The Ten Commandments of Successful Grant Writing
The Executive Director / CEO of the Health Care Foundation of New Jersey offers nonprofits ten essential tips for applying for foundation grants.
There’s an old truism that if you are familiar with one foundation, you are familiar with one foundation, which is probably why navigating the waters of grant writing is so difficult for so many nonprofits.
We at The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey are a hospital conversion foundation that was created when a local not-for-profit hospital was sold to a larger hospital group. As such, we feel strongly that we are the guardians of an extremely important legacy: a financial legacy, and a legacy of humanism bringing quality health care to the most under-served, low income people in our community. We expect to award approximately $8.6 million dollars in grants this year to 60 to80 organizations. If history is our guide, we will probably get many more in grant requests and inquiries.
Like most foundations, we are very serious about being true to our legacy and making the best grants possible. We want our grantees to succeed and to really make a difference, and therefore look very carefully at all the proposals we receive.
If you are seeking support from a foundation, here are some very important things to remember. In fact, I consider them the Ten Commandments of Successful Grant Writing.
One: Do your homework about your project: Make sure that you identify exactly what you want to accomplish with the funding you are seeking. Clearly articulate in your proposal exactly what steps you will take to combat the problem that you are addressing and exactly what success will look like.
Line up potential partners BEFORE going to the foundation for support. They may have to write letters of support, attend a site visit with you, etc.
Make sure that your board is committed to the project and that you have a champion within your organization that will ensure that the project moves forward successfully. And if you can put some money or some in-kind support toward the effort, so much the better. Foundations usually perceive it when there is a lack of commitment to or passion about a project. Why should we commit our funding to the effort if the applicant is not fully committed to its success?
Two: Do your homework about the foundation: Make sure that you can answer the following questions:
- Does the foundation’s mission jive with the goals of your project? If not, move on to a different funder.
- Does the population you want to serve, or the territory in which you want to operate, fall within the foundation’s target demographic? If not, move on to another foundation.
- Does the foundation accept unsolicited proposals? Some foundations do; others only accept proposals that they solicit or that are received in response to a specific Request for Proposals that they issue.
- Does the size of your request fall within the foundation’s sweet spot? Is it consonant with the work that you are proposing to do?
- Is the foundation willing to discuss your proposal idea before it is formally submitted? If not, do they have a Letter of Intent process? Either of these can help you explore the possibilities for funding and get foundation input before you take the time to write a full proposal.
Three: Adhere to foundation deadlines and other guidelines: Check to see whether the foundation funds ongoing projects, or only start-ups or expansions. Does it fund administrative costs, capital requests, planning or capacity-building needs, operating expenses, fringe benefits and the like? Are there are caps for these expenses? Are there deadlines for submission of proposals? Check, too, to see whether the foundation accepts multi-year proposals or whether it funds only one year at a time. As a funder that does the latter, I can tell you that nothing is more irritating than to receive proposals for two to three years of funding with multi-year budgets and to have to send them back to be redone.
Four: Be clear about how you will measure your results: Clear articulation of outcomes is becoming more and more important to many foundations. We want to know not only how many workshops you ran, for example, but what effect those workshops had on the participants. What actual changes took place as a result of the work you have done? Tell us in your proposal how you intend to measure success and then report the results fully and honestly.
Five: If your project is meant to be ongoing, be clear and thoughtful about how you will sustain it if and when the foundation’s funding has ended: There’s nothing that disappoints us more than a grantee’s inability to forge a path to sustainability, whether through its own resources and/or fees/service reimbursements, or by using our funding to leverage other grants. If a project is not sustainable for some reason without long-term funding from our foundation and that is known from the beginning, it should be frankly discussed at the outset.
Six: Be honest and transparent about your budget: The foundation should be able to read your budget and understand exactly what it is being asked to fund and what funding, if any, is coming from other sources. If there are in-kind services being contributed, they should be noted on the budget or in the narrative so that the foundation understands the totality of cost and support for the proposed work.
Seven: Be honest and transparent about the possible barriers to success: This will only help you if the project takes longer than expected to be realized or if adjustments are required along the way.
Eight: Make sure that the proper people, knowledgeable about the project and your organization, are in the room for site visits or other meetings with foundation staff or trustees: Meetings and site visits are your chance to explain your project fully, and foundations want people there who can answer all their questions and give them confidence that you can do what you plan to do with their funding.
Nine: Be sure to discuss any major changes in the work or the budget with the foundation before putting those changes into effect: Foundations generally require approval in writing for any major changes that are made to the contracted work.
Ten: Credit the foundation for its support: On your website, in press releases and newsletter articles, on social media, verbally at project events, etc. Most foundations want their support acknowledged, but be sure that yours does, and what form they want it to take.
In sum, your request for funding should clearly articulate:
- The need addressed
- Your strengths/experience that make you able to tackle the issue
- Your goals and the steps that you will take to reach them
- How you will demonstrate and measure success
- How you will sustain the work into the future
Successful projects are generally a partnership between the foundation and the grantees. Foundations are often willing to offer technical assistance, their knowledge of the community, and various other resources to help you achieve that success. The more open and collegial the relationship, the more your organization will benefit and improve the likelihood of future foundation support.
Marsha Atkind has served for the past six years as Executive Director and CEO of The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, an independent foundation dedicated to improving the health and well-being of vulnerable, populations in both Greater Newark and the Jewish community of MetroWest, NJ. The foundation works to elevate the quality of community healthcare, reduce disparities in access, and promote the infusion of compassion and humanism into our healthcare system.