Grant Readiness: When the Nonprofit Thinks It’s Ready


By Corinne Marasco

A couple of months ago, I was contacted by someone who said she had been referred to me by a mutual acquaintance. “I have a friend that is looking for a grant writer. Could you call him?”

A few days later I called. The guy was really nice and very enthusiastic about this nonprofit he was starting up. The mission of this organization would advocate for the Hispanic population in his area, help them improve their English skills and eventually to become U.S. citizens. I could tell just by talking to him how fired up he was.

“I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback about this idea,” he told me. “I have commitments from my senator’s office that they’ll help me and they’ve told me I should apply for an $850,000 grant from the federal government. I’ve got the local church behind me. Everyone’s telling me I have to do this now, not two months from now.”

Fabulous! What grant writer wouldn’t like to work with someone like this? But I had a few questions for him.

“So tell me, have you filed your paper work with the Secretary of State?”

“Did you submit your application for 501(c)3 status yet? And do you have an employer identification number, an EIN?”

“Have you got a board of directors? Funders will want to see who is on your board.”

I have no idea what the grant writer equivalent of “Spidey sense” is but you can bet mine was tingling. I stopped asking questions because I knew the answer to all of the above was “No.”

So I proceeded a little more cautiously. “Which federal agency will you be submitting this grant to? And are you expecting the $850,000 over one year or two? “

He didn’t know which agency; the money would be for one year. Frankly, I didn’t even ask how he was going to use the funding.

There was absolutely no way this guy’s organization-which didn’t even exist yet-was grant ready. The conversation threw up so many red flags I couldn’t continue; however I just couldn’t leave him in the lurch.

“Look,” I said, “let me give this some thought and I’ll draft a proposal and send it to you.”

I thought about it over the weekend and sent him a general scope of work and gave him a monthly estimate based on a 6-month contract. (I was also very clear that I did not work on a commission or percentage basis.) Then I shared some other thoughts that arose as I was reviewing our conversation.

New non-profits have more success getting funding from private foundations than from the government so I was more than a bit concerned about the recommendation to apply for $850,000 in federal funding. Also, the senator’s staff who promised to help out? The senator in question is retiring in January 2013. So what will happen to those promises once he leaves office?

In addition to a board roster, 501(c)3 number and an EIN, I needed lots of additional information:

  • Organization’s Mission Statement
  • Organization Budget
  • Brief Description of Programs Offered
  • Brief Description of Community Served along with any statistics
  • Number of Staff (if any) and Volunteers

I posed other questions to help his organization become a “grant ready” organization:

  • Prove that your program is important: Why is your program needed?
  • How can you prove your program is needed? Can you provide statistics?
  • Does anyone else do what you do? Who? How is your program better?
  • What is the client base you’re trying to reach? How will you reach them?
  • Why is it important that they’re assisted in some way?
  • Are there special qualifications, certifications or accreditations you have that would make grant funders take notice?
  • What are the benefits to your clients of your programs?
  • How do you demonstrate the difference you make in the community to potential grant funders?
  • Explain why the difference you make is important.

I knew the minute I hit “Send” I wasn’t going to be hearing from him again, and I was right. I haven’t heard from him at all. I sent a couple of follow up messages by e-mail and Facebook to let him know I was still interested in working with him and asking how things were going.

Crickets.

I feel badly, I really do. He was enthusiastic about setting up this organization, he really wanted to help people improve their situations, but he didn’t just put the cart before the horse, the cart and the horse were in two different locations.

The bottom line is he was nowhere near grant ready. There was so much groundwork to be done before the first grant application could even be submitted. I hope he doesn’t give up. I’d still like to help.

If you’re interested in starting up a non-profit, the Foundation Center has a checklist for new non-profits that will guide you through the steps you need to take before you can even apply for your first grant.

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