New 501c3? 3 Things to Do Before Seeking Grants.

New and small organizations often come to me for help writing grants. I ask them a few questions and then often have to tell them that they aren’t necessarily ready for grants. When they ask me why, it’s usually due to some combination of the following:

1. Programs

You can’t just have a mission; your org needs programs because institutional funders like a target for their giving. They won’t simply fund an idea, because they are, by nature, conservative and will want to see a program with a basic track record and demonstrable, long-term upside that they can help you expand, sustain, and improve. You probably have ideas for a program or two, but are concerned that you need the money first. As you start to pick up donors, you can expand your program to what you envisioned. But at first, it’s a great idea to design early incarnations of your programs to run with little money and…

2. Volunteers

Volunteers are your org’s passionate army. They can help you do any number of things: help with your program implementation, marketing, clerical work, and more. And guess what? People that care enough to volunteer for your org or program are the ones that might eventually decide to donate. And as quick as that, you’ll be much more attractive to institutional funders, since they like to see support for your work in as many different ways as possible. Try one of these volunteer matchmaking sites to find people passionate about your mission. Or find a big local corporation with volunteer programs. People out there want to help you. You have to let them know that you’re there!

3. A Board That Gives

If your board doesn’t give to your organization – even just a little – that will be a red flag to funders. After all, if your board isn’t behind your programs financially, why should a foundation take a chance? And remember – there are many ways for your board to contribute: in-kind legal and financial services, finding other like-minded donors, use of spare office space… just make sure that it’s all demonstrable and quantifiable for a grant application.

Bonus: Well-organized Financial Information

You need to have projected overall and project/program budgets and then track reality throughout your fiscal year so you know how you’re doing. You don’t need an audit, but make sure that you can show budgets and revenue versus expenses in a coherent, accountant-approved way. If your non-profit is well-organized financially, it will go a long way towards signaling that you’re a good bet for funding.

Grant Proposal Rejected? 3 Reasons It May Not Be Your Fault.

I’ve spent a lot of time in this space writing about fiction writing and editing, but I do more than that. I act as a nonprofit and grants consultant to small or start-up nonprofits. I also work part-time at a private foundation, so I have a good bead on the general thought processes grantors go through when they get your material. In grant writing, rejection is a part of the process. But the reasons why your application is rejected may not be so straight forward. Or even your fault.

The rejection may have little to do with how well the proposal is written or the merit of the proposal. Even a good fit can get rejected. Often, there are factors that are simply beyond your control as an applicant. Here’s a few things that I’ve seen happen behind the scenes that might sink your otherwise fantastic proposal.

1. No more money

Even if you submit by the deadline, you never really know what the financial situation is behind the scenes. Despite the great care that foundations take in projecting dispersible funds, and planning the amounts to give away each cycle, some boards or panels might suddenly get behind a larger-than-usual gift that eats up available cash. A Pulitzer-level grant narrative can’t do a thing about that.

2. Board or panel doesn’t get behind it

If the grant you applied for is a small one decided by a program person, this wouldn’t necessarily apply. But most grants are awarded by panels of program officers or more often the board of the foundation itself. Every grant application needs a champion, and if no one on the panel makes a case for you, then it’s going to be much easier for them to reject the proposal, even if it’s meritorious.

3. Too much good competition in the cycle

Some funders grant money on a rolling basis, but many – including the one I work for – have between 1 and 4 cycles per year. If you apply in a crowded cycle, you may get rejected regardless of merit. Hopefully, you’ll get feedback from the funder letting you know about this or inviting you to resubmit at another time, but unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.

These are a few of the realities of of grant writing. The key is to not give up. Build your programs and track record, do your research, find the right fits, and try to develop relationships with the funders that are able and willing to talk with you on the phone (not all of them can or do, though). A good grants program is a marathon, not a sprint.

Ever been rejected for a reason out of your control? Did you get feedback? Tell us about it in the comments!