When I first started working in economic development in West-Central Iowa 18 years ago, some of my first assignments were writing grant applications for child care facilities. At that time securing $500,000 or more in grants was fairly easy with a well-planned application. But, the grant landscape has changed since then. Not only are there fewer funding opportunities, but those that do exist are increasingly more competitive. 

Today many early care and education programs rely on some form of grants to stretch their dollar and make a bigger impact. At the same time, the typical funder receives many more proposals than it can fund each year. While each funder is unique and there is no magic formula, there are a few secrets funders do you want you to know, so you can prepare a solid application.

What are these secrets?

  1. Build Relationships. Many funders will require this, others prefer it. Having a relationship with the funder has many advantages. Establish a relationship before you apply can help you prepare a stronger application. This relationship is a great way to find out if your idea fits within their priorities, get pointers on what they are looking for, and ask why projects typically are not funded. It could also save you from spending hours preparing an application that won’t be funded.

Unless the application instructions forbid it, the best way to establish a relationship is to pick up the phone and ask questions. A phone conversation allows you to engage the funder in a two-way conversation proving an opportunity to respond to their answers and possibly ask more questions. If phone calls are not allowed email is your next best option, although email should not be substitute if phone calls are allowed. Unlike phone calls, email is not interactive and if the funder’s answer generates another question, you may not have the chance to ask for more clarification without jeopardizing blowing up their Inbox.

Plan on only one chance to interact and prioritize your questions. Start by thoroughly reviewing the application and all instructions, and make a list of your questions. If you have no questions, ask if there is anything in particular you should include given your unique program Be careful to avoid questions that can be answered easily from the application materials. Asking something too obvious or that is clearly stated in the instructions could backfire and you may become memorable for the wrong reason. Play it safe by sticking to questions specific to your project. Clarifying if specific activities or purchase are allowed is a good starting point. Use this opportunity to share details about your project that you may not have room for in the application. Who knows, these extra details might make the difference later, or even lead to the funder telling someone else about you.

  1. Numbers Have Great Influence. Funders expect you to be informed and reasonable. Deciding how much to ask for can be one of the hardest decisions when putting together a grant application. If you ask for too little, a funder may be worried corners will be cut or the project may not get done. Asking for too much can be interpreted as being too extravagant or raise concerns of having unspent funds that will have to be returned at the end of the project.

Start by estimating an accurate budget. Research the actual costs for a project, not overlooking hidden or indirect costs your program may incur, such as sales tax, shipping or increased staff costs. Your best bet is to contact vendors and get real quotes and cost estimates.

Read the guidelines to see how much funding you can request, then research to see what the funder has actually been awarding. Researching past awards will give you an idea of what organizations and activities have received grants in the past, along with the award amounts. This is especially helpful if the instructions do not give an award maximum or limit how much of a project can be funded. Many funders will not want to fund 100%, even if they do not specify that in the instructions.

In compliance with IRS guidelines, funders (foundations and other nonprofits) have to list the grants they make, including recipients and the dollar amounts, on the organization’s tax return. You can find most funder’s tax returns online at www.GuideStar.org. This is a free website, but you will have to set up an account to be able to access the information.

Another way to find out what types of projects and amounts have been funded in the past is to search online. Start with the funder’s website to see if they have listed past awards, or mentioned projects funded in an annual report. Many times funders and recipients will send out press releases announcing the award. Doing an internet search for new articles may find these stories, which often times include more details then you will be able to get from a list of awards found on a website or in the organization’s tax return.

  1. Show Success, Not Distress. Funders want to be sure their dollars are used wisely and make a difference. The funder’s goal is to carry out their mission by funding organizations that can perform that work. Their mission is not to supplement organizations that are struggling or in jeopardy of not surviving. Even if your funding is tight and you feel desperate, your application needs to convince funders that you can make a difference and their funds will help you achieve success.

In early care and education, success often relates to serving more children, improving practices, and increasing overall sustainability of the program. Use real data and stories to tell how you are improving the community and helping children. Specifics are important. To share details about how one child overcame challenges or made improvement (while maintaining confidentiality of course), is far more powerful than general statements about the whole program.

Bottom line, most funders will be leery of funding an organization that is in distress. They may fear that the program won’t be there in a year or two. If you are struggling, show how the funds will help you instead of how you can’t survive without the funds. Tell them what additional programming you can offer, how more children will be served, or how these funds will help you leverage additional funds or in-kind services. Try saying something like, “Securing this funding will allow our program to…”.

What this means to you?

The next time you prepare to apply for a grant, remember that funders want you to succeed! Establish that relationship early on so you have time to make adjustments based on the funder’s feedback. Only ask for what the funder is willing to fund—both dollar amount and types of expenditures, using real quotes or cost estimates to justify your request. And finally, convey to the funder how you can use these funds to show success, not to end your distress.


Tags: grant writing , funding , grants , cost , estimates , success

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