A Blog series to help small and medium-sized nonprofits win and grow grants

Over the past decade, I’ve worked with almost fifty different, mostly under-resourced, nonprofits of all kinds. They were based all around the country and organizations big and small, and I personally raised more than $100 million in grants, and I’d like to share my process. Why? Because my process is counterintuitive, which is exactly why it has worked so well for me and my team, and perhaps it may work for you.

This blog post is not a guide on how to write a compelling proposal. There are many experts out there on writing compelling proposals, and many of them are far better than I am. They might all be better than I am, for all I know. 

This guide isn’t for everyone. There are some organizations which this approach doesn’t work for. But there are some that this method with absolutely work for. So while what I write here can be widely applicable, this is for you, especially if you are a small- or medium-sized nonprofit. 

Maybe you’re an executive director at an organization without a development director. God bless you. Keep those lights on. Perhaps you’re a development director, and grants take up about 50-60% of your time while bringing in only about 25% of your revenue. Man oh man, is this for you. Let’s start.

My goal, unlike other grant writing experts, isn’t to teach you how to write a grant.  My goal is to teach how to write upwards of a hundred grants each year and not burn you or your team out.  Yes, you heard that right; a hundred or more. Don’t panic! Stick with me here. Will all of those grant applications come through? Absolutely not. Will most of them? The answer to that is also a resounding no. But will your organization get more grants than it ever has before? I’m betting on it, and you should too, because it has worked for me and my team.

Complex Little Monsters  

Many fundraising or grant writing experts out there tell organizations not to take a “shotgun” approach to grant writing; don’t shoot a ton of grants out there and blast anything that moves. This is, I have found, both great advice and terrible advice. 

It’s great advice because grants are time-consuming, complex little monsters. Most people I’ve encountered in the nonprofit world hate writing grants. That is, in fact, why I have a job. I’m doing a job that almost no one wants to do but is nevertheless critically important. Grant writers are like light bulbs because most people ignore them unless the job isn’t getting done.

Avoiding a shotgun approach is also great advice because if you blast stuff out there, you risk embarrassing your organization. People run foundations and corporations. And people have memories. They will, more likely than not, remember an awful grant application. So, you are advised to refrain from submitting half-assed proposals to funders. 

But what if you didn’t have to take a shotgun approach but could still apply to dozens and dozens of foundations and corporations each year? What if, somehow, you could have the best of both worlds? I’m trying to convince you that you can. Mainly because you absolutely can. 

Excel is not your friend.

How do you do it? By that, I mean build a successful, repeatable “grant-getting” program that doesn’t burn out you or your team. You start by creating grant writing processes and using those to increase your grant output and improve your organization. It’s about moving beyond the terrible Excel spreadsheet you use to track your grants (I know you do it) and the panicked way you realize on Monday that there’s a grant due on Wednesday that you totally forgot about. 

I know this is how you work because of the fifty different nonprofits around the country over the past decade that I worked with. Every single nonprofit I’ve worked with had a terrible Excel spreadsheet, and every one of them would call with a panicked last-minute grant that they had totally forgotten about. So take comfort, you’re not alone! 

Moneyball is how it started for me.

For those of you unfamiliar, Moneyball is a book by Michael Lewis (turned into a movie starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill) about Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, who used statistics to put together an unconventional team of overlooked players for the least amount of money possible. They tried to distill players down to a number they could compare, a number they could value. The statistic that they drilled down on was On Base Percentage. Whether a guy got a hit, walked, or hit by a pitch, it didn’t matter. The thinking went that you can’t score if you don’t get on base, so find guys who get on base and look at nothing else but that. And it worked. 

My insight: time is money! We don’t track it.

Moneyball is a great book and movie, and it inspired me to ask if we are pondering the right questions about how your grant applications work. What is the math behind your grant writing approach? What is that “singular god statistic” for grant getting success?

For every grant that you are going to write, there is an investment of time. Your time, staff time, someone’s time. And time is valuable. Time spent writing a grant is time not spent doing something else—running a program, meeting a donor, or maybe, just maybe, taking a little break. And whether you are doing it consciously or not, you are deciding how much time to invest in an application. Here are a few examples. 

Should I apply to the XYZ Corporation?  That application takes forever, and they always say no. I’m swamped, so I’m going to skip it this year. 

The ABC Foundation comes through regularly with $2,500, but the reporting requirements are such a pain in the neck. Do I really want to deal with that? Let’s pass. 

But applying some basic statistics to your proposal can help you decide which grants to go for, like Expected Grant Value (EGV). EGV is now your “god statistic,” the one from which all others flow. Of course, a statistician would be horrified by the way I’m going to present this, but I want it to be simple for you to apply in practice. 

Let’s say we have two grants to apply for, one from Foundation A for $5,000 and one for Foundation B for $100,000. You only have time to work on one of them. So which one do you choose? Obviously, it’s Foundation B, right? Well, it depends. The answer lies in my next post.


Matt Leighty
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