Some interesting trends have emerged in 2023, which hint at AI’s potential while also raising significant ethical and information security considerations. A recent Forbes Advisor survey reports that:
Accordingly, Elevate is treading optimistically – yet cautiously – when it comes to AI! While we are exploring how AI can create efficiencies in our work, we are also committed to maintaining the highest quality and privacy standards for our clients.
I recently spoke with a handful of my most forward-thinking and tech-savvy Elevate colleagues, who offered their thoughts on what AI applications are and aren’t helpful in aspects of their work advising nonprofit clients. We share their insights here for your consideration as we all navigate this brave new world.
Because many of the questions Elevate receives about AI are about ChatGPT specifically, we begin with the 411 on this tool.
Even if you haven’t yet used it yourself, you’ve undoubtedly heard the buzz about ChatGPT. ChatGPT is a free, natural language processing tool that can answer questions and support users with tasks such as composing emails, essays, and code. It can spew out responses in a matter of seconds. It does this by analyzing your question or prompt, then – using the dataset it was trained on – predicting the next word or series of words based on what you’ve entered.
But is it savvy enough to write sophisticated, nuanced, and winning grants?
Our colleagues were unequivocal in their response: Not even close.
This is because ChatGPT lacks the context, experience and judgment to handle such complex work. Even when I asked ChatGPT “What are the Pros and Cons of Using ChatGPT for grant writing?” it didn’t disagree! While ChatGPT praised its speed and ability to maintain consistency in “tone, language, and messaging” across various sections of a grant proposal and to polish language, it cautioned that it may not fully appreciate the “nuances” of grant guidelines, that it has limitations in understanding the context of an organization’s work and history, and that it could also produce plagiarizing text.
The text that ChatGPT generates in response to a question or prompt might not even be factual – there are absolutely no assurances that the information is accurate or true.
What’s more, because ChatGPT and other AI models draw upon existing content, AI can reflect underlying societal biases, perpetuating stereotypes and white supremacist notions. At Elevate, we know that historically marginalized communities are not “vulnerable” objects of charity, but agents and partners of the social change that they desire to see. This level of social context is far too complex for an AI-powered language model to appropriately reflect.
So, what are the appropriate uses of ChatGPT?
If you do want to experiment with ChatGPT in your writing tasks, we suggest using it for simpler, less analytical tasks, such as condensing word count, identifying alternative phrasing to avoid repetition, or summarizing the main points of your research into more readable language.
ChatGPT also has the potential to provide administrative support for your work, and can be harnessed to:
I know what you are thinking: It’s no surprise that a grant writing firm is telling me not to use an AI tool to write grants! But we are not just saying this because we want to be your grant writers. (Though we DO want to be your grant writers!)
At Elevate, we firmly believe that good grant writing is a thoughtful, strategic exercise that requires skill, nuance, and informed decision making. ChatGPT – like other AI tools – is neither thoughtful nor strategic. It lacks discernment of nuance, and is incapable of making reasoned choices about how to present an organization’s work to a funding partner.
Simply producing large volumes of content – that may or may not be factual! – is NOT the point of grant writing. And this is truly all that ChatGPT is doing: generating text.
At Elevate, some of our staff are experimenting with the use of AI-powered tools such as Simon Says AI and Fathom Notetaker to capture meeting notes and provide summaries of important conversations that they need to refer back to later or share with colleagues who couldn’t attend meetings. By using AI tools for more administrative tasks, you can free up some of your own time and energy for tasks that require thought and strategy – something AI can’t do!
As a tool developed by Google, Bard can interface with Google Workspace tools, if you choose to connect these. This means, you can ask Bard to find dates, taks, or other information in gmail, or to summarize a report a colleague shared via Google docs.
Interested in exploring more options for what you can do with AI tools? Check out FutureTools.io, which aggregates AI tools suited for different purposes.
If you take only one thing away from this article, I hope it is this: get informed about the privacy of the information you share with AI tools, and take precautions to protect your information.
When using any cloud-based technology platform, it is imperative that consideration be given to the way these tools use, store, and share information. Depending on your privacy settings, information you share with tools like Bard and ChatGPT may be used to improve its own language model. This means your data may not only be available to its creators (OpenAI), but also to others who use the platform.
For instance, when first accessing Bard, users are notified that Google will collect conversations and other information like the user’s location, store this data for a period of time, and use it to refine the tool. Furthermore, users are informed that “human reviewers read, annotate, and process your Bard conversations,” and they are warned to not share confidential information.
For these reasons, think carefully about what information you share with AI tools. Remember that a grant application may include information about your organization, programs, staff, and future plans that might be considered private. A good rule of thumb is, if you wouldn’t want a piece of data or information on your public website for anyone to find, you should not share that information with an AI tool.
How is your organization using AI powered tools, and what have you found useful, scary, hopeful, or exciting about these tools? We invite you to share!
Are you still feeling overwhelmed, or do you want to learn more? Here are a few sources the team at Elevate is using to stay informed:
Nightmare 1: Imagine, you are the Director of a nonprofit’s small but mighty Development Team. Everything is going swimmingly…until the day your indispensable grant writer sheepishly asks to schedule some catch-up time on your calendar. It turns out they have secured an exciting new career opportunity! You smile winsomely and wish them well, but inside, you just died a little bit. You keep thinking about that overflowing grants calendar and the extra work that is going to fall to you or your other colleagues while things get sorted.
Hiring and training a replacement grant writer is a process. It took you 4 months to find the last one, who stayed with the organization for just over one year. During the last grant writer search, you missed deadlines for important grant reports and renewals. And one long-time funder became irritated with the lack of coordination and pulled their support… Your mind is spinning with all of the worst-case scenarios that simply cannot happen again.
Nightmare 2: Now imagine you are the Development Director for a nonprofit entering into an exciting transitional period. Program staff is in tune with emergent needs of the community and developing exciting and impactful new programs that are resulting in tons of new interest in the organization. The proverbial phone is ringing off the hook with new funders and partners who want to support the organization’s work. The Executive Director and the Board are looking to the Development team to increase revenues in line with program growth. Up until now, you’ve been keeping all those fundraising balls in the air — managing major donors, overseeing the grants calendar, prospecting new funding leads, and planning successful events. But now, you’re starting to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat!
You know that soon, something’s gotta give, whether it is long-term planning, maintaining corporate relationships, or wooing major donors.
What would you do if you were the Development Director in one of these nightmare scenarios?
A – Text a friend and plan a coffee date to vent about your to-do list.
B – Roll up your sleeves and get to work.
C – Call Elevate!
D – Both A and C
The correct answer is D, which also stands for “Don’t despair!” That’s because Elevate has got you covered with our Ongoing Writing Retainer Service (OWR)!
Our signature service at Elevate is Comprehensive Grant Writing Services, which offers you a suite of grant program strategy advice and planning, grant calendar and data tracking, project management, prospect research, cultivation support, and full-service grant writing.
While for many organizations this is the solution they need, we’ve learned in our ten years of work with nonprofit clients that, from time to time, organizations simply need a boost in grant writing capacity. In response, we launched a streamlined retainer package in 2022 to help nonprofits through capacity challenges such as the ones described above. We call this service an Ongoing Writing Retainer (OWR).
The OWR matches an organization with a professional grant writer that works to focus exclusively on drafting, editing, and submitting written deliverables – grants, LOIs, and reports – thereby freeing up your internal team’s capacity for other important tasks.
The OWR might be the right Elevate service for you if you already:
Cavalry Women’s Services, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that ensures women have access to the proper trauma-informed healthcare and educational support they need to take positive steps toward independence, engaged Elevate for an Ongoing Writing Retainer in early 2023.
Calvary came to Elevate with a solid grants program, at a time when they were planning ahead for their Director of Institutional Advancement to step away from work for a period of leave and a temporary need for capacity to their internal grant writer planned to be away for personal leave. With a strong grants program and a clear calendar of opportunities in place, they sought Elevate’s support to write and submit their grants.
We paired Calvary with one of our expert grant writers who quickly acquainted themselves with the organization and its programming. Calvary assigned up to four deliverables per month to their Elevate grant writer, including proposals and grant reports.
The Elevate writer met with our point of contact at Calvary briefly on a biweekly or as-needed basis to confirm details and deadlines, receive assignments, and discuss what information was needed to prepare the grants. Elevate handled each step of the drafting process—from planning, drafting, editing, attachment gathering, through to submission. Meanwhile, the team at Calvary was free to focus on other development responsibilities while knowing that their grants submissions could rest in Elevate’s capable hands.
When asked about her experience working with Elevate on an Ongoing Writing Retainer, Heather Laing, Chief Development Officer and our main Point of Contact at Calvary, shared:
“When we had a temporary vacancy on our team, Elevate’s Ongoing Writer Retainer service met our grant writing capacity needs. Elevate was invested in our success in a genuine way, and it was a gift to have a fresh perspective on our grant language.”
Interested in what an Ongoing Writing Retainer or one of Elevate’s other services can do for you? Get in touch so that we can answer your questions, and you can spend more time where your energy is needed most, whether that’s building relationships with your funding partners, implementing your programs, or enjoying more coffee dates with your BFF.
September 21, 2022
Elevate Grant Writer Amy O’Barr recommends The Only Grant-Writing Book You’ll Ever Need by Ellen Karsh. Amy describes this book as, “A must for any grant writer’s library!” The guide starts at the ground level with grant writing, covering everything from the basics such as vocabulary, up to writing about organizational sustainability. Currently in the 5th edition, readers can be assured that the info is timely and relevant. Bonus: tips from grantmakers!
Grant Writer Sam Murphy suggests Good Writing by Connie Snyder Mick for folks who want “a solid refresher on the basics of persuasive writing and argumentative rhetoric.” Often found on syllabi for writing courses, this textbook is designed to equip writers for social action.
Amy describes Grassroots Grants as “A no-frills classic for grantseekers.” With an emphasis on activism, this guide includes actual proposals and budgets with commentary on what works and what doesn’t. The second edition was published back in 2004, so some of the resources included in this book may be a little outdated. Still, the how-to on grant writing and budgets is spot on for grant writers today.
Another recommendation by Amy, Winning Grants Step by Step is a workbook that guides both novice and experienced grant writers through the grant process from organizational readiness to funder networking. Amy says that the “concise format and many worksheets are ideal for organizations starting a grants
Supervising Director Raquel Braemer, suggests that new grant writers check out The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grant Writing. She says, “I found this book incredibly helpful. It walks you through every stage in the grant writing process, providing examples and tips along the way. Everything is divided into very clear sections, so you can find some insight or a template quickly when you need one.”
Another top pick for newbies, Amy also recommends Grant Writing for Dummies. She says, “This comprehensive guide is a perfect primer for those interested in grant writing but unsure where to start.” Written by an industry expert, this book dives into government grants, an area that many grant books do not cover.
August 18, 2020
Whether you have a grant report to write in the near future, or you’re just looking for tips and advice to help you brush up on those skills for next time, keep reading for an overview of how to write a solid grant report that gives funders what they’re looking for.
While it’s important to be updating your funders informally throughout the grant period as part of your overall stewardship efforts, a grant report is a formal means of updating a funder on what you have accomplished with their grant funding.
There are several different types of reports you’re likely to come across in your grant writing career, and different funders may ask for different combinations of these:
The Center for Effective Philanthropy frames a grant report as a key opportunity for funders to explore the space between what they hoped for from a grantee, and what actually happened. And through that lens, a grant report can serve many possible purposes, including:
Of course, different funders will have different purposes and expectations for your report depending on their priorities, staffing, and sophistication of their own strategies. To glean some insight into what a particular funder is looking for, one option would be to ask them directly how they use your reports — whether during your site visit, after the award is granted, or through the grant period. Once you have a better sense of how heavily this funder will be engaging with your report and what they’re specifically looking for, you can invest the appropriate amount of time and effort putting it together.
Many funders will provide specifications for what to include in your grant report, and in what format. However, if your funder hasn’t given you a set of specific guidelines to use, our recommended list of components to include is below!
First, every grant should start with a thank you. You’ll never see this show up in the funder’s template or guidelines for what to include, but make sure to include one anyway! You may have to be creative for how to fit this in, especially if you’re using an online portal. Sometimes you can include a cover letter as part of a pdf that gets uploaded, if that makes sense for your situation.
Additional components of a standard grant report can include:
It’s a good idea to think about grant reports in terms of telling a powerful story. Compared to a grant proposal, a grant report is a great forum for leveraging the power of emotional appeal to sell a funder on your impact, and leave a strong impression. We often refer to the three-part storytelling framework below as a starting point, which dates back to ancient Greece:
For our purposes, this is about establishing credibility, This is where you’ll take the opportunity to remind your funder that you’re a credible organization and that you share their priorities and values; to demonstrate that you spent their funds responsibly; and to reassure them that they’ve invested in a feasible and important project that’s making a meaningful impact.
This is where your data and outcomes come into play! Using quantitative data in your reports helps create a clear structure, and paints an easy-to-digest picture of your program’s impact and success. It’s critical that you use facts to support your claims here.
Don’t go overboard with this part, but do keep in mind that this is your opportunity to really showcase how your programs are making a difference in your community. To do this well, use stories and quotes from your stakeholders, and highlight ‘real’ voices to show the more human side of your work and increase the persuasiveness of your report. This is especially relevant for direct service and more “charity”-based organizations.
You’ll need to find a balance between all three of these pieces, and that balance will vary based on each particular funder’s nature and priorities — but all three pieces of the framework are important.
If you don’t already have systems in place for collecting stories from the people you service, below are a few tips to help you get started in this area:
February 14, 2020
As a team of professional grant writers and institutional fundraisers, we’re no strangers to the sometimes-puzzling language of grant writing. After working with hundreds of nonprofit clients over our lifespan as a company, and securing millions of dollars for their programs from public and private funders alike, we’ve learned a thing or two about what constitutes a winning grant (and the mistakes to avoid).
Below are five crucial pieces of advice we’ve gleaned over the years in our work as grant writing professionals. These tips will help you avoid common grant writing mistakes, create a plan for writing and submitting your first grant, and make the strongest possible case for funding.
Even when you’re the only person at your organization writing grants or doing fundraising, you’ll still likely need to collaborate and work with other people at your organization at various stages along the way – including deciding on strategy, gathering information about your programs, editing, compiling the necessary attachments, and gaining final approval before submission. To that end, it’s important to establish a clear process internally, so everyone involved is clear on who’s doing what.
What your exact process looks like will depend on your organization’s specific setup and circumstances, though we do walk through some examples of what a common division of labor might look like in our free webinar on How to Write Your First Grant.
Will you be requesting funding for a new program, or an existing program? Especially if the request is for a new program, make sure to build in extra time to develop any new language and get it approved by the right people. Similarly, it also doesn’t hurt to budget extra time to consult with your program team before you start writing. Talking through the specifics of the work that’s going to be done with this new program is a great way to make sure you’re all on the same page before you’re too far down the road of writing the proposal.
Specifically, look for the list of funder requirements up front. Do you meet ALL of them? Grant requirements are exactly that – If you meet all but one, you’re ineligible. It’s important that you check off all the requirements, and similarly, keep an eye out for any specific submission instructions. This could include things like mailing printed copies, any character limits or length requirements, or whether the deadline is a postmark deadline or a receipt deadline. One careless mistake here could disqualify you.
The biggest thing to remember here is to only include the attachments that are required! As tempted as you or your Executive Director may be to throw in an extra brochure or a great video that really shows off the impact of your programs – unless the funder has given you the explicit option to attach program support materials, they do not want you to include them.
Follow the guidelines, and start your attachment planning early to build in as much time as possible. (At Elevate, we often recommend our Grant Writers start attachment planning before they even start drafting – especially if you need to coordinate with others to gather all the pieces.)
Every piece of your proposal should bolster your credibility as an organization, and create the impression that would be a reliable grantee. You have a number of opportunities to make the right impression – including submitting a nicely presented and well-developed proposal, painting a clear picture of exactly how you’ll use their funding, pointing to any external signs of legitimacy that indicate you can deliver on your commitments (i.e., awards, news articles, publications, strong outcomes, etc.), and demonstrating a good reputation in your community. The more you can showcase these qualities and make the case for your credibility, the better.
If you’re looking for more detailed guidance about grantwriting, join us for one of our free monthly webinars!
In this FREE one-hour training, we’ll walk you through basic do’s and don’ts to help you write your first grant with confidence. By the end of this webinar, you’ll understand:
This webinar is ideal for anyone who’s new to fundraising and grant writing for nonprofits. It’s also helpful for grant writing professionals looking for a refresher, volunteer grant reviewers, anyone interested in exploring a career in grant writing, and those interested in learning a marketable fundraising skill.
October 28, 2019
While it may seem counterintuitive to mainly focus on the power of people when discussing their needs, here are a few key reasons to adopt empowering, strengths-based language in your fundraising strategy:
Because language shapes perception, we have a responsibility to represent our constituent’s and their experiences wholly and truthfully – the way anyone would like to be represented when being introduced to a new party. The communities your organization serves are resilient, fully capable, and will persist with or without philanthropy. Every individual has their own agency, goals, and desires, and communities will always have existing networks in place to support their needs, therefore the stories we share should reflect that reality.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a need facing the community, but instead emphasizes that the need is not insurmountable. The need is not only multifaceted, but contextual. Reflecting on the real power of people through your choice of language is an essential part of building an empowering and authentic relationship between your community and your supporters.
With the understanding that language matters, many funders are choosing to lead the charge in adopting and modeling empowering language. Top institutional givers, such as Ford and the California Endowment, as well as young foundations like Echoing Green are shifting their priorities to focus on addressing issues of power and equity.
As fundraisers, using empowering language positions us to cultivate relationships with funders that positions us as advocates and educators for our communities, while also giving us the opportunity to respond to the shifting funding landscape. Choosing to use empowering language is one step towards building power and equity for your community – and can be a key method for demonstrating your alignment with funders’ interests.
Whatever your specific mission, your vision is built around serving a need in your community. Empowering language is a way of representing your organization and community. It is a method that can be applied across issue areas, interventions, and program structures.
Empowering language can amplify your mission because it serves to change the understanding of your work at a fundamental level – motivating others to see solutions rather than barriers. By focusing on the power, strength, and resources in your community, you are demonstrating how you are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
Join Alison, LaTissia, and Sierra at the GPA National Conference on November 7th for a panel discussion for nonprofit professionals on how to use language strategically to build power for your constituents at every level of the fundraising process! To learn more about the topics that other Elevate staff will be presenting at the conference this year, stay tuned for upcoming blog posts.
This article was developed in conjunction with a presentation at the 2019 Grant Professionals Association Annual Conference created and led by Elevate staff.
October 28, 2019
In this post, we’ll be taking a closer look at what advocacy work is and how it can complement direct service work, some of the challenges involved in fundraising for advocacy, and best practices for preparing compelling requests – all of which will help you find, pursue, and win more grants for your advocacy activities.
The Alliance for Justice defines advocacy as any action that speaks in favor of, recommends, argues for a cause, supports or defends, or pleads on behalf of others. Advocacy is a powerful catalyst for change that can improve the laws, policies, and systems that impact entire communities. For the purpose of this article, we think of advocacy as systems change – in particular, policy change.
On the other hand, we define direct service as the provision of resources, programs, and benefits that work to address the symptoms of social problems and meet the immediate needs of your target population. Some common examples of direct services organizations include health clinics, food pantries, soup kitchens, and organizations that provide services like individual skills training or education, mentoring, or case management.
For direct services agencies, the most common types of advocacy are:
There are many funders who recognize the synergies between direct service and advocacy, but there are many more (particularly at the local level) who are not well versed in the relationship between advocacy, direct service, and their own philanthropic goals. For this reason, fundraising for advocacy has several built-in challenges that are helpful to be aware of from the start.
For instance, local funders and foundations that are used to funding direct services may not always have the staff or the bandwidth to discuss specific proposals and advocacy strategies, to learn more about how an organization’s advocacy work aligns with their impact goals. Relatedly, these funders often shy away from funding advocacy because they conflate advocacy work with lobbying.
On the other hand, while there may be fewer funders willing to fund advocacy activities compared to direct services, the good news is that the funders who do fund advocacy often offer larger and/or multi-year grant awards, more general operating support, and a different (and often less-intense) focus on outcomes during the grant period – because they understand the nature of this type of work.
Of course, to win grant awards to support your organization’s advocacy work, you’ll have to prepare a persuasive proposal that makes a strong case for funding.
When it comes to drafting a strong proposal, knowing how to frame your outcomes, goals, and objectives in the context of advocacy is often a major stumbling block. It may help to think of them as follows:
If we zoom out one step further, here is an example of how to approach some other key sections of your grant proposal when you’re requesting support for advocacy activities:
In short, your objective in your grant application should be to clearly illustrate the change you’re hoping to achieve, how you expect that change will play out over time, and the role your organization will play in producing that change.
January 10, 2019
Here are five strategies—straight from the nation’s leading funders—on how to write a grant proposal that stands out from the rest.
February 8, 2018
Your organization supports its work through some combination of earned income, individual contributions, government contracts, and philanthropic support. In some cases, this is even a consistent ratio. The strongest case for diversified funding provides some specific percentages and comments on the stability of each funding stream.
Multi-year funding is a nonprofit holy grail. If you have it, be sure to tell your funders that at least a portion of your revenue is committed for multiple years!
Does your organization renew a significant proportion of its funding every year? If so, you will want to provide those stats.
“The organization has received renewed funding from 15 long-time organizational supporters for each of the last three years.”
If you’ve already established that your organization has strong planning processes in the Leadership section of the grant, then mentioning that a particular program or initiative is included in the annual or strategic plan is an indicator of sustainability.
“Doubling the number of children served through our program is a key goal in our 2012-2016 strategic plan and therefore a focus of our fundraising.”
For those organizations who rely heavily on institutional fundraising or individual giving (i.e. they do not have government contracts or earned income streams), it is important to emphasize their capacity for fundraising. This is particularly important for organizations proposing a programmatic expansion or another change that will increase the fundraising burden.
With organizations who are working with Elevate, we emphasize that they have dedicated development staff that research and apply to new funding sources. If your organization has had a lot of success identifying new funding, provide that information; for example, development staff have successfully applied to 10 new funders in the last year.
OCTOBER 06, 2017
People- first language aims to make personhood the essential characteristic of every person. People- first language views other descriptive social identities that people may hold as secondary and non-essential. Though adhering to people-first language can lead to awkward sentence constructions, it is critical to center people rather than their circumstances as the heart of your storytelling.
Inclusive writing, as much as possible, should strive to include language that respects peoples’ choice and style in how they talk about themselves. By using language that reflects how people self-identify, you respect aspects of their culture, agency, and spirit and lend power to their voices. If you are unsure of preferred terminology, research the most current discourse on the topic using such resources as the Disability Style Guide and An Ally’s Guide to Terminology.
Understanding and committing to these principles is the first step in working towards writing in a style that consistently incorporates inclusive language. Of course, language evolves and appropriate terminology is shaped by the continued larger conversation around social justice, intersectionality, and what authentic inclusivity entails in practice. As much as using the “right” terms or words is something we all work towards, it is equally important to foster a climate of open communication and demonstrate a willingness to learn.
As you work towards developing a writing style that features inclusivity, remember to keep an open mind, keep resources close at hand, and – most of all – keep learning!