Sometimes grants seem to be the perfect solution to every need at nonprofits. I learned early on to be careful what you wish for when you apply for grant monies. Here are a few guidelines when thinking about going for grants.
- When someone from a foundation or family trust offers money to your organization for their pet project, go slowly and be sure what they wish to support is something you would be doing if they were not helping at all. Be strategic even if it means turning down a large sum of money that is assured or risk drifting away from your mission.
- Be sure you have the skill to manage a grant before you land it. Applying for funds with an exaggeration of your skills and abilities as a staff and board can backfire. If you get the grant and the granting organization is not happy with the level of competency at which you perform, your credibility with them will suffer.
- Use grants to start new projects, especially those that create earned income, but do not expect to sustain the projects with grant funds. Most foundation executives will warn you in person or in their grant guidelines that they do not wish to provide ongoing operational support of your work. They want to help you become more self-sufficient or achieve important dreams. They worry and withdraw support when they see an applicant attempting to bridge the gap in operations year after year with operating grants.
- Be sure you have the ability internally or with hired accounting services to carefully track grant funds. Most granting organizations will audit your work at some level and finding you did not spend their money as promised can result in damage to personal careers and the organization’s reputation.
- Thoroughly research potential grant sources before applying. They publish guidelines that give you a clear idea of their priorities and you will not change their strategic directions even if your need is very compelling. Most foundations also have specific geographic regions within which they fund.
- People give to people so personal relationships and thoughtful communication matters. Invite grant givers to your site to see what you do whenever they are in your area. I once asked our Congressman to invite statewide foundation representatives to our community, a region that few foundations had visited or supported. Each of them began giving in the community after seeing our local non-profit organizations in action. The congressman was the perfect host because he served on the Joint Congressional Budget Committee and they would not consider turning down his specific invitation.
- Write a logic model for your project or program that identifies the impact, outcome and output objectives clearly. Many funders require them but most will appreciate knowing the measurable results you expect. A logic model that is well written clearly identifies how the results will be evaluated, another common requirement of grants.
Charitable foundations, government agencies and even corporations assist nonprofits greatly through grants, but dependence on them can be a problem. Their ability to help your group grow will decline in a recession economy. It’s important to balance grants with earned income, individual philanthropy and other sources. Remember that grants are not gifts – they require thoughtful shepherding throughout their life cycle, from initial research to final reports.