There’s a mythological perception that grant money is a free for all! All you have to do is be a non-profit organization, have a great idea, fill out the application, and hire a really good grant writer to write an award winning narrative of your business’s lofty goals. You imagine you’ll just come up with a great explanation of why you’re most deserving and how you’ll use the money to feed needy children in Africa and voila! You surely will be rewarded, especially because you spent $3,500 on said award winning grant writer!
I mean, it makes sense, right? Every time you tell someone about your community or service based business idea, especially if it involves children, people anxiously advise you to structure your business as a non-profit. “Oh, you can get so much grant money if you become a non-profit...my cousin did it.” And 95% of these people have no clue the legal conditions required to start, manage, or maintain a non-profit organization nor the tedious guidelines and logistics that are involved, and they definitely don’t know whether starting a non-profit organization is best for your business, specifically.
So, you follow said person’s advice and now you think that because you have a non-profit that has been in operation for six months, one that has never managed more than $6,000.00 in funds, your non-profit is definitely worthy of a grant!
Slow your roll my friend...
It doesn’t quite work like that.
I’m not here to shoot down your dreams, but I do want to share some thoughts to consider that will prepare you for the arduous journey ahead, a little free strategic positioning advice, if you will. So, before you endeavor to spend your company’s very limited resources on a grant writer, here are a few things you need to know to position your company for a winning strategy, before you get started.
What granting agencies are looking for
Granting agencies want to make charitable donations to get tax deductions, period. Most agencies require grantees to be a non-profit organization so they can write those donations off on their taxes. But these granting organizations are typically looking to donate to community based businesses that will actually do good in the communities they serve. They are looking to invest in organizations that align with their mission, values, and interest in serving the community, in a very particular way. When big businesses invest in your vision, they want to see an intangible return on their investment. You are now reflective of them, and you must represent them well.
They also need to trust that they are not giving thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars to an organization who has never managed that type of budget before. They need to trust that you, as an organization, will honestly and responsibly carry out their aligned mission and do exactly what you said you will do with the money. Imagine giving a 16 year old kid, who’s never had any money, paid any bills, worked a job, or had any true responsibilities, $100,000.00 cash. What is the first thing he will do? Unless he’s a super kid, he will probably go to the mall or spend it on liabilities, flashy things, his friends, everything that won’t give him a return on his investment.
Similarly, as a young organization, if you, as a grant-seeking organization, have never had to manage any major budget that you’ve worked relentlessly to build, a granting organization will be less likely to trust you with their major financial investment. Understanding this, it’s important to begin positioning yourself in a way that proves your capacity to manage major funding (anything over $100,000.00) before you apply for and ask for grant monies.
The best time to prepare for grant monies is now! I recommend positioning your company as one who is reputable, showing capacity to provide exceptional services; and able to fundraise and gather the resources you need to execute your organization’s mission prior to going up for major grants. This may mean applying for microgrants, hosting fundraisers, offering services for a fee (school contracting or paid, community activities), or anything that will give your organization an operating budget where you can show how you have managed it. Once you do that, develop an accounting system and keep records of your financials, including quarterly or annual financial statements.
Also, develop internal systems, reporting systems, payroll systems, daily operation systems, management systems, and organization wide standard operating procedures. Take a year or more to develop a solid internal infrastructure that can attest to its ability and capacity to manage and successfully execute the mission of the granting organizations you seek to align with.
I advise my clients to approach grant seeking in one of two ways. Make a BIG impact in a short amount of time, or play the long term game. There are various ways to do both. If you are looking to acquire grant monies within the next six months to a year, and you have very little to stand on as an independent business, PARTNERSHIP is essential. Find larger, more reputable organizations (organizations with six or seven figure operating budgets) to partner with.
If you are not yet a non-profit organization or after consulting with a business consultant (such as myself ;) you do not think it is in your company’s best interest to become a non-profit organization, get a fiscal sponsor. A fiscal sponsor is a non-profit organization that has a longstanding reputation of healthy, financial management and community based service, that will receive grant monies on your behalf (offering the granting agency a tax break) and will distribute the monies to you, less a 10-12% fee.
The other way to successfully gain the attention of granting agencies is by hustling you (we’re all grown here, right?) ass off! You need to be in the community, in the news, on television. You need to have a massive social media presence and following. You need to rub elbows with community leaders and network with decision makers. You need to provide services for fee to build up your bankroll, and track every accomplishment, every deliverable, create surveys, gather data, do everything to make a name for yourself! When you have developed a reputation with quantifiable data to prove your organization’s impact, granting agencies will be much more likely to partner with you!
With the long term game, you are doing the same thing, you just may take more time to acquire the resources to show your capacity to acquire and manage a large budget.
I once heard a fellow grant writer say, “if you have never managed as much money as you’re seeking, don’t even bother.” Remember the old saying, it takes money to make money? Well, I don’t always agree with that, especially not in the age of technology, but in terms of asking for financial backing from a grantor, it surely does… that or promise… or quantifiable data about the impact you are making or can make on the community! Think strategy people!
Give your grant writer something exceptional to write about!
People think grant writers are the knight in shining armor who has come to save you from the pits of struggle-resources! Sure, grant writers are the BOMB! I mean, we tell your stories in the most enchanting way. We beautify and embellish and write you so well that even if you never plan to do one thing you say you will do, the grant reviewer will believe you just might have the potential… but the grant writer can only write you as well as you actually are.
Sure, a compelling narrative will get you far, but granting agencies are far more interested in how you perform as an agency, your strategy for accomplishing the mission at hand, your capacity to manage the monies, and your past performance in successfully executing your business’s plans...which should not be left in the hands of an amateur writer to convey (might I add!). Granting agencies have research teams who check you out from every angle. Even if they really like your proposal, they may call you in to question you further about your plan.
So, your grant writer is merely here to convey and transcribe your accolades as a successfully performing organization with a well-developed plan to execute the aligning organization’s mission. Have your plan together before you hire a grant writer. Do not expect him or her to also provide program development services or to turn wine into water...unless, of course, they offer program development or consulting as an additional service. Grant writers are usually great at seeing where you can improve, developing strategically sound programs, and knowing exactly what you can add to your plan to make it exceptional, but that is not the primary duty of the writer.
I hope this article helps you think about what your next fiscal year looks like. Maybe you will incorporate some of these tips and thoughts into your action plan to better position yourself for financial support. In the meanwhile, if you need help with strategic positioning, program development, or grant writing, S. Jones Books and Education is currently accepting new clients! We offer these services and more. I would love to help you on your journey!