Many nonprofits are excited to get started with grant writing, working under the assumption that as soon as they get out the word about their outstanding work, the money will flow in at a high volume. And many are sorely disappointed — to the point of giving up completely — when that “easy money” expectation turns out to be the opposite of the real world experience.
But here’s the deal: If your nonprofit truly is running outstanding programs, doing great work in the community, and writing great grants that perfectly encapsulate these things, then it’s all about long-term grant writing strategy. And patience.
Patience is a virtue many nonprofits do not have, and that’s understandable. Nonprofits do not generally swim in money, and it can be tough to continually cough up the cash to pay a grant writer without seeing immediate results.
Our message to nonprofits is to stick with it. Grant funding takes time to acquire because it’s very competitive to go after. There are many nonprofits chasing very few grant dollars, and the average industry success rate is only about one in 10 grants funded. But over time, if your nonprofit is doing everything else right, each grant application will slowly open a door and build funder awareness that can eventually lead to successful grants.
Don’t take our word for it; here’s a case study of a long-term client of ours that proves the point:
Nonprofit XYZ is a small, two-person operation running an after school program at low-income public schools. It started over a decade ago as the passion project of a wealthy entrepreneur. Originally, that entrepreneur funded the nonprofit entirely, and grants weren’t a necessity. But over time, the nonprofit grew to serve more students and it became too big for the founder to fund entirely.
Grants then came into the picture. At first, the nonprofit focused on local grants with small family foundations where it could make a personal connection. Small grants around $1,000 trickled in, but the vast majority of applications were unsuccessful. Still, the nonprofit stuck with grants, continuing to reapply to funders that showed interest but didn’t have any funds available immediately due to previous relationships and commitments.
Over time, a consistent effort paid off. The nonprofit was able to hone in on grantmakers that showed interest but didn’t immediately offer funding; instead, they often had suggestions for improving the grant applications for the next submission, six months or a year later. Others proved to simply not be a good fit at all, and were removed from the list. It took several years, but the nonprofit was able to build institutional knowledge around the local grantmaking climate, honing in on grantmakers that showed the most promise.
Today, the nonprofit’s $300,000 annual budget is funded by about $70,000 in grants from foundations and corporations, with the rest coming from individual donations and events like an annual auction and smaller cocktail parties and dinners.
Some of the grants are ongoing relationships that are “gimme” grants; they’re easy to get and almost guaranteed to renew each year. Others require a lot of legwork. Some fail, some succeed, but ultimately the nonprofit is able to receive enough grants to fund its operations. And it continues to expand its grant writing successes year after year by slowly chipping away at new grant writing frontiers. The nonprofit’s success rate is around 30 percent, but that still results in the $70,000 needed from grants annually.
Here’s the moral of the story: If your nonprofit is doing everything right on the operational side, and writing outstanding grants that effectively communicate its message, don’t give up. Quitting grant writing altogether after six months or a year of trying, only to start up again in the future, is a bad strategy. You’ll likely lose some of the momentum you’ve built, and the institutional knowledge of grant makers and funders will drop off too.
Grants need continual, diligent efforts to be successful. Slowly but surely, you’ll get a toehold in what is ultimately a very competitive process. View each rejected grant as a learning opportunity that can be built upon over time. Be patient, with an eye towards long-term success. It may take several years (yes, years), but eventually your efforts will be rewarded.
Visit our post on how to create a successful grant writing program for more great tips.