Martin University’s vice president of institutional advancement gives insights on strategic fundraising

by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-Profit News

While nonprofits have numerous options for raising funds, mastering the art of grant writing can be critical in gaining ongoing support for your organization. But the odds of approval can be against you. According to numerous estimates, only one out of 10 grant applications are approved.

However, with a strategic grant writing process that includes research, creative writing, and the ability to recognize when a grant is not a good fit, you can increase those odds, according to Kristie Johnson, vice president of Institutional Advancement at Martin University and a Certified Fundraising Executive.

Johnson, who earned a Ph.D. in leadership in higher Education from Bellarmine University and is currently working on an executive MBA from Howard University, recently led a grant writing workshop for the Black Heritage Preservation Program Research training workshop hosted by Indiana Landmarks in partnership with Indiana Humanities and Freetown Village.

The following are highlights of the tips she offered for more successful fundraising through a comprehensive grant writing plan.

Invest time in research before starting the application process. In addition to identifying foundations listed in directories, including the Indiana Philanthropy Alliance (IPA) website, nonprofits could maximize the use of their time by gaining a deeper understanding of the organization. Some grant writers may not take the research far enough.

“Research is really important because you need to take the time to identify where your resources are,” Johnson said.

Review a foundation’s 990 tax documents. Gaining an understanding of a foundation’s giving history also can be an important step in being more successful in the grant writing process, Johnson said. In Indiana, that process can include researching foundations on the IPA website, which provides various pertinent information, including a foundation’s 990 tax documents.

“They’re required by law to complete Form 990,” Johnson said. The document provides financial insights about a nonprofit or foundation. The documents can provide information about a foundation that may not necessarily be evident on its website, she noted.

“The website may indicate that they’ll fund up to a million dollars. But if you look at what they’ve awarded in the past, you may find out that they have never given any organization more than $500,000,” Johnson added. “So, knowing that’s their sweet spot will give you a strong indication of their funding range.”

Be willing to engage in conversations. Documentation about an organization also typically provides a list of its officers. Browsing the list can help the grant writer determine if they have a connection to any board members or officers.

Even if that is not the case, grant writers should be willing to connect with those involved in the organization, Johnson said. “For example, when a grant opportunity becomes available, try to speak with the program officer, if possible,” she said. “Many foundations also offer webinars, workshops, and other resources to ensure that potential grant recipients understand the grant process and requirements.”

Connect with other grantees. Previous grant recipients also can provide insights about a grant opportunity, Johnson said. “If you know that an organization has received the grant funds before, connect with them to see how the process was for reporting,” she recommended. “Ask questions like, ‘How strenuous is the process?’”

Read the RFP thoroughly. Nonprofits also may make the mistake of failing to thoroughly read a request for proposal (RFP) before applying for a grant, Johnson said. It is important to make sure your organization and projects are aligned with the foundation’s objectives and requirements.

Combine creative writing with data gathering. Johnson said grant writing also should provide a good balance between creative writing and data gathering. “It’s important to look at the data to demonstrate how you will determine success,” she said. “But you also have to create a compelling narrative about how your program is innovative, sustainable, and provides a great opportunity for a foundation to invest and partner with you as an organization.”

Know when to pass on a grant opportunity. “It’s important to determine, as an organization, if you have the capacity to manage a grant well,” Johnson said. “Every grant is not necessarily a good fit. Sometimes, you may have to leave the money on the table perhaps because the reporting requirements are every quarter or every six months.

“Some grant requirements may be too labor intensive for your team if you don’t have the staff to manage it,” she said. “It’s a really good idea to just consult with staff members who actually be taking on this initiative to determine if they have the capacity to manage it.”

Join professional associations. Grant writing can be a lonely endeavor, Johnson said. Consider joining a membership-based organization like the Grant Professionals Association. “Not only will they provide you with resources and professional development, but you will also have the opportunity to meet funders from various organizations who are invited to speak to the group,” she said. “Connect with other like-minded professionals in the field so you can support one another.”