Armanino Blog

Turn Big Ideas Into Big Bucks for Your Nonprofit

by Paul O Grady
September 30, 2016

You’re ready to go after some grant money. You have a strong program that meets a compelling need. You have data to support your approach. You’ve even identified a potential funder or two.

Now, you just need to get from the big idea to the big bucks.

Tapping in to government and foundation money requires a strong organizational commitment to the grant writing process, says Kristin Cooper Carter, owner of Durham, CA-based Grant Management Associates. “Producing winning grant proposals requires clear writing—and even clearer thinking. That means solid planning, carefully researched funding prospects and a well-written case for support.”

With that in mind, consider these steps for developing strong grant proposals:

Look for the fit. Identify funding streams where your needs closely mesh with the funding organization’s interests and areas of focus. It then becomes easy to design your program around the funder’s parameters. “If I had a client who wanted to grow their own vegetables for their homeless feeding program, we’d look at the USDA guidelines and build the proposal around what the feds are funding,” says Carter. At the very least, you’ll want to contact someone at the funding institution directly to find out more about their mission and funding criteria before submitting your proposal.

Mine relationships. It’s incredibly valuable to develop a relationship—or find someone who already has that relationship—with the decision makers at the granting agency. These relationships take time to build. In some cases, you might want to submit a grant proposal that you know is a long shot just to start a conversation with the grantor. “The key is to get in front of them and let someone on staff know what you’re doing,” Carter says. “In most cases, you’ll at least receive some feedback that you can use for the next grant cycle.”

Get critical. Before putting pen to paper, critically evaluate your project approach or idea. Then evaluate it again. This is where an experienced grant writer can really pay off. “With a grant writer, you’re also paying for some brutal honesty,” says Carter. “A good writer will help pre-vet the concept and be upfront about the chances of it getting awarded.”

Sally Petersen, CFO at Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, shares that her organization utilizes a separate committee to critically evaluate grant opportunities upfront. “We want to know ahead of time whether we have a reasonable chance of securing the grant to justify the effort it will require to apply,” she says.

Get everyone in the game. Grant writing is a team effort. If you decide to hire a grant writer, keep in mind that it is something they do with you—not for you. “A lot of organizations think that once they hire a grant writer, the writer is going to go off and write the grant,” says Carter. “We can’t just sit down and start writing. There are constant questions that need answers.” Nonprofits should devote staff resources to work closely with the grant writer and make organization-specific data available. Don’t expect your grant writer to just “pull it from the website.”

Drill down. Detail is king. Using the example of the garden project, the USDA is going to want to know the types of soils, how the food is going to be processed and the specific steps required to bring nutritious food to the table. “We can’t just say that we want to put in a garden,” Carter explains. “We need to outline that Task 1 is to prepare the land. Task 2 is to put in the seeds and water them. Task 3 is to train clients to tend the garden. The scope of work needs to clearly tie into the goals and objectives of the funder.”

Link it all up. The next step is to link costs to those tasks. “One of the first things reviewers will look at is your budget narrative. You’ll need to justify every expense and show that the costs are reasonable,” Carter explains. Then, take a look at your schedule to see if those tasks are achievable within your timeline. “These three things—budget, tasks and timeline—will tell grantors whether those areas have been thoroughly thought out in your application.”

Show that you’re on top of it. Finally, share how your organization has the capacity to oversee the project if it is funded—including handling the oversight, documentation and reporting requirements.

Grant proposals are an investment of time, energy and talent on the part of your organization. Armanino’s nonprofit team has a great network that can help position your organization for success, including seasoned grant-writing professionals. Contact your local Armanino nonprofit expert to review your grant writing needs.

5 Questions to Vet a Grant Writer

Hiring a grant writer is a big step, and no two writers are created equal. As you work through the process, try to get answers to these key questions:

1. What are we getting? Understand your candidate’s abilities and scope of services. Is she capable of working with your team to develop an overall grant strategy, or will she simply write what you tell her to?

2. Do you have expertise in our niche? Most writers specialize in a specific area or two, such as education, health, the arts or social services. Make sure that the writer has experience in your area of focus. Likewise, if your proposal is for a federal grant, make sure the writer has specific experience in this much more intensive type of writing.

3. How much—and how—do you charge? Funders generally frown upon contingency fees, so you’ll probably want to agree on a project price or an hourly rate, which can range from $25 to $125 per hour based on the level of expertise and the specifics of the project. If your writer is going to charge by the hour, make sure to discuss your overall budget and whether there is a cap on total fees.

4. Can we see samples? When reviewing your writer’s recent work, find out whether the candidate wrote the entire package or was part of a team effort and was responsible for only a section of the grant.

5. Do you have the time? If your writer is juggling a substantial workload, establish clear milestones and consider asking for weekly drafts of the work, or at least weekly status updates.

Ultimately, grants are approved and rejected for many reasons, very few of which are in the writer’s direct control. A seasoned grant writer, however, can help put your proposal at the top of the stack.

September 30, 2016

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