A Dozen Rules of Thumb For Obtaining Grants for Your NGO

Everyone who has ventured to start up and run a non-profit, non-government organization knows first and foremost that cash flow is critical to success. It allows you to focus on your purpose for starting the NGO and gives you the bandwidth to hire help, provide services and grow. Some people are fortunate to find in-kind or private help get their business off the ground, while others must seek loans, grants and other funding resources from the get-go. The great thing to know is that, whether you are starting up an NGO or seeking continuous funding, there are grants within your reach, and with a little stamina and persistence, you can get them!  

Taking a step-by-step, preparatory approach can make the task of grant writing less daunting. We’ve outlined 12 simple rules of thumb that can help you be more effective when preparing your grant proposal. You’ll be genuinely surprised and relieved that it doesn’t have to be a hugely painful process to process and put your proposal together. After all who is in the most tune with your business and philosophy? You are! Running your NGO means you are best versed when genuinely describing your organization, telling your mission and needs statement, developing your programs, and in general, believing in your cause. Therefore, it makes sense that you should be the one looking for grants. So let’s get started.

1. Relationship Building – Finding the Fit

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Establishing solid, long-term relationships with foundations or grant-makers is the key to your organization’s steady growth and opportunity. As a first step, take a moment to think about all the people you know. Their combined knowledge is a wealth of information that may be beneficial in directing you to contacts at foundations in your community whose causes are similar to yours. Local foundations are more likely to fund local companies. With your top line objectives in mind, begin to research and list potential funders that are good matches. You can find books at the library or do a more intensive search online using key words that fit your mission ideals. To begin building these relationships, determine and verify the following (most of the information is available on the grantmakers’ websites):

  • Does the organization offer grants that are a good match with your specific objectives?
  • Study each organization’s current list of awarded grants; request an annual report, or find the foundation’s IRS tax form 990 (a public record that will show grantees and funds granted).
  • First choose local foundations to target, then expand to national or international organizations.
  • Study the funders’ grant guidelines and identify deadlines.
  • Make a chart compiling the information, including company, type of grant and deadlines.
  • Obtain application forms; submit a letter of intent, then follow with your grant proposal.

2. Identifying Your Organization’s Immediate Financial Needs
Every NGO has a unique social criteria which defines its specific financial criteria. Whether you need the cash flow for operations, a building project, or to start up a special community program, put emphasis on how, by getting a grant, you will be able fulfill the purpose of your cause. By keeping your ‘need statement’ focused on specific issues, you’ll have a better chance at getting the grant. Know the expectations for every grantor and expect to moderate your proposals as suggested by the grantor. Establish the credibility of your mission and how you will be resolving a problem; be able to show a method whereby you can measure success; answers all the questions you think may be asked, and be sure that your objectives are in sync with the funder’s. Finally, with a budget outline in place that shows costs, existing and desired revenue sources, you are ready to summarize your needs in a concise and compelling statement that will motivate the funder. Top off your need statement by showing facts and statistics in the area of your business and include the endorsement or the testimony of at least two business associates or community leaders that support your objectives or cause.

3. Setting Your Goals, Objectives and Methods
We often aren’t clear on the differences between goals, objectives and methods. While all are related, they are also tiered. To put them on paper (you will need to include these in your final proposal), start from the top tier, i.e. your goals, then work down from there:

Goals: Your organization’s goals should be expressed as a single, broad-based statement that is wide reaching and that even may take years to accomplish. As an example, “Homelessness and hunger will be forever abolished in the downtown Marina area.”

Objectives: Every NGO should have both short and long-term objectives that are measurable, time-specific, realistic, and quantifiable in terms of outcome. With your ‘goals’ in mind, your objectives should identify and break down the problem; lay out the ‘need’ to solve the problem; show how the problem will be addressed, and finally, how your mission will continue to serve the need over time. When writing your objectives, discuss what your organization is seeking to change, and who will be affected by this change. Describe the basic processes you will take to solve the problem and a reasonable timeline needed to execute your strategy and achieve a positive outcome.

Methods: The methods by which you execute your objectives are the details on how each project will unfold and be implemented and executed successfully. Methods include planning the activities, staffing, assigning tasks, and obtaining needed financial resources. Many funders don’t need all the exact details but if requested, keep your method descriptions short and succinct. Developing a chart and timeline format is a good way to show an overview of your methods.

4. Showing Sound Strategies
Having set your goals and objectives, it’s time to look at short and long-term strategies for the company. Short-term strategies define what you realistically can accomplish in your first year or two of business. Grantmakers are willing to fund a company with a well-laid-out business plan but ultimately they will be looking for tenacity. Here’s where longer five and ten-year plans are ideal to show that you are adamant in staying in business for the long haul. If you are planning growth, you’ll need to show sound strategies that make sense for sustainability and expansion. How many programs will you add to the slate? What other fundraising activities will you implement? Will you go from a community-based NGO to a national or international organization? How will you measure success? How will your budget needs change? For the first few years, keep your objectives within reach until you can measure the effectiveness of your project(s). Once you are comfortable that you are fulfilling your objectives, you will then re-evaluate if you want to stay focused on just what you are dong or expand to a more robust operation. It is good advice to have several paths you can take along the way and strive to build long-term relationships with your funders.

5. Evaluating Projects
As your strategies unfold and you begin to execute projects, be sure to put into place a method of measuring qualitative and quantitative data before, during and after implementation. This way, you can show your funder that the money will be or has been well spent and that your organization has made a tangible effect as intended. Collecting data along the way (surveys, interviews, creating a database system) can help you gain insight as to what is working, what can be improved, and the cause and effect of your planning and decisions. Quantitative data can help you statistically measure if you can support the frequency of certain programs or help you establish new criteria and direction, growth rates and financial needs.

6. Defining and Preparing Your Budget
Your organization’s financial needs can be defined or identified in several areas — management, operations, overhead, and project costs, all within various timeframes. Map out on a worksheet what your most immediate financial needs are. Identify a budget for each area. For example, if you are seeking funding for a particular project, you will need to show expenses and anticipated revenue. On a larger scale, if you need funding to expand your office space and operations, this may better fall under and ‘unrestricted’ type of funding where certain percentages of income are designated. To determine your budget, you will need to research the many costs of doing business — salaries, contractor costs, leases, supplies, travel, marketing, promotion, etc. Prior to submitting your proposal, make sure all your budget areas are identified along with a budget timeframe. Don’t forget to factor in your anticipated revenues as well.

7. Your Business Background and Preliminary Proposal Configuration
As you prepare for the task of writing your proposal, first take a mental picture of everything you’ve put together so far – your goals, objectives, methods, strategies, project descriptions, implementations, future growth and budgets. Having the sum of all these essentials in mind, you should now have no problem writing your preliminary proposal ideas. But first, writing the business background will be just as important a task, because the description will validate the credibility and capability of the organization based on the backgrounds and interesting qualifications of the people running it. Having testimonials or endorsement to support your current or past work will build a solid case that you are both capable and honest in your assessment of the scope of your business and needs. Introducing the business background before your proposal ideas can help to solidify and positively position the organization as prepared and ready to execute its ideas.

8. Appropriate Communication and Introduction
The best way to begin your relationship building with funders is to be a good communicator. First find out what method of communication they prefer (phone, mail, email) which normally can be found on the organization’s website on either the Contact page or under giving guidelines. When sending a letter of intent as an introduction to your organization, be sure to get it in into the hands of the right person. Not all funders want phone calls so be sure to know this before calling. The letter of intent should be succinct and include: a description of your mission, objectives and programs; a summary of your specific needs; and how all this fits well within the grantor’s guidelines. It should mention that you would like to submit a full proposal by the grantor’s deadline.

9. Meet Your Potential Grantors
Once you’ve opened the door with your letter of intent, a good rule of thumb is to follow up within a few weeks by phone or email to set up a meeting with your potential funder. This is another good reason to research local foundations as potential funders. An in-person meeting also helps put a face to your cause and enables you to show the passion for what you are doing. A meeting is a good time to discuss your proposal before submitting it. Then you can fine-tune your proposal based on the input you received at the meeting. If the grantor is not able to meet you in person, a phone conversation is the next best thing and don’t rule out that email correspondence is sometimes a preferred means of communication. However you ‘meet’ your potential funder, be sure to listen, show sincerity and be flexible in making changes to your proposal to suit the funder’s criteria.

10. The Proposal Summary
While the proposal summary is generally the ‘conclusion’ of your proposal and request and found at the end of the document, it might be more interesting and creative to bring it to the forefront. Funders will look at proposals carefully but yours may get noticed due to your brief and concise summary that concisely outlines your need. Can you quickly describe how you are serving a special niche in the community? Can you succinctly explain how you will take your grass roots cause and spread it far and wide within a few years? Can you make your case so compelling that it will move and even possibly bring a tear to the eye of the grantmaker? In your summary, whether you use your summary as an introduction or a conclusion, be sure you include: your identification; why you are seeking the grant; your business background and qualifications; expected results; funding needed; and your project budget.

11. The Proposal Package
Putting all these elements together, the end result should be a clean, attractive proposal package in a simple (fileable) folder. Make a checklist to verify you’ve included everything required. Choosing a large readable font, using bold headings, separating your pages with dividers with a pocket divider for appendixes/supporting documents is enough to show potential funders that you are already well organized and ready to roll. Flashy binders, charts and graphs and stapled documents are not advised. Rules of thumb for your proposal order are:

  • Cover letter
  • Proposal summary
  • Introduction and background
  • Problem and mission statements
  • Goals, objectives (short and long-term), methods
  • Strategies and evaluations
  • Budgets and funding needs
  • Conclusion

12. Consider DIY (do-it-yourself)
Obtaining grants is often perceived as time-consuming, tedious task and it is not unusual that the work is handed off to an experienced grant writer rather than kept in-house. And, if that grant-writer is not “in tune” with your business philosophy or is not briefed well enough, or if your organization is dynamic and evolving and the materials that you hand your grantwriter aren’t current, that effort can be wasted. Instead, by investing the time, discover the valuable resources that are available to you in building your organization’s credibility with funders. After all, who better to relay your mission statement than you, who hold the vision? As a result of your efforts, you remain on target and opportunities to contribute to the community may open up on a much larger scale than imagined. So, turn the task of grant writing into an eye-opening experience with the potential to not only generate needed funds, but to clarify your purpose and path.

Keeping Funder Relationships Strong / Going for the Long Term

The grant writing process is a superb way to hone your business skills. It can help you better define your business; make you think more deeply about your purpose and streamline how you go about executing your projects. If you are honest and clear in your convictions, foundations are more likely to feel your sincerity. Follow their guidelines, don’t submit unnecessary documents and meet the deadlines. If you are refused funding the first time, don’t despair. It may mean that there were other proposals a bit more compelling, or a limit in funds, or a glitch in a system. Communicate, follow-up; double check your checklist and try again.

However you get your NGO up and running, fundraising will remain a constant and it is important to look well ahead into the future and establish long-term goals for your organization. Having a well thought out financial plan is work, but it is worth it. You had a vision when you started your company. To have a vision for its future will put your purpose into perspective and enable you to get the grants needed to continually build equity in your organization.

Do you have a grant-writing tip to share with others in the nonprofit community? Please use our contact page to let us know.