Slightly less often (and often when I am bemoaning some new cost hike or budget shortfall, or overworked employees) someone will suggest to me: “why don’t you apply for a grant to pay for more workers”
For these reasons and more I thought it would be worth writing a short post about Grants.
For those who are new to working with communities (or newly incorporated) the idea of grants can seem like some magic money source that will solve all problems and support all solutions. And like a budding novelist, when you receive your first rejection letter you might find yourself thinking the world of grants is held in trust by some secret code for which you need a degree.
The good and bad news is that neither of the above is true.
Grant are not magic money. Grants are offered by Governments and Foundations in line with their own purposes, missions and strategic directions. Foundations, Government Departments and other Grant Organisations seek positive changes in the community. Generally, these entities are not direct service providers. Instead, they rely on charities, community groups and nonprofits to help them achieve their missions by providing them with cash and resources. In short: they also have things that they exist to pursuit and when you write your application these are what you are committing to partnering with these and helping them to achieve their goals.
There are literally hundreds of grants out there and you could spend every day applying for them. We must always weigh the possibility of funding against the cost of seeking it. A lot of the time, especially with smaller grants the net value isn’t worth the effort. This is especially true if the person doing the work is being paid to do so. As a paid worker it is rare that I will pursuit grants under $5K unless they require very minimal work or I have a volunteer who can do the majority of the work for me. And you can write the best application in the world but if everyone else has good applications too you can still miss out.
So often what we are looking for funding for is operating costs– we need money to employ people for example. Generally, foundations and other organizations fund new projects, project expansions, and capital. Most grants will specifically preclude operating expenses (although I recommend asking for at least a 10-15% administrative cost in every grant application). Those grants/tenders that do include this will be very prescriptive and must be weighed against your organisations mission and values very closely to avoid mission drift. Also consider the sustainability of these long term. If, for example, you are applying for a one year tender to engage a worker- how are you going to feel in one years time if your next application is unsuccessful and you are no longer able to employ that person and have to let them go?
Winning grant money is not the end of the story– all grants require acquittal and accurate reporting and if this is not done correctly you could be at risk of having to pay the whole sum back. While there may be thousands of grants available; how many can you actually manage from application to reporting to acquittal with enough excellence to ensure that you maintain a good reputation with that, and other grant bodies, for future funding? Believe me they talk and many ask you to tell them what other funding you have received. In that way it is a bit like a credit rating.
It is also very rare for a grant to cover the entire cost of a program. Most foundations and other grant programs require matching funds to support the project and to sustain it after the grant. If you have a project that needs ongoing funding, you need to develop a plan to obtain this money. Generally this source will not pay for them.
You are also far more likely to get a grant if you are able to show that you are able to match the foundation or department in funding.
So what ARE they good for?
Grants are great for start up capital. But they should serve your mission not the other way around. Once your organisation and your community have come together over a great project that will turn the curve on a need or strengthen an asset in your community now is the time to find a partner or a backer. Grants might be a great option here, or perhaps a local council, business or financial backer may be better?
If you’re looking for a grant give yourself plenty of lead time. When these (very well meaning) people who give me the newspaper clippings is often the grant is closing the next week. One of the most important things you can do when applying for a grant is develop a relationship with the funder, chat with them, make sure our project fits with their ideas before I plunge into the grant writing work. A week doesn’t give me time to do that. Some funders will also like to keep applicants at arms length to avoid bias. Thats okay but I still want to research the funder- ensure that their mission and direction matches ours and matches the project. Give yourself time by not jumping at every opportunity but researching in advance.
Finding the right grants. There are websites, there are directories (some cost some are free) and often your local MPs and/or council will be happy to keep you up to date too. A good place to start is the government’s free Grant Finder service
So you still get the rejection letter after all your hard work? In many, but not all, cases you will receive a notification of funding or a: “we have received many great applications and at this time yours was not successful”. If you do not hear, it is perfectly reasonable to contact the foundation or other department to learn the decision. If it is a “no”, ask what you can do better in the future, find out if you can stay in contact, and learn if they have any other organizations they suggest you contact.
FINALLY Make the “Magic” of grants work for you.. don’t be it’s slave. The real “magic” is that you as an organisation can provide a foundation or gov department with a chance to move forward on their goals too. The work comes in finding the grant provider you will help – and helping them to see that you offer a special opportunity (RBA is a great opportunity for this).
So how have you experienced grants? Have you found they work for you and are the expectations that come with them realistic?
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