March 15, 2019

A few years ago, I was asking a winemaker about the process of winemaking. He was working at a relatively young winery in a developing wine region. He told me that it would take seven years before he would come to understand the outcome of his strategy and his gut feeling about what he had planted.

I keep this story in mind every time my clients and I begin feeling anxious about the results of a grant submission.

Having been on the other side of grantmaking, I know that it takes a significant amount of human resources to make funding decisions. It’s not uncommon to have to wait 6-8 months (or even up to a year) before hearing back about a funding decision. And, whether or not they ultimately fund your proposal, you want funders spending the time they need to make sure those precious dollars are going where they are needed most. Just like good winemaking, good grant writing takes time, patience, and perseverance. 

Why Grant Writing Feels Personal

I feel on a daily basis the justifiable stress and anxiety of all my nonprofit clients as they try to meet their revenue goals and get “in” with funders. It’s not uncommon to email funders and receive no response. Or, worse, to be emailing back and forth with funders and to suddenly be ghosted and never hear back from them again.

Not earning a response to a well-crafted and genuine note to a funder can feel like a personal rejection, or a rejection of the work you believe in. We all know what it feels like to put a ton of work into a complicated application, only to be declined with a very short and (often sweet) note that somehow, the awardees were more compelling or meritorious — but they regret that they can’t tell you why. (Always respectfully request feedback, anyway; read on to find out how.)

The more you apply, the more you lose. Sometimes it can feel like one (gleeful) step forward, just to then take 3-4 steps back.

It feels personal because the stakes are so high. You believe in your mission, and very likely, many people depend on you and your organization’s work; it’s hard to understand why someone else might not believe in it with the same enthusiasm that you have.

The (Semi-) Good News: You’re Not Alone

Grant writing is notoriously difficult. The national win rate (rate of success winning a grant applied for) is 17% A win rate of 30-40% on new funding (funders not familiar with your organization) and 50-60% on combined (existing programs and funders and new programs and funders) is considered   extraordinary.

Still, we understand the challenge. In addition to the odds seemingly being stacked against nonprofits when it comes to winning grants, one of the reasons so many nonprofit organizations struggle with their grant programs is because they lack the necessary resources. Research, cultivation (communicating with funders before applying), and writing proposals are all time-intensive and expensive processes. I’ve seen large organizations with multi-million-dollar budgets struggle to properly staff and efficiently manage the amount of time and coordination it takes among the development, program, and administrative staff to get a successful proposal out the door—even when the Elevate team adds writing and research capacity.

Just like wine-making, grant writing is experimental. You’re not going to be able to predict the success of your grants program until you have enough experience—and enough funder feedback to learn what will work for your organization. There’s a lot to fine tune – from your grant language, your programmatic strengths and weaknesses, what funders respond to, and beyond.

Just like some grapes grow and thrive best in certain climates or soil, your proposals and your programs will resonate with certain funders more than others. Further, just like in winemaking, your work is susceptible to external factors and trends beyond your control. Grapes are susceptible to the climate and wine production is usually responsive to market trends, just as grantmaking is susceptible to the economy and philanthropic trends.

Great. It’s Tough. What Now?

What exactly does all this mean for your organization?

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series, where we’ll break down exactly what it means to build up resilience in your grants program!

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