Ahhhhh. It’s spring time! And “in the Spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of …..grant writing.” With nearly 100 active non-profits in the Yampa Valley, and hundreds of other lesser known organizations, all of which have various staff and board members, you can be sure that this is the time of year when most of us are scrambling about looking for grant funding from any potential funder. I’ve written quite a few myself, with varying degrees of success, so I’ll pass along my so-called wisdom for what it’s worth. This wonderful publication – the Valley Voice – is free and I don’t get paid so the wisdom may not be worth much.
My first suggestion to any non-profit dreamer is ask yourself the question (and one most funders will be asking as well): is someone already doing the work you believe with all your heart and soul is vitally important? We’ve got the Routt County Humane Society and Steamboat Digs Dogs; do you really think our community needs another animal advocacy organization? Is there any way you can work with an existing non-profit to support a mission very close to yours? You can save yourself a lot of brain damage by joining forces and collaborating. From my experience, local non-profits love to build silos that are mutually exclusive but it’s really exhausting in the long run. Work with someone else if at all possible. And let their staff write the grants. But if you’re the only professional theatre in Northwestern Colorado, then by all means, give it a go. So on to….
Step One: unlike the advice you were given as a teenager, it’s always better to ask permission from a funder first rather than apologizing later. A simple phone call or email can open doors and begin a successful relationship with a donor; or cut to the chase so you realize early on if there’s not a good fit between your mission and theirs. Smartwool isn’t going to support professional theatre even though we perform outdoors and wear their socks. I’ve already asked.
Step Two: do your homework! The Bud Werner Library has access to the Foundation Directory Online, a valuable publication that lists every non-profit that files a Form 990 tax return. The 990 in turn lists individual and corporate donors for said non-profit so you can research all the donors who support the Creede Repertory Theatre or Theatre Aspen or …. and find out who donates to organizations whose missions are comparable to yours in other areas of the region or country. If they like the work you do, it’s more likely they’ll like to give you money.
Step Three: every grant application is similar in many respects and all have directions for completing the form, whether it’s online or part of a narrative to be submitted. Follow the freakin’ directions! Submit the required material; all of it. It’s like math; you’ve provided all the information or you haven’t. Not providing the data is a good way for your application to end up in the recycle bin.
Step Four: provide good financial documentation that is accurate and easily understood. Keep it as simple as possible and avoid clever accounting tricks that cover up the fact that you really have no idea where the money comes from or where it goes. That’s what a budget is supposed to represent: where you get the funding and how it’s spent in supporting your mission
Step Five: write a narrative that makes a compelling case for your mission. Show your passion; explain your need; demonstrate that you have the ability and capacity to carry out the work. This is a great time to tell your story clearly and succinctly. Really polish this narrative because it will come in handy for every grant you write so you can cut and paste. Remember that for online applications, you’ll want to keep a digital copy in your files for future use.
Step Six: your mission statement should clearly state what you do in the time it takes the elevator doors to close. The Yampa Valley Community Foundation used to have this simple description for who and what they did: “Connecting people who care with causes that matter.” Wow. Simple. Alliterative. And unforgettable. Find a hook like that for your elevator speech and work it into your narrative wherever possible.
Step Seven: you know what your organization does intimately because you’ve been staring at the reports and balance sheets and strategic plan for years. But it may be news to a donor, especially if you’re establishing a new relationship. So when you’re writing up the obvious (for you) be brief; be succinct; and bullshit-free. Avoid acronyms and jargon.
Step Eight: be optimistic!!! Donors want to fund organizations; that’s their mission. Someone’s going to get the money so it might as well be you. Give the donor a good reason to say yes and it’s likely, if you’ve done all the other work, that they will. Perhaps not this year if there’s not sufficient funding available but be patient and apply again if you’re encouraged.
Step Nine: follow up is essential! If you’re unsuccessful, ask why in a gracious manner. You’ll likely learn something that will improve your presentation for future applications. If you are successful, remember to stay in touch, be grateful, offer timely reporting, and continue to build the connection for the future. This should be a funding relationship that lasts, not a one and done.
Step Ten: every funder will ask for a narrative and expense sheet for how and where their funding was used. Spend the money where you’re supposed to! If you are unable to carry out the work of your mission – say a pandemic hits the globe and every live performance you planned to produce is cancelled – ask permission to shift the funds to other work. Or at least offer to return the funds. Trust and integrity go a long way in relationships with donors; and most everyone else.
Good luck! Keep a thick skin and remember that your funding request is being evaluated and not you as a person. If there’s not a good fit, you’ll get a red light. Look for another opportunity. Colorado’s Community Resource Center holds Rural Philanthropy Days every year in four regions around that state; 2022 is Northwest Colorado’s turn. This conference offers the chance for small, rural organizations to make a pitch to large Front Range and regional foundations who want to invest in our area. You’ll have a captive audience for three days who want to support you with lots of money. Take advantage of the opportunity. And remember to shower.