Grant Seeking in the “New Normal”

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by John Hicks

When disaster strikes, the nonprofit sector never fails to rise to the occasion. Fueled by the power of philanthropy, charities in every sector have always found a way to make their mission part of the solution as we respond to natural, economic and political turmoil.

What happens when you have the “perfect storm” of all three? Since March 2020, we have found ourselves confronting a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, a newly emergent (and long overdue) social justice movement, and an economy that is rolling with the punches and trying to find its footing. Various analyses appear to indicate that the impact on philanthropy, while difficult to predict, may be significant as unemployment rolls grow and market returns fluctuate.

Enter grantmakers. Arguably, grants may very well be the “safe harbor” for nonprofits as corporate and private foundations are making use of market gains from the past two to three years to respond to the impact of COVID-19 and the opportunities to make a real difference in building diversity, equity and inclusion.

Here are five ways to position your charity to compete for an influx of grants coming online as the charitable sector addresses these emerging issues.

Define Your Relevance

For a nonprofit, relevance is found at the intersection of challenges and opportunities (what our community needs) and mission and programs (what we do). Spend time with your leadership team addressing some core questions; the answers can inform a strong case for funding.

  • What are the challenges and opportunities faced by our community/constituents, and how is our charity uniquely positioned to meet them?
  • What are the solutions, and how do we define success?
  • How must we adapt our programs and services in response?
  • What resources are needed, and at what cost?

Reframe Your Goals

Examine immediate and future needs for both agency operations and programs. Use the matrix below to address these questions:

  • Immediate Needs (6 to 12 months)
    • What essential operating expenses, if met, will keep us in business?
    • What programs must continue, and at what cost?
  • Future Opportunities (12 months and beyond)
    • What capacity must we build to thrive beyond the crisis?
    • What programming must we create (or adapt) to meet community needs?

chart hicks

Build Your VQ (Visibility Quotient)

Next-generation leaders who are assuming more responsibility in foundations value leadership when choosing charities to support. As your charity responds/repositions, build-out active and visible leadership at the board, executive and program leader levels:

  • Thought leadership: Track and publish your observations and stories about how your charity is responding to crisis. Social media channels (e.g. LinkedIn) are great platforms to share your vision, lessons learned, and ideas with other professional networks (which can include foundation staff). And share this information directly with your donor network.
  • Creative leadership: If your charity is developing creative solutions, use the same channels to share what you learned and your successes.
  • Credible leadership: Encourage your agency leaders to become more involved and connected to professional networks. This enhances credibility. If a network does not exist, take on the responsibility of creating one.

Prepare for Rapid Response

New RFPs (requests for proposals) are coming online daily (note: is a terrific resource to identify these). Devote time every day to prospects and be prepared to offer a letter of intent or a proposal that demonstrates you have a plan for at least the next three months. It’s important not to overthink the proposal process. Many, if not most, grantmakers appear to be trying to make fast-track applications easy for charities.

Build a Pipeline and Keep it Flowing

Grant seeking has always been a numbers game: you must submit requests to several funders to secure the support you need. Building a monthly, ongoing sustained outreach to a variety of well-chosen prospects is the key to success. Diversify your asks: include requests for both immediate needs and future opportunities. Submit proposals and applications at various levels (from smaller sustaining grants to larger investment-level grants).

Grants have always played a key role for nonprofits, bringing much-needed cash and the benefits of credibility. This is perhaps even more important in positioning our sector to respond to crisis and opportunity nimbly; and in partnering with government, corporations, and individual thought leaders, serve as a stable hub for solutions.

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