Five Competencies of a Nonprofit Grant Strategy

Let’s start with the bad news.  Many nonprofits in the northwest suck when it comes to written planning (see: blog series). –  Strategic plan? 59% don’t have one.  Fundraising plan? 69% don’t have one. Business Plan? 82% don’t have one. Theory of Change or Logic Model? 90% don’t have one.  If you know my consulting practice at all, you know that my bias is that planning leads to capacity ==> capacity leads to competencies ==> & competencies lead to impact.  As I near the end of my sixth year of consulting, I find myself drawn more and more to helping organizations think about grant strategy.  Not grant writing. Grant Strategy.

Each year, there is an annual “State of Grantseeking™ Report” published by the folks at Grant Station (don’t know or subscribe to Grant Station? You should).  Large survey (2,447 responses) and the full report is the most important reading you will do this month.  Dig through the 100 pages and you will come to a table of the reported challenges to grantseeking.  Know what is on the bottom of the list?  “Writing grants” and “We need a grantwriter.”  Know what is at the top of the list? Lack of time and/or staff, CompetitionFunder practices/requirementsResearching grants and Funder relationship building.” In other words, Nonprofits appear to be saying something like this, “We can write grants (or contract out to freelance grant writers). We just don’t have (or create) the time to invest in a competitive strategy design and implementation planning for seeking grant revenues.”

As I have been doing a deep exploration of grant writing, I have come to realize that the fundamental challenge for nonprofits to overcome relates to investing time and resources in a grant strategy.  In my 20-year professional career, I was highly successful in planning, writing, and managing grants. The ability to be successful in grant writing is at best an accident or luck unless, you have strategy and make intentional investments in grant capacity building.  So what does it take to build a nonprofit grant revenue strategy? I believe it takes five core competencies briefly detailed below.

1.  Strategy – The beginning of success is in a thoughtful strategy. A grants strategy needs to be intentionally anchored to your organization’s strategic plan, revenue plan, and program delivery model.  Give Guide is the Portland metro area’s annual reminder of how much time and energy many nonprofits pour into a local, end-of-year giving strategy that will net (middle of the pack) agencies $15,ooo or less.  For many nonprofits, the time and strategy you put into a grant strategy should be 10 times the energy you devote to your Give Guide strategy simply because the payoff is potentially that much higher. Questions that inform grant strategy start with basics like: a) which of our programs have enough data that a foundation or government agency would even consider funding us, b) what is our capacity to manage grants and what do we need to invest in before seeking grants, c) how can we cultivate relationships with federal agencies or national foundations, and d) what are our measurable goals?

2.  Design – Having thought through a strategy (which should take hours and not weeks) is followed by the design that is anchored to three big ideas: 1) identifying the places where you are most competitive, 2) ensuring you have rock solid program plans (hint: if only 10% of nonprofits have written logic models you have some work to do), and 3) investing the resources in managing the ongoing process of grant seeking and management.   Technology enables a huge amount these days as online databases, cloud-based file and project management systems can help you create an intentional design and system to manage the design process over time.

3.  Prospecting/Relationships – Once the design process occurs, the work of prospecting and relationship building begins.  Increasingly, there are powerful tools to help nonprofits prospect and manage relationships with foundations and government agencies. These tools can range in price from free (accessible through the pubic library) or at a hard cost to your agency from hundreds to a couple thousand dollars.  In addition, there is a soft skills aspect of building relationships with funders as well.  Combining research with networking can narrow options and help identify high value or high potential funding opportunities.

4.  Writing – The writing stage of grants is, first and foremost, about the ability to clearly articulate large ideas, often, in prescribed page or character limits.  Writing also involves a clear understanding of how to construct a compelling grant design.  Here, nonprofits can learn a bit from academia (for example, see this wonky article). Finally, grant writing is also about ensuring quality.  Typos, addition errors, and a missed form can mean the difference between a grant application being reviewed or not –let alone getting funded.

5.  Capacity –  At the end of the process, grant writing is about making intentional investments in capacity.  Each grant submitted is a learning cycle (Plan, Do, Study Act) opportunity. With each cycle, your nonprofit get’s more organized, structured and effective.  Success builds on success and ultimately, a culture and capacity for grant writing can be institutionalized. Conversely, without the intentional “capacity-building” thinking and acting, grant writing remains episodic, fragmented, and opportunistic.

The point of this article is not to outline an approach to grant writing but an approach to grant strategy.  What I wanted to do is to dispel the myth that hiring a freelance grant writer is as sufficient to be called a strategy.  A true grant strategy takes time, financial resources, staffing, and energy.  As grant-making foundations and government agencies narrow their focus and demand more sophistication of applicants, nonprofit organizations unwilling to invest in capacity, do so at the risk of their long-term health. It is my belief, however, that the opposite is also true. Starting with strategy and being myopically focused on capacity, many nonprofits have the potential to make grant income a core to their revenue development strategy.

As always your thoughts are welcome!


Photo Credit: Startup Stock Photos

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.

1 Comment

  1. Great stuff, Mark. When a prospective client contacts me to inquire about grant-WRITING, I always explain that what I do is much more than grantwriting — it’s a process called grant-SEEKING. It’s what you are calling grants strategy. The actual writing of the grant is but one step in the grant-seeking process.

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