How to Get Great Grants

While more associations are looking to grant funding to diversify their revenue streams, many are still trying to understand how to convert ideas to income. An industry expert weighs in on five common questions.

By Emi Aprekuma

Grant funding

You’ve been asked to secure grant funding for your association. Great! But where do you begin? What are best practices? How do you ensure your organization is prepared to submit a grant? What happens after you get a grant? These are common questions for many people trying to find and win grant funding for their projects. Before we dive into these questions, let’s start with some basics.

Strategy Is Everything

Creating a strategy for how you will navigate each stage of the grant cycle can dramatically reduce the stress of this process. As you develop your grant plan, make sure all members of your grants, executive and program team understand the plan and know their roles and deadlines. Always remember that a successful grant strategy begins with an effective grants team but hinges on great collaboration between the grants, executive and program teams.

Creating a strategy for how you will navigate each stage of the grant cycle can dramatically reduce the stress of this process.

Grant cycles go through four main stages. The first is a research stage where you gather info on potential grant opportunities. Once you identify grant opportunities, you enter into the second stage of the grant cycle — writing the proposal. Once you’ve written and submitted that proposal, if you are successful, you will enter into the third stage: carrying out the grant-funded project. Finally, in the fourth stage, you will have to steward that grant gift or report on the progress made. Below are five frequently asked questions about each of these stages of the grant cycle.

Are you eligible?

Grants commonly come from three main sources: private foundations, corporate foundations (or a corporation’s social responsibility department) and government agencies. Each of these funders usually lists eligibility requirements on the request for proposal or webpage where the grant notice is posted. There are a few common eligibility requirements. One common requirement of all three types of funders is that they usually only fund organizations with a 501(c)(3) status. (Note: Many will fund organizations that are not 501(c)(3) nonprofits if they partner with a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.)

Preparing grant proposals often requires a significant amount of organizational resources, so it’s important to review funder eligibility requirements and ensure you’re eligible before you invest in creating and submitting a proposal.

Many funders also have geographic restrictions and require grantees to either be located in a certain region, serve the region or both. Sometimes funders have requirements about operating budgets. These funders may require that operating budgets may not exceed or be less than a certain amount. Other times, funders have requirements about governance structure. For instance, funders may require that the leadership or board of an organization reflects the demographics of the community the organization serves. Some funders may not provide grants to organizations with interim leaders. Finally, funding organizations often define the types of organizations that are eligible for funding. For instance, some grants may exclude academic organizations or only be given to hospital systems.

Preparing grant proposals often requires a significant amount of organizational resources, so it’s important to review funder eligibility requirements and ensure you’re eligible before you invest in creating and submitting a proposal.

Where do you find them?

A great grant research strategy is a crucial part of a thriving grant development department. The internet provides a wide range of convenient avenues to search for grant opportunities. One of the best ways to find grant opportunities is to first list your competitors. Then, review these organizations’ web pages and annual reports to see which grant funders are supporting them. Research these funding organizations and see if they are offering opportunities that align with your association’s mission, strategic plan or upcoming projects.

You can also use search engines to find grants. Both general search engines and grant search engines can be useful. When searching for funding using a general search engine, a good strategy is to start with the broadest concepts and then hone in. For instance, if you are looking for funding for a diversity, equity and inclusion fellowship training program in healthcare, you could start with a search for “healthcare grants.” Then, try “healthcare education grants” next, and then further refine it to something like “diversity and inclusion healthcare education grants.”

Finally, your association’s network could be helpful in finding grant opportunities. Often, leaders of associations serve on boards of grant-making foundations or have friends who do. It is important to routinely poll your leadership and find out what contacts they have in the grant-funding sphere. These queries can also extend to contacting members. For instance, if you have an especially active volunteer committee, reach out to those members to see if they know any grant funders.

How do you write a grant proposal?

Funders usually either have a proposal template with a list of questions or simply ask you to provide information about your project. In addition, funders sometimes have page, word or character limits and may explain the font and size in which they want the proposal text to appear. It is important to follow all instructions provided.

When responding to a funder with a proposal template, try to answer each question as accurately and completely as possible, emphasizing aspects that are important to the funder. If templates are part of an online submission portal, it’s helpful to copy and paste the template into a Word document and complete the proposal in the document first. This makes it easy for you to edit the document before copying and pasting your answers into the grant portal.

When you encounter a funder that does not have a proposal template, consider using the instructions given to create a proposal template. For instance, a funder’s instruction might state something like the following: Please send a proposal that includes a description of your organization, a description of the project (listing staff members who will complete the project and a timeline) and measurable program objectives.

Consider creating a corresponding proposal outline similar to this:

  1. Organization description
  2. Project description
    • Project summary
    • Staff members
    • Project timeline
  3.  Measurable program objectives

If you can, try to include an introduction or conclusion section that states the amount of money you are asking for, even if you will be submitting a budget.

What do you do when you get a grant?

Once a funder communicates that they would like to fund your grant proposal, they often send a grant agreement, or letter of agreement, for your signature. This grant agreement usually includes all the terms of the grant, including due dates of any reports. One of the most important terms of a grant agreement is the requirement that you stick to the project description, budget and metrics included in your grant proposal.

As the grant year proceeds, continue to review the schedule and check-in points to make sure you are on track to complete all project deliverables and submit timely reports.

Therefore, the first step in successful grant project management is to create a schedule of events. Drawing from the proposal and the grant agreement, create a schedule of when all project deliverables or reports are due. In this schedule, include deadlines for checking in to make sure these deliverables are being met. Be sure to note the dates you will need to begin writing reports, so they can be submitted before the due dates. As the grant year proceeds, continue to review the schedule and check-in points to make sure you are on track to complete all project deliverables and submit timely reports.

What if you have to make changes to your project after you get the grant?

Grants usually have legal implications. The grant agreement you sign (or in the absence of a grant agreement, the proposal you submitted) defines the terms of this legal agreement. Therefore, it is important to make sure your team is equipped to carry out every part of the project you include in the proposal.

At times, though, changes in circumstances can make it difficult or impossible to meet project deliverables. You must report to the funder regarding any issues that will cause you to substantially change the way you are going to do the work, your ability to do the work, your ability to meet the deadlines set for the work or how the money will be spent.

Once you identify a problem, take the time to figure out if there is a solution. Communicate with the funder as soon as you know there is a problem and you have had time to figure out what the solution is, if there is one. Consider sending an email to the funder asking for time to meet to discuss the project. During the meeting, be honest, take responsibility — if you made a mistake — and present a clear resolution.

At times, though, changes in circumstances can make it difficult or impossible to meet project deliverables. You must report to the funder regarding any issues that will cause you to substantially change the way you are going to do the work, your ability to do the work, your ability to meet the deadlines set for the work or how the money will be spent.

For example, if you were planning a grant-funded live conference and had to reconsider the event because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first step would be to assess the situation. Figure out what impact the pandemic would have on the event. For instance, do you have to cancel the event, postpone it or reformat it? Once you know what the plan will be, reach out to the funder. State that the pandemic has caused you to rethink the program and explain what adjustments will be made. As you describe these changes, be sure to emphasize the parts of the program the funder was most interested in. For example, let’s say you have to change from a live event to a virtual event and your funder is most interested in educating a large group of professionals. As you talk about the change, it would be good to note to the funder that you expect more participants because of this transition to a virtual format. Remind the funder that you value your relationship with them and need their funding to complete the project.  

About the Author

Emi Aprekuma is a senior grants manager with Association Management Center, an association management company based in Chicago. She can be reached at eaprekuma@connect2amc.com.

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