Grant Decision Making. How do you choose which grants to chase?

Guest post by: Jeff Bauknecht | Grants Manager | The Museum of Flight

 

Who decides which grants to pursue or to let pass by? Who determines which projects will receive grant-funded support? As grant writers, we’re sometimes in a position of responding to requests from well-intentioned leadership or program staff to “look at this grant opportunity” or asking, “can you help us find funding for this project?” while having little input on IF those requests are the right ones in the first place.

 

I have worked in the nonprofit world for 27 years now. I have been an Executive Director of my own office, a Regional Field Representative overseeing five other offices over three states, and was part of a group that created a nonprofit that I am still involved with. For the last 15 years, I have held the role of grant writer/manager/follower-upper and sometimes magician at my current organization. During this time, I have participated in numerous grant conferences and workshops and discovered that many of us became grant professionals not by choice, but by chance or necessity.

 

Truth be told, I got into the nonprofit world completely by accident 27 years ago, 1997. Unemployed with a graduate degree in sports biomechanics (next time we meet, ask me anything about running or running shoes), I answered a tiny little ad in the newspaper that said “Fundraiser Wanted – Fax Resume (715)867-5309.” That was the entire ad. No company name or what they meant by fundraiser.

 

Understand this was pre-internet… no indeed, ZipRecruiter, Monster or LinkedIn to help me find my dream job. I figured, I had years of experience raising sponsorship dollars for cycling and running events, how different could this be? I spent the next seven years raising funds for a national healthcare nonprofit known for its awesome Labor Day telethon and enjoyed every day of it. Full speed, nonstop, 30+ fundraising events a year. Yes, I am an adrenaline junkie;)

 

Fast forward a few years. In 2008, I accepted a position as a Major Gifts Officer at the largest independent nonprofit air and space museum in the world. Remember 2008/2009, the Great Recession? Our organization went through multiple staff reductions, but fortunately I got to stick around and was “asked” to take over the responsibilities as the “Grant Writer.” Although I had several years of writing for running magazines under my belt, I had never written a single grant application, never mind the additional work of tracking program/project progress and doing the majority of the follow up and reporting work once the funding had come in.

 

One of my first tasks as the new “Grant Writer” had nothing to do with writing. A fellow staff member presented me with a Federal grant proposal she had been working on for a couple of months. She informed me it had gone through multiple reviews with her supervisor and it was my turn to do a final review before we submitted it.

 

As I looked through a very well-written application, I came to the budget page which committed our organization to several hundred thousand dollars of cost share. I asked her if this had been approved by her supervisor or our CFO. She said something like “I’m not sure, nobody has raised any questions about it.” I stepped into the CFO’s office and asked if this was in the budget for the next couple of years. The look on the CFO’s face told me all I needed to know. I handed the application back and gave her the bad news that we could not submit the application.

 

So, how does a mature organization (45 years old at that time) get to a point where a simple, but deal-stopping step in the grant application process, approving the budget, get overlooked? Simple, there was no defined process. For years, smart people in well-run departments had been given the autonomy to look for, write, and in some cases submit grant proposals and reports without the information flowing through a common, and more importantly, agreed upon process. While this had worked reasonably well over the years, it had also created some problems. For example, I inherited the reporting phase for a project in which we had committed to improving a visitor metric that we HAD NEVER actually measured! Not just for this project, but NEVER. How do you improve something you have no baseline for? We’ll leave that story for another day.

 

Back to our original question. Who decides which grants to pursue, or which projects will receive grant funding support? If you have a simple straight-forward mission, this may not be a challenge. Most, if not all, of your proposals will share a fairly common case-for-support or narrative. However, if your organization has multiple departments, each with very different needs, you will find yourself in spirited discussions with department staff who are convinced their project is Priority #1 and the best fit for a specific funding opportunity.

 

So, what do you do? You step up and tell them WHAT’S WHAT and who’s going to get the funding… right? Yeah, probably not. Most of us in grant writing/management positions don’t land that high on our org charts. But hopefully, if you’ve been in your position for a while, your colleagues value your input, and as importantly, the funds you raise for them. If you’re new, just keep working. The more funds you bring in, the more value and trust you build with your program staff.

 

So, I’ll ask again… Who decides?

 

First, work with your leadership to create a process for approving which projects and grants will move forward. It doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, the simpler the process the more effective you’ll be at getting buy-in from the program staff you’re trying to raise funds for. Once it’s supported by your leadership and understood by all staff that this is THE PROCESS, you’re 80% there. Understand this will take time. Ours took nearly two full years to be approved.

 

Next, consider creating a one-page document that helps your program staff > help you > help them. The attached document is one such model. Yeah, I know it’s SO colorful Jeff! Ah, but that’s part of the strategy in the design. Keep it simple and visually appealing, and staff can’t help but look at it. To paraphrase Tamsen Webster1, “Give them something they can’t unsee.” Trust me, you’ll maximize cooperation with a visually engaging format. Make it boring, spreadsheet, org-chart looking and watch their eyes gloss over.

 

The power of this tool is that it removes, or at least reduces, subjectivity from the process. If your process/tool is supported by your leadership team, every funding opportunity makes it to either YES or NO… no matter how passionate (or high ranking) the lead staff is. It’s that simple.

 

Now, you still may end up with multiple projects which align with a funding opportunity. This becomes the responsibility of your leadership or finance team to determine which project has the highest priority.

 

So……… Who decides? Ultimately, the best case scenario is a decision made through a simple, well-understood and accepted process. Just recognize that sometimes you may have to be the silent force that gets and keeps things moving in the right direction.

 

 

Grant/Sponsorship Decision-making matrix

Interested in a PDF version? Reach out to our team! Megan@dhleonardconsulting.com

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