Setting Grant Goals

Foundation & Corporate Grants Alert:
February 2007- Vol. 16, Iss. 2  
Funding Q & A

©2007 LRP Publications

Funding Q&A provides readers the opportunity to ask experts questions about a variety of funding activities.  This month, Tony Silbert, President of Silbert Consulting Services, Inc., addresses the issue of grants goal development.  Founded in 1996, Silbert Consulting Services is a Los Angeles, CA-based firm that provides grant development, research, strategy and evaluation services for nonprofit organizations of all shapes and sizes.
Question: I am a contract proposal writer working with an agency that would like me to guarantee that I will bring in $100,000 in new grant funding.  I know that no grant writer can make such a guarantee, but I am not sure how to respond to the CEO.
Answer:  The fundamental question of what an organization can expect from grants is relevant to both contract and staff grant professionals.  For many agencies, the hiring of a “grant writer” is accompanied with the creation of a new revenue line in the organization’s budget to account for the bounty of new funds that will be rolling in.  The figure on this line may be the amount necessary to fill a projected operating deficit, a multiple of the grant writer’s fee, or a nice round number someone at the agency believes should be possible.First of all, do not accept a goal that is simply handed to you as a done deal.  You are the expert and must be part of the process of developing the grant goals.  Indeed, setting goals and helping clients understand what is possible is one of the most valuable services a grant professional can provide.  And, inherent in devising a realistic goal is an understanding of how you will reach it.  In other words, the goal and the strategy to reach it go hand-in-hand.  And, importantly, achieving any goal will rely on much more than you.  Therefore, the goal-setting process is also an education process for both you and the agency.  It is the time you learn what resources and raw material they have for you to work with – and it is the time they learn what they will need to do to get results.So, to answer your question:  When handed a goal, here are some basic questions to ask:

1) What counts toward the goal?  Do not assume everyone is working under the same definition of “grants.”  There are a host of situations where funds do not fit neatly into a category, particularly if the agency is creating a goal specifically for you.  For example: Do grants from current funders count?  Do government contracts count?  How about donations from family foundations?  Forgivable loans?  In-kind donations?

It is possible that the agency will only count funds from sources with which they have no current relationship.  This is their idea of “new.”  This, of course, makes things very difficult and they need to understand the relationship-building aspect of grantsmanship, i.e., the fact that it takes time to nurture new supporters.

2)  How was the goal set?  A for-profit business would never set its sales target by saying, “Okay, we need to make $X billion.  Therefore, we will sell XX million widgets.”  Yet, many nonprofits operate under that level of wishful thinking.  They set grant goals based on their revenue needs, rather than an understanding of the philanthropic landscape and their potential for grants.  Make sure there is a sound basis for their goals, such as a list of realistic funding prospects with reasonable asking levels or a history of funding at certain level.

3)  How will the agency help create opportunities?  If you are asked to go it alone, requesting funds from “cold” prospects, it is going to be very difficult to be successful.  If the agency is going to set a goal, they need to stand behind it by motivating their Board to open doors, requiring staff to work with you to develop projects, developing meaningful collaborations with other organizations, and using their position in the community to get the inside track on new grant opportunities.

Notwithstanding these questions, approaching goal-setting in this way is fundamentally wrong.  Starting with a dollar amount and developing a justification is simply backwards.  The process should begin with the organization’s vision and strategic plan.  What do they want to accomplish in the next year? Three years?  Five years?  What needs does the community have that they currently cannot meet?  Aside from a lack of operating funds, what is preventing them from fulfilling their mission?  Even if you are successful obtaining operating grants this year, what will prevent them from being in the same position next year?

The results of this kind of conversation can be surprising.  In my practice, one client that initially insisted its only need was “money,” ended up embarking on a major capacity building effort that strengthened their entire base of support.  Another ended up pursuing a major technology infrastructure update years before they anticipated.  Often, significant progress can be made on projects without any grant support.  One client was able to get the local government to build a bus shelter they otherwise would have had to raise money for.  Others found that by reaching out to potential collaborators, they were able to bring new services to their clients without any extramural support.

The bottom line is to remain focused on the bottom line – which, in this case, is bringing benefits to the community.  By engaging organizations in their broader vision, you will see which areas have the basic qualities necessary to compete for grants, i.e., a large community need and strong organizational commitment.  From there, you can develop the projects, their budgets, and lists of potential funders.  At the end of the process, you will have a clear goal that is based on something other than wishful thinking or the need to fill a budget hole.  Moreover, the goal will be the product of your partnership with the organization, a shared responsibility that has a much better chance of being realized.

Funding Article
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