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Dear Abby’s Advice to a Funder

September 11, 2013

(Allison Shirk is a freelance grantwriter based in the Northwest. In her last article, she offered some tips for making your volunteer board members feel appreciated.)


Headshot_allison_shirkDear Abby:

It's been a while since I wrote. I've been busy going through grant proposals -- lots and lots of proposals. In fact, that's why I'm writing. We love nonprofits, our grantees especially. Without them, we couldn't succeed. But there are so many of them, and they all want funding -- even organizations that work in areas that have nothing to do with our programs and initiatives. I do my best to give every application the attention it deserves, but, really, things are getting out of hand. What's a funder to do?

As a grantwriter, I'm pretty sure my clients aren't the only organizations frustrated by the grant application process. Funders are, too. Over the last decade, many social and environmental problems have gotten worse; the number of nonprofits looking for funding has grown; and the stock and bond markets have subjected most portfolio managers to a ride they'd probably like to forget. I don't suppose many funders, harried or otherwise, turn to Dear Abby for advice. But if they did, here's what she might she say....

Matchmaking. You want to cut back on the number of proposals you receive that aren't a good fit? Take some time to read through and update your Foundation Center profile. What do you fund? Arts organizations only? What kind of arts organizations? Where do you fund? Nationally? Regionally? In Washington County only? Do you really accept applications, or do you really NOT want applications? Be as clear as you can be about your funding guidelines. And when they change, be sure to communicate those changes to your grantees and prospective grantees.

Online dating. Have you ever asked your grantees for feedback about your online application form? I bet they could tell you which questions are confusing, repetitive, and/or poorly written. They'd be happy to tell you which fields in the form don't allow for enough characters to answer the question, or allow so many characters that they wonder whether they've written enough. (They'll also point out any typos that may have crept in.) And because no standard application form can possibly anticipate everything you want to know about an organization, you might want to include a box where a nonprofit filling out the form can add things you need to know that don't fit anywhere else. What's that? You don't offer an online application form? We need to talk....

Paper airplanes. Do you really need multiple copies, triple-hole-punched, of three years' worth of financial statements and 990s? You do know you can view 990s online via the Foundation Center's 990 Finder, right? Paperless is good for the environment -- and your peace of mind.

Snail mail. Admit it, you can't control when the mail is delivered. If you're still asking for and/or receiving paper applications, be sure to specify that the due date is a postmarked date. Doing so will lower everyone's stress level.

Time's up. Wonder why you get so many applications at the last minute? Because proposal writing is an inherently complex, time-consuming process. The applications waiting for your attention have been through several rounds of writing, review, and rewriting. They may not be perfect, but it's not because the team behind each application didn't care.

Respond, please! I'm going to tell you something you probably already know: It is really hard when a nonprofit that has applied for a grant doesn't hear back from you. Nonprofits put a lot of time and effort into creating good proposals, and most of them really are expecting you to pick up the phone and tell them that theirs was the best grant proposal you’ve ever read -- and that you'll be sending a check for more than they requested. Short of that, they absolutely love it when you send a postcard or an e-mail simply indicating you received their proposal.

Rejection hurts. No one likes to be rejected, but when you do turn down a proposal, get right to the point. The first sentence of the rejection letter should say something like, "We're sorry, but ... Yes, it hurts, but not as much as forcing an applicant to skim through two or three paragraphs to get to the bad news.

Share the love. Believe me when I tell you that when a nonprofit learns its proposal has been funded, people have been known to stand on chairs and do the happy dance. So, next time you make the decision to award a grant, pick up the phone and share the news -- and the moment -- with the person whose name is on the application cover letter. Being a part of that moment helps connect you to the end result -- and isn't that why you do what you do?

What about it, grantwriters? do you have any other "Dear Abby" advice for funders? And funders, what do you know that Abby doesn't? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

-- Allison Shirk

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