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What Grant Makers Aren’t Telling You

amanda-johnstonThis week’s blog offers behind-the-scenes insight on how funders really operate. Fellow Coloradoan Amanda Johnston knows how it works. She has 18 years experience in nonprofit development and an outstanding track record with more than $11 million raised for her clients from local and national funders. Here’s what Amanda has to tell us:

As beginning grant-seekers, many of us are learning the same things…tell a good story and communicate clearly, evaluate your programs and demonstrate your impact in the community, present sound financial documents, etc… I encourage my clients to do those same things.

But after 18 years of writing and submitting grant proposals to every type of funder, I want to share some other stories. Warning: this is not your typical grant writer advice.

Below are five things funders do that they don’t always tell us about. Knowing that these things can happen might call for adding a little optimism to your strategy.

1)   Funders pull strings behind the scenes. Last year, a board member of a nonprofit client called to ask me to submit a proposal to a local private foundation for $85,000. There was a short window and I needed to get the proposal in within about 3 days. The board member also wanted to review the proposal, to make sure we were clearly communicating need and impact. About a week after the request had been submitted, I got news that the proposal had been funded in full! I was so excited to share this information with the client at the next board meeting, but my great news was met with smirks and giggles. I was confused, and soon learned that I’d been set up. The board member who requested the proposal was also the foundation’s donor. You just never know what’s going on behind the scenes!

2)   Funders make decisions without ever reading your proposal. I know you don’t like reading this, but it’s true. As someone who painstakingly checks grammar, and rethinks the clarity of every sentence I write, it’s a frustrating secret to know. During a recent site visit, the head (and only staff member) of a foundation in Washington, D.C. admitted to me that she had not read the proposal we submitted. Instead, she received it, called for a meeting and had me explain the request to her in person. Surprisingly, the grant was awarded in full. She told me that she decided to call me when she received the packet because she was familiar with the organization’s great reputation.

3)   Funders have to give out more money than expected. In this case, the funder found out (as one prominent local foundation just did) that they have to give out some larger grants this year because they have more money than expected and they want to know how you can spend it. Yes, this really happened in 2014. Following good grant-seeker etiquette, I called a funder to discuss a $10,000 request for a client. The proposal I submitted was for roughly 20% of the program’s total budget. A few days later, the funder sent an annoyed email, saying that she would only seriously consider the grant if we would change the request to $20,000 and resubmit immediately. We did and the grant was awarded in full.

4)   Funders invite proposals and guide the applications. In 2013, a large unexpected grant came through for a client from a corporate foundation. In this case, the funder saw a great mission that they wanted the company to be aligned with, and made sure they received a winning application. The funder contacted the nonprofit and offered to preview a first draft of the proposal. The program officer provided the organization with some solid advice on what to say and how to say it, and how much to ask for, so that when he presented the proposal to the trustees, the questions were already answered.

5)   Funders make mistakes too. A few months ago a client received a confusing award letter. In the background and history section of the proposal we described a program that taught women how to make goods that would be sold through a social enterprise program. The award letter we received congratulated the client on the award, but stated that funding was being provided to serve an entirely different population. We contacted the foundation for clarification on the need and got little explanation. We still aren’t sure if the grant was accidental or not, but the award was granted as promised.

So, should you stop trying so hard to evaluate your programs and prove your value in the community? Should you stop trying to build relationships with funders? No way. The majority of foundations do strive to follow the rules and standards they teach. But don’t forget there’s some mystery and human randomness involved.

Grant seeking is time consuming, tedious and rejection is frequent, but sometimes things can go strangely right. Grant makers are real people too and you never know what they might do for your organization.

To learn more about Amanda or connect with her directly, visit her company website here.   

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