The Fit Conversation: Talking to Grant Funders Before Writing A Proposal
Writing a grant application is a lot of work. Before getting started, it’s a really good idea to make sure that your organization and program are a good fit with the funder’s priorities. The best way to do that is to go straight to the source and call the funder.
Sure, you can find out a lot about whether or not you're a good fit other ways. In fact, see my earlier blog on how to research whether or not a funder is a good fit for your organization, but funders leave so much out from their website and written materials that they are often not a complete guide to what they are likely to fund. Often funders describe themselves or their funding interests very broadly, but the truth of the matter is, they really only like to fund a narrow range of things. Sometimes their priorities have changed and their website hasn’t been updated yet. Still other times, I haven’t correctly understood what’s on their website. A call can clarify my understandings of who they are and what their interests are.
The biggest reason I believe people should call: for a reality check. As I work with clients, I see this far too often. They can't imagine someone not wanting to fund their organizations (and I can't blame them; I only work for good organizations, so I understand). Because they are so passionate about their organizations and the merit of their organizations they sometimes don't understand why their organizations don't fit into a grant funder's criteria.
Many times, I find that people read a funder's website and engage in wishful thinking. They read that a foundation funds what they want the foundation to fund. The foundation funding outdoor environmental education for public schools in Virginia will somehow result in a South Carolina nonprofit that offers outdoor environmental education at a YMCA camp thinking that their program will qualify also when, in fact, it won't.
It isn't likely that a funder will spend a lot of time on the phone with you so you want to make the most of the time and attention you receive. You want to find out as much as you can before you call. Do your research so you can ask the funder informed questions. The funder will respect you more and give you more time and attention if it's clear that you are not wasting the funder's time. Find out as much as you can from the organization's 990, from its website, and from any other sources you can find. As you are doing research, make a list of questions to ask. Then, when you've learned as much as you can without calling, call.
The Fit Call
When I call a funder, I usually explain what we're thinking about applying to fund and ask if that sounds like the kind of project they might be interested in. If they say no, I gently probe why and try to better understand what their interests are. If the project needs to be refined, I can figure out how to refine it before writing the grant. If the project is completely outside their scope of interest, I can save myself a lot of time and heart-ache by switching gears and writing about something else altogether or by approaching an entirely different foundation if that foundation is a bad prospect for us.
Sometimes when I'm pitching a project to a foundation officer in a "fit" conversation, what I learn is that I need to describe our program differently. I might find out that our project is a fit, but I learn that the funder doesn't "get it" if I talk about the program in some language that I'm accustomed to using. The "fit" conversation can give me insight into which arguments are going to resonate with the funder's culture. In this way, the fit conversation becomes almost like a dry run for my proposal. It helps me become aware of where I have unconsciously started using my industry's jargon in my everyday life.
Usually, funders won't hesitate to tell you if you're not a good fit. They don't want a proposal that isn't a good match any more than you want to write one that isn't going to be funded. It's work for them to read and respond to a proposal that isn't right for them so screening out a bad match up front is better for everyone.
I know narrowing your list of prospects might not sound like something you want to do, but it is. The great thing about it is that when you rule out the bad fits, you can focus your attention on the good fits—which is where your attention really belongs.
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