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The Institutional Blind Spot: Your Grant Writer

Last week, Ostara’s senior team spent some time at AFP Advancement Northwest’s inaugural Forum on Strategic Fundraising – our region’s largest professional development and networking conference. We appreciated the differentiation between small shops and large shop tracks because we know from working with our broad range of clients that grant strategy, fundraising needs, and experiences are drastically different for organizations of different sizes. We also noticed a strong focus on the analytical use of data, which, in the 21st century, is a critical and growing area of interest that truly can lead to Moneyball-esque results.

It was encouraging to see that even in a large conference format, AFP Advancement Northwest made a brave and sincere effort to get into technical, practical exercises in a setting where that level of depth is not often explored.

AFP Advancement Northwest is wonderfully positioned to fuel innovation and help shape Northwest nonprofits’ approach to fundraising. In many ways, our Ostara team has the same goal: to build the capacity of the nonprofit sector. As an exhibitor, I enjoyed being at a table inside the room where the key-note speakers were presenting. It’s important to be on the ground and in touch with the issues that nonprofits are grappling with, whether it’s the minutiae of their approach to data analysis or the broader cultural effort to improve perceptions of fundraising for good.

It was no surprise to me that 80% of the people who came to our table wanted to talk about their grant program.

How do we start writing grants for a new nonprofit?

How do we refresh our grant pursuits to focus on organizational sustainability?

How do we get started on grant writing for an upcoming capital campaign?

I breathe grant strategy every day. After working with over 60 nonprofits on their grant needs since 2010, it’s as clear as day to me that grant programs need to be in alignment with overall development and organizational goals (I’ll tell you how in a minute).

The absence of any topics related to grants overshadowed my entire experience of the forum. Whey were there no sessions geared towards grant programs? The most immediate answer that comes to mind is actually another question: isn’t that what the Puget Sound Grantwriter’s Association is for? And another question: Wouldn’t someone go to the PSGA conference to learn and network in the grants universe?

Grant strategy is an institutional blind spot in the world of nonprofit development. In our work, we make every effort to educate our clients about the importance of aligning organizational goals with development strategy. And when we say development strategy, we mean donor-facing, relationship-building strategy.

Grantors – whether you call them foundations, corporate foundations, family foundations – are donors. They need to be cultivated and stewarded just like any other entity with the potential to meaningfully engage with your organization. But many organizations don’t treat grantors this way, and they don’t invest in training for their grant staff to think this way. If we only expect grant writers merely to talk amongst themselves, they will continue to feel isolated and unsupported in their work. And that’s not the way to fuel innovation and growth in our sector.

The foundation for that innovation and growth in our sector begins inside each organization, and it begins with aligning your grant program with your organizational development goals. Here’s how you can do that:

Set Realistic Goals: When drawing up a development plan, the number you input as a grant revenue goal needs to be sourced from the realistic pool of grant funders. Your funding history, as well as updated research, must be aggregated and analyzed in order to be able to come up with an annual grant revenue goal. This must be an annual exercise in concert with other development planning. The grant revenue goal should not be the placeholder that fills the gap for all remaining funds needed to balance your budget. I only reinforce this because I’ve come across this method more times than I can count.

 Share Critical Information: Grantwriters are required to position the entire organizational picture for funders – so let them. Meet with them to make sure they are getting it right. Let them know when programs, leadership or strategy are shifting so that they can accurately represent the trajectory of your organization’s growth and adaptability over time. Good internal communication is part of a solid grant program foundation.

Integrate Your Grantwriter: A grant writer’s skill set is very different than a development director or a major gift officer’s skills. This difference contributes to the misconception that a grant writer is not an essential part of the development team, that they are more tied to the program department than to development work. They also often work more productively off-site. The danger here is that the grant writer can often be left out of bigger strategic conversations that happen in the office. 

Thus: Include the grant writer in standing development meetings. The more you can integrate grant strategy with your discussions about data, revenue streams, strategic planning, evaluation methods, and prospect research, the more efficient your development operations will be. Tasks and activities of your staff will complement each other, rather than compete.

 Stop Talking about the ROI: Your organization’s leadership – board, executive director, development director – needs to truly understand the value of the grant writer. I routinely shut down conversations about the financial ROI on a grant writer, because while it’s true that the grant writer is a critical person to have on hand to help bring money in the door, their lasting contribution to your organization’s strategy and funder relationships is far, far more important.

Not only does your grantwriter source and steward some of your biggest annual donations, but they find new prospects, identify short and long term potential, and implement strategies to deepen a relationship over time. Foundation resources are often much larger than they appear; a history of $5,000 gifts can position your organization for much greater investment when a foundation decides to focus more deeply on your sector or mission space. Keeping those connections active and responsive keeps your work on the radar as foundation boards adapt their strategies to new trends and interests. Grants, and conversations with grant officers, are a critical learning tool for foundations as they survey the nonprofit landscape and refine their giving interests.

Grant writers are not often viewed as a strategic voice inside their organizations. But because they are often tasked with writing narratives about your organization, your financial trajectory, and your sustainability plan, grant writers are often the first people to see the gaps or holes in organizational strategy and positioning. They frequently have to explain the reasons for these gaps but have little influence inside their organizations to help address them. Ask your grant writer what they need to better align their work with organizational goals. Have them collaborate with the rest of your development staff, as well as your program, finance, and leadership, and also your volunteers. And don’t forget the community you serve! Your grant writer needs resources in order to be capable of producing insightful pieces of writing that shine a new light on the work you accomplish every day.

Over 600 people attended our region’s largest professional development gathering and were inspired by many thoughtful and resonant ideas. They will go back to their organizations feeling refreshed, full of new ideas about how to take their work to the next level. The vital work of the grant writer – tap-tap-tapping away at their paragraphs, lists, and endless requests for information while quietly developing fruitful long-term relationships – deserves the same opportunity.


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