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Managing Up: The Grantwriter’s Dilemma

May 28, 2013

(Allison Shirk is a freelance grantwriter based in the Puget Sound region. In her last post, she wrote about the art of the phone call.)

Managing_upGood grantwriters have a unique perspective with respect to nonprofit organizations: We know what grantmakers want to hear and we know what we'd like to be able to put into grant proposals. But when conspicuous gaps begin to show up in proposals, what should you -- the grantwriter -- do? Here are six elements of a good proposal that often are missing or inadequate, and some resources to help you and your employer/client address the problems they might be hiding.

1. Mission Statement: Does the organization's mission statement cause you to scratch your head? I've seen mission statements that fill an entire page and mission statements that no longer reflect the priorities and/or activities of an organization. Unfortunately, like an old quilt, board members tend to become attached to the mission statement they know, so proceed gently. Here are a few good resources about the art of the mission statement you can share with the board when the time is right: 1) how to create an effective mission statement; 2) the one-sentence mission statement; 3) eight words can be effective, too.

2. Board of Director Affiliations: When funders look at a board roster, they typically are assessing both the size and quality of the board. When they ask for "affiliations," they want to know the name of the company or organization where a board member works, or, if retired, most recently worked. For bonus points, feel free to describe the particular competencies (e.g., financial expertise, knowledge of IT systems, fundraising experience) that individual board members bring to the table. When a board member balks at providing information for this part of the proposal, explain why the funder wants to know and be sure to let the hesitant board member know that personal contact information is not part of the deal.

3. Strategic Plan: Funders want to know that an organization is not just focused on its immediate needs but has a vision for the next five to ten years, a strategy to achieve that vision, and a plan to get there. So what can you, the grantwriter, do when an application asks for a strategic plan and the organization doesn't have one? You can start by sharing  with leadership the Organizational Capacity Assessment Tool, a self-assessment instrument developed by the Marguerite Casey Foundation to help nonprofits identify their capacity-related challenges and establish capacity-building goals. Then write about the process the organization has embarked on to identify those challenges and develop a plan to address them.

4. Budgets: The best organizational (and program) budget includes all the standard income and expense items across three columns -- last year's actuals, this year's estimated, and next year's projected -- and also explains any major changes or red flags in the narrative. (Remind the finance team that a budget is as much a part of the "story" the organization wants to tell as the narrative.) The Foundation Center's GrantSpace is a great one-stop shop for budgeting basics, sample budgets, and other budgeting resources.

5. Demographic Data: All nonprofits, but especially service-delivery organizations, should have a centralized database to store important data on their constituents, volunteers, partners, donors, grant opportunities, and so on. The nonprofit resource portal 501 Commons offers a nice assessment tool to help organizations evaluate their database needs (and lots of other good stuff). And if the thought of providing demographic data and case studies to funders causes senior management to break out in a cold sweat, have them read this article about case-management tools from the folks at Idealware.

6. Evaluation: Once you know who (in the aggregate) the organization serves, the next step is to find out whether those services are making a difference. Organizations should start with the basics -- you might want to suggest that leadership consider implementing a constituent-satisfaction survey. An easy way to approach such an objective is to choose one month out of the year during which every person who walks through the door is asked to fill out a survey. Then take it to the next level. Once you get the hang of them, logic models are a great way to understand the relationship between community needs and service provision. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation offers a free downloadable guide in the Knowledge Center of its Web site that provides practical assistance to nonprofits engaged in the logic-modeling process. You might also want to check out the fee-based four-part webinar series on outcomes thinking and management offered by the Foundation Center.

Regardless of the particular challenge or challenges you face in crafting a grant proposal that will get funders' attention and provide them with the information they require, be sure to always present yourself to senior management as an excellent source of knowledge and helpful resources. And remember: To effectively tell the story of an organization, you need to develop good relationships and an open, two-way communications channel with key board members and every manager and senior leader in the organization.

What kind of challenges have you encountered as a grantwriter looking to craft a compelling proposal for a well-meaning but less-than-organized client? Have any good resources you can share? We’d love to hear them. Use the comments section below....

-- Allison Shirk

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