Outlined here are some of the mistakes that I see most often in the grant writing world and how they can apply to other areas of fundraising.
Pretty much every charitable organization writes grants for funding, whether they are applying to government agencies or foundations. They can often provide the quickest wins for an organization without a strong fundraising program or an engaged pool of donors.
That’s not to say that raising funds from grants is easy. The competition is fierce and it is becoming harder and harder to make your application stand out from the rest. Yet, despite this pressure to create the “perfect” proposal, there are some common mistakes that people make in grant development that could be avoided.
These are mistakes that all fundraisers could learn from. After all, foundations are run by people who, like those giving out of their personal pocket, want to know that they are making a difference. They want to be both moved and excited by what you can do to address a need in society.
Not tailoring your approach to your funder’s needs
Far too often I see organizations shot-gunning applications, sometimes hundreds of them, hoping that they would get a few hits. In most cases, the results are dire and barely cover the costs of doing it.
The impact on your bottom line, however, can be more than just the cost of the mailing. Many foundations will not accept another application for at least a year after the last one, and if you really miss the mark because you didn’t make the effort to read their guidelines, it can cause some reputational damage with the funder too. After all, no one likes to have their time wasted, including grants officers who may not look too fondly on reading yet another application where the writer has made no effort to understand what they are looking to support.
With other areas of fundraising, the same can apply. How often do you send the same, standard appeal letter, or even thank you letter, to everyone on your database, regardless of whether they gave last month or three years ago, whether they responded to project X or project Y? Do you segment your lists appropriately, so that you are targeting your communications to match your donors’ interests? Do you always ensure that donor wishes are fully considered when communicating with them?
By putting in a bit more effort to ensure that you are giving grantors and donors what they need from you and your organization, there is no doubt that you will see better results in our fundraising.
Not getting to know your funder
Of course, one of the best ways to gather the information you need to tailor a grant proposal, or an approach to a funder, is to get to know your funder first. After all, we all know that strong fundraising is based upon the development of successful relationships.
In grant writing, this isn’t just about reading the guidelines or the website (although of course that’s an essential starting point!). It’s about identifying opportunities to really find out what makes them tick. Is there the potential to have a conversation with them about their priorities? Through your own network, is it possible to get an introduction to one of the foundation’s Board members, so that you can learn more about what they are looking for?
When you do get your foot through the door, spend your time listening rather than talking. Ask questions about what they care about or need from you, rather than simply telling them as much as you can about your organization. Demonstrate to them that you have their interests at heart and that you want to understand them. You are much more likely to leave with valuable information to help you make a much more targeted approach.
In individual giving, you can apply the same thinking. Whenever you get the chance, talk with your donors. Find out why they support you. Give them as many opportunities as possible to get in touch, from asking for their feedback to inviting them to events. And when you get in front of them, treat them like gold dust. If they have taken the time to contact you or come out to an event, they are engaged! You want to make the most of this engagement and use this extremely valuable opportunity to understand their motivations and needs.
Having a good project design that meets a clearly defined need
Ensuring that all the elements of your funding proposal stack up is essential to grant writing success. Firstly, you must demonstrate that there is a need for your work and that this need is urgent. Then you must demonstrate that your project meets this need effectively. I’ve often seen grant applications that do not do this well. They might talk about a need, then describe their project, but they do not clearly articulate how one addresses the other.
Another factor often missing from strong applications is a clear demonstration that you are meeting measurable outcomes i.e. that you can prove that you are bringing about change, such as reducing homeless or increasing literacy. Delivery of programming is rarely enough – you must prove that the programming works!
In grant writing, this is all outlined in your grant application. When fundraising from individuals, it’s in your Case for Support. Like grantors, individual donors like to fund programs that they know work. While they may be moved by your stories, they also need to feel convinced that your methodology is sound and that you can be trusted with their money. By creating a clear Case for Support, that demonstrates how your exemplary programming meets an urgent need, donors can feel more confident that you are the organization to make a difference.
Thanking and donor stewardship
You may be surprised to hear how common it is for grantors not to receive a thank you for their grant. Not only does this mean that a funder’s generosity is not being recognized appropriately, it also demonstrates a lack of appreciation of the fact that because they funded you,a they most likely did not fund someone else who could have benefitted from the support. For a funder who may have felt a struggle to fund you over another very worthy project, a perceived lack of appreciation will not make them feel good!
While mistakes can happen, it is absolutely your responsibility to ensure that you have systems and procedures in place so that funders, all funders, from foundations to individuals, are thanked for their support, promptly and well. Of course with individual donors, you may be dealing with a far higher number so your systems may need to be more robust, but this does not excuse the organization from making sure that donors are stewarded properly.
This leads me on to a question that I often hear. “Should I send a thank you to donors who give under $20? I’m so busy and it just takes so much time!”. Well, it’s your call and decisions like this often depend upon the size and nature of your organization, but here are a few things to consider. Firstly, you don’t know who is sending that $20. Maybe that $20 was the last $20 that they had, but they were so moved by your work they felt that your beneficiaries needed it more than they did. If you knew this, would you still think that they haven’t earned the right to be thanked? What if that donor had the potential to be a major donor, but was testing out how you treat your donors? (this does happen!).
In addition, by not thanking them, you are missing out on a valuable opportunity to engage them further and to bring them closer to the organization. Given that it is far more expensive to recruit a new donor as it is to keep an existing one, this is an opportunity not to be missed.
So take a look at what you do with both your grant writing and other fundraising programs. Are you making any of these mistakes? Is there anything you could be doing differently, or at least, doing better? What other best practice models can you adopt across fundraising streams to make your fundraising program even stronger? Let me know, I want to hear from you!