Answer The Question, Win Valuable Grants

June 23, 2015       Patrick Sullivan      

Winning a grant is a lot like the SATs, you get points for simply getting your name correct. About 60 percent of winning a grant is answering the questions on the application and telling the grantmakers what they want to know.

The other 40 percent is how you answer those questions, said John W. Hicks, president and CEO of consulting firm j.c. geever in New York City. Hicks presented “The 40 Percent Solution” to attendees of Fundraising Day in New York 2015, organized by the New York City chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

A proposal is not to show funders that you have a need, said Hicks, it’s to present the funders with an opportunity. Hicks said the four most common needs are the failure of something (a system, program participants), inadequate space, isolation and preventing malaise.

All of these problems can be converted into needs, said Hicks. Failure becomes commitment to change. Inadequate space means your organization has the ability to grow. The population you’re serving is not isolated; it is willing to connect. Instead of malaise, reframe the problem as an opportunity for research and remedy. “Funders want to read less about need and more about change,” said Hicks.

Know to whom you’re applying for a grant. You’ve seen a donor pyramid. Hicks described a funder pyramid. At the very top are mega-foundations, the Gates and Ford foundations of the world, with billions in assets. Beneath are what Hicks calls competitive foundations: “We can file applications and ask for money and chances are they’ll consider it. You can compete,” said Hicks. The base of the pyramid is family foundations.

The largest foundations want to invest in system changes. Their program officers are specialists in their grant areas and are highly influential in regard to who gets the grant. The competitive foundations are the opposite: they hire generalists, and funding decisions are most often made at the board level. These organizations often mostly give locally and regionally, Hicks said. Family founds are driven by personal missions. Applying to family foundations is almost like soliciting a major gift, according to Hicks; you’re dealing directly with the donor.

You have to bring these funders in on your point of view. “Good proposals will tell (a grantmaker) what you see when you go to work everyday,” said Hicks. The sign of a good grant proposal is it reads like a mystery novel, he said. “You want to turn the page to find out what happens.”

Hicks said perhaps the most important element of a proposal is defining the measure of success. “If we don’t define what we see as success, we run the risk of the grantmaker defining it for us,” he said. It’s all about framing, figuratively. Hicks said to consider picture frames. The 8×10 frame goes up on the wall, and it’s something you want people to immediately notice when they walk into your office. That frame in the proposal context is “how what I’m doing fits into the larger area where I’m operating,” said Hicks.

The 5×7 frame is used to display “hot topics” to describe why the program is important at this time, according to Hicks. Wallet-sized frames are for “outcomes and anecdotes to give the grantmaker a sense of how your program makes an impact,” he said. “What benefit do you bring to one person?”

If 40 percent of a grant proposal is choosing the right words, how do you know which words to choose? “The nice thing about transparency is we can pick up things by reading funders’ websites. Reading the foundation history or a white paper can make a big difference,” said Hicks.

Look at the proposal’s guidelines and the organization’s mission statement, with an eye toward philosophy, values, expectations, corporate culture and the language they use. “Make sure you’re writing in the language of the institution,” said Hicks.

That comes with a caveat, however. You need to be genuine. If using the foundation’s language is too alien compared to your own organization’s voice, that’s probably a sign that your organization and the foundation is not a good match. “Don’t tell foundations what they want to hear to get the money,” said Hicks.

Make sure your proposal is well-CASED: Concise, Action-oriented, Specific, Evocative, Declarative. The most important thing to remember, said Hicks, is that “The proposal is not the end of the conversation but the beginning. “You’re introducing an idea, a concept, and the grant will happen as a result of discovery and engagement.”