By: Laura Cohen
A Guide for Nonprofit Board Members, Staff and Volunteers
If you are working with an organization or a project that is looking for funding, grants are one option for financial support. In this piece, I provide a basic overview of grants, how to become Grant Ready, where to find grant opportunities and how to determine if they are right for you, how to prepare for and submit a grant application, including common components, what to expect during the review process, and what to do next if you are funded, or if you proposal is declined.
I have also created additional resources on this page detailing how to identify contacts, have conversations, and build relationships with funders, and what to do before you write a grant to improve the likelihood of funding. You can also visit the additional external resources for more detail on many of the grants and grant writing related topics we’ll cover here. I offer these resources based on my own experiences as a disabled fundraiser who has raised money for nonprofits for 20 years.
Historically, disabled people and disability-led work have not had access to the financial wealth of philanthropy. Disparities in access to wealth are even wider for BIPOC, LGBTQ and other multiply marginalized disabled people. Grant seeking and proposal writing are pretty ableist—from inaccessible application materials to the expectation that we write and talk about our work in a specific way.
Together, we can learn how to navigate philanthropic systems and resources to strengthen our work while advocating to change these systems. Let’s get started.
What are grants, and what are they used for?
A grant is typically a financial award from a foundation or other grant-making entity that maintains a pool of funds for philanthropic giving. A foundation may be affiliated with a family or a corporation, or it may be independent. Government entities also make grants at federal, state, county, and city levels.
Grants are typically awarded through a competitive proposal or application process. This process differs among grant-makers.
Are grants the right type of funds for your organization?
Grants can provide an infusion of cash, but they are not a magic solution for funding, and they are not the only kind of funding available for your work. It’s important to know how grants work to determine if they are the right type of funding for your project or organization.
Grant writing is intensive work. It will take time, energy, and effort. Depending on the grant, It may take as little as two months or as long as two years to secure funding, from your initial research and conversations with the funder, to writing and submitting the grant, to waiting for grant review and funding notification.
Grant application success rates can vary based on many factors, but a good rule of thumb is that for a well-established organization or project, one in three grants may be funded- this is a good return rate. This means that to ensure you have the amount of funding you need to carry out your project, you’ll want to apply for three times the total amount of funding you are looking for, or three times the amount of grants. I often recommend that an organization or project develop two or three budgets of various sizes so that they have different models for completing a project depending on the amount of funding that they receive.
Usually a grant must be spent according to the terms of a contract, including reporting to the foundation how you used the grant and the impact it had on your organization, the issue you want to impact, or the community you are serving.
Grants are often temporary or short-term and not renewable, and they are typically restricted to a specific program, project, or purpose. They can be unrestricted or used to support capacity building or general operating expenses if the funder is willing to do so. General operating grants are becoming more common as nonprofits advocate for them and funders realize the importance of “no strings attached” funding.
While a grant can provide useful funds to begin a project or demonstrate a proof of concept, you’ll often need to raise funds from other sources, like individuals in your community, to stabilize and sustain your work over time and to have more flexible ways to meet your day-to-day expenses.
Is your organization Grant Ready?
There are several things you’ll need in place to be ready to successfully apply for grants.
Is your organization set up to legally raise funds? Do you have 501c3 tax exempt status or a fiscal sponsor? Have you completed any additional charitable registration requirements in your state?
Have you developed a clear case statement for your project or organization? A case statement is a clear explanation used to persuade a grant-maker or donor to support your work. A good case statement will answer several questions:
- What is the problem you are trying to solve?
- What, specifically, are proposing to do about that problem?
- How, specifically, will funding help you to carry out the activities you are proposing?
- How will you know if the work you’ve done has made an impact on the problem you are trying to solve or the people and community you are proposing to serve?
Many organizations look for grant opportunities and then try to re-shape their work to fit an opportunity. I recommend developing your project justification first, making sure that there is a clear link between the work that you want to do and the problem you are hoping to solve or the community you want to serve. Then, look for the right proposal opportunities that align with the work that you want to do.
Where can you find grant opportunities?
Once you are ready to apply for grants, there are several ways to locate grant opportunities to apply for.
- Online databases like Foundation Directory Online (https://fconline.foundationcenter.org/) and GrantStation (https://grantstation.com/) are available by subscription or free-of-charge at some public libraries. Grants.gov, a database of federal government grant opportunities, is available online free-of-charge. When searching in online databases, try different keyword searches and angles to discover more opportunities. For instance, searching for “disability” may yield a few opportunities, but searching for other issues related to your work such as “human services”, “advocacy” or “social justice” may yield additional results.
- Request for Proposal (RFP) announcements: Sign up for newsletters and RFP alerts like Philanthropy News Digest (https://philanthropynewsdigest.org/rfps), local United Ways, listservs or social media specific to the type of work you do, or specific funders that you are interested in.
- Look at organizations doing similar work. Who is funding them? This information may be available on the organization’s website or in an annual report, which is a public document that many organizations release every year with detailed information about programs, financials, and key donors.
How can you determine if a grant opportunity is right for you?
Ideally, a foundation will publish much of the information you need to know on their website. Read it thoroughly. First look at eligibility guidelines, then look at funding interests and past grants. If it looks like you are eligible and they may be interested in your work, then look for more information on the application process and deadlines.
Some foundations may be “by invitation only” or may make grants only to “pre-selected applicants” meaning that you must be invited before you can submit an application. Typically, this means you must develop a relationship with someone at the foundation before you submit an application. Developing a relationship with someone at the foundation is a great idea even if they have an open grant application process.
If a foundation does not have a website or this information is not easy to find, you have a few options:
- If you have the foundation’s contact information, call, email, or even send a letter to request application information, unless they explicitly discourage contact. Look carefully at the information available. If the foundation publishes contact information for the general office or staff members, they may welcome contact. If any of the foundation materials say something like “Please do not contact the foundation” or “We do not take inquiries” or “We cannot provide advice to applicants,” then you must respect the foundations’ preferences and refrain from contacting them.
- Locate the foundation’s Form 990, or public tax filings. These are available for free at https://www.guidestar.org/. Scroll through the document to find the application guidelines.
- If you know an organization that has received funding from a foundation that you are interested in, you can contact them to ask for more information on the process and their experience. While some organizations may be reluctant to share specific information about their experiences with funders, our movements are stronger when we work with one another rather than compete. Develop trusting relationships with peers and colleagues doing similar work and learn how you can support one another.
So, you’ve found a grant you’d like to apply for- what’s next?
- Ideally, make sure the deadline is at least six weeks from now, or even more. Smaller grants may take only a few weeks to put together, but larger opportunities may take a few months to put together a strong, competitive application. Give yourself the time you need to complete a strong application, especially if you are coordinating with other staff or volunteers.
- Read the guidelines thoroughly to make sure that you understand them. If you have questions, reach out to the foundation to ask them.
- Initiate a conversation with the foundation or program officer and ask them what would make a strong application. If they are open to it, provide a brief description of your project and gauge their interest in supporting your work. Do they have any questions they would like you to answer?
If you have a long time before the deadline or the foundation is “invitation only”, you may need to do more work to develop a relationship with someone at the foundation. I’ve included more information on how to develop relationships with funders in the documents and the video on this page.
- If you decide to move forward, I recommend creating a reverse timeline, working backwards from the application deadline, to make sure that you have all the items you need to submit with the grant, especially if you need to ask other people for help with documents or other requirements. This also provides time for you to review and make changes to your grant. It’s a good idea to ask a few other people to read the grant before the deadline and ask if they have any suggested changes.
- Begin drafting your grant! Many applications today are online. Make sure you understand the necessary steps to create an online account to submit the grant, but I recommend composing the grant offline, in a Word or Google document, and then pasting or uploading the materials to the online grant system. You are much less likely to lose information this way if there is a problem with the grant system.
- If the application materials or online application system is not accessible to you, contact the foundation and ask for accommodations to access the application materials or submit the application in a different way. It may be possible to complete the application in another format such as Google Forms, large print, or by video or phone interview.
Writing Your Grant Narrative: Language and Key Components
A Word About Language
When you are writing your proposal, you have a powerful opportunity to decide how you want to talk about disability and how you want to frame the issues that matter to the disability community. You may find that the funders that you are applying to talk about disabled or other marginalized people in ways that you may or may not agree with. Some funders will take a more charity-minded approach to their work, eager to serve individual needs, and some have adopted a more justice-minded approach, aimed at dismantling oppressive systems.
While in some cases, you will want to mirror the language that funders are using, your proposal is a powerful storytelling tool to shift how readers think about disability. Your proposal is also a representation of your organization and your approach to the work that is so important to you. I encourage you to be bold as you describe your work and ensure that you are telling a story that is authentic to the experiences of the people that you are impacting and the world that you want to create.
Are You Writing a Letter of Intent or a Full Proposal?
A grant application process will either include a pre-application or Letter of Intent, which is often a shorter version of a full proposal to allow a funder to review your idea before submitting a full proposal, or the process will include only a full grant proposal.
Use your proposal to build a roadmap that will get you where you want to go and bring the funders along on the journey.
A proposal narrative ideally builds a picture of the work that you want to do so that the funder can understand why and how you’ve designed your program and project, and why you believe it will result in the impact that you hope to make through your work. It is a bit like building a road map to your project and bringing the funders along on the journey. You will build this map by addressing key components and questions in your proposal. This process will be easier if you have already done the work to create a case statement or a justification for your project, program, or organization, as described above. You are simply building on your case statement and answering specific questions posed by the funder.
Every grant application will have slightly different questions in a slightly different order, but in general, most grant applications will include the following. You will also find strong grant writing examples, illustrating how you may write each of these sections, in the additional resources linked below.
Need Statement describing the need that you have observed and are trying to address. Provide supporting evidence for your need, using several sources if possible, including reputable research that you find and cite, your own data if available from your previous work, and evidence that you have observed or that the people that you are impacting have relayed to you about their own experiences. A need statement is strongest if it includes both quantitative data, with numerical statistics about the problem that you want to solve, and a relevant story about a person or the people that you are impacting, to draw the readers’ attention.
The Project Plan describes the specific steps or activities you will take to meet the need that you have described. Be as specific as possible. You may also be asked to provide more detailed demographics regarding the people you plan to serve and any partnering organizations you plan to work with.
Your Goal is the overall long-term change that you are seeking to make in social or material conditions. Your goal may be a larger vision than the project itself.
Objectives and Outcomes are activities and the resulting measurable changes that will occur in relation to the need or the people with whom you are working. Outcomes are ideally changes in attitudes, behavior, or conditions.
You may see funders encouraging you to use SMART goals, objectives, and outcomes (Specific, Measurable, Actionable-Attainable-Assignable, Relevant, and Time-Based). For more detail on developing your goals, objectives, and outcomes, I have included additional resources on developing your Logic Model, a common method used by funders to outline a project or program’s theory of change.
Your Evaluation Method describes what tools you will use to measure your progress toward your outcomes. Evaluation tools can include surveys (printed, online, or verbal) that you ask program participants to complete, observed changes reported by your program staff or volunteers, or many other methods to assess your project or program impact. Be sure to choose an evaluation method that is most suited to the information that you want to gather and the capacity and tools that you have to complete the evaluation process.
Your Project Costs or The Resources You Will Use to Carry Out Your Project: including people and time (salaried staff, contractors, or volunteers, paid or unpaid), resources like travel, marketing and communications, and tangible equipment and supplies. You may be asked to present these items in two ways:
- Project Budget: a spreadsheet or other document showing your expected line item budget for your project in numerical form.
- Budget Narrative: a narrative illustrating how the specific items you are requesting in your budget match the work and the outcomes that you have described. Each expense should have a clear role in the project to help you carry out activities and achieve your outcomes.
I have included additional linked resources to help you develop a proposal budget.
Your Funding and Sustainability Plan describes how you plan to secure enough funding to carry out and sustain the project or program, including listing other sources of funding that you have secured or are planning to solicit, and if an ongoing program, your plan for continuing the program after the grant ends. Funders seldom like to fund 100% of program costs, so you’ll want to plan to raise funds from a number of other sources to successfully complete a project.
Organizational History and Qualifications provides a brief description of your organizational or project history including your mission, current programs, and description of who you serve, and any relevant successful work you’d like to share with the funder. Be sure to include any successful programs or projects that demonstrate that you are ready to complete the proposed project. If your organization is disability-led by disabled staff, board, or community members, this is a good place to emphasize that and highlight the importance of disability-led work.
In addition to the grant narrative, you will likely be asked to include several common attached documents with your grant application. If you submit the application online, you may upload these documents into the application system. If you submit the application by mail, you will include these attachments with your application packet. Requested attachments will vary depending on a funder’s application guidelines. Be sure to read and closely follow the specific instructions for your grant application. Some attachments that may be requested include:
- Line-Item Project Budget
- Line-Item Organizational Operating Budget: If you are operating under a fiscal sponsor, you will include your fiscal sponsor’s budget
- Audited Financial Statements, or for a smaller organization, a Financial Review or Compilation
- Your 501c3 tax determination letter or the letter for your fiscal sponsor
- A list of your board of directors
- A list of other funding sources for your project or your organization
You may have an additional opportunity to include other attachments that support your grant application such as press coverage, photos, videos, or statements from the people that you serve. However, only include these attachments if the application guidelines allow you to do so.
The Review Process
Congratulations on successfully submitting your grant. Now the wait begins. Here is what to expect during the grant review process:
Review Timeline: Ideally, you will find details on the expected grant review process and timeline on the funder website or in the grant application materials. If information on the review process and timeline is not published and the grant-maker welcomes contact from prospective grantees, reach out to the grant-maker for this information. Grant review timelines vary widely and can roughly take anywhere from four weeks to nine months. It is important to be aware of the review and funding notification timeline to help you in your financial planning.
Review Process: Grants may be reviewed in many different ways by different individuals working with the funder. In some cases, grants are reviewed and recommended internally by foundation staff and approved by foundation trustees. Some foundation trustees review grants directly. In other cases, a foundation or often a government grant-maker will put together a review panel composed of experts in the field of interest or members of the community who will act as grant reviewers. You may want to look for opportunities to serve as a community grant reviewer. This will provide you with important insight into the grant review process, and it will provide you an opportunity to offer your perspective in the review process. The more people with disabilities that participate on grant review panels, the more lived experiences with disability will inform what and how projects are funded.
Site Visits: In some cases, the grant review process will include a site visit to your organization. A site visit is an opportunity for foundation staff or grant review panelists to visit your organization to meet your staff and program participants and experience your programs first-hand. If the grant-maker requests a site visit, be sure to ask what they expect from the visit, what format they prefer, and if they anticipate asking any questions that they can send to your team before the visit. Some site visits include a formal presentation to the funder, but increasingly common are site visits that provide an authentic first-hand experience for a funder to observe or participate in a program or project.
Questions After Your Application: Occasionally in the course of the review process, a funder will have additional questions and will reach out to you to answer them. It is important to respond quickly to any questions or requests during the review process. It is not common or guaranteed that you will have a chance to provide additional information during the review process, so it is most important to respond to the initial application questions as thoroughly and accurately as possible.
You Got the Grant! Now What?
If you receive funding, congratulations! Take time to celebrate with your staff and board, and then:
- Thank the funder and anyone who was involved in helping you to secure the grant by phone or email as soon as possible.
- Review, sign and follow any contracts and requirements provided to you by the grant maker. If you have questions about the contract requirements, reach out to the funder for clarification.
- Understand how you will receive the grant funds. You may receive a grant by check or electronic fund transfer along with your initial funding notification or after you sign and return the grant contract. Some grants are paid only on a reimbursement basis or in installments. It is important to understand and prepare for a grant’s payout schedule and requirements.
- Thank the funder again through a letter or handwritten card by mail. You may want to consider having your Executive Director or a board member send a letter or card to the grantmaking executive or trustees.
- Carry out the project and monitor your activities and expenses. Ensure you have a system in place to track grant expenses. Ensure staff or volunteers that are responsible for carrying out program activities understand the requirements of the grant and are prepared to carry out and evaluate the program as described in the proposal.
I strongly recommend that grant writers work closely with program staff when writing a grant proposal to ensure that the activities you propose align with the program staff’s vision and are feasible to carry out. However, even the most well-planned project may encounter a need for changes. It is okay to begin a project and to make changes as you learn what’s working and not working. This is learning, and funders love it! It’s important to communicate what you’ve learned, the changes you’ve made and why. If you need to make significant changes that affect the grant that you’ve been given, be sure to have a conversation with your funder first. Most funders have a process for requesting and approving adjustments to your grant contract.
Your grant contract will likely lay out your reporting requirements for the grant. Most grants require at least a brief narrative and financial summary of what you have accomplished with the grant at the end of the grant period. Some grants have more frequent reporting requirements, bi-annually or quarterly. It is important to track project activities and expenses closely to ensure grant reporting is as accurate and simple as possible. It is also good practice to keep in touch with your funder and provide a few informal updates throughout the course of the grant, before your formal report is due.
You Didn’t Get the Grant! Now What?
If you did not receive funding, take heart. Typically, more proposals are rejected than funded. There are still important steps that you can take to build a relationship with the funder and improve the likelihood of future funding.
Asking for Feedback
Some funders will provide feedback on a declined application. Reach out to the funder to ask if they do so. If they are willing to provide feedback to you, accept the feedback humbly and graciously, and use the feedback to improve your future proposals. If you do not understand the feedback, you can ask clarifying questions, but do not argue with or complain to your contact. Try to respect and understand the decision that they have made, even if you disagree with it! This will help you better understand the funders’ perspective for future conversations.
Continuing Your Relationship with a Funder
Regular, periodic communication with a funder whether or not you received funding can help them to feel engaged and invested in your work and will go a long way to develop a longer, deeper relationship. If you did not receive funding but you believe that the funder is still a fit with your work and may support you in the future, do what you can to stay in touch with the funder.
Be sure to ask a funder how often they would like to hear from you and their preferred method of communication (email, phone, written reports, visits). After a funded grant concludes, or a grant is declined, there may be additional opportunities for funding from the grant-maker. Even if there are not any current opportunities for additional funding, continue to stay in touch with the funder to keep them updated and engaged with your work. Your grant-maker is now a part of your extended community, and maintaining a long-term relationship with a funder will benefit your work over time.
Additional External Resources:
Resources for Funding by and for the Disability Community
The below resources are managed or administered by disabled people, and in some cases, funded by disabled people. This is not a complete list of available resources- only a few examples.
Awesome Disability: https://www.awesomefoundation.org/en/chapters/disability
Borealis Philanthropy Disability Inclusion Fund: https://borealisphilanthropy.org/grantmaking/disability-inclusion-fund/
Fund for Community Reparations for Autistic People of Color’s Interdependence, Survival, and Empowerment: https://autismandrace.com/autistic-people-of-color-fund/
WITH Foundation: https://withfoundation.org/
Good Grant Writing Examples:
How to Create a Program/Project Budget:
How to Create a Logic Models for Program Evaluation:
Resources for Making Grant Seeking and Fundraising More Equitable:
Disabled in Development Project: https://disabledindevelopment.org/
Decolonizing Wealth: https://www.decolonizingwealth.com/
Nonprofit AF: https://nonprofitaf.com/
Relationship Mapping: Networking as a Mindset and Strategy for Sustainability:
Beth Kanter’s Blog: http://www.bethkanter.org/network-mapping/
Glossaries of Nonprofit/Grant Jargon:
When you are new to looking for grants, you may encounter words and terminology that are new to you. This may feel confusing and overwhelming. There’s a lot of jargon in grant writing, fundraising and nonprofit work in general. Jargon are words that are used by people who work in a particular field- like fundraising- that may not make sense to folks who are new to this work. Jargon is one way to keep some “people in the know” and to make others feel that they are outside, or they don’t belong. This contributes to inequality. The good news is, we can level the playing field. We can learn the jargon. Search on the internet for terms you don’t know. I’ve also included a few glossary resources here. We are in this together.
Vu Le of Nonprofit AF on Nonprofit Jargon: https://nonprofitaf.com/tag/jargon/
Grant Select Glossary of Terms: https://www.grantselect.com/help/glossary.html
Council on Foundations Glossary of Philanthropic Terms: https://www.cof.org/content/glossary-philanthropic-terms
ABOUT THE EXPERTLaura Cohen
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