by Kate Tewanger, senior consultant, Hedges

Leaders in the nonprofit sector often feel like they are on an endless search to find new grant opportunities to support their work and diversify the funders in their portfolios. When new opportunities become available or the opportunity to approach a new funder presents itself, it can be tempting to make program modifications to align with a funder’s priorities — particularly for ones that offer a significant financial investment in your work.

Nonprofits may consider expanding their geographic focus, changing who they serve, or adjusting how programs are delivered to align with a new funding opportunity. Modifying program delivery in pursuit of a potential revenue stream may seem reasonable. However, if your organization doesn’t have the capacity to make the changes and they aren’t part of your strategic plan or vision, this approach can lead to negative consequences, including the following:

  • Grant rejection: Rejected grants are always disappointing. Submitting a grant proposal can be extremely time-consuming when you factor in the time it takes to create partnerships, develop strategies and tools to measure impact, and collect input from the community and stakeholders when making program modifications. Stretching the organization’s capacity to align with a grant opportunity can take time away from cultivating and pursuing opportunities that are better aligned with your mission
  • Mission drift and poor outcomes: Redesigning or modifying a program to align with a funding opportunity can slowly drive the organization away from its mission. Potential modifications also can impact program outcomes. For example, a program designed to engage middle school students may not easily be adapted to meet the unique needs of high school students and will likely result in undesirable outcomes.
  • Damaged relationships: Adapting your program to fit into a new funder’s priorities may damage your relationship with long-term funders who have supported the program based on the current design and outcomes. Furthermore, funder priorities often change and shift. Chasing an opportunity that puts your program and outcomes in jeopardy may damage a future relationship with the funder.

Every grant opportunity comes with a cost of time and resources to cultivate relationships and write the proposal. Organizations can write the best proposal, but if the proposed program or project does not align with the funder’s mission and goals, it is unlikely to be successful.

Investing time to carefully assess your organization’s mission and alignment with a potential funding opportunity before you even begin writing a grant can save you time in the long run and ensure that funding opportunities do not drive your work but instead support your strategic vision and priorities. Avoid common pitfalls when assessing a new funding opportunity or approaching a new funder by following these steps.

Step 1: Assess alignment with the funder’s mission and priorities. The first step is to assess your organization’s mission and your proposed program’s alignment with the funder’s mission and priorities. The best place to start your research is on the organization’s website if they have one. Most foundations have websites that clearly state their mission and priorities. Some even have detailed guides for potential applicants that outline specific eligibility to apply, fields of interest (for example, education or human services), a description of the population they intend to impact, and/or geographic restrictions. Through this information, you can begin to evaluate whether your organization’s mission and proposed program have shared goals and objectives.

Other funders may issue a formal Request for Proposal (RFP). This is particularly common for government funding or government funding that is passed through to another entity to administer. In this case, the RFP will likely include specific goals, objectives, and eligibility requirements, and will likely outline eligible and non-eligible activities. Carefully reading the RFP will likely provide the information you need to know whether your organization or proposed program is a good fit for the funding opportunity.

Step 2: Grantmaking history. The next step is to research the funder’s grantmaking history. This information is likely published on the funder’s website or in an annual report. If it isn’t, the information can also be found on the organization’s 990 Form filed with the Internal Revenue Service. Learning about the organizations that have received grants in the past will provide another layer of information as you assess your organization’s alignment. You may observe patterns that are helpful in learning more about the funder’s interests or priorities. For example, you may observe that the funder has only made grants to youth-serving organizations or organizations located in a specific neighborhood. In some cases, the foundation or funder may not have information that easily accessible. If that is the case, reviewing the funder’s historical grantmaking data can be particularly helpful if the funder does not have a website or its priorities are not published.

Step 3: Establish a relationship. The single greatest source of information is often the program officer or other key staff within the foundation. Staff at the foundation or organization providing funding can unlock information about the organization’s key funding priorities and strategies. Scheduling a meeting with key staff at the foundation can provide an opportunity for you to seek direct guidance and advice on their priorities and whether your organization or program align with their interests. Although this step can seem intimidating, it is an important step because: 1) the organization’s priorities are likely to evolve alongside the changing needs in the community; and 2) staff often have valuable insight and information that is not available on the website. Building a relationship with the funder can help you avoid spinning your wheels on a proposal that doesn’t align with the funder’s goals. Conversely, it can strengthen your approach and increase the likelihood that you are successful if you are encouraged to submit a proposal.

To develop a relationship with staff at the foundation, identify a primary contact. This information may be found on the website, listed in an RFP, or by contacting the foundation directly to request the name and contact information of the person best qualified to answer your questions. Another approach is to leverage your board, staff, or program partners who may have a relationship with the foundation’s key staff members and can make an introduction. Before meeting with staff, make sure you have done your homework in steps one and two and have specific questions to learn more about the organization’s grantmaking goals and priorities. This also is an opportunity for you to share information about your organization and programs. Through this conversation, you will learn whether your proposed program aligns with the funder’s priorities. And, just because your program doesn’t align now, it doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.

A thoughtful approach to assessing each funding opportunity or potential funder can save your organization time and ensure that you are pursuing an opportunity that will contribute to achieving its mission and goals.

Kate Tewanger is a senior consultant at Hedges, where she partners with nonprofit organizations to identify and pursue mission-aligned grant funding that expands their capacity and increases their impact.

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