How to Get a Grant

Or a donation, or a sponsorship, or a gift, or whatever. The principles are the same.

First and foremost: to get a grant, you’ve got to ask for a grant, in the most direct terms possible. As they say in the trade: you can’t get the gift if you don’t make the ask. But it’s amazing how many worthy organizations drop the ball with this seemingly straight-forward point, holding endless cultivation meetings, spreading the word about their good cause, hoping that an angel (or Santa Claus) will be moved to donate — without ever actually asking anybody directly for some money.

Ideally when you do get to the point of requesting money, you want to do it face to face, and peer to peer. If you’re soliciting a corporate CEO, you need to find another corporate CEO to ask on your behalf, preferably someone who is so knowledgeable about your cause that they can ask seamlessly, as if they themselves were the cause. And if you can’t find a corporate CEO to believe so deeply in your cause, then you might want to do some serious self-assessment about just how good your cause really is.

It helps to ask for a specific amount, too, and an ambitious “stretch” amount is always a good idea. Open-ended “whatever you can do” appeals will always result in smaller donations, because donors won’t push themselves as hard or as far as you can push them. You’ve also got to do your research before you make the ask, knowing what an individual or organization can give (sometimes with creative financing options of which they might not even be aware), knowing whether they support causes like yours, knowing whether they support organizations like yours, knowing whether they give in your geographic region.

Many foundations and businesses won’t fund individuals, so if you’re serious about your cause, you need to take appropriate legal actions to establish an organization in its behalf, in accordance with applicable state and federal tax guidelines. It’ll seem like a lot of work, sure, but it will provide a degree of legitimacy that will open an amazing number of doors, doors that you need to have opened. You need to understand who holds the keys to those doors, too, and recognize that sometimes it may not exactly be the person who the organization chart would indicate.

I received a corporate sponsorship once for no other reason than because I had a great relationship with a member of the Vice President’s clerical pool from having helped her daughter get an internship. She went to bat for me. We got the gift. And those kinds of relationships are priceless, although people often react with horror at the thought of asking friends or close associates for money, or asking them to ask others for money. But if you can’t bring yourself to ask someone who knows you, and knows how important your cause is to you, then how will you ever get to the comfort point of asking for the kindness of strangers?

And when I say ask, I mean ask. Don’t beg. Don’t go into a solicitation with your bowl in your hands, looking for alms. Your program must have value, or you wouldn’t be so invested in it, would you? To be successful, a grant must be a partnership, benefiting both parties. And people respond to success more than they respond to need. So have a plan. Know your outcomes. Know how your community will become a better place if you get your grant. Communicate that fact to the donor, and make her or him a party to that success. People want their money to make a difference. Have the vision to show donors how it will.

Oh, and then, finally, there’s that thing they call the grant application. Some are easy. Some are complicated. But in either case, you can write the best application in the world (and you should do that, of course, following all of the application’s instructions to the absolute letter), but if your proposal comes from a stranger, to a stranger, for a strange cause, you’re not going to get anything for all your hard work. My favorite grant was a $25,000 foundation gift that I received in response to a half-page letter, which took me 10 minutes to write. But it was the months of personal contact that preceded the application that made all the difference.

And it will for you too — sometimes. But be prepared: a successful grant writer gets a gift about as often as a successful baseball player gets a hit. You need multiple prospects for every ask, and can’t get frustrated by rejections. It’s a tough business, but if you believe in your cause wholly, others will too. And they’ll prove it with their money.

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