14 Ways to Improve Your Next Proposal and Build Ties With Grant Makers
Research shows most foundations plan to slow or keep their giving flat in 2023, so it’s more crucial than ever to create grant proposals that stand out from the competition. About a quarter of grant makers say they expect to give less this year— and about half say they’ll likely hold steady, according to early results of a survey by Candid based on foundation data.
A simple yet effective way to improve your chances of securing a grant is to connect with the foundation before applying, says Lauren Steiner, founder of Grants Plus, a grant-seeking consulting firm. Many fundraisers don’t do this because they’re afraid of getting rejected, she says, but that’s a risk worth taking. “All fundraising is a risk of personal rejection, and we just all have to be okay with getting a lot of nos and moving on to the next one,” she says.
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Research shows most foundations plan to slow or keep their giving flat in 2023, so it’s more crucial than ever to create grant proposals that stand out from the competition. About a quarter of grant makers say they expect to give less this year — and about half say they’ll likely hold steady, according to early results of a survey by Candid based on foundation data.
A simple yet effective way to improve your chances of securing a grant is to connect with the foundation before applying, says Lauren Steiner, founder of Grants Plus, a grant-seeking consulting firm. Many fundraisers don’t do this because they’re afraid of getting rejected, she says, but that’s a risk worth taking. “All fundraising is a risk of personal rejection, and we just all have to be OK with getting a lot of nos and moving on to the next one,” she says.
When getting in touch, make sure to respect the foundation’s preferences for communication if any are stated, she says, and don’t reach out if they explicitly say not to. “You never, ever want to look like you’re doing an end-run on a process,” she says. “Like if they say ‘no phone calls,’ then don’t call. But if it’s sort of unsaid or there is a contact, calling them and having a conversation is really important.”
If you’re contacting a potential new grant maker for the first time, ask to have a brief conversation about your organization’s work and how you think it fits with their grant making, Steiner suggests. This can be a “game changer” for both organizations, she adds, because you’ll either help the program officer and your nonprofit make a funding match or you’ll spare both from wasting limited time on a proposal that’s headed nowhere.
Here are more tips from experts to help you get the best return on your grant-seeking efforts, including proven ways to build ties with program officers to boost your odds of success.
Be selective. Don’t bother submitting proposals that aren’t solicited, whether through a direct invitation from a grant maker or a public request for applications, says Muneer Panjwani, a development consultant and former fundraising executive. “It’s going into space at that point — nobody’s looking at it.”
Don’t apply for every grant out there, says Susan Schaefer, principal at Resource Partners LLC, a firm that helps nonprofits land big grants. It’s more efficient to focus on building relationships with program officers, getting their advice for your proposal, and applying in response to an eager invitation than spending a lot of time preparing “cold” proposals, she says.
The strongest proposals tell a story of the nonprofit’s past, present, and future. And it’s often that future piece that gets left out.
Get to know program officers. Start by researching the potential grant maker, including the kinds of groups it gives to and why, the size or range of grants it typically makes, and how its focus areas intersect with your work, Panjwani suggests. You could also see if any of its grantees are organizations with which you collaborate or want to do so. These insights should help you figure out how best to approach the foundation and articulate the value your nonprofit could add to its portfolio, he says. When you’re ready to initiate contact, here are a couple ways to do so.
- Try to get meetings at conferences. If you have certain targets in mind, email them beforehand, Panjwani suggests. This approach has worked for him: Write one or two sentences about your organization’s work and why it’s important for the grant maker to know about it, and say you would love to meet for coffee. Then approach the grant maker at the event to introduce yourself and follow up on your email.
- You can also start to develop a relationship by email. Don’t send a long report, Panjwani says, but share a helpful “FYI,” such as new research that affects your work or a significant milestone you think would interest the grant maker. You can also say there’s no need to respond — you’re just sharing because you thought it would be helpful. “When you do that a couple of times and they see that what you’re sending is valuable, then you can start to sort of ask for more engagement at that point,” he says.
When writing your proposal, start with the big picture. Avoid diving right into the details of your work, Panjwani says. You don’t know how many people will review your application so it’s best to assume the reader doesn’t know much about your organization, even if the foundation has supported you before. “Start at the top,” he says, with the larger narrative about why your charity exists, what its big dream or vision is, how you want to achieve that, and how you’ve done that so far.
Provide context beyond the duration of the grant. “A funder wants to know what it’s investing in, and that should be something larger than a 12- or 24-month project,” Schaefer says. “The strongest proposals tell a story of the nonprofit’s past, present, and future. And it’s often that future piece that gets left out.”
For example, if you’re requesting a 12-month grant, you could share a budget that encompasses the previous year of the program, the current year, and your projection for the next year. This tells a story about the growth of your program and how its priorities may have shifted over the years, she says. “At a minimum, you are creating opportunities for the grant maker to contact you with more questions.”
Look at every element of the proposal with the lens of that particular funder, and make sure that you’re making the strongest case possible to them.
Show you are thinking about the future. Since 2020, it’s become even more important to have “backup plans” and show that you are planning for an uncertain future, Steiner says. “Be forthright about your future plans and the fact that you don’t know what may happen.”
Demonstrate resilience by explaining how you’ve handled uncertain times in the past, such as the pandemic, she suggests. Talk about the challenges you faced, how you adapted, and any benefits your nonprofit received as a result.
Ban the boilerplate. Steiner says it’s OK to “borrow” language from past proposals, but you should tailor each application to address the specific ecosystem that the grant maker cares about. “Look at every element of the proposal — from the needs statement to the project description, even to your staffing plan — with the lens of that particular funder, and make sure that you’re making the strongest case possible to them,” she says.
“Write for skimmers,” Steiner suggest. Program officers review loads of proposals and may be reading very quickly, she says, so present your information in a way that is easy to digest. She shares a couple tips:
- Start each paragraph with a “topic sentence” — your most important point — rather than building up to it.
- Use “signposts” to outline key ideas. For example, introduce a section by saying, “This organization is best suited to run this program for these three reasons.”
Be as brief and concise as possible. Try to avoid redundancies, Panjwani says. If some questions in an application seem repetitive, use them as opportunities to add to what you’ve already shared, he suggests. Don’t simply say the same thing in a different way.
Use A.I. to streamline this work. Steiner suggests using ChatGPT to help with tasks such as organizing and editing your proposal or finding facts for your statement of need.
But be aware of potential misinformation and privacy concerns. If you enter information about your organization into this tool, know there’s no guarantee it will be kept private, she says. You might look into new A.I. tools that are being built specifically for grant seeking and promise to protect privacy, she says, such as Granted AI and Grantable.
Spell out your organization’s “why.” Many fundraisers simply “dump lots of bleak data” into this section to illustrate the problem their organization is trying to solve, Steiner says. “Use the data — absolutely, we need it,” she says. But don’t leave it to the reader to draw the connection between that data and the reason for your mission. “You want to pull it together so that it says, look, there is a great need for this program, and we are poised and ready to do this work,” she says. “That’s the point you want to make with your statement of need.”
Plan your responses carefully. Most applications are now online, but it’s best to download the questions and take time to think about them before responding, Steiner says. Before you start writing, think about the key points you want to make, she suggests, including any important facts you want to include and what you want the program officer to remember after reading your proposal. Then figure out where to put that information in the application, even if the grant maker doesn’t ask for it specifically.
Put the spotlight on your community. Since the country’s racial reckoning in 2020 and the rise of community-centric fundraising, Steiner says, more fundraisers have shifted their focus in proposals from the organization to the people it serves. This includes considering whether community members would see themselves reflected in the language used, incorporating individuals’ stories or testimonials, and taking care to refer to people’s identities accurately. If you’re not sure what language to use, she says, think about how to start that conversation with your community.
When speaking about the people your group serves, make sure to do so in a respectful and meaningful way, Steiner says. For example, instead of using descriptors like “disadvantaged” or “at-risk,” talk about the larger systems that have contributed to your community’s situation and how that has happened over time. This is not only the “right thing to do,” she says, but also shows grant makers that your nonprofit is connected to the community and developing solutions from the ground up.
Be honest. If you aren’t yet meeting all of your goals, don’t try to hide that in a proposal or dodge certain questions, says Jackie Griffin, head of an eponymous grant-seeking consultancy. “You don’t have to overshare, by any means,” she says, but be transparent about what the reality is and how you plan to work on it. For example, if board involvement is lower than you would like, say that — and explain what steps you’re taking to improve it. “When you ignore a question, that’s not going to have a successful outcome,” Griffin says.
After you get a grant, stay in touch with the program officer. Show how the foundation’s support was important to your organization, Steiner says, and make your communication feel personal. “You don’t need to spend a lot to keep up a personal rapport with your funders,” she says. “And if you could take even your top 10 funders and do that, you make a huge difference.”