Opportunity comes in many forms. It knocks. It forms a window. Or it opens a door. Or maybe a door closes, and a window of opportunity opens. Whichever proverb frosts your cupcake.
Successful fundraising and grant seeking require recognizing and acting on opportunities as they appear—or as you create them.
Not all opportunities are best for your nonprofit or agency. Make it your job as a fundraiser, grants professional, development director, or consultant to carefully consider two key questions.
- Is this opportunity the right fit for the needs of the community we serve?
- Will this opportunity be the best use of staff time and resources based on the potential dollar amount, the time required, or other outcomes that are essential to the success of your programs and services?
Finding that “right-fit” opportunity is most challenging in grant seeking. We have all felt the pressure from directors, board members, supervisors, mayors, and even from ourselves to go after as many grants as possible. Challenging times can pressurize the grant search. Foundations, government agencies, and corporate giving can abruptly change focus, timing, and grant amounts during turbulent times.
Your inbox may fill with well-meaning forwards of grants, and the temptation is to say yes to all of them when times are tough. That is actually the moment to double down on reviewing those grant opportunities. For example, your boss just sent you an email about a grant that funds in your geographic area and in the community you serve. You read through the detailed Request for Proposal (RFP) or Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) and see that the grant is due in one week and is restricted to program supplies, vehicles, and hardware. What your nonprofit desperately needs, according to your strategic plan, community feedback, and demand for services, are more teachers, counselors, or nurses.
Going after a grant that is not funding what you need and takes time away from other grants on your calendar that are a better fit is not a good use of your time or your agency’s resources. Spend too much time chasing money, and you may end up with an agency that starts programs that aren’t sustainable, warehouses equipment that no one knows how to use, and ultimately cannot serve the very community that it should.
Apply the same logic to fundraising activities which are usually not as restricted as grants but can require enormous amounts of staff resources and funding in proportion to the money generated. Traditional fundraising galas are often the biggest offenders. They require hundreds of hours of staff time and thousands of dollars in either sponsorships or operating funds for venue rental, catering, auction items, decoration, permits, and marketing. Yet board members and agency leaders may see them as great ways to raise awareness, connect new people to the organization, and raise money. Unless the gala is already well-established and supported, includes celebrities of some kind, and/or is a renowned social event, the cost in staff time and expenses is often not a great return on investment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced most galas to online events, a trend that will probably continue well into 2021. Other agencies shelved their galas or transformed them into no-show events through social media, email, and direct mail campaigns. The total funds raised through these new efforts may not match the gross generated by in-person galas, but I would bet that the net funds raised (total minus real expenses) will actually be a better return on investment. Less time choosing centerpieces and wrangling guest lists, and more time starting or growing a monthly giving program or checking in with loyal donors will most likely result in more donations in the long run—especially for smaller agencies that lack event staff.
Tracking time spent on grants will also help separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff for deciding which grant opportunities to pursue. Sadly, there is no direct correlation between the size of the grant award and the complexity of the proposal. I have spent 30 hours pulling together 154 pages of narrative and attachments for a grant of $20,000, and 12 hours on a proposal letter that garnered $12 million. Even if you are a salaried employee, tracking time spent on grants offers a quick calculation of return on investment by grant. This bit of empirical data can bolster your arguments for which grants will offer the best payoff for your organization.
If you have never tracked time spent on fundraising or grant writing by project, here are some quick, free ways to get started. I have used the free on-line version Toggl for several years, starting when I was a development director, to educate myself and the leadership team on what took most of my time. A simple Excel spreadsheet, a table in Word, or handwritten notes in your planner are alternatives—depending on your work style and preferences.
Seizing the day with the right opportunities in grant writing and fundraising means considering all aspects of your agency’s return on investment. Stepping up with concrete information about best fit, time, and resources involved helps you raise more money to do more good things.
I would love to know how you are measuring time and resources in fundraising and grant writing and what tools you use. Please share what has worked for you in the comments below.
DH Leonard Consulting & Grant Writing Services, LLC is so excited to be season 3 sponsors for Fundraising HayDay, a podcast about grants and such. Catch up on season 1 & 2 and stay up to date on the new season here.
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