Do Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth: Grant Funding

I began what I now see was my first grant seeking for a capital campaign when I was in fifth grade. Instead of bricks and mortar I sought a four-hooved, whinnying kind of large scale investment.  And my sole source of funding was the Hays Beleaguered Parents Foundation (HBPF); you could say I had an “in” with the key board members. If you’re not familiar with the costs of horse ownership, think of costs of owning a dog and multiply that by eleventy-million.  

True to most foundation funding, HBPF set restrictions on their grant funding and very wisely required an in-kind match from me.  This match or cost-sharing took the form of an after-school job at the farm where my horse was to be boarded. So every day after school I watered, fed, exercised, cleaned tack (saddles and bridles) and mucked out stalls for four hours—and I loved it.   Also, I had a “friend” who drove tractors and trucks around the farm even though this “friend” was not yet 16. This “friend” chooses to remain anonymous, but had a great time and may still be able to drive a tractor with a manure spreader. #skills

One of the most common ways to mount a horse is to get a “leg up.”  Someone (you trust) helps you by supporting your bent left leg as you hop up and swing your right leg over the horse’s right side.  If you have a tall horse, uneven ground or are a petite flower of a person, getting a leg up is so much easier than alternative options. 

I’ve been getting a leg up all my life—through parents who read to me and took me to libraries, dentists, doctors, and orthodontists.   They could buy houses in good neighborhoods with strong public schools, and they even paid for the bulk of my undergraduate degree.   

Getting a leg up in grant funding and other donations is also a very common practice in the nonprofit world.  Think about all the foundations that give to pre-selected organizations or all the government agencies and private foundations that require complex, lengthy grant applications and multiple, repetitive attachments.  This was standard fare at the pediatric hospital, large food bank and other human services nonprofits where I worked for 20+ years. In fact, they paid me fair market value to be their leg-up in the grants world—interpreting complicated proposals, juggling multiple applications and reports, and working with finance and program experts to make it all happen, all on deadline.  Each nonprofit where I was fortunate enough to work is also a medium to large organization, well-established in the community, and well known to local and regional and some national funders.

I am proud of the work I did for the organizations and the great work they continue to do.  But over the past 18 months, through my work as a national trainer, I have met so many people from small towns, counties, and fledgling nonprofits that are doing great work, but are struggling to garner grant revenue. Most of these organizations cannot afford to hire a grant writer. Instead they stack their grant writing hats on top of the dozens of other hats they wear.  We even joke about it in class as “grant writing: other duties as assigned.”

But it’s no joke to seek funding in the competitive world of grants without a leg up.  And that’s exactly what many nonprofits led by people of color are doing. According to the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (, annual foundation funding focused on people of color has never exceeded 8.4% of overall grantmaking, even as the population of people of color has grown substantially over the past 20 years.

Reading Decolonizing Philanthropy by Edgar Villanueva really helped me understand how much of how foundation funding works is just something that I took for granted.  I never wanted to look the “gift horse” of grant funding in the mouth. By the way, checking a horse’s teeth is a way to gauge age. The saying came about because checking a horse’s teeth in front of the giver of the horse could be a sign of mistrust.  

But here’s the trick, a grant is not a gift.  It’s an agreement that the recipient agency will achieve certain objectives and/or positive changes in the community it serves.

Nonprofits, universities, local governments and other agencies all rely on grant funding to some extent. But foundations and other funding agencies wouldn’t exist without organizations to fund.  For years I thought of grant writing as game of sorts. And I played by the rules. Now in my work as a trainer and consultant I want to help as many people as possible play the game, AND I want to work to change the rules. I want to give as many legs up as I got. 

One way I’ve committed to do that is through the podcast Fundraising HayDay. With season two,  co-host Amanda Day and I are committed to bringing you interviews with thought leaders such as Edgar Villanueva. It’s one way to start examining the forces behind how funding works for some and not for others, and what we can do together to change that.


DH Leonard Consulting & Grant Writing Services, LLC is so excited to be season 2 sponsors for Fundraising HayDay, a podcast about grants and such. Catch up on season 1 and stay up to date on the new season here.

Don’t let grants stress you out, check out the helpful grant writing services our team has to offer here.

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