11 posts categorized "author-Allison Shirk"

The sustainable nonprofit: Writing a grant proposal for community members

July 08, 2022

Diverse_women_GettyImagesDid you know that today, more grantmakers are bringing in local community members to review proposals with the aim of making the grant review process more equitable and inclusive? A 2021 study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy noted that in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, 94 percent of funders simplified applications and reporting requirements and provided unrestricted and multiyear grants. And 75 percent maintained those changes in 2021. As trust-based philanthropy takes root, the process will not only become more streamlined  but also emphasize “listening to the community.”

Here are some tips for writing a grant proposal for a diverse, community-based audience—in other words, how to write a proposal for readers who may know nothing about your organization or project. The answer is in the six Cs of communication–clarity, cohesiveness, completeness, conciseness, concreteness, and context....

Read the full column article by Allison Shirk, a grantwriting professor at Western Washington University and Seattle Central College and founder of Spark the Fire Grantwriting Classes 

If You've Met One Foundation...You've Met One Foundation

June 08, 2018

Grant_application_for_PhilanTopicWriting grants is a lot like dating. Just because something worked in one relationship doesn't mean it's going to work in the next. Each relationship is unique, unpredictable, exciting, and...sometimes heartbreaking. And when we write a grant proposal, we have to be vulnerable but still present our best qualities. Ready for some foundation dating advice?

Because every foundation is unique, there are two critical components of success to grantwriting that have nothing to do with how well you craft your proposal — research and cultivation. Or in dating terms, getting to know you and courting.

First, you have to research the foundation. If you were dating, this would be like checking out someone's online profile. A grantwriter, instead, checks out the foundation's profile in Foundation Directory Online and spends some time with its 990-PFs. If the foundation issues publications, you'll want to flip through them and take note of the terminology the foundation uses and its stance with respect to your issue. If the foundation has a website, read through the program guidelines, application information, and any FAQs on the site.

As you do, keep an eye out for the foundation's preferences and restrictions. What has it funded in the past and at what level? A quick review of its tax returns (those 990-PFs) should give you a good sense of its giving patterns. One of my favorite things about Foundation  Directory Online is its mapping feature, which allows you to suss out whether a foundation has ever made a grant to a nonprofit in your city, county, or district, as well who the grant went to and the grant amount. Powerful information. It's like peeking into someone's dating history and learning how long the relationship lasted and how serious it was!

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Throwing in the Towel

May 07, 2014

(Allison Shirk, a freelance grantwriter and grantwriting trainer based on Vashon Island, Washington, serves on the board of directors of the Puget Sound Grantwriter's Association. For more of Allison’s advice and wisdom, click here.)

Headshot_allison_shirkYou know that foundation that never returns your calls? The one you keep sending proposals to that never responds? You've poured over the foundation's 990-PF and its Foundation Directory Online profile. You've scoured the Web for information about its staff and giving. And everything you've found gives you reason to believe that if the good people at the foundation would just read your proposal, they'd want to invest in your organization. But you're still hanging on the telephone. Before you throw in the towel and decide to invest your time elsewhere, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Look at more than one 990-PF. One of the most important tools in the grantwriter's toolkit is the 990-PF -- the annual reporting form foundations are required to file with the IRS that provides information on their mission, programs, and grantmaking. And every good prospect researcher knows that it's essential to review more than the foundation's most recent 990-PF; the last two or three years should be your default, and four or five is even better. When reviewing 990-PFs, keep in mind the following: Does the foundation make a point of funding the same nonprofits? What are the exceptions? Does it make grants in the amount you’re looking for? (If the amount of funding you are requesting is too much – or too little – the foundation is unlikely to fund your project.) While you're at it, be sure to review every page of the form. Sometimes there are additional guidelines or notes tucked into the form that can be the difference between winning and losing a grant.

2. Try to connect, but don't overdo it. Every foundation is distinguished by its own communication style and willingness to connect. If the foundation's policy is "no phone calls," respect its wishes. On the other hand, if the foundation has published a phone number or email address, don't be afraid to use it. Just make sure you've done your homework and, should you reach a person in a decision-making role, that you're ready to ask and answer a few pertinent questions.

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12 Tips for Filling Out/Submitting Online Applications

December 04, 2013

(Allison Shirk is a freelance grantwriter based on Vashon Island, Washington. She is on the Board of Directors of the Puget Sound Grantwriter's Association. This article excerpted from her upcoming book. For more information, visit www.allisonshirkgrantwriting.com.)

Headshot_allison_shirkTrees everywhere are rejoicing as more and more funders switch from paper to online applications. But for some grantwriters, having to disrupt the flow of their narrative to accommodate character-limited text fields is both inconvenient and cumbersome.

If you're one of those grantwriters, here are some tips designed to make the online application process a little more enjoyable and productive:

1. Get organized. As you create a login for the application, make a note of your username and password. Then bookmark the login page in your favorite browser so you don't have to go through the eligibility survey every time you come back to the application. Make a note of the date and time (including the time zone!) that the application is due.

2. Create a road map. Read through the application instructions and the application itself and map out where your organization and project descriptions need to be inserted. Identify the questions in the application that you'll need to write narrative for and make a note of data and statistics that need to be collected. List the attachments you’ll want to upload. Remember, not every organization can fit neatly into online applications, so highlight any special information you'll need to insert later.

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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....

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Six Ways to Make Your Volunteer Board Members Feel Appreciated

August 13, 2013

(Allison Shirk is a freelance grantwriter based in the Northwest. In her last article, she offered some tips to help you spice up your grant proposals.)

Headshot_allison_shirkA new generation is making its presence felt, and its members are eager to give more than just their hard-earned money. They want to give their time and talent, to get down in the trenches and serve on boards. They want their ideas to be taken seriously, put into action, and reported back on with charts and graphs. Oh, and they want to be appreciated and recognized for their efforts and contributions to your cause or organization.

What's that? You're too busy to let your volunteer board members know their efforts are appreciated? You might want to rethink that. Before you start planning your next volunteer appreciation event, run through this checklist of things you can do to show you care.

Common courtesy. The easiest way to appreciate and recognize volunteer board members costs you nothing. It's giving them a proper greeting when they arrive for a meeting and letting them know how grateful you are for the time and effort they’ve expended to be there. It's small things like starting and ending the meeting on time. It's making sure everyone's voice is heard and that everyone has a chance to contribute to the discussions.

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Tips for Seeking First-Time Support

July 17, 2013

(Allison Shirk is a freelance grantwriter based in the Puget Sound region. In her last post, she wrote about how grantwriters can help build the capacity of their organizations.) )

Headshot_allison_shirkNonprofits approaching a foundation for support for the first time often are asked, "Who else is at the table?" That's because foundations and corporate grantmakers are more likely to fund a program or project that others have deemed worthy of support. Not only does it simplify the due diligence process, it makes it easier for a program officer to demonstrate to senior leadership and/or the board that the program or project will be fully funded.

But as any grantwriter or development professional knows, it's not easy to get a funder to actually sit at the table. Here are a few tips designed to help you demonstrate to potential first-time funders that your project or program merits their support:

Craft a strong needs statement. Just as the right music is important at any dinner party, a well-crafted needs statement is critical when seeking first-time support. It's the piece of the proposal that sets the mood and demonstrates how well your organization understands the underlying problem it is working to address. Spare no expense in making sure you have a good one.

Don't forget about letters of support. One metric that nonprofits often fail to mention is the number of letters of support they receive and the time it took to solicit those letters. For example, you might mention in your proposal that, "We asked members of the community to send letters of support on behalf of the project and in just two weeks we received more than two thousand." (Good for you!) If the funder doesn't discourage the submission of additional materials, you might even want to include a few of the best as attachments to your application -- especially if those letters demonstrate financial or volunteer support or tell a story that supports your needs statement.

Don't hide your volunteers under a bushel. What's better than a letter of support? Sweat equity. Being able to show that members of the community are pulling together with their time and talents is worth its weight in gold. Be meticulous in documenting the amount of volunteer time already allocated to the program or project and put a dollar value on it. (Independent Sector updates that information every year and provides it in a user-friendly table on its Web site.) And if a professional in the community has donated time on a pro-bono basis, count her time at her hourly rate rather than the standard volunteer rate.

Show that you have broad support in the community. Have you already started to receive individual donations in support of the project or program? Share the number and amount with the funder. A large number of individual donors can be just as impressive as a sizable grant from a single source.

Solicit matching grants. Ask one of your loyal supporters if it would be willing to put up a matching grant. Matching grants with the potential to double, triple, or even quadruple the value of the original grant are viewed by many funders, first time or otherwise, as an opportunity to leverage their own grant dollars.

Be happy with small grants. You don't have to hit a homerun every time you step up to the plate. Even grants of a few thousand dollars can take your fundraising efforts to the next level. Indeed, sometimes the real value of a grant is the credibility it confers on your program or project.

Cast a wide net. Spending a few hours with a tool like Foundation Directory Online is almost guaranteed to lead you to new prospects. Avenues for identifying new sources of funding in FDO include searching for companies in your geographic area and then clicking on the "grantmaker" tab, or searching grants made to projects similar to yours. For more search tips, check out the online FDO tutorial.

Prospecting for first-time support is something that even large nonprofits and charities do, so don't be bashful about approaching a funder who has never supported your organization. Once they're actually sitting at the table, they may never want to leave.

What strategies have you used to get first-time support for a project? We'd love to hear them. Use the comments section below....

-- Allison Shirk

Spice It Up!

July 03, 2013

(Allison Shirk is a freelance grantwriter based in the Puget Sound region. In her last article, she shared some tips to help grantwriters build their organizations' capacity.)

Help_keyboardDoes it feel like the grant proposals you're writing are getting old and tired? Maybe you've been working for the same organization for a number of years and writing proposals for the same programs month after month. If you can recite from memory the first three paragraphs of the last grant proposal you wrote, it's time to spice things up! Here are some tips for freshening up your writing and reinvigorating your passion for your organization's mission.

1. Tell a story. Rather than starting with the mission statement or leading with a litany of dry statistics, tell the story of your organization as if it were a novel. Put the funder into the shoes of the clients served by your organization. Show him or her the world through the eyes of the people whose lives are changed. If it's an arts organization, put the funder in the front row as the curtain comes up, the music swells, and the show begins. If it's an environmental organization, make your reader see the colors, hear the sounds, smell the smells of the habitat your organization is committed to protecting. Spark your reader's imagination first, then hit them with facts and figures.

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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.

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The Art of the Phone Call: How to Stand Out With Funders

May 03, 2013

(Allison Shirk is a freelance grantwriter based in the Puget Sound region. In her last post, she shared ten tips for making the best use of your grantwriter's time.)

Telephone-largeIn today's world of high-speed communications, it can be hard to make a meaningful connection. Remembering the art of the personal phone call is a great way to stand out in the crowd. Here are some tips when reaching out to a potential funder by phone.

Leave a short but detailed message. Most funders receive dozens, if not hundreds, of phone calls a week. Voice-mail messages that don't include the right amount of detail will be ignored. Leave your name, phone number, and the elevator pitch for your organization/project. Speak clearly and slowly.

Make a plan to connect. Be sure to include a time (during regular business hours) when you can be reached. Mention that you'll call back in two days if you haven't heard from them. Follow up with an e-mail that includes your contact information and a link to your organization's Web site.

Don't drop the ball. If they call back and you miss the call, call them back within forty-eight hours and follow up with an e-mail. Be persistent but respectful.

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Ten Ways to Make Your Grantwriter’s Time Count

April 25, 2013

(Allison Shirk is a freelance grantwriter based in the Puget Sound region. A version of this post appears on her Web site.)

Alarm-clockThe decision to use a freelance grantwriter can be a smart investment for a nonprofit organization, especially if it knows how to use that freelancer effectively.

With that in mind, here are ten tips (plus a bonus tip) to help you make the most of your freelance grantwriter's time:

1. Get organized. Make sure your grantwriter has everything she needs to be as autonomous as possible. This is likely to require a substantial amount of time in the beginning, but it will also save you time in the end. Ask your grantwriter for a checklist of things she needs, as well as a wish list. The basics include audited financial statements and organizational budgets. Go a step further and provide her with project budgets for every program or capacity-building initiative that may be eligible for the grant. Also, be sure to provide letterhead, photographs, .jpegs of logos, and anything else she'll need to tell your organization's story.

2. Single point of contact. When working with a contractor, it's always best to have a single point of contact. Make sure the individual assigned to be that person is a decision maker who can delegate effectively to every department/function within the organization. Development directors of small organizations may be too busy with special events to give grant proposals the attention they require on a regular basis. Having the grantwriter report directly to the executive director is optimal, in that it will give him/her better access to the "big picture" and help ensure that the information he or she needs is produced in a timely fashion.

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Quote of the Week

  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."

    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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