Grantwriting tips from the funders: What makes a proposal stand out

By Collin Lessing, JVA Consulting

Earlier in May, JVA was pleased to welcome staff members from Colorado foundations including Miguel Lovato from the Daniels Fund, Erin Binford from the Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation, Julie Voyles from the Gill Foundation and Michelle Sturm from the Anschutz Family Foundation for a panel discussion on what makes proposals stand out. The workshop was part of JVA’s 2011 Training Series. Workshop attendees brought many questions for the panelists on how they could strengthen their own grant proposals. The following are a few of the questions that came up during the discussion and the panelists’ responses.

What’s the role of a program officer?
A common theme in panelists’ responses was that the program officer is your advocate. It should be understood that program officers can make recommendations on grant proposals, but their recommendations are not final. The final decision on who gets funded lies with the board. With the program officer being your liaison to the decision makers, it’s very important that the program officer have a clear understanding of your organization.

How much does knowing somebody at the foundation affect getting grants?
All of the panelists agreed that knowing somebody at the foundation doesn’t affect your ability to be selected. One panelist spoke to the checks and balances that are in place within their foundation to ensure that the selection process is fair and objective. Another panelist commented that trying to get an edge through the backdoor by speaking to board members about your proposal will not work because their board members are trained to refer those conversations to the program officer. This underscores the importance of building a relationship with the program officer so that the program officer understands your organization and can clearly communicate its story to the board.

Where should we begin with request amounts and knowing what’s an appropriate amount to ask for?
A perfect place to start is on the foundation’s website to see who has been funded in the last month and in what amount. If you have further questions about your request amount, panelists encouraged calls to the program officer to ask. Explain to the program officer what your is organization is doing, how much the work costs, and hopefully the program officer can give you an idea of an appropriate request amount. One panelist also commented that your total requests from funders should total more than what your organization needs, but at the individual foundation level, asking for more than what you need might not always be the best strategy.

What are common mistakes on financials?
The panelists agreed that financials tell a story, so your proposal should include any information that helps make that story easier to understand to somebody who’s not familiar with it. If there’s a discrepancy that stands out, it can be helpful to have information up front that explains why the numbers appear the way they do. One panelist added that if there isn’t any information that explains a discrepancy, it might appear that you’re hoping to hide it.

What are your pet peeves?
Many of the panelists nodded their heads in agreement that incomplete proposals are a pet peeve. Whether it’s questions that are answered with “N/A” or major pieces of the proposal missing, incomplete proposals are a burden to funders and they severely slow down their review process.

To learn more about JVA’s upcoming grantwriting workshops, click here.

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