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DLB Hicks


Nine Ways to Turbocharge Your Grant Seeking

Frequently, I am asked to assess and measure the success of a client’s grants program. Of course, the financial measures are the most obvious. But what about the other things we do that position us for success? Here are nine ways you can "turbocharge" your grant seeking and take your funding to the next level.

1.  Focus on raising the right money.  Grants can bring a significant infusion of cash. They also bring expectations and deliverables that may require more resources than the grantee budgeted. I have seen any number of significant grants that, six months down the road, led to cost overruns in the interest of meeting the requirements and expectations of a grant maker. Careful planning and budgeting prior to creating a proposal are clearly a panacea for this problem. So too is understanding a grant’s purpose: will it help you sustain the program or to grow or improve it? Clearly understanding this and communicating realistic expectations to the grant maker at the proposal stage is crucial.

Measure: how much of our grant support is covering planned growth vs. unplanned growth?

2.  Set two kinds of goals.  In helping clients identify different types of funding needs we look at sustaining costs – what will be carried from one year to the next and which typically include core expenses to maintain operations, programs, facilities.  And we look at investment – what is needed to grow, strengthen and improve the same.    Understanding the carrying costs vs. new investments helps us “tease out” what we might present to current funders or potential new donors to raise the stakes and help frame larger asks.  These asks are what help to grow funding. 

Measure: how much of our goal relates to carrying costs vs. expansion/enhancement expenses?

3.    Think “sustaining grants and investment grants.”  A diverse portfolio of foundation support includes sustaining grants (modest grants that help keep your program operational from one year to the next) and investment grants (larger grants that support program creation, expansion and/or enhancements). Finding a healthy balance in this portfolio is tricky. Investment grants may require intensive reporting and oversight, which could take valuable time away from soliciting new donations. Too much reliance on sustaining support might require more grant reporting (more donors, more reports) that could leave less time to develop significant grant proposals that may bring in larger infusions of cash to support program development. Understanding this balance helps to make informed decisions about resource allocation and development to create and sustain growth in a grant seeking program. 

Measure: what is the ratio of sustaining grants to investment grants?

4.    Make sure you have the "right" grant makers on your list.  Foundation giving brings two things to the table, cash and credibility. While having enough money to pursue your mission and programs is critical, having the support of industry leaders is important too. Recently, when assessing a grants program for a large nonprofit, I learned that the institution had a central goal of positioning itself as a thought leader in its field. Understanding this helped us assess which grant makers’ support might help elevate the charity’s reputation and standing and include those funders along with appropriate cultivation/solicitation activities in the outreach plan. 

Measures: 1) how many of the most prominent foundations supporting our peers are among our donors? and 2) how many of these foundations are among our best and most accessible prospects?

5.    Build your VQ.  Visibility helps: if your organization is known before your proposal hits a grant maker’s in-box, you increase the likelihood that your application will be read.  Thus, your VQ -- visibility quotient -- is key. Building it involves promoting the mission, programs and accomplishments of your organization, usually through multiple channels.  It also involves building and sustaining a strong network. Showing yourself to be a thoughtful and connected leader helps to build credibility with potential grantors. 

Measures: 1) how well known are we? 2) is our visibility generating interest among potential grantors?

6.    Strengthen Your Network.   I observe that strong foundation and corporate grant seekers are highly adept at building networks among their grantors and their peers. Oftentimes, a significant grant begins not with a proposal but with a call or a meeting which comes at the behest of a board member, colleague, friend or grantor who has kindly opened a door for you. The more time you can devote to networking meetings and becoming well known in your community of practice, the better the chances are that your expanding network can lead you to new grant opportunities.

Measures: 1) how many meetings with colleagues and potential donors did we secure? 2) how many potential grantors did we add to our network?

7.   Build a bigger footprint.  This one is important when it comes to reframing your case and asking for larger grants.  We must demonstrate reach and impact to convince a grant maker to make a larger investment in our work.  There are a couple of ways to do this.  For a large organization, it may mean cataloging the geographic reach of your program and demonstrating that from your program site, you are impacting constituents across a broader area (e.g. kids come from other parts of your community to benefit from your program).  It can also mean replicating your program (or elements of it) in different program sites, expanding your reach.  For a smaller organization, working in collaboration with other partners (both in the nonprofit and private sector) can demonstrate how you are leveraging your resources and mission.  Examples include: sharing program resources with another partner agency, recruiting volunteers from the private sector to supplement or compliment your staff team. 

Measures: 1) who is our constituency and how broad is our reach? 2) are we leveraging our resources through replication or partnering with others?

8.  Think “strategic agenda.”  All successful fundraising depends on a solid case for support which helps the funder understand why money is needed, how it will be used and what impact it can make.  When it comes to leveraging larger grants, some grant makers also want to understand how the program they are being asked to fund relates to the broader mission and work of your organization.  Therefore, I frequently try to help clients assess the “strategic agenda” for the organization, introduced as follows: “Over the next 18 to 24 months, we seek to accomplish the following . . .”  Demonstrating how your programs and services help to further and accomplish this agenda helps to add value to your case. 

Measures: 1) have we identified an 18-24-month strategic agenda? 2) have we made a clear connection between the goals and growth of our programs and this agenda?

9.  Know where you are heading next.  In every instance where I have worked with an organization who has successfully grown its grant support year over year, there is a very clear picture of how program is evolving – which ones are growing, which ones must change or sunset, and which new initiatives need to be undertaken.  I think this helps with growth in two ways.  First, we are presenting the picture of an organization that is “tuned into” its growth and evolution, something that many grant makers value.  Second, we are given the opportunity to bring new ideas and opportunities to the table which helps to keep funding relationships fresh and exciting.  Remember: many major gifts (and grants) happen not because of the way we asked, but because of the way we changed the conversation with the donor and sparked their imagination.

Measures: 1) beyond our 18-24-month strategic agenda, do we have an idea of where we are heading next? 2) can we say for each of our programs and activities whether it is stagnant, stable or growing? 3) do we have exciting new opportunities on the horizon which may present a chance to engage or re-engage a grant maker in a deeper relationship?


John Hicks