General Operating Funds: COVID Changed Grantmakers’ Attitudes
General Operating Funds: COVID Changed Grantmakers’ Attitudes

General operating awards are the holy grail of grantseekers. They support the nonprofit’s overall mission and allow administrators discretion in how they use the money. But traditionally, general operating grants have been the most difficult to get, with funders preferring the next, new shiny thing in programming. Fortunately, things are changing. 

The confluence of society-altering circumstances during the past two years has shaken philanthropy and challenged grantmakers to step more boldly into their missions and out of their comfort zones.

The pandemic emphasized the urgency of safety-net services and the fragility of the nonprofit sector. Social reckoning brought diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) to the forefront and highlighted the critical role of constituent-lead organizations. Challenges to democracy called for strengthening institutions and systems. 

Gun violence, hunger, homelessness — there’s a tsunami of pressure on funders to take a lead in transformational change. Funders have pivoted at different rates, in different ways, and to different degrees, but the changes are real. Many are now more open to providing general operating and multi-year awards.

With increased interest in supporting the capacity and infrastructure of nonprofits, now is a good time to review the basics of general operating grant proposals. Following are a few ideas.

Start with Your Friends: Grantmakers who have previously provided grants to support your work are more likely to consider a multi-year general operating grant. Reach out even if they were once unwilling to provide general support. Explain how several years of dependable operating support would enable you to ramp up impact in the community and strengthen the organization’s capacity to weather storms.

Alignment and Credibility are Everything. Never has the alignment of your mission and organizational culture with that of the funder been more important. By making a general operating grant, a funder is doing much more than supporting one program or helping to mitigate one specific problem. 

The funder is standing by your side and declaring that the permanence and capacity of your entire organization is essential. To make that commitment, trust in your organization’s leadership, track-record, transparency, and professionalism is essential.

Submit a Compelling Proposal. Even if the funder has indicated willingness to provide a general operating grant, don’t cut corners when developing the proposal. The application should confirm the funder’s belief in your organization and provide logical, compelling reasons to provide the requested support. A slip-shod proposal will sow seeds of doubt.

General operating grant proposals include the same elements as most other types of proposals, but with a slightly different twist. It’s the difference between the future and present tense. A grant request to start a new program will explain the problem you plan to address in the future if you receive the award, how you plan to mitigate that problem, and the results you expect to produce. A proposal for operating funds, on the other hand, is about your current services and how they are currently benefitting the community. 

Here’s a brief run-down of the information a general operating grant proposal should provide:

Summary: Always start with a concise paragraph explaining the purpose of the proposal and how much money you are requesting.

Overview Of The Organization: Provide updated information about your organization’s mission, vision, history, annual operating budget, number of employees, board of directors, executive leadership, and track record of responsible financial management. Explain how your leadership and staff reflect the demographics of the community and how you engage those with lived experience in program planning and implementation, and in program evaluation.

Description Of Needs And The Organization’s Response: In pursuing their missions, organizations generally tackle a number of distinct but related issues. For example, an organization focused on helping adolescents thrive might address substance abuse by providing both prevention and treatment services. 

It might address youth homelessness by providing both emergency shelter and transitional living services and, also, possibly educational needs by providing tutoring or an alternative high school. A general operating proposal should describe the services your organization provides in response to each need you address. 

The section can be organized in a number of ways. Here is one approach to consider. Establish a subheading for each need your organization works to mitigate and arrange the following information under the subheading: Describe and document the need; Explain the services your organization provides in response to the need; and, Provide data on the numbers of individuals served through the service.

Description Of Evaluation And Impact: Explain how your organization evaluates its work. What data do you collect and how do you use it? Describe your approach to continuous quality improvement. Include facts and figures that document the impact of your work. Consider providing a supportive quote from a beneficiary.

Sustainability And Budget: Because a general operating funds can be used with flexibility the budget of the proposal might be an overview of how you expect to use the grant. Or, it might be a straight-forward request for a specific amount of money along with a simple summary of your organization’s overall budget showing totals within line-item categories such as salaries, fringe benefits, supplies, travel, facilities, program costs, and so forth. 

If the funder’s application package includes a budget form use it if possible. But if the funder’s form is not appropriate for a general operating request reach out to the funder for guidance. 

Because a general operating grant is an investment in your ability to continue bringing benefits to the community, it is critical to show that the organization is sustainable. For example, you might highlight the financial contributions of board members, the increasing success of your development department, the generous in-kind donations of goods and services by community members, and other accomplishments that provide confidence that the organization will be around for years to come. 

It’s a great time to reach out to the funders with whom you now work to discuss a multi-year general operating grant. It’s also a good time to target new funders with missions and interests that align tightly with those of your organization. General operating grants can fuel increased organizational effectiveness for years to come. 


Barbara Floersch is a grants expert and author of You Have a Hammer: Building Grant Proposals for Social Change. Her email is [email protected]