As a grants professional, what skills do you need to be a game-changer at your nonprofit?
To find out, we interviewed grant experts from across the industry. Some of these lessons have been years in the making. They share these insights after securing millions in funding—and they can help you do the same.
Here’s what we learned.
Conversations Make or Break Funding Wins
Daniel Jenkins' Emphasis on a Conversational Approach
Daniel Jenkins, President of Lutheran Braille Workers, puts the emphasis on direct communication, especially with his grant managers.
His focus is on personal conversations, ditching email to speak directly with grant managers.
“Pick up the phone or get on Zoom and have that one-on-one conversation with the grant manager, executive director—whoever that might be.”
Once you get in touch with a funder, have honest discussions about your organization to see if your values align.
“Ask, ‘Are we a fit for your foundation?’ If you are, or if they think there's a fit, ask, ‘What does that look like?’ And if it's not, the follow-up question I always ask is, ‘Do you know of another foundation we might be a better fit with?’”
You never know where those questions will lead, so it’s always important to keep an open door.
One of the best grant writing tactics that Daniel recommends is sharing stories that capture the outcomes of your programs.
“I'm always sharing impact stories with our funders because that's how they know that the money that they gave is making a difference.”
You can see one way he does this on the LBW website, sharing the impact that volunteers have on production, as well as the projected cost in labor hours it saves each year. These big numbers help to inspire others to join in and expand their reach.
At the end of the day, you want to do all you can to foster fruitful funder relationships for the long haul, and engaging in open dialogue is a fantastic way to start.
Engaging Stakeholders: Elizabeth Burrows' Method
Elizabeth Burrows, Principal at Burrows Consulting, focuses on engaging stakeholders and highlighting the role that board members, staff, and volunteers play in building relationships with funders.
One of her top grant strategies is leveraging her personal network to make connections, and it goes beyond the grant application process. If Elizabeth could boil down her approach into a single piece of advice, it would be: “Just show up.”
If there’s an event that could be beneficial and you’re looking to score an invite, engage with your board of directors, staff members, or volunteers to make that initial introduction. Here are some strategies to consider when looking for these connections:
Check the invite list
Look at the sponsors
Review their social media pages
Simply ask to attend or sign up
Taking advantage of all the opportunities for face-to-face networking will help you establish a rapport with potential funders, as well as lay the groundwork for meaningful and lasting relationships.
Your key stakeholders—board of directors, volunteers, and staff members—all can help you cultivate these partnerships. Make sure to ask them about their connections, invite them to participate in outreach, or even encourage them to post on their social channels.
Do what you can to drive that collective involvement, and you’ll notice a difference. You won’t know the power of your network until you ask.
Tailoring Your Grant Applications to Funder Preferences
Tailoring Responses: Insights From Burrows Consulting
Another one of Elizabeth Burrows’ strategies includes adding personal touches in your proposals where you can, leaning into data to help tell the story.
She and her team turn to Instrumentl to provide them with funder-specific insights that help their proposals stand out. Instrumentl provides a glimpse into the funder’s giving history, thanks to their Form 990 snapshots. This includes:
Who they’ve funded in the past
Common causes they support
Geographic focus areas
For example, these snapshots include an NTEE code breakdown, which helps nonprofits identify the causes a funder is most passionate about. Armed with this information, Burrow and her team are better able to tailor their applications to best align with the funder and increase the likelihood of securing funding.
This is one of the most powerful grant writing strategies you can employ. To the funder, when your applications are personalized and tailored to their needs, it demonstrates that you really want to partner with them, and you’re not just spamming everyone for funding and hoping some opportunities will stick.
The Human Touch in Grant Writing: Beth Kander-Dauphin's Perspective
In the quest to find nonprofit funding, it’s easy for nonprofits to lose sight of the human element. But Beth Kander-Dauphin, Chief Strategist Officer at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, cautions against that.
“When you write a grant, it sometimes feels like you’re just sending it out there into the ether. In reality, there is a person who reads through what you’ve written. That informs the way I approach grant writing.”
Beth emphasizes how critical it is to write grant applications that resonate on a human level. How can you do that?
Keep it conversational—but not casual. There’s a real person reading it, so don’t get bogged down in too many details, or you’ll lose the reader.
Be clear, warm, and engaging. Don’t forget to infuse heart into your application when talking about the work you do. Don’t just clinically list the facts.
Don’t submit a cold request. Email the program officer or leverage a peer to make a connection. This will help you stand out amongst a big pile of applications.
Keep in mind that if you reach out, you may not always get a favorable response—and that’s okay! Look at this as a silver lining. It saved you the time it would have taken to write the grant proposal, allowing you to focus on other opportunities that you are a better fit for.
Click to find the best grants for your nonprofit from 12,000+ active opportunities.
Networking can be such a powerful tool in your arsenal, but many times, nonprofits are too timid to ask directly for what they want. As you look to build a community of resources, it’s important to ask directly to establish strong long-term partnerships.
Dr. Bev Browning learned this the hard way. She was doing prospect research and came across a name that sounded really familiar to her. It turned out that the founder of the foundation was a family friend, and she wrote to him and submitted her application.
After she received the grant, Bev asked why he hadn’t supported the volunteer center in the past. She learned an important lesson she carries with her to this day. He never supported it because no one ever asked.
Now, Bev isn’t advocating that nonprofits ask for funding unsolicited as a lead grant writing tactic. Instead, she suggests that you do the following:
Write to introduce your organization.
Ensure your organization aligns with the funder and talk to them.
If you mesh well, look for ways you can establish a long-term relationship, including grants, event sponsorship, volunteering opportunities, and more.
Asking for money without cultivating a relationship will be a huge turn-off and may leave a sour taste in the potential funder’s mouth. Instead, Dr. Bev advocates for starting the conversation off by saying, “ it’s important to know each other before we explore the possibility of asking for a grant.”
This open dialogue can help foster trust between you and potential funders, setting you up for successful long-term partnerships.
Winning Grants Begins With Powerful Communication With Funders
Cynthia Ceilan's Approach to Engaging Key People
At the end of the day, landing grants really starts with communication, and you have to engage with key stakeholders to understand their priorities.
For Cynthia Ceilan, Director of Institutional Giving at Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, it’s essential that she can see at a glance who the key people are at an organization within Instrumentl’s 990 snapshots.
This makes it easy for Cynthia to see if anyone at the funding organization has connections to their nonprofit.
She also emphasizes the importance of having a plan in place before reaching out:
“When we do have the opportunity to engage with a key staffer at a grant, we always map out two or three funding areas that fall into their priorities. We can gauge much better what lights up their eyes if we listen carefully—and listen more than we talk.” - Cynthia Ceilan, Director of Institutional Giving at Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan
When you reach out to them, be open-minded. Ask for their advice on the best way to proceed in asking for their support. This can help shift the discussion to focus on more of a two-way partnership.
Nurturing Frontline Staff Relationships
Cynthia has even more important advice to share, emphasizing the importance of cultivating relationships with the frontline staff as one of her grant writing tactics.
Many times, they are the gatekeepers. They decide who gets through to the decision-makers, so make sure to be kind.
“You should cultivate your relationships with frontline staff as carefully as you do with board members and trustees. They can be among your best allies who can help you maintain a great relationship with your grantmakers.” - Cynthia Ceilan, Director of Institutional Giving at Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan
The frontline staff can be your first advocate with the funder, so it’s in your best interest to make a good impression.
Wrapping Up: Refine Your Grant Writing Process
We’ve shared grant application tips from six industry professionals on how they’ve raised millions in funding to support their organizations. Their grant-writing tactics include:
Foster strong communication
Engage with stakeholders
Personalize your outreach
Integrate a human touch
Be direct in your asks
Leverage non-traditional funders
Reach out to key people
When you follow these tips, you’ll be one step closer to landing your next grant, and Instrumentl can help you kick-start the process. Sign up for your free, 14-day trial today!
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