The Development Source

Tips and Helpful Information for Non-Profits

Place your bids to foundations and corporate giving sources

In 1984, Dr. Leroy Ervin had a vision. After decades of teaching at various colleges and universities, he was frustrated that so few minority students were pursuing doctorates in science and mathematics, and, that even fewer were choosing university teaching careers. To remedy this problem, he founded the nonprofit National Consortium for Educational Access (NCEA). With generous support from foundations and corporate giving sources, the NCEA has provided 189 minority scholars with fellowships over the past ten years. Many of these scholars have already received their doctorates and are teaching in colleges and universities around the country.

Like other nonprofit executives, Dr. Ervin has learned that foundations and corporations can be valuable sources of funding. Last year, foundations and corporations gave about $20 billion in grants to nonprofit organizations around the country for a wide variety of projects ranging from literacy campaigns to feeding the hungry to museum exhibits.

Before rushing to write a proposal, however, a nonprofit organization should ask itself four basic questions:

  • Have you identified foundations and corporations that might support your programs?
  • Have you tried to establish relationships with your potential funders before writing a proposal?
  • Are you willing to devote the time and energy necessary to submit a competitive proposal?
  • If you are awarded a grant, can you carry out an excellent program and show results that will please your funder?

The following five-step process will help you find the answers.

Research your opportunities

Many nonprofit organizations fail to win grants because they don’t do their homework. The first step is to gather as much information as possible about possible sources of funding. The more time you spend researching your opportunities, the more successful your proposals are likely to be.

Today there are plenty of print and electronic sources of information available about funding. Consult the outstanding collection of the Foundation Center in Washington, DC, or visit its web site. Study specialized publications about funding sources. For example, if your nonprofit organization is located in Los Angeles, you should own the Southern California Association of Philanthropy’s Guide to California Foundations (1996). And if you want to get a grant to build a video conference center, you should consult Arlene Krebs’s Distance Learning Funding $ourcebook (1999). Subscribe to the Chronicle of Philanthropy and similar publications. In addition, successful nonprofit organizations carefully study funders’ annual reports and guidelines to see if there is a match.

Market yourself to funding sources

Once you have identified potential sources of support, try to establish relationships with them. Foundations and corporations are much more likely to support you if they conclude that your organizations’ missions are very similar. Invite them to attend your programs. Get them involved with your organization as partners.

It is very important for all nonprofit organizations to contact and cultivate potential funders for two important reasons. First, contact will help save you unnecessary work or inappropriate submissions because you will discover that there is not a likely match between you and a particular funder. And second, cultivation builds relationships with potential donors and helps you broaden and deepen these relationships once you are funded. By enabling funders to learn about your organization, you make it more likely that they will respond positively to your proposals.

In other words, marketing performs these critically important functions:

  • It promotes the name recognition of your organization.
  • It enables you to help determine if you are really compatible with specific funders.
  • It enables you to gather important information about funders before you submit your proposals.
  • It sets the stage for a favorable review of your proposal.
  • It helps you build a partnership

Respond to grant opportunities

Once you have studied funding sources, you have to make a difficult and potentially expensive decision: to bid or not to bid? Start your decision-making process by reviewing the guidelines. Identify the key elements and requirements. Analyze the evaluation criteria carefully, and decide whether your nonprofit can respond with a proposal that it is likely to win. To be a winner, your proposal must demonstrate that your nonprofit is competent, dependable, cost-efficient, and is able to address the funder’s mission. Importantly, you must propose a project or program that will help them fulfill their mission. Only apply if you meet all of the funder’s criteria.

After looking at the funder’s guidelines, you should ask yourself these basic questions:

  • Does my project or program directly address the funder’s mission?
  • Is my nonprofit in the funder’s geographical area of interest?
  • Is my nonprofit in the funder’s topical area of interest?
  • Does the funder support the type of project in my proposal?
  • Can I fully respond to the requirements of the grant guidelines?
  • Am I willing to commit the time and energy needed to submit a good proposal?
  • If I get the grant, will my project be carried out in an exemplary manner that pleases the funder?

In other words, before applying, you need to determine which of your organization’s funding priorities can become highly competitive proposals to specific foundations and corporations. You must start with your organization’s needs and then identify funders that will support your projects.

Keep in mind that funders take time to make a decision about awarding a grant. You should begin applying for support at least a year before you need funds. Also, funders are usually interested in specific projects rather than general operating support. Finally, remember your ultimate goal — you want to build a wide network of small, medium, and large foundation and corporate funders. Submitting proposals is an investment in your future, and so you must always think strategically about your funding strategy.

Prepare your proposal

Once you decide to submit a proposal, you must act quickly on two important organizational matters: identifying your proposal team and developing a detailed schedule to meet the submission deadline. Many promising nonprofit proposals fail because they have been developed with little or no planning and insufficient time or resources. Other proposals are not competitive because they were prepared without the participation of key individuals who have the specific skills called for in the proposal guidelines. Address these problems in the beginning, and you’ll have a good start down the road to success.

To write a good proposal, organize yourself to win by doing the following:

  • Pick the Proposal Manager and proposal staff.
  • Develop a schedule to write the proposal.
  • Establish a level-of-effort estimate (how many hours?).
  • Establish a budget estimate for developing the proposal.
  • Create a detailed outline of the proposal.
  • Assign writing responsibilities and deadlines.
  • Arrange for administrative support.
  • Identify a team of outside reviewers and send them the guidelines.

Prepare a detailed outline that leads to a smooth and logical presentation. You don’t have to be a Pulitzer prize winner to write a winning proposal, but you should incorporate the four “C’s” into your document — it should be complete, clear, concise, and convincing.

Think of your proposal as a sales presentation. You are trying to convince the funder that you have an exciting program that is central to its mission. To do this, get to the point early. Be specific and write in a positive style. Be concrete and use examples and stories to make your argument. Speak the funder’s language but don’t get bogged down with jargon, acronyms, or arcane insider’s language. In your proposal narrative, follow the order recommended by grant guidelines and respond directly to the instructions. You would be surprised how many proposals fail to receive funding simply because they do not conform to the guidelines.

Although you may feel exhausted by the end of the writing stage, your proposal is not done. Spend as much time revising your proposal as you did writing the first draft. Be compulsive about polishing your proposal, and keep these rules in mind:

  • Use active verbs and the active voice.
  • Avoid sexist language.
  • Eliminate grammatical and spelling errors.
  • Convey a tone of quiet confidence.
  • Prepare a realistic budget that mirrors your staffing and program needs.

While you are revising, put yourself in the place of the funder reviewing your proposal. Ask yourself: Have I been completely responsive to the guidelines and requirements? Once you finish, the best way to improve your proposal even further is to have others review it. Encourage your reviewers to make candid comments — this is no time for deference! The more people who review your proposal critically, the better the final version will be.

Finally, incorporate your reviewers’ suggestions, carefully edit the proposal, and deliver it before the deadline. Don’t forget any of the required attachments or appendices. Make sure that your proposal is attractive, inviting, and easy to read. Although the final product shouldn’t appear like it was prepared by a public relations agency, it should look polished and highly professional.

Finally, make an electronic file of your proposal so that you can use it with other funders. Although every proposal is a little different, a solid proposal can be used as a template for other applications.

Learn from your experience

The final step — finding out whether or not you’ve won the grant — can be either the most exhilarating. . . or the most depressing. If your nonprofit organization was not funded, don’t despair. Continue trying to build a relationship with your potential funders, and keep reapplying. Your challenge is to find ways to turn rejections into grant awards.

Many of the best nonprofit proposal writers began with rejections. Don’t be discouraged, but learn from your experience and try again. With hard work, persistence, and applications that directly respond to the funder’s mission with excellent programs, your nonprofit can win grants in an increasingly competitive funding environment.