Hack your grant proposal


Do you ever wish that it were just a little bit easier and less stressful to develop your grant proposals? Are you looking for tips that will save you time (and perhaps save your nonprofit money) as you do your essential work?

To help people who say “yes” to these questions, I’m developing a presentation called Granthacker: Tips for Efficiency, which I’ll give on May 19 at the Grant Professionals Association Mid-Atlantic conference. (If you’re in the region, please consider signing up!)

As part of my presentation research, I recently guest hosted the Twitter chat #grantchat on the Granthacker topic. Folks had great ideas to share. Here I’ve distilled 30 of the best tips.

1)      Use more than one monitor at your desk. Many grant pros agree that setting up dual monitors is the single best way to improve productivity. And if you’re away from your desk, you don’t necessarily have to leave the good tech tools there. Jo Miller (@JM_Grants) is amazing with technology, and on the day of our #grantchat, she participated from a conference she was attending and wrote, “I have my mobile monitor, cell with hotspot, laptop, mouse and Bluetooth keyboard today – working it!”

2)      Get out of your chair. Try a standup desk – you can rig one up with materials at hand to see if you like the idea. Check out Lifehacker’s Five Best Standing Desks to get started. And if standing isn’t enough, try walking as you work. Diane Leonard (@DianeHLeonard) has a treadmill desk that is the envy of many of us in the grant professionals’ community. (Her husband made it for her – how awesome!)

3)      Expand your gray matter. Reduce the stress inherent in this work and benefit your brain by meditating — try it for 10 minutes every morning. (Another tool that works well for calming your mind is to write morning pages, as taught by Julia Cameron.)

4)      Stop multitasking. Chunk your time, so you’re focused completely on the single important task at hand. Using a timer can help you stay on task. One helpful rule to live by is to accomplish something significant early each day. As you start your workday, get your most important task done first – even, or especially, if it’s something you don’t really want to do, and even if it takes a few hours to finish. Tsh Oxenrider calls this “eating your frog,” because Mark Twain once said, “Eat a live frog every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

5)      Use Evernote.

6)      Use Google Drive.

7)      Use Skype. When you’re working with someone remotely, Skype is really great. Becky Jascoviak (@duneschic) said Skype is a must for international projects – “I would need six months lead time without it. Now I work on two month lead times.”

8)      Use LinkedIn to get all your questions, big and small, answered. There are several LinkedIn groups for grant professionals, where people generously share their expertise. Ask them anything!  LinkedIn groups I like include Grant Professionals Association, For GrantWriters Only, and Council for Resource Development. Also check out the regional groups (e.g., Greater NY Area Grantwriters) and general fundraising groups (e.g., CharityChannel).

9)      Use Twitter to get new ideas about grantseeking and nonprofits. Follow grant professionals.  Follow foundations.  And participate in #grantchat. (Here’s how to participate in a tweet chat. It’s very confusing the first couple of times you try it.)

10)  Use Remember the Milk to corral your to-do lists.

11)  Use old-school listkeeping and calendar systems too – as backup or at your preference over the tech solutions. For example, I love my Planner Pad. Jessica for WSC (@washingtonstrat) said, “I do still rely on my whiteboard to keep track of all applications I am working on.”

12)  Read books about grantseeking (but not the boring ones, because life’s too short!). My personal favorites are Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal: A Foundation Director Reveals What Happens Next (a new edition is coming out soon, and here’s a free excerpt of the prior edition), Grant Proposal Makeover: Transform Your Request from No to Yes, and The Only Grantwriting Book You’ll Ever Need: Top Grant Writers and Grant Givers Share Their Secrets. If you can’t afford to buy these books, ask your public library to purchase them – they probably need to refresh their grants development selections anyway.

13)  Make friends with other grant professionals. Hopefully some of them can become your mentors. Attend brown bag lunches or morning coffee with the development folks in your area, or if no such groups exist, start your own. Amanda Ripstra (@AmandaRipstra) advises that you should “find any way you can to connect with other grant professionals – they always seem willing to share and help newbies succeed.” She credits the value of “talking to others about their experience and their approach to various proposals.”

14)  Stay connected to industry leaders. Follow them and read their work. There are a lot of voices teaching essentially the same thing, so just choose those who speak in a way that makes the most sense to you. (To get started, sign up for free enewsletters from Grantsmanship Center, Foundation Center, Blue Avocado and GIFT.)

15)  Find funders in your niche. One of the takeaways from the Twitter chat was that most grant professionals are confident about their efficiency as grant prospect researchers. I think we’re helped greatly by the high-quality comprehensive funder databases such as the Foundation Center’s Foundation Directory Online. However, there are some niche funder directories that you might be overlooking. For example, if your organization has a Catholic identity, or if you do social justice work without having a Catholic identity, you can use FADICA’s Catholic Funding Guide to find some new prospects that have money to give, but are too obscure to be listed in the mainstream directories.

16)  Read other organizations’ successful grant proposals. If you have a good relationship with a funder, you can ask the program officer to share copies of excellent grant proposals (confidential details can be whited out). Clay Myers-Bowman (@claybow) said, “I’ve got this amazing proposal from 16 years ago that I almost always review while working on a new proposal. Not mine, BTW.”

17)  Find an editor. Have someone who is a thoughtful reader and decent editor review your drafts.

18)  Write a better organizational background statement. Refresh the organizational background section of your grant proposals by doing personal interviews with the founder or founding staff of your nonprofit. Ask them to explain why and how your organization was founded – what need wasn’t being met? You might learn new information to tell a better story about the organization.

19)  Write a better needs statement. Your proposals’ needs statements may be tired. To more persuasive information, try reaching out to an academic who researches your nonprofit’s service or issue area. Email your questions to the researcher and you might get some great new data or insights.

20)  Learn about nonprofit marketing – many of the principles and techniques can improve your grant development skills. Kivi Leroux Miller produces tons of great content. Bethany Turner (@turner_bethany) said, “I love @kivilm’s information. So helpful.”

21)  Learn about copywriting. While sticking to the conventions of nonprofit proposal writing, you can make your grant proposals far more engaging by following advice from copywriters. For example, when you include images in your proposals, write content-rich captions to the images, because readers tend to read captions before they read paragraphs. (People who skim may read only the captions, so make sure you communicate some main points here!)

22)  Learn about project management. Becky Jascoviak (@duneschic) said, “project management skills are ones I use all the time from timelining and budgeting to reporting and issues management.”

23)  Read Inside Philanthropy. (I wish it didn’t cost $30/month for unlimited access!)

24)  Get prospect referrals from current or past funders. Ask the funders that you have good rapport with to recommend other funders that may be interested in your organization.

25)  Get to know the important politicians in your area. Your Members of Congress and other leaders at every level of government can help you get grant funding. They can alert you to opportunities and help connect you to partners. Start by meeting with them, and then get on their email lists to stay current. If nothing else, you can rely on them for letters of support. Josh Jacobson (@JoshCFRE) wrote, “Funny how letters of support from prominent local leaders are underutilized, still very much a part of a good grant app.”

26)  Use Google Alerts to track your funders’ and prospective funders’ news and activities.

27)  Use social media to thank your funders. Recognize them when they give you a grant and credit them for specific accomplishments that occur during the grant term.

28)  Pick up the phone. Calling a funder can be scary, but the information you can get via a phone call can be essential. But don’t call without doing some legwork first. Write out the questions you want to ask or points you want to cover.

29)  Buy a nice box of thank you notes. And start sending them – to partners, funders, prospects and colleagues.

30)  Encourage funders (to the extent you have influence) to be more efficient themselves in working with potential grantees. Attend Meet the Funders events, and then send follow-up notes to the funders who spoke, telling them how useful these events are to grantseekers. If your region doesn’t have such events, start one, perhaps in collaboration with a community foundation or a local university. And there are lots of other ways that funders can make grantseeking easier or more dynamic. For example, Clay Myers-Bowman (@claybow) wishes that funders would do “more ‘pitch-fests’ like in film festival community. Face to face fundraising is always better.”

What about you? What “grant hacks” can you add to this list? What is your go-to technique or tool in grants development? Please share your ideas in the comments!

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