Nonprofit News aims to help demystify many of the areas associated with successful nonprofit programming — programming that is typically not a part of clinical programming. One of the biggest concerns for clinicians working in nonprofits is the need to find and secure funding through grants and donations.
For counselors, grant writing can be one of the most daunting and terrifying things associated with nonprofit work — so much so that there are already stacks of books and articles on this topic. Instead of simply regurgitating highlights from these resources, I sought out several successful grant writers and asked them to share their thoughts on the most important aspects of grant writing. Their insights, along with some of my own, are included below. Despite what some books and articles may say, nothing guarantees that a proposal will be approved. But there is much you can do to increase the likelihood of success.
- Do your homework. Before writing the first word of the grant application, do what you can to learn about the organization providing the grant. What is the common grant amount? Are there themes in the areas of funding, such as type of program, setting, client population etc.? Adding components to your proposal that have been successful for others can greatly increase your chances of being selected (unless, of course, the organization awarding the grant states that it is looking for something totally original).
- Let the application write itself. My introduction to grant writing came through a former mentor. Although he had written only a dozen or so grants at the time, he had been very successful. His “trick” was simple. He researched the available grants before designing his new program to get a better idea of what type of program money was available. Many times the grant description will provide enough information to help you customize your program to meet both the grantor’s expectations and your client and facility needs. For instance, my former mentor knew he wanted to develop an afterschool program for kids, so he researched that area. He found a few grants that offered funding, and they were very clear about the type of programming they would support. He took their guidelines and designed his afterschool program around them. When he submitted the proposal, they saw that his program was exactly what they were looking for, and he was awarded the money. It is much easier to use this strategy when developing a new program, but existing programs can be customized as well.
- Be clear. I have reviewed many proposal drafts that were overly vague. Comments such as “This proposal seeks funding for a program to help the needy” do nothing to give grantors an idea of how you will accomplish that stated goal. Instead, be as specific as possible to give the reviewers a clear idea of what exactly you are trying to do, whom you will be serving and where you will provide this service. For example, “Our program seeks to help those of lower socioeconomic status through on-the-job training, job coaching and interview training. We also assist with educational and vocational guidance as well as placement with local adult educational programming.” In some cases, you may find you are ineligible for the specific grant you are attempting to secure, but you instead qualify for another of the organization’s grants. Based on my experience, it is not unheard of for grantors to contact you and ask if you would mind them forwarding your application to another program.
- Find a partner. Many folks worry that another program will get “their” funding, so they hole up in their offices and determine to work alone. That is an option to be sure, but what happens when you realize that you lack the resources to do some of what is required for a large grant? At times, partnering up with another nonprofit makes perfect sense. Know your other local programs — what they do, what they excel in and how they work with others. If you come across a grant that is too big to take on alone, contact these programs and explore the possibility of working on it together. Be clear about who will take on responsibility for which activity, and also come to terms on the split of any grant you may receive. This can be a lucrative situation (often, one nonprofit will be the payee and agree to give a portion of the grant to the partnering nonprofit in exchange for the service).
- Network. On a related note, try not to view other nonprofit programs as the enemy. Instead, build a communication network to share ideas, trials, triumphs and even leads. Sure, you may find that you get burned once in awhile, but the bulk of these programs — especially the smaller independents — tend to be loyal and honorable. Since 2005, we have been shut out of only one contract by a fellow nonprofit, but we discovered we were the ones to make the mistake of not doing our homework. The program we attempted to network with was known as the “Wal-Mart of counseling” in our area and had a record of taking from others. Had we done our homework, we would have avoided them. We simply were too trusting. More often than not though, we have found this sharing of information to be very beneficial. In fact, we have gotten at least one grant of $10,000 through a tip in our network. Sadly, the group that tipped us off did not get the grant, but we reached out and offered to assist them with their proposal the following year.
- Know your terminology. Themes are common in any industry. Buzzwords, or words that earn the most attention, tend to change over time. Study up on these terms and use them in your grant proposals. Trends in literature, in practice and even in social media can sometimes make the difference between a stale proposal and one that looks cutting edge.
- Don’t sound desperate. Many folks have a tendency to paint an overly dire need for funding. At times this can backfire. Many grantors want their money to go to nonprofits that already have solid programs in place but that can do even more if given something extra to work with. When seeking a grant, point to your program’s successes, solid vision, growth and other positives when possible. Having folks feel confident that their money will be used as intended by a program with a solid foundation and a firm future is imperative to the selection process in many cases. Show them why you are the best possible candidate. After all, you might be tempted to pat a sad puppy, but you are not very likely to give it your hard-earned money.
- Sell your program. Many folks make far too many assumptions about the general knowledge others possess about their nonprofit programs. As a result, they offer too few concrete ideas and too little information about how their program runs, whom it serves and its mission, agenda and accomplishments. Ask someone with little to no idea about your nonprofit to read the information about your program and see if they have a firm grasp of what it does by the time they finish reading. If you can impress them, you may be headed in the right direction with your grant proposal. Selling your program’s mission and benefits on a grant proposal can be difficult, especially when word count is limited, so work on ways to capture the essence of your program in as few words as possible. Don’t be afraid to continually tweak the language.
- Stay on mission. As a nonprofit, you have a mission statement that can and will be used as part of governmental reviews and IRS auditing. It is imperative that you know your mission statement and that any new programming falls within its scope. Should you go very far outside the lines, you may jeopardize some or all of your tax-exempt status. Be sure to reflect on your program’s mission statement periodically, and don’t be afraid to ask the board of directors to review and possibly amend or change it from time to time to reflect changes in direction, scope or clientele. It is OK to have a mission statement that is broad, so long as it is also clear. We have made periodic changes to our mission statement, such as when we added therapeutic gardens, hiking trails and related programming to our therapeutic offerings for the first time. It was found that we needed to address the interplay of nature with therapy to justify the purchasing of our property and related machinery. Although our desire to provide therapy remained unchanged, some of the means by which we would provide those services did change.
Writing grants can feel scary. As a clinician, you may not be a natural at grant writing, but you are a natural at selling the value of therapy, and you have an understanding like no other of the inner workings of your programs. You aren’t likely to get every grant for which your nonprofit applies, but with practice, confidence and a working knowledge of the grant process, you can and often will do very well in the long run. If I can do it, anyone can.
“Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, and clinical and executive director of Community Counseling of Central Connecticut Inc. (docwarren.org) and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (pillwillop.org). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.