March 21, 2019
(Last wine analogy, I promise!) The pinot noir grape has a very thin skin, giving it a beautiful ruby color. Its transparency famously allows it to tell the truest story of the conditions it faced that year (i.e., the soil and the climate). It can survive in high heat and deep cooling (but only to an extent) and doesn’t do well in overcrowded plots.
The pinot noir grape can be resilient—but only if a winemaker understands its strengths and weaknesses and uses that information to put it in the best possible conditions.
And then it just sings.
As grant writers, we too have to learn how to put ourselves in the best possible conditions for building funder relationships and developing strong proposals. The trick I have learned, after surviving tons of declinations, is to learn from them and even lean into it.
First: request and honestly consider funder feedback. Funder feedback is one of the most valuable resources in a developing grants program. Thinking that, “Funders/foundations just don’t get it”, or, “We have zero chance of winning this,” will never result in improved cultivation or relationships—and certainly won’t help you win more grants. But seeking feedback and reflecting on what can be legitimately improved upon is key to your success.
Sometimes, asking once is not enough. After the initial declination, funders may say that they can’t or won’t provide feedback. But don’t give up. Wait a month or so and ask again. Respectfully request a conversation so that you can better understand how their funding priorities align with your work.
The worst that can happen is that they say “no.” I know this is not comforting, but hopefully it does give you a little bit of confidence that there are only so many outcomes. And you can’t control their decision-making—only your own preparation. For many funders, it can take more than one application to break through, and plenty of foundations do not have the human resources to speak with all potential applicants.
Know what your strengths are and stick with them. To connect authentically with funders, maintain an awareness of trends, but do not bend to them. There is nothing more obvious to a funder than a proposal that includes a program or work-plan that was clearly designed specifically to match the available funding but does not actually portray the applicant’s authentic strengths or mission-aligned endeavors.
Be honest with yourself about your organizational challenges and liabilities. Is your grants program understaffed? Under-resourced? Do you have high-quality, evidence-based programs and evaluation measures in place to prove your effectiveness? Is your program sustainable? Answering these questions with honesty and clarity is critical to writing an application that speaks to funders.
Develop your internal capacity for strategies that work. First, plan and staff-up for the long-term. Understand that you should budget with the assumption that it will take 12-18 months to realize serious returns, in either funding or significant learning about what does or doesn’t work. Then, make sure you’re properly staffed to dedicate the time needed to conduct in-depth research and draft quality proposals. This could also mean outsourcing some of the work.
In your prospect research, choose quality over quantity. Learn to say “no” to external trends (what seems “hot” in funding, if it is not already what you do authentically) and internal pressures (boards, CEOs, etc.) Saying “no” is an art and can be incredibly difficult but is key to your success.
Seek opportunities to have conversations with internal stakeholders and decision-makers, and be prepared to justify the strategy you’ve developed. Explain that quality over quantity is going to result in fewer, but better and more sustainable outcomes.
Develop a strategy for your prospect research (i.e., coming up with keywords for your work, key fields you work in, peers in your field, etc.) and stay disciplined until you find your diamonds. Don’t waste your time with barely-aligned funders. There’s a fine balance between knowing when you have no shot and not leaving money on the table when there is a real chance. Learning to recognize this takes time and experience. Even then, you won’t always be right.
Once you have extensively researched well-aligned funders, invest in good cultivation to learn if you are well-aligned with their priorities. Write to them asking for clarification of funding priorities, expressing genuine interest in making the best of their time and your own. In these conversations, it is important to learn from what they have to say, as opposed to seeking validation for your programs.
If cultivation seems difficult, read up on how others get over their personal hurdles, and how organizations can best distribute fundraising responsibilities based on personalities. Keep a cultivation chart (an Excel sheet works great!) to track your progress with each funder, the stage you’re in with them, and historical notes so you can go back and remember what you spoke with them about.
Like the pinot noir grape, grants programs require cultivation and commitment. You will know that you’re on the right track when you start to have meaningful conversations and develop relationships with funders, knowing that this may take months or even a year. Most funders really want to help you—the reality is that they are just as busy as you are. So, you need to remain humble. Be grateful for their time and continue improving your conditions to put yourself in the best light for funding.
Follow these steps, and you can be very successful at fundraising through grants.