The single most important success factor in seeking funds from foundations and corporate grantmakers is doing the necessary research and preparation. Grantmaking organizations have distinct personalities and histories, with unique requirements and interests. A major element in successful grantseeking is finding the appropriate match between a program's needs and a donor's interests.
There are several MCF resources available to help you find potential funders, including Minnesota Grantmakers Online, the state's most comprehensive searchable database of foundations, corporate grantmakers and grants. Learn more about MGO, and visit the Grantseeking Resources page for other ways MCF can help.
Once you've found some potential matches, gather more information about the funders' grant application policies and guidelines to see if they are still a good fit for your organization. A funder's guidelines and policies will provide detailed information about the types of organizations and projects it does and does not fund. Contact the funder to request a copy of its written guidelines and/or its latest annual report, or check the funder's website.
If you have difficulty finding information about a foundation's funding guidelines, you can read its federal tax return, called a Form 990-PF, which all foundations are required to file with the IRS each year. The 990-PF is typically not the best source of information on a foundation, but it can sometimes help you learn more about a foundation's grants, programs and mission. You can search for a foundation's 990-PF online at the GuideStar website.
If you've done thorough research on a grantmaker and believe that your organization or project is a good fit with the funder's guidelines, it's time to apply for the grant. Read the grantmaker's application guidelines carefully to determine how to apply. Be sure to note the application deadlines and submit your proposal on time.
Please note that, if you send out mass mailings of your grant proposal to funders without paying attention to their funding guidelines, you significantly reduce your chances of getting funded. Even worse, by wasting a grantmaker's time reviewing a proposal that is clearly outside its guidelines, you risk damaging your long-term reputation with that funder.
Some funders allow and/or require you to apply for a grant online. Other funders may ask that the first step you take in applying for a grant is to write a “letter of inquiry,” which is a one- or two-page letter in which you describe your organization and the proposed project and ask for guidance on whether a full proposal is appropriate. Other funders will ask that you submit a full grant proposal from the start.
A written grant proposal is the primary tool that most funders use for making grant decisions. In a nutshell, the grant proposal is your opportunity to communicate to the funder who you are, why you are seeking a grant, what you plan to do with the money, and why you are a good fit with the funder's priorities.
Some funders prefer that you fill out their own grant application forms or cover sheets when preparing a grant proposal. Many grantmakers will also accept proposals that use the Minnesota Common Grant Application Form in place of all or part of their own forms.
Once you've obtained the necessary forms and other application guidelines and materials for a particular funder, it's time to write the grant proposal. If you've never written a grant proposal before, don't feel intimidated. Grantwriting is a skill that can be learned, and there are resources available to help:
After you've submitted your grant proposal, the grantmaker reviews it and makes a decision. The time it will take to hear back from a funder can vary greatly from organization to organization. Grantmakers have different review processes and schedules. Some organizations review grant proposals just once a year, while others review them on an ongoing basis.
In some foundations, staff members screen out proposals that are ineligible, poorly developed or simply not within the funder's focus. They then research the remaining proposals and write recommendations for their board. The research may include meeting with the applicants and conducting site visits, where the funder meets you at your office and/or program site to learn more about your organization and your needs. Site visits provide funders with a feel and understanding of an agency or programs that rarely come across completely in a written grant proposal.
Recommendations may go to the grantmaker's board with or without the original proposals, and the board makes the final decisions. In some foundations, staff members make grant decisions on smaller requests. In still other foundations, the board sees every grant proposal unscreened by staff.
If a funder turns down your grant request, the letter giving you the unhappy news will probably be a form letter. But if you wish, and the funder has staff capacity, you may call and ask, “Can you tell me anything that will help us another time?” Perhaps they liked your proposal but just ran out of money; perhaps there was some tiny point of confusion that could be easily resolved. But don't make such a call if you are feeling angry or combative. You are trying to get information, not argue a case in court.
If your grant request is turned down, but after an objective review of the funder's guidelines you still feel there is a good match, apply again in about a year. Many applicants are only successful on the second or third try. You can also ask the funder's staff person if she thinks it would be worth your time to apply again.
If your proposal is funded, you may receive the check in the mail with a cover letter. Or you may get a contract stipulating, among other things, that you must submit a report when the project is done.
In all cases, write immediately to acknowledge the gift. If you sign a contract, be sure to read it first and note when and what kinds of reports are due. Then turn in the report on time. If you realize you can't do so, send a note or call to say it will be late. Even if the funder doesn't ask for a report, send one anyway.
A funder may provide its own reporting forms and procedures. Many of the state's grantmakers will also accept grant reports that use the Minnesota Common Report Form. The Minnesota Common Report Form provides a standardized format for a nonprofit grantee to use in reporting to different grantmakers about work it has accomplished with their grants, helping to make the reporting process more efficient and effective for nonprofits and funders alike.
What if you get some funding, but not all that you wanted for the project? For example, you budgeted $50,000 for the project but could raise just $35,000. You will then have to decide whether you can do the project in a meaningful way with the money you have. If you can, you must write all those who funded the project and explain how you will adapt to the lower budget. If you can't, write the donors to explain the situation and ask if you can transfer their money to another project (which you describe fully). They might say yes. If not, then you must return the money.
Seeking grant money can be time-consuming and sometimes frustrating. Remember that Minnesota has an extraordinary fundraising climate. People from other states envy the numerous corporations and foundations that support many of our innovative social and cultural programs.
Most funders have board and staff members who are thoughtful, careful, curious, well-educated about community issues and willing to help you. If you have a good project that has been carefully planned to meet some real needs, you will find people willing to talk with you and advise you. Good luck!