroll down and see who's on their board because it always lists their board members. And then I'll go back to the board of whoever my client is and say, does anybody have a connection with anybody? If it is somebody that we're trying to approach, more often than not somebody from the board will say, oh, my friend knows so-and-so or we're related to this person. And then it's just a really good way to get an introduction to an organization.
Lori: I agree with everything that both Melissa and Bre just said. Another thing that I find really useful in the 990s is the size of the various grants. And I get a much better sense looking at their actual grant roster as to what kind of average size of grant they give to organizations like mine and to projects like mine. Their grant range might be 3 million to $500. So finding that sweet spot is really important. And a lot of times the 990 is the best place to find it.
Will: And then when you guys are actually reaching out to these potential funders, let's say you start with that list, you've pruned it down to a few. What questions are you guys asking potential funders before you actually apply for that grant opportunity? You mentioned for example, making sure you're grant ready. Right. And so what are some potential ways or strategies that you guys have used in the past to prime the funder to see their openness to your application as well? And do you have any great questions to share with the audience?
Bre: I would say one thing is what not to ask. I would make sure that when they have all of this information on their website and in their guidelines, I wouldn't call and ask questions they've already answered. That is something that I think shows them, if you call and ask a question that maybe specifically aligns to something you're offering that might not be clearly answered in their guidelines, It could be the opportunity for a short introduction—not to get into a huge conversation of persuading them to pick you, but you know, just making sure that it is a good fit by asking, “this is a brief overview of the program we're offering. It seems like it aligns with your goals, but I just want to double check before we approach you.” That would be a question you'd ask.
Lori: Yeah, absolutely. I find that sometimes when you're calling, if you start out with, “I've done my research and, you know…”, don't start that way. They assume that you have done your research and if you haven't shame on you. One of the things that I start with is first I ask permission to speak about my particular proposal. Before I launch into anything it's just common courtesy. Another thing that I find I want to ask early on is if they are currently entertaining applications from agencies that they've not funded before? Because no matter what they say on their website, internally there might be things going on. They might say, no, we've really allocated up through the next year or two, but come back to us. And finally I often ask them whether or not they have any suggestions as to how we can make our case best to the trustees.
Will: Melissa, did you want to add anything there?
Melissa: I think we covered it all. I definitely agree with Bre's point though about asking if the organization or the program that you're thinking about proposing will help further the funder's goals. I think it's important to keep in mind that these funders have goals and priorities, and they want to be able to leverage the money they have in order to make a difference in the communities they care about. And you're kind of that vehicle or that potential vehicle to help them do that. So, if what you do is not in line with what they're hoping to accomplish, the chances of you being funded are pretty slim.
Will: And then we have two related questions that came in during this segment. And so I'm going to try to have both of them answered at the same time before we move on to the next section. The first one is from Samantha, who was asking that she usually doesn't call, but should we always be trying to reach someone on the phone if possible? And then the second point, a separate question also related to research, is from Jamie, asking that there's a project that received a million-dollar grant, a gift that has been drawn down for a few years, and there's less than 200K left. The last two years of the 990 reports show an operating deficit. Is it reasonable for the organization to be competitive for grants with a deficit on the 990 report with respect to just preparedness for grants? So again, the first one was in general, do you guys try to get on the phone call of these funders or, and then in the second one, it's just related to the actual grant readiness of the organization?
Lori: I find that funders really vary in their willingness to talk to you. This is where research is really important because once you've gone through Instrumentl and you've identified your roster, check the website, sometimes they will tell you that they don't want you to call. But if they appear to be open to it, I think it's always a good idea to make a pitch. As for the deficit question, my thought is that if you've got a plan in place to overcome that deficit, and you can articulate that and if the rest of your proposal is very much in alignment and very strong, then I think that you do have a possibility of overcoming that issue.
Will: Cool. With that, we're going to go ahead and move forward to the actual grant writing process. So, let's get into the nitty-gritty there. The first question that we have is with all the applications featuring character limits. Now it can be really hard to communicate what you want in the allotted space. So, what are some of your guys’ favorite tips when it comes to sharing ways to write more concisely in your proposals?
Melissa: I think one way to do that is to look through your narrative and see if you're writing in the active voice; that's always the best way to write grant proposals. But just in case, you can go through because typically if you're writing in a passive voice that uses a lot of words and a lot of characters that aren't needed. Another thing that I like to look for is the word that, T H A T. We use that word a lot in the English language, and most of the time it's not really necessary. So you could probably delete those, and in absolute desperate cases, you can delete the Oxford comma.
Bre: That was some good advice, Melissa, new ones that I haven't shared before. Definitely something that I do is run it by someone on our team. We'll have somebody else on our team because there are four of us and we'll have someone take a peek at it. So maybe asking somebody else that doesn't know your organization so well to see if you're repeating yourself. I think sometimes there's a lot of repetition. We're trying to get the same point across, and we're saying it multiple different ways in the same paragraph. So just kind of looking at it from, you know, a 10,000 foot view, what are you really trying to say? And are you saying it multiple times, or you could accomplish that with one sentence instead of multiple ones?
Lori: Yeah, I agree completely. What I like to do is to, before I get started, really summarize what my argument is in just a little paragraph, just a few sentences, not necessarily to put in the proposal, although it might. But, and also to include the with 'ums for the funder, the what's in it for me in that summary, just to keep me focused on exactly what it is I'm trying to write and try to eliminate anything that doesn't directly contribute to that argument. To that end, I like to use really punchy topic sentences for each paragraph, because like you were saying, Bre, so often you can just kind of say the same things over and over. Whereas if you sort of summarize what you're trying to say at the beginning of each paragraph that ties into your argument, then you could just fill in whatever detail you need to make that point. Melissa, I liked your idea about looking for that. What I usually do word searches for is I try to eliminate unnecessary prepositional phrases, which automatically puts you into active voice. So I do a lot of searches on “of the”, or “in order to”. You really don't need the “in order”.
Will: And what I'd add to that is from a tooling standpoint, there's a great site called Hemingwayapp.com that you can input your writing into. And it'll also identify those complex sentences and things like that to help you in simplifying your writing. There's a little bit of a side chat in the zoom where people are fighting for their rights for an Oxford comma for that. The next question we have is digging into another side of the grading process. What methods do you or your team use to write more persuasively in your grant applications? I feel like Bre, you have a lot to say here from a storytelling standpoint, I'd love to hear your input there too?
Bre: Yeah, I think one of the things we do, so we often get asked to speak on different things. We're actually speaking at the grant professional association conference this year. And what we're going to be talking about is using creative writing skills in your application, because I think what we kind of forget is there are people on the other end, people like you and I, reading these applications, and they're reading many of them. And so we like to change up the sentence structure, have a couple of shorter and then longer, really making sure that there's a cadence and a rhythm to the reading where it's easier for the reader to follow the flow. So we'll start with the initial application of what's most important to get, what message across, but then also we'll go back with revisions in a way of like now how can we make this more enjoyable to read?
Will: Awesome. Lori and Melissa, do you guys have other things to add in terms of the persuasiveness point?
Lori: Well, I mean, I think the ancient principles of rhetoric really provide a framework, the tenants are invention arrangement. How do you arrange things? Well, invention first, you know, what is your topic? What do you bring to the table? Arrangement? How are you going to order it? Style? That's the big one that I think you know, Bre, you were really hitting on a lot. Content, knowledge and delivery. You have to pay attention to all of those things, but I think style is where a lot of people really get tripped up because on the one hand, some grant writers tend to [inaudible] just the facts and it ends up being very dry, very hard to read. Others, tend to rely too much on emotion and end up being fluffy and putting in way too many words. So I think you've got to really be careful with style. You want to make things easy for the reader so that they really understand what you're trying to say, but you also don't want them dozing off. So, you have to really pay attention to style and always, always, always keep the funder's point of view in your writing, keep their with 'um's in mind.
Melissa: The only thing I would add Will, because I wholeheartedly agree, is I think stories, client experiences, quotes, those are always great things to include. My personal favorite section to write is the need statement. And one thing I often see is needs statements that don't have any facts to go along with them. It's just anecdotal information, which may be true. But it's really important to use citations in some way, shape or form in your needs statement. And throughout your narrative as necessary to show that this is the reality, this is the need, the proven need in our community. And this is why your dollars as a funder are going to make such a huge impact in our community. Because when they can really see the true need, that can be a little bit more compelling to make them want to support your organization.
Will: And I think what you just shared there, Melissa relates really nicely and influences our next question, which is if you guys were to give one piece of advice to someone who's struggling to write an effective grant narrative, what would that be?
Melissa: Well, I always recommend that organizations write a standard grant proposal before they ever try to write a grant application because when you're writing an actual grant application, you're up against a deadline and the questions are so strange sometimes. And so it can be very difficult, but if you have a standard proposal already written, then you have a narrative that you can start pulling from and modify as necessary. But the second thing that I really like to do when I'm struggling, especially with those weird questions, is just to take a walk and you could just take a walk to clear your mind, or you could actually take a notebook and a pen and start jotting down some ideas as you're walking. I've written a lot of grant narratives walking around the block. So it's very effective.
Bre: I would second with Melissa on that. We have what we call our grant answer guide. And with each of our clients, we answer all of them like the most frequently asked questions from funders so that we aren't under a deadline to really suss out exactly who we are and what we do, what our goals and objectives are, because then you can take that and put it into different applications and then really spend the time tweaking it to make it fit each funders need. So I would say starting with having a lot of it already prepared is number one, but when we get stuck on some of those difficult questions, which sometimes is the need statement that Melissa loves, we start with bullet points. And kind of back to what Lori was saying, just writing the basic three sentences or so about what it is that we're asking for or what it is that we're doing. So we'll just start with what thoughts do we need to get into this answer? And then we'll take those bullet points and turn them into sentences and then take those sentences and turn them into paragraphs. And then we'll go through that entire paragraph and edit it down. So we like to call it bite-size chunks, just start with the first bite.
Will: Awesome. That leads us to our next question, which is, do you or your team have a?
Lori: Can I just add one thing real quick? I think the one thing that often gets missed is don't assume that your reader knows anything. You've got to connect the dots for them, tell them exactly how your program meets the requirements. Don't assume that it's obvious. And connect the dots between the need for the activity to the outcome. Don't assume that it's self-evident. Sorry.
Will: Yeah, no worries. That leads us to the next question, which is, do you or your teams have a framework to ensure a grant proposal stands out? And if so, what's in that framework? And I think that kind of also will relate to an earlier question that Yvonne had in the chat, which is, do you guys use a decision matrix in your guys’ grant seeking process? And if so, when and how do you guys use those sorts of tools? So you guys can kind of connect it in general in terms of your process, and your frameworks?
Lori: Well, I'll jump in my team and I developed a template over the years that includes pretty much every question that we've encountered over the last 30 years from various funders. And we've divided it into sections, need activities, etc., etc.. Whenever we write a proposal, of course we will answer the questions that the funder actually asks, but we also know that there's a lot of questions that they really want to know, but they don't ask. So if there's room, we try to head those off of the past using our little template.
Bre: Yeah, like Lori said, we have a template that just really gives the organization the time to think through some of those questions. We run into organizations that are like, well, this is who we serve, and this is what we want to do. And it's like, okay, now let's learn about how you do it. And they say, oh, well, we offer this program. Well, what does your program offer? Who does it serve? How many does it serve? And so all of those things take a lot of time to make sure that you've answered in detail. And so having them answered as detailed as possible gives you the freedom to dial it back and edit it in a way that works with each of the funders needs, but that you're not spending all of that time on every single application, creating it from the beginning. So templates are key.
Will: Cool with that, we're going to move on to budgets. So let's talk about some things related to budgets. The first question that we have for today is that people often struggle in creating budgets when grant timelines don't fit well with a nonprofits’ fiscal year. So how do you guys account for that when you guys are budgeting for your proposals?
Bre: Maybe Will, if you could clarify a little bit more, because I think when I'm hearing this question, it's saying that maybe they have a program that would be offered throughout July to the next June, but the funder is, you know, the calendar year. Is that kind of what it's asking?
Will: That's exactly what the question is, correct.
Bre: Okay. So sometimes we have clients who are offering something that goes within the school year. And the funder, when we figure out what component we're going to be asking them for, we may ask, let's say for quarters one, two of the school year for the funding from that funder. And just letting them know that we would have our budgeted amount from them completed by the end of their fiscal year, if necessary. But I will often run into that with foundations. That’s an issue. Typically they understand that some of these programs take 12 to 18 months to complete. So as long as you're starting it within that allotted time, they're usually fine, as well as you're communicating with them the timeline of your program. So having a clear timeline so that they understand I think is important.
Melissa: Yes. And I agree with everything you said. And also I think if you have budgets to start with, then that will make it much easier. And that may sound very over simplified, but I have found that many organizations have an overall organization budget, but they oftentimes have not taken the time to create budgets that are specific for their programs and services. And that is where I think a lot of the struggle comes in. So I always recommend that once you have that board approved organization budget, sit down and figure out what those programs and services cost. And then once you have an annual budget that covers all of your expenses and your plan revenues for that specific program or service, it should be relatively easy to adjust it as necessary across multiple fiscal years for your organization.
Lori: Yeah. I agree with everything that both Bre and Melissa just said. One of the things that I've discovered is that a lot of program budgets that the agency uses really aren't structured in a sort of a way that will be a persuasive document. So a lot of times you have to work with both the fiscal people and the program people to put a budget in such a format that it's going to appeal to a funder. So getting all of that done ahead of time is a very, very valuable thing to do, but you'll have to adjust it obviously for the time grant periods for each individual funder. But if you know, basically for your fiscal year, what all these line items really are for the program, then I think you're way ahead of the game.
Will: The next question we have is when there are multiple moving pieces, how do you guys decide how much budget to allocate to each part? I know this is a common question we've received over time related to budgets here.
Lori: Can you clarify a little bit by what you mean about the moving pieces?
Will: Sure. So if, for example, you are submitting a proposal for several different things, like it spans over multiple programs of yours or initiatives. Oftentimes people have been asking, what should I put in my proposal for each respective program or initiative, or how do I piece together what to put towards general operating versus another side of the proposal. So another way that this question has been asked today specifically is Jamie asked earlier when preparing a budget for an organization, should the budget show an ideal situation with a lot of grant earned revenue in the budget plan or only include what's been historically raised. So these sorts of questions are top of mind for folks in terms of just like, should we be budgeting things based on what we have or what we plan to have? And where do we go from here in terms of all these moving pieces?
Melissa: I think the most common moving part, if you will, that organizations struggle with is personnel because, and especially for smaller nonprofits that you're doing, you might have one person and they're running all the programs and the organization, right? So in that case, I always recommend that you do a time study, whether that's one week, two weeks, an entire month so that staff can determine how much of their time is allocated to each of the different programs or services. And sometimes that can help determine how much money needs to go in each of the various budgets. So you know exactly how much things cost and also with regards to programs and services really going through and thinking about all the things that you do and everything that's required to run a successful program that might be paper or markers or your travel gas expenses, anything you need. Because oftentimes you might think, oh, well, we already have this in house. We have reams of papers. So this isn't an expense, but it is still an expense. So just sitting down with your program folks and really being clear about everything it takes for a successful program.
Bre: I kind of look at this question, Will, I guess my perspective on this would be just from experience working with large projects that cost millions of dollars. And so you're bringing in multiple funders. And so that's the way that I'm looking at this. I think that in order to break down a budget, I would need to look at, okay, which of these funders have signified that they will pay general operating. We're going to approach these three funders for all of our personnel and which of these funders really like to do any sort of infrastructure improvements, okay, now these are the ones for this piece. And then these are the ones that are going to be for the program and identifying based on what the funder wants to fund and then mapping out who we're approaching for how much? And lining them out, alongside our budget to see, okay, are all of these going to add up? Or where is that gap? And how are we going to close the gap between the grant funders we're approaching, knowing we may not get all of them? And then where is that funding coming from? So I think it really is just kind of pulling out the pieces for that, but that's kind of how I looked at it. I'm sure it's probably meant differently.
Will: Okay. In terms of the final question to wrap up the budget section. So just lightning round, what's a common mistake when you see nonprofit organizations or grant makers often make when it comes to crafting their budgets?
Lori: For me, not realizing that a proposal budget has to be a persuasive document. It's not just about the numbers. It's about showing that you have the capacity to produce the desired outcomes of the proposal.
Bre: Yeah. I agree with Lori. Budgets are actually my favorite part of the grant. I like to start with the budget and then write the story after I have the budget in place. So for me, I feel like a funder should be able to pick up your budget and understand all of the components of your organization without even reading the compelling narrative. So I feel like a common mistake I see is organizations that don't have clear titles for expenses and revenue or the use of terms like miscellaneous income. And it's in the thousands. Like where is that coming from? Tell the funder, is that sustainable? Is that going to be every year that you're getting thousands of miscellaneous income? So I think being concise and clear with the funder and realistic about the numbers. And one more thing that I would suggest is I feel like a good snapshot of your programs and your need growth is to make sure that you've included side-by-side a column that is the most recent completed year, along with your projected numbers for the year that you're in so that people can see, oh yes, this is realistic. These numbers are realistic. And then having a column where you could explain, oh my gosh, this jumped $40,000, but the reason is, you know, adding an additional program with staff. But I do envision that people often just try to get some numbers on paper without a very clear picture of what they're doing.
Melissa: Well, like I mentioned earlier, Will, I think that a common mistake is not including all of the expenses that it really takes to run a successful service. I think organization budgets are typically pretty comprehensive but less so with programs and services. I think for budgets that are being created to go into a grant application, the most common mistake I see is that the budget does not align with the narrative. Oftentimes someone will add something into the project description, and let's say, we're going to advertise this program on a billboard. But there are no associated expenses in your budget to pay for a billboard. So that really raises some questions for the funder as to how this is going to be paid for? And if that billboard is necessary, is this program going to be successful if I fund it?
Will: Awesome. With that, we're going to move into the grant management and reporting side of things. So the first question we have for today is what is the most valuable information you keep track of when you're managing your grants that you're working on and the grants that you will manage that you may work on later on?
Lori: Well, for me, the two biggest things are first the fiscal expenditures, according to the proposal budget, because as we were just saying, the expenditures might not neatly line up in the proposal and the internal budget that your accounting people use. So you have to make sure that they're tracking the line items the way that the funder is expecting to see it. And secondly, all the indicators for the performance targets, all the data or anything that you've promised, all the targets that you'd said, the outcomes, the outputs, the level of activity and effort, all of that stay on top of that.
Bre: Amen. Lori, I think tracking it all along is so important because, the other thing I would add to that is deadlines. I set a deadline as soon as the grant has been awarded. When are they going to want this report from me? I put that in a calendar, right? So knowing when that's coming up and then giving myself time on my calendar two weeks in advance, or how much overtime do you need an advance notice so that you can be putting this information together and getting it in on time? Because I think showing the funder that you respect their rules and getting them the information that you promised on time, it gives you the opportunity to be funded again in the future.
Melissa: I would add to that keeping track of challenges, lessons learned and successes, because those are pretty common things that funders want to know about when you're reporting. And oftentimes it's hard to remember once you're at the end of that grant year. Well, what were some of those challenges that we had and what are the lessons learned and how did we make modifications to the program to adjust accordingly? And so if you keep track of those throughout the grant period, it will be a lot easier to write your reports at the end of the year.
Will: Awesome. Kind of like a journal of sorts. And on that point that leads to a merge of this next question as well as the question from the audience from Yvonne, which is, do you guys have any top of mind tips and tricks you can share for when it comes to saving time in grant reporting? And also what software systems do you guys use when it comes to grant management and things like that?
Lori: Well, top of mind, for both my grant clients and my evaluation clients, I monitor those performance targets and expenditures monthly with the evaluation clients. I'm not as involved with the fiscal side, but with my grant management clients, we definitely are. So we try to talk through that on a conference call once a month, because that way we can see if there's any course corrections that need to be taken. So that they're prepared well in advance of the quarterly or six month or 12 month reports that are happening. As for software for grant management, I calendar things. I use Google calendar, which I share with my clients as far as what we should be working on right now. Other than that, I mostly just use I think Instrumentl, I'm starting to use Instrumentl in that capacity. Because there's a lot of features that are very useful for that. And also just our own Excel spreadsheets and stuff that we've developed over the years.
Bre: Yeah. I agree with Lori, a lot of the same things. I have to say one of the things we run into with reporting is people being like, oh, I don't remember what we said in that application or where all the components are. And so just making sure when you are writing these applications and all of the attached data that you're organizing that in a way that you can access that again easily. So whether that be through Instrumentl or a different place, we use Google drive, just making sure all of our folders are in one place and easily accessible. But I do think using Google calendar is how we get reminded. But I do know Instrumentl has great feature to remind you. I think that's just the biggest thing is just calendaring things out so that they're not shocking to you.
Melissa: Going back to what Lori said earlier, as far as outputs and outcomes, spoken like a true evaluator, revisiting that grant proposal as soon as the award letter comes in. Definitely take time to celebrate, but then make sure you revisit what you said you were going to do and the outputs you expected to have as well as any objectives you plan to meet. And if you don't already have a system in place, such as data collection methods and data storage methods, make sure those are in place because it's very difficult, if not impossible, to pull data once you're a year into a program. So if you do it upfront, then it will be a lot easier and will save you a lot of time when it's time for your grant reports.
Will: And on that point of just some of the points made on Instrumentl’s management side of things, that's something that we definitely can help you with. In case you aren't aware, Instrumentl essentially brings everything in terms of grant prospecting, tracking, and management in one place. So if you actually want a tool that is always looking for active opportunities for your nonprofit, as well as a place for you to store all of the opportunities you're actually pursuing and the things you've planned to do, then you can do all of that within Instrumentl. And what you'll get is a dedicated tracker. So what that tracker is going to look like is it's going to look like this, in which you're going to be able to digitize any old school spreadsheet that you might be using right now and import that into Instrumentl when you create your account by just going to this, add new and then upload many option. And then once you upload that into Instrumentl, we will auto track all of the deadlines that you input in here. And anything that you're finding on Instrumentl, we will also roll all of that data into a weekly notification, in which you're going to get notified of all the tasks and the deadlines that you have coming up around your grants.
So what this allows you to do is it allows you to essentially bring your entire workflow into one single place in which, for example, with these healthy relationships and community grants, I can add in different tasks and I can do all the things around the actual proposal. And within Instrumentl, I can upload the final proposal here in terms of the document library. And then I can also track how I've done with this particular funder over the years as well. So if you're trying to bring in some of the many workflows that people have in terms of things like a Google Calendar, coupled with an Asana or a Notion and things like that, you can do all of that actually within Instrumentl. So that can be super helpful as well. And then the other thing I wanted to share before we open up to some of the submitted questions is some of the updates that have been released on Instrumentl as of this week. So this will speak more directly to some of the points that were made earlier on in the prospect research, as well as in the evaluation of good fit funders.
But essentially anybody that creates an Instrumentl account now on your 14 day free trial, you're going to get a preview into our new Standard Plan. And essentially our Standard Plan is going to help you identify the key trends about particular funders that you might not be able to figure out really easily from just old school, 990 reports. So you can tell here, for example, if I'm looking at the Clif Bar Family Foundation, I'm able to identify what their giving average and median has been over the last few years. I'm also able to now look at a grant amount snapshot. So we're going to look over a multi-year time horizon and answer that direct question that was mentioned earlier on this panel in terms of, hey, what is the median grant that is given from this person, as well as the minimum and max and what does the actual distribution of what those grants look like? So when it comes to finding those data points that evaluate whether or not it's a good fit funder, this new feature release is going to be really helpful for you. And anybody that's a current Instrumentl customer as well. You are going to get notified in terms of a free trial. We'll be giving everybody that as well.
And so stay tuned for that, but essentially included in this update as well are things like being able to flag in, oh, who's a new grantee versus an existing grantee and what are those trends over time, right? And so you can see the receptiveness or what we call the openness to new grantees from a funder over a multi-year time horizon. And so these are all things that were pretty much released this week and we're going to be continuing to add in more in the coming weeks. And so definitely stay tuned. And if you've been waiting or on the fence for whatever reason, now's the time more than ever because this will actually help you really quickly dig into each of these funders at a micro level. And then you'll also be able to see things like the giving by NTE codes. That way you can tell specifically what are the most common areas that this funder is funding. So these are all new things on Instrumentl and definitely things to keep an eye out for as you continue to check things out on our end. And with that, I'm going to open up to some of the questions, but before I do so if you've never signed up, I'll leave a link in the chat where you can go ahead and do so.
Like I mentioned for customers, we're going to be sending you a follow-up email when there are full releases out of these new features. And then you can save $50 for attending today with the code AMA50. One of the questions that we had in preparing for this workshop, though, was a question earlier today on what kind of wording would you guys recommend to include in proposals to acknowledge organization size, endowment, but wanting to preserve those funds to ensure the sustainability of that nonprofit? So this nonprofit has a policy in place that allows for restricted annual drawdown. And they're curious how they should word that as they are applying to new grants this year. And this is from Christie earlier today.
Bre: We have a client that has a really large endowment, and they are only allowed to pull X dollars every year. And when you provide their annual operating budget, that line makes funders say, okay, no they're set. So we always like to include a budget justification sheet whenever possible. That just explains hey, you know, or in the budget that we create has this column called budget justification on the side. And you know, that piece right there we would describe that we absolutely are not able to pull more than X funding per year towards our programming. So we are required to make up that deficit with additional fundraising methods just to show that we're sustainable, but we also still have to continue to fundraise. We're not set.
Will: Awesome. Another question we had from Tracy is what ratios do foundations look at as indicators for determining need? So for example, what percentage of staff to professional salaries of operating budgets do they want to see?
Lori: I'm not sure I understand the question.
Will: I think they're looking for whether or not you guys have some sort of heuristic as to what foundations have previously looked for when they are evaluating candidates, and prioritizing which applications to fund in which ones to potentially pass on in that particular funding cycle. So it seems like they have some sort of I don't know, shortcut of sorts that they have been looking at from percentage of staff to the overall operating budget. And so they're curious if you guys have any similar heuristics that you might know of?
Lori: Are you talking about general and administrative and fundraising percent?
Will: I think so. Yeah. That's how I would interpret this question from Tracy. Yeah.
Lori: Well, there's actually been kind of a change over the last several years. There's been sort of an evolution. For a while funders were looking at the lowest possible G&A costs, general administrative and fundraising costs. And they wanted to see most of the funding go towards programming, actual programming. Which includes the staff to provide that programming. That's why I had some confusion there when you were talking about staffing. However, there's really sort of been a shift because they realized that organizations were sort of eating their seed corn if they were not investing in making sure that they have the infrastructure and the sustainability to keep things going. So I don't think there's really a magic number. So I think you just need to make sure that you can justify all of the expenditures that you have. Some organizations, almost their whole budget is going to be staffing, whether it's program staff, some that are umbrella organizations are going to be almost all administration. You just have to know your funder and their priorities and be able to articulate why each of those line items are important.
Will: Alexandra asked earlier, what are good evaluation measures when programs have to do with human services or mental health?
Lori: I do hold workshops on that. At the end, I'll be happy to share my email address and I'd be happy to speak to that in more detail because it's a big subject.
Will: All right. And then another question that was asked today is in terms of government agencies, so with government agencies walking, I'm going to try to decipher this question. What is the, so in general, the question from Alexandra was what is the career outlook for freelance grant writers or independent contractors?
Melissa: Grant Professionals Association releases survey results every year. And it has a lot of information about their numbers of consultants and average salaries and things like that. Just anecdotally I think the outlook is good. I've been very busy fortunately even throughout the pandemic. And I think that organizations need to have extra support, even small organizations, so that the executive director can pull themselves out of always having to be the one to deal with grants. So I think that the career outlook is good. Hopefully.
Will: Another question we had from the audience today is do federal evaluators prefer client narratives in the needs section or just statistical data?
Melissa: I think it depends on the reviewer. I think that obviously with federal grants, they're going to be a little drier, but anytime you can make it readable, that's important. Like we spoke about earlier, there is a human being that is reading your proposal. And so you want to make sure that it's enjoyable, engaging, and answers all the questions and provides the details that the application requires.
Lori: Yeah. I tend to agree with Melissa. I do a lot of federal work. I do find that you need to be compelling and you need to have a lot of data to demonstrate that there's a need because more so than with most foundation grants, they're going to be sitting there with a rubric, with a check box. They also have access to all sorts of federal data around the subject. So they're going to want you to show local data that shows that you understand the issue on a micro level. They know it from a macro level. They want to know that you know it on your local level as deeply as they know it on theirs.
Will: And I just want to give a heads up for folks in case folks need to head out. We are at the top of the hour. We will go over a little bit more since we have a lot of questions to work our way through. But in the case where you did enjoy this session, we will be back next week for our normal calendar programming as well. We will be covering three ways to stand out in your grant applications and win that grant. Margit Brazda Poirier will be returning for us at that time. So you can check out our events calendar for that. Innocent and Karen, to answer two questions that were asked before the session started and submitted in the form. It asked why are grants so difficult to get from new NGOs?
Bre: I'm happy to address that one. We work with small to midsize nonprofits, and typically a lot of them are newer, and newer is anywhere from one to three years. I think three years is starting to be a more established nonprofit in my opinion. And so I think what funders are really looking for is to see that you can remain sustainable. I think a lot of them are afraid to donate to an organization that may not be there next year. So I think the most important piece is if you are approaching funders and you're new, really being clear on your plans for your future and how you're going to get there. Right? Nonprofit answers sometimes are, well, we're going to fund raise the remaining $100,000 at need. And I think you need to be a lot more detailed than that. How are you going to fundraise it? How promising is it that you are going to get that? And yeah, just being really clear that you sat down and truly thought out a plan on how to remain sustainable.
Lori: Yeah, I'll second that and again, it goes back to the point I made earlier. Funders are looking at this as an investment. It's a social investment. Their return is in social good rather than a financial investment. And frankly, a lot of new NGOs are riskier investments. So that's why I agree with you Bre, completely. You have to show them that you're a good investment, that you have the capacity to do this, that you have the resources lined up to keep you going so that they aren't throwing money into a money pit.
Will: Okay. And then Elizabeth also asked, our organization has not done much to serve the community in the last year, but has revised our programs. How do we attract funding for an organization that was in the midst of revising its programs prior to the pandemic?
Bre: I think you're probably in the same boat as most people. A lot of people had to revise their programs because of the pandemic. So even if you were revising it prior to the pandemic, I think that a lot of individuals or nonprofits are approaching funders with explanations as to why things look differently or are going to look different. So I think, again, it just comes down to clear communication as to your goals, objectives and how you're going to get there. Not so much just the story of how you'll get there, but true data on how you can make what you're promising in your programs happen.
Will: Another question that we had was other than researching past giving to similar organizations in the 990 reports, are there any tips to know when it comes to how much funding to request for a first time grant with the funder?
Lori: I think the 990s are really the best place to look. And looking at their previous track record with similar organizations, similar programs. You also want to look at your program against that. If it's your first time approaching this particular funder, you might not want to reach for their highest range. You might want to start with something a little more modest. But the 990s and of course Instrumentl, which summarizes a lot of that 990 information, I think is really the best place to start.
Melissa: And I would add, it really depends on the overall cost of what you're proposing. Most vendors are not going to want to fund a large percentage of any one thing for an organization. So if your program is a hundred thousand, you don't typically want to ask a single funder for a hundred thousand. So that's something else to keep in mind.
Will: The question that Theresa had is what is the best way to answer the question of how you will sustain your project beyond seeking additional grants?
Lori: Well, one thing I find is that for a lot of funders, it's like a stool. The more legs you have to stand on the steadier you're going to be. So I think one of the things that you might want to try to demonstrate, or if you don't have in place to try to develop, is to show that you have multiple income streams and that you're not reliant for more than 30% on any one of those income streams. For me, I find that that's the most critical part of sustainability.
Melissa: I think also considering other ways that your program might be sustained. We typically think about funding primarily because we're completing a grant application, but there are lots of ways you can sustain a program. You can secure additional volunteers to help you run that program. You can partner with other agencies and train the trainer model so that other agencies can help support implementation of your program. So sometimes, the answer might not only be funding, it might also be other capacity building opportunities that you have.
Bre: Yeah. I think both of those were excellent answers and I would add a little bit more onto Melissa's, which is what I'm sure she meant as well, but also partnerships, right? How can this funding allow you to then create partnerships and have a bigger reach. A lot of funders like to see how that will also help sustain the program.
Will: Alicia, from Feeding GA families asked before the workshop, how do we best show or explain partnerships that expand our service reach and number served?
Bre: I kind of thought about that one because we have seen it before. If possible, I always feel like some sort of an image is helpful. So maybe like an organizational chart that shows who's doing what, what organization and who they're serving, something that makes it really easy to understand each of the components. Other than that, I would say just a really clear narrative around what each organization or partner's responsibility is and the impact that they have.
Lori: I agree completely. The one thing that I would add, if you can attach memoranda of understanding, really strong MOUs that really spell out who's doing what, where, when, how, and whether there's any money exchanged. If you've got that lined up and you can attach that to your proposal, or you can include some of that information in a proposal, but actually having the signed MOU by both partners is really strong. And also the length, if you can articulate how long and in what capacity you have been partnering. I mean, wishy washy letters of support, everybody does favors for other people like writing those that funders can see through paper partnerships. So try to make sure that you really give the detail that makes them understand this is real.
Will: Great. Julie had a pretty comprehensive question with some background context. I'll read the background context and I'll isolate the question for you guys. The question is, one of the organizations I work with raises funds for other conservation organizations through events and campaigns. Very few funders donate to events, even when the funds pass through to our outstanding beneficiaries. It's also difficult to specify its particular programs and what is achieved other than the event itself. As we don't normally restrict the donations to our beneficiary organizations, and certainly don't want to speak for them directly to funders. Here's the question. Do you guys have suggestions as to how to reach the right funders and or how to communicate correctly in order to tap into resources?
Lori: I got to say this is a tough one. For one thing, because I can see where you don't have outcomes to report. I can see why it would be difficult to find funders because for one thing, you've got the hazard of potentially stepping on your beneficiaries toes, you could be going for the same grant funders that they are. So, this is a very difficult thing. I'm wondering if grants are even the best way to go with this. I would say individual donors, corporate sponsorships, local corporate sponsorships you know, a lot of times they'll use their marketing, and community relations budgets for this kind of thing. I think it might be a little more fertile ground than grants.
Will: Alright. So that'll lead us to our last question we'll take today, which is from Wendy and the audience, which is how do we know what are the questions that funders don't ask? So what can I do to sense that based on past funded projects? So essentially, are there any questions or ways to parse out what are the things that they might be looking for that they might not have already asked publicly?
Melissa: If they have a website, especially if they have any social media accounts, you may be able to get more insight as to what they really care about. Just by looking at the articles they share or how they message around the grantees that they've supported in the past. Some of that might clue you in to what they really care about. Other than that, you know, always relationship building. If you're able to make a connection with a foundation or board member, that's always the best way to get insight.
Will: Great. With that, we're going to close things out. So what is the best way for everybody to contact you or stay in touch with y'all if they have further questions specific to something that you guys may have spoken on?
Bre: My website, the Dotted i, is dottedifundraising.com and it's just a little letter i. It’s like you're dotting your I's crossing your t's. But that has a place where you can either email me or where you can schedule a free call with me. And I'll put it in the chat so that you guys have that link, but I'm happy to take 30 minute calls with people to just answer more specific questions that you might have around grant writing, happy to help however I can.
Lori: My best way to reach me is by email LFabian, Lori, you know, first initial, last name @FabianconsultingIn.com. My website is www.fabianconsulting.com. It has more information and like Bre, I would be more than happy to share any of my templates, just email me to schedule a half an hour call at no charge. I will also put my contact information in the chat.
Will: And we'll also be sending the contact information and the follow-up for reference for everybody as well.
Melissa: Thanks Will. So I added mine to the chat as well upstream.consulting. The website is just upstream.consulting. There's no.com.
Will: Awesome. So with that, we're going to wrap up today's session. Thanks so much to our presenters today, Bre, Lori and Melissa for their insight and expertise. And we will be sending this recording later on today along with the transcription within the next week or so, in case you may have missed an earlier part of today's workshop and in the case you want to join us next week, we will be back next Wednesday. And so feel free to check out our events calendar for that, but look out for your email for follow-up contact information for all three of our panelists today. And thanks so much for joining us for this Instrumentl partner workshop. See you later, guys.
Lori: It was a pleasure.