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

Getting Grant Ready

There are more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States, and I’d wager that most aren’t grant ready. So if this applies to you, don’t worry about it—fix it. 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. First, are you sure grants are right for you? Are you sure you are not chasing money over a mission? If the answers are yes, then let’s get things organized.

“The List” is the bane of everyone’s existence in every nonprofit ever.

I’m assuming, for the sake of argument, that you are going to have the following items: 

  • 501c3 IRS Determination Letter
  • Two (2) most recent 990s 
  • Two (2) most recent audited financial statements
  • Two (2) most recent organizational budgets (including current)
  • Current program budgets, as applicable
  • Current year W-9 (using the October 2018 revision)
  • Board of Directors List, with board positions and professional affiliations
      • Jane Doe, President (Executive Director, Organization)
      • John Doe, Treasurer (Senior Vice President, A Bank)

If you’ve got this, skip ahead and get busy with your grant research. If you don’t, I’m going to explain a couple of the most common questions I get, with more answers to come on other aspects as time allows in the future:

Why Do I Need a 501(c)3 Designation?

Building up your nonprofit is like building up your resume. You don’t start with no experience applying for top-tier management jobs. You will compete against well-established nonprofits, so you should know your limitations. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t push, but you should be reasonable about your expectations. And filing for your 501c3 status is the minimum you need to start going for grants. 

If you don’t, stop reading and find a resource that helps you get one (if you want grants). “I don’t have a 501c3, but I have a fiscal agent,” you might say. Great! Good luck to you. I would never take you on as a client because I don’t have any confidence that we can have the success that you’re looking for. That’s not to say that you won’t get some grants, but you’re not going to get enough that hiring a grant writer will be worth your time. 

The people that are going to support you are going to be local, will be known to you, and will give you small amounts of money. But I’m just playing the odds here. I could be and often will be, wrong. You’re doing the equivalent of throwing up half-court shots on a basketball court, and I will take the bet that you’ll miss. It’s a good bet! Occasionally, you’re going to sink one basket and then look at me with some “Prove It” energy. I’m excited for you. Seriously. Bet on yourself every time. 

It will still be a challenge when you have a 501c3 status, but you’ll start making headway.

990s and Audited Financials

Have I gotten grants for organizations that don’t file a 990 or have audited financial statements? Yes. But I was young and dumb, and I thought I could succeed for every client because they had a good mission, and I was a good writer. 

Simply put, you NEED these if you’re hoping for a growth trajectory. They are another notch on your resume. They give foundations and corporations some assurances that you are for real. But do you ever visit your doctor’s website? No? Me either. Wouldn’t you think it was weird if your doctor didn’t have a website? Yes? It’s that strange? These are sort of like that. Some foundations read them; some don’t. But it’s weird if you don’t have these documents. It just throws people off. They cost money. A lot of money. So find an accounting firm, put someone on your board, and have them pass off doing your audit to a junior associate on the cheap. Is it still going to be expensive? Hell yeah. 

I’ll be honest; I have no idea what these audits say. They are really boring to look at. And there’s always this one- or two-page letter that more or less says, “This is what we think, but who knows?” But funders like them! Man, they love them! They like asking about net assets and liabilities, total revenue sources, and whether you dipped into your reserves (if you are lucky enough to have reserves). 

At the end of the day, what the 990 communicates is this: we are a real organization! We have it all together! Look at us!


Matt Leighty
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