From the outside, it can seem like large nonprofits have it made. It seems they have giant donor bases, nice facilities, polished marketing campaigns, and the funds to really make things happen.
Who wouldn’t want that, right?
But large nonprofits often fall prey to a unique set of struggles that only become problems when an organization is large and well-funded. Today I want to focus on just one of those struggles since it pertains to how bigger organizations compete for grants.
Specifically, what happens when an organization is seen as “too big to fail” and thus, not as deserving of grant funds?
I’ve had a few clients who’ve fallen into this camp. They’ve applied for grants and seen innovative, effective programs get denied time after time. When they’ve approached funders for feedback they kept hearing the same puzzling response: that they were big enough and had enough money outside that program that they shouldn’t have needed any help.
Before I dive into what nonprofits can do about this predicament, I do want to throw out one disclaimer here first. If your nonprofit is big and brings in plenty of funds to implement your programs but you just don’t want to use those funds for programming, then I’m not talking to you in this article. If you just really want grants to pay for something rather than other streams of funding which easily could take on the burden, you should expect grantmakers to figure that out and divert their funds to an organization where the funds are needed more.
But if your organization has lots of funding but it’s legally or formally earmarked for other causes, then this one’s for you. If your nonprofit has lots of resources but you’re implementing a new or groundbreaking program for which you can’t reallocate existing funding, then I’m talking to you.
When a big, impressive nonprofit finds themselves in this predicament, what should they do to make their case to grantmakers? Here are my suggestions.
Tip 1: Do your Research:
When I say “do your research” I’m specifically asking you to dig into researching data that supports the need for your program. I would suggest this step to any nonprofit and any program, but in the case of large nonprofits who are having trouble getting funded I think it’s doubly important.
Here’s the thing: grantmakers care about impact and one of the big things you have going for you is that large nonprofits are uniquely positioned to make a proportionally large impact because of the other resources at their disposal. So my advice to you is to work this angle.
Do your research. Collect data, studies, and stories about the need your program addresses. Collect more of it than you think you will actually need. Use it to compile a compelling narrative about the problem and exactly how your program is poised to solve or alleviate it.
Stress your nonprofit’s Unique Selling Proposition (USP – a term commonly used in the for-profit world that applies well here), which is your ability to leverage a large community of supporters and advocates, use all your marketing capabilities, and mobilize staff and volunteers to reach your goal faster and more effectively than a smaller nonprofit could.
Tip 2: Do your Homework (Program Design & Evaluation):
Tip 2 is a direct extension of Tip 1. While you’re collecting your research on the need, make absolutely sure that you have a thought-out, solid program design and evaluation plan in place for your program. It needs to be based on best practices, proven models, or (in the case of new or innovative programs) adapted from a proven model to fit what you’re doing. (If you aren’t sure where to look for best practices and models, check out my 2 Tips video with Anchoring Success, where I address it!)
Again, your big advantage (your USP) is your ability to use the vast resources at your disposal to make a larger impact than another nonprofit could. But if you use that USP as a reason to get lazy with your planning, grantmakers still may see you as a risky bet.
Instead, make sure they see you as a slam dunk by pairing up that killer needs research you did with a super solid plan for how your program will operate, gather data, evaluate success, and report on its progress.
Tip 3: Take a Hard Look at Your Budget:
You’ve done your research on needs, you’ve looked up best practices, and you have a really great evaluation plan in place. There’s no way a grantmaker would deny you now, right?
Not so fast. If your budget still looks like you don’t need any help, they may take one look at it and put your grant proposal in the ‘no’ pile. In fact, some grant reviewers start with the budget section and may see that before they ever see the narrative sections where you outline your program, the problems it solves, and the fancy program design you spent so much time on. Bummer.
But don’t despair yet. Spend some quality time with your CFO, Finance Director, or whoever in your organization deals with finances and budgets. Talk to them about the disconnect between how your overall budget looks now vs. the reality of how the funding is actually allocated and how much is needed to make this program work.
Let me be clear here: I am absolutely NOT advocating that you fudge a budget to make it look like you need the money if you don’t. Don’t do that. It’s unethical and most grantmakers will see through it anyway.
What I am suggesting is that you develop a program budget that accurately reflects the reality of the funding situation for that program. A budget which you can pair up with a budget narrative that further explains the need for grant funds.
Tip 4: Spend Some Serious Time on Your Budget Narrative:
Ah, the budget narrative. Everyone’s absolute favorite item to write. (I can practically hear you gagging through the computer screen.)
Listen, even I don’t love writing budget narratives, but they are worth your time. Especially in a scenario where you need the grant but you’ve been getting denials based on the belief that you don’t need the money.
Use this narrative to explain exactly where resources are allocated, exactly why the funds are needed, how they will be used, and how you’ve ensured that they will be used wisely. If you can make the case for the grant award here, you’re much more likely to get a ‘yes’.
Allow me to also suggest that you make the effort to create some visuals (such as charts and graphs) which support your budget narrative and use of funds. The extra effort is appreciated by most grantmakers and can help differentiate your proposal in a stack full of other compelling proposals.
Tip 5: Make sure that all of your narrative sections reinforce 2 primary points
The main narrative sections of your proposal (activities, sustainability, outcomes, objectives, etc.) should obviously outline how the program will function and what it will achieve. But don’t overlook the opportunity some of these narrative sections may present to reinforce two primary points:
- That your organization is better positioned to successfully implement this program than other nonprofits
- And that your organization also really does need grant money to make it happen.
Let me give a quick example. A proposal may ask you to write about the exact activities that will take place in your program. Let’s say you intend to operate an after-school drawing class for inner-city youth aimed at decreasing their rates of juvenile crimes and increasing their grades and graduation rates. In the activities section you would talk about when and where the classes will take place, what mediums and tools you will use, and the specifics of what the class will do each time it meets. But, if character limits allow, you should also use the space to reinforce that you have the facilities and teaching staff to pull this off, just not necessarily the funds to pay them (or whatever the case may be).
I hope you find these 5 tips helpful. I have personally used them to guide clients through the process of getting grants when they were previously getting nothing but “no’s”.