It’s crucial to have 100 percent board member engagement if you want to land a grant, according to three grantmakers and the author of a book on grant writing. If your board isn’t contributing, a foundation won’t feel obligated to do so either.
The four grant experts shared this and other insights into getting grants during Fundraising Day in New York 2012, on a panel called “What Grantmakers Have to Say.”
“We will not take an application without 100 percent of board pledges or annual giving,” said panelist Bill Engel, president of the Hyde and Watson Foundation in Warren, N.J. Engel said to tell board members your organization won’t get the grant unless they contribute. “Go back and make us the bad guy,” he said.
Panel moderator Jane C. Geever shared updates from the sixth edition of her book, “The Foundation Center’s Guide to Proposal Writing,” based on interviews with more than 40 grantmakers. Tidbits included, “The most important person in the chain of command is the receptionist,” and “No amount of craft will make you fit if you don’t.”
“It’s so pleasurable to receive a well-written grant request,” said panelist J. Andrew Lark of The Frances L. & Edwin L. Cummings Memorial Fund of New York City. Beyond a solid proposal, site visits can mean the difference between “congratulations” and “better luck next year.” The number of grantmakers that request a meeting, whether on-site or over the phone, have risen, said Geever. The site visit “makes an organization come alive and is where trust begins,” she said.
At minimum, said the panelists, you should have your executive director and at least one board member (not necessarily the chair) present, and it’s usually a good idea to have the program director who oversees the program for which you’re seeking funding. Grantmakers “want to see hands-on staff,” said Geever, “and if the executive director is not at the meeting, it sends a signal to me as a grantmaker.”
Stewarding a relationship is important, whether you get the grant or not. Most foundations are amenable to telling you why you didn’t get the grant, and most encourage you to keep trying. “It’s striking to us how many times a prospective grantee sends a proposal, we say no and we never hear from them again,” said Lark. “It’s frustrating for us, and it’s money left on the table for you. We want to build relationships, we want your programs to succeed, and we want to fund good programs.”
Sometimes there’s simply not a good fit between a nonprofit and a grantmaker, said Engel. Sometimes a nonprofit hadn’t done enough research into the nature of the grant and the foundation. Sometimes it’s poor timing, especially if you’re trying to get your application too close to the deadline; especially with rolling application periods, there might not be money left for latecomers.
And, some nonprofits are victims of their own success: “It could be that you had a good year and didn’t need us at the moment,” said Lark. Whatever the reason you were turned down for the grant, a call to the grantmaking foundation could help you tease it out and could even net suggestions for a better fit from another foundation.
Grantmakers will almost always want to see financial data as well, and three years of audits are ideal, said Douglas Bauer, executive director of The Clark Foundation, based in New York City. “We get so much more information from audits than from 990s,” he said. Auditor notes are particularly helpful, telling grantmakers about possible problems and issues that might require disclosure, as well as loans, mortgages and writedowns. “We know what we’re looking for, and it’s easier to find in audits,” Bauer said.
Bauer identified a number of “red flags” that can become apparent from looking at an audit. If a long time has passed between an organization’s fiscal year end and the filing of financial documents, that makes Bauer cautious. Low net assets may signal management problems. And, reticence to provide financial documents to a grantmaker can engender mistrust.
“I’m following the money,” said Bauer. “If you’re saying one thing and the money says something else, we want to know why.”