When I first started writing grants in 2003, for a start-up arts nonprofit, I was flying blind, having never taken a course or even read a book on the subject. Over the intervening years I read many guide books, took countless workshops and traded secrets with other nonprofit professionals. I have written hundreds of grants and have received and incorporated feedback from grant panels and administrators.
Now, having worked in nonprofit management for over 20 years, I have written my fair share of grants! Last fiscal year alone I submitted over 30 grant applications on behalf of VOX Femina Los Angeles, LA’s premier women’s choir, for which I have served as Executive Director since 2016.
I could write many more pages about the process, but here I’ve tried to focus on some key points that I wish someone had shared with me when I was starting out. I hope they might prove helpful!
1. Establish a Relationship with the Funder
Don’t be afraid to reach out to a funder and develop a relationship! At foundations, this is usually the Program Officer or Program Manager. At government agencies it might be a specialist assigned to a specific discipline (e.g., Music Specialist).
Answering applicants’ questions and offering guidance is a huge part of their job and they appreciate it when applicants reach out. It shows your dedication and allows them to steer you in the right direction and help shape your application.
Several program officers have told me that they are surprised at how few organizations reach out to them, and they have confirmed that those who do reach out likely have an advantage after speaking with them, because they understand the parameters of the grant opportunity better, and because they have received feedback about their proposed project. So be sure to reach out (phone calls or Zooms are best) and share your project with them, making sure that it aligns with their mission in general, and with the given grant opportunity in particular. Describe several different project options and ask which they think is most appropriate to apply for. Also be sure to sign up for any informational webinars offered.
2. Be 100% responsive to application questions
Many nonprofits submit dozens of grant applications per year, and we all save time by cutting and pasting some of the more standard information (mission, history, audience demographics, etc.) from one grant application to another. This is generally a fine practice, as long as the pasted language is actually responsive to the questions. One application may simply ask for the history of the organization, for example, while another may get more specific (“History of the organization, including year founded, major accomplishments, programs offered”); be sure you are specifically answering all of these “sub” questions, and answering them in the order that they appear in the question.
3. Continually update and re-examine language
Another hazard of cutting and pasting old language into new grants is that the language may no longer be a completely accurate reflection of your organization's mission. Have a look at the language with fresh eyes and ask whether it is taking into account any shifts that have occurred in your organization and in the culture at large.
For example, VOX Femina recently made changes to grant and marketing language due to lessons learned from Diversity, Equity & Inclusion seminars in which the staff and Board have engaged over the past several years. Instead of saying “we serve over 1400 at-risk youth” we now say “we engage with over 1400 under-resourced youth” (“serve” can sound patronizing whereas “engage” implies a partnership; “at-risk” negatively labels youth while “under-resourced” shifts the responsibility to the community). Because VOX currently has several singers who identify as non-binary or transgender, we have stopped referring to them as “the women of VOX” and instead refer to them as “the singers of VOX.”
4. Be honest; avoid hyperbole
As nonprofit professionals, we are passionate about our work. And while we always want to present our mission, programming, and impact in the best possible light, it’s important to avoid exaggerating our accomplishments and/or overstating our impact. Program officers and grant panels do their research, so you want to be sure applications include only the most accurate information. Do not inflate numbers or gloss over weaknesses. All nonprofit organizations encounter challenges, and portraying a 100% rosy picture will simply invite suspicion.
In fact, addressing challenges can be an opportunity to show that your organization is aware of where it needs to improve and grow. Is the organization short on staff and/or Board members? Discuss steps in place to address these deficits. Did a previously funded project fall short of its targets? Explore what was learned from the experience and explain how the organization plans to address the shortfall in the future.
And don’t apologize for being a small, new and/or emerging organization; plenty of funders are looking to fund such organizations, which are no less deserving than established organizations with large budgets!
5. Understand panels
Most government grants are reviewed by a panel of “peers'' (in the case of choral organizations, other music professionals from nonprofit organizations will make up a review panel). New people populate these panels each year, so even if you’ve applied to the same agency for a decade, you need to tell your story as if for the first time.
Assume the reader has never heard of your organization before and do not shy away from repetition. But also be aware that they will be very knowledgeable about your industry and will therefore be tough critics!
There are many other grant writing tricks I’ve learned over the years, so stay tuned for “Five More Grant Writing Tips for Arts Nonprofits” coming soon! Meanwhile, please feel free to add questions and/or tips from your own grant writing experience in the comments below.
Rebecca Wink is the Executive Director of VOX Femina Los Angeles, LA's premier women's chorus. Rebecca is a results-oriented leader with a proven ability to advance organizational performance through program and budget management, strategic planning, marketing, developing creative events, and maximizing revenue generation. Prior to VOX, Rebecca was Managing Director of the California Dance Institute from 2002 until the fall of 2015. Prior to working in the non-profit sector, Rebecca was the founder and CEO of Creative Spaces, a Professional Organizing service, specializing in home-office organization. Rebecca has appeared in numerous theatrical productions and film and television roles, and records voice-overs for animated series and features. She earned a BA from the University of California, Berkeley.