There are over 110,000 grant making foundations in the United States, and many organizations will find that there are between several dozen to several hundred that fund programs or missions similar to theirs. The result of this is that a nonprofit will need to write many grant proposals over the course of the year and ensure that each proposal meets the specific foundation’s requirements and is submitted by the appropriate deadline.
Keeping on top of tracking all this activity is vital to the success of your grants effort, but it often does not receive the attention it should. In this Topic of the Month, we will discuss the process of tracking foundation activity, with the intent to increase your grant writing success by equipping you with the right tools to keep you on track.
Record Keeping is Critical
When approaching grant writing, attitude is everything, so it is imperative to keep in mind that grant writing is a marathon and not a sprint. Without breaking down grant writing into manageable portions, the process would seem insurmountable.
A big part of keeping up with the grant-writing marathon is maintaining good records. This will help you to approach deadlines with ease (no last minute scrambling,) know which grants are in play and which grants you have received that now require a progress report to the funders. Because record keeping and tracking deadlines is such an important part of the grant writing process, we recommend that you begin the year by developing a “Grant Wheel” calendar that outlines foundations you want to research as well as those to whom you will send letters of inquiry and full proposals. As we review the key parts of the grant writing process below, we will include an outline of how you can develop a spreadsheet that helps you track all of the data that is part of the grant-writing process.
Communication is Key
There are perhaps two reasons why grant writing is more difficult than major donor cultivation or raising money from individuals. The first reason is that foundations do not necessarily know who you are before they receive your request. That makes grant writing a little like cold calling, and no one likes cold calling. But perhaps what makes grant writing really difficult is that it is merit based funding. Unlike relationship funding, which is usually based upon reciprocity, family and community ties, merit based funding is based solely upon the merit of your organization. One thing is for certain, if you can succeed at grant writing, your organization truly deserves the money!
The Grant Wheel is devoted to tracking communication activity with foundations. This activity tracking is key because it allows you to see where the grant is at any particular moment in its lifespan – all the way from the initial introductory call to the foundation contact, to the submission of the Letter of Intent, follow-up to confirm receipt of the LOI, and so on.
As with all fundraising strategies, foundation cultivation is about relationships and a relationship cannot begin until the two parties are communicating. If you are looking for long-term support from foundations, than building the relationship is absolutely critical. Whether your nonprofit has a development department or not, foundations like to have a good relationship with the Executive Director. To delegate relationship building entirely to the fund development staff is a mistake that can have long-term repercussions.
Relationships are critical and are often the first part of the grant-writing process. The full process, outlined to the right, takes you from the very beginning of your grant writing strategy, to building relationships with gatekeepers, to reporting on grants received.
The first step of the grant writing cycle – the research and writing process – is probably the most time consuming. In 2012, over $47 billion was donated to nonprofit organizations by private foundations. There are opportunities for foundation funding, but the difficult part is obviously determining which foundations are good prospects. The research phase is all about information gathering. The more thorough your initial research is now, the better the results you will see later on.
There are several other resources for this information-gathering phase, one of the biggest being The Foundation Center, headquartered in New York City with regional centers in Atlanta, Cleveland, San Francisco and Washington, DC. Research is free at the physical locations and the Center’s website, www.foundationcenter.org has excellent free resources, as well as affordable plans to access foundation directories. For government grant opportunities, visit www.grants.gov. Also, there are many sites that allow you to sign up to receive request for proposal (RFP) updates.
When researching foundations, start by focusing on geography and giving interests, then work your way from there. Start a spreadsheet in Excel to keep a simple grant calendar. On the first tab, list all of the foundations that you want to research. Remember that this is a list that you can add to. If you see an article in the newspaper, or if a board member makes a connection to a program officer at a foundation, add them to your list of foundations to research. As you begin to research the foundation, you can fill in key information, such as due dates, preferred form of initial contact, specific contact information as well as notes on specific program areas the foundation funds and whether or not they accept unsolicited proposals. When you complete your research, you may find that many foundations are actually not a good fit. It is helpful to make a note of this and indicate why the foundation is not a good fit. For example, many foundations have specific geographic restrictions on their funding. Making a note of this will help you track why the foundation is not a good fit for your organization at this time.
While it is true that many foundations do not accept unsolicited proposals, there are plenty that do. When courting those foundations, pay close attention to their submission guidelines, which will always start with the initial approach. The initial approach will either by a phone call, LOI, or an application form of sorts. If you are unsure whether your organization meets the goals of the foundation, or have questions regarding their submission process, give them a call. Some foundations have staff members to answer your questions via phone, and others do not.
LOI stands for Letter of Inquiry or Letter of Introduction. A LOI is generally sent by the organization to introduce itself and request permission to send a full grant proposal. The LOI is an important first step in the grant writing process. It should be a 1-2 page letter on organizational letterhead, signed by the Executive Director, President or Board Chair.
We recommend writing out an LOI template first, then tweaking them per foundation after the research phase. For each foundation you send an LOI to, take a careful look at the foundations website, and follow directions if provided. Then, add another column to your tracking spreadsheet noting the date the LOI was sent out.
On the second tab of the spreadsheet, you can develop a list of foundations to whom you have sent an initial letter of inquiry. Because you will likely be sending multiple letters, it can be easy to lose track of what you sent and when. Make a note of the foundation’s name and the contact person, the date the LOI was sent and whether you sent via email, mail, fax or directly through the foundation’s portal. At this time, it is good to also establish a time when you will follow-up via a phone call or email. As you hear back from foundations, track the information you receive on this spreadsheet.
When you submit your letter of inquiry, note the deadline for full proposals on a third tab of your spreadsheet. That way, when a foundation requests that you submit a full proposal, you will already have the deadline in place and can also make sure that you have enough time to get the proposal submitted given other deadlines that you may have for other grants. On this third tab of your spreadsheet, you can track when the proposal was submitted, to whom it was sent, the amount requested and the program area (if appropriate) for which the funds were requested.
The first follow up call is one of those steps that some grant seekers choose to ignore, but after you have done a few, you will quickly realize that this step is very valuable. Foundations receive many inquiries per year, some larger foundations receive thousands. Oftentimes, these inquiries are gathered and put into a large stack on someone’s desk. The goal of your follow up call is to get pulled out of the stack.
Make sure to have a pen and paper handy when you call and take notes on everything. When conducting your follow up calls, the main thing is to show a true interest in them. Show that you care about their foundation and want to help them do their job better by fulfilling their mission better than anyone else can. Follow up calls provide a great opportunity to enhance the relationship with the foundation.
3. Full Proposal
If your initial approach is successful, you will then be asked to send a full proposal. Again, each foundation has its own guidelines and preferences for the proposal, but we suggest starting by reviewing our Topic of the Month on Writing Successful Grants, which provides a sample proposal template.
After you submit a full proposal, you should set up a fourth tab that tracks grants that were received. On this tab, indicate the date of acceptance, the dollar amount of the grant and any program restrictions. In addition, note any important comments, such as whether there are any restrictions on the grant.
This follow up step will be similar to step number 3, except by this time, you probably have had conversations with the foundation. Throughout this round of follow up calls, the roles will probably be reversed, where the foundation is asking the questions, and you are providing answers. Be sure to ask when the foundation is making decisions on the next grant cycle, and mark it down in your calendar. If you do not hear from the foundation right away, give it some time.
4. Grant Received or Rejected
Congratulations! Your hard work paid off and you received a grant. Now what? Most of the time, the check will be accompanied by an award letter. File this letter in a safe place, and record all the details in your database, spreadsheet, and/or calendar. Send them a thank you card – handwritten is always nice – and pat yourself on the back.
Depending on the number of requests sent, you will likely get a good amount of rejection letters, especially on the first approach. Think of foundations as a big conference table with all of the seats taken by other organizations that got there before you did. In order to get a seat, you have to squeeze your way in, and it is not always easy. Keep trying!
Also, keep in mind that rejection letters come in two forms:
- No forever. This type of rejection letter states something along the lines of “your organization does not align with the mission or goals of the foundation” or “the foundation is going in a different direction.” If this is the case, you can scratch them off your target list, and move on.
- No for now. If the letter makes it sound like the foundation would like to fund you, but doesn’t have the money right now – that’s okay. Take them at their word, and come back again in the next round because they might have the money then. Call and inquire about the best time to approach the foundation again, and try to gather information on how to improve the proposal for next time. A group that turns around and immediately resubmits a proposal without seeking any feedback could conceivably be regarded as a nuisance.
5. Grant Reporting
When it comes time to deliver a report to the foundation, remember what was discussed earlier on the foundations expected return on investment. Show the foundation the positive impact that was made thanks to their generosity. Oftentimes, foundations request a program report, organizational update and financial report. In your report, talk about accomplishments but also build on that momentum and talk about what you intend to do next. Take it a step further and talk about how the most recent accomplishments have positioned the organization to do more or do what it’s already doing more effectively. This is a great opportunity to hold your organization accountable for its actions over a certain period of time. We can’t stress enough to take full advantage of the added value that grant writing can bring your organization.
To track grant reporting, create a fifth “Report” tab to track when you send updates to the foundation. In addition, many foundations also require annual or quarterly reports, and you can enter the due dates for those reports on this tab to ensure that you are staying on top of all deadlines.
By developing an on-going grant writing cycle and tracking deadlines and data effectively, you will be well on your path to developing a successful grant writing program for your organization.
As outlined earlier, the following organizations provide online databases for foundation research.
1. Foundation Center: www.foundationcenter.org
2. Foundation Search: www.foundationsearch.com
Kimberly Reeve is a former Managing Director in the New York Office. Virginia Zignego is a former Director in the Midwest Office. This article was written for our Topic of the Month as part of our General Executive Counsel program.
For more information on Cathedral’s Grant Writing program, please click here.