Without grant funding from foundations, many nonprofit organizations simply wouldn’t exist. For established groups, it’s often a no-brainer—the money is available, it offers stability, and the credibility gained by support from a big-name foundation doesn’t hurt, either.
But if you’re part of a small, perhaps start-up or volunteer-based organization, applying for grant money is a less obvious way to raise funds.
In fact, it probably shouldn’t be the first method of fundraising a startup organization tries. Without a history of success, it can be challenging to persuade a funder that your organization will do what it plans to—or that it will even be around in a year or two. In addition, preparing an appealing grant proposal requires significant time and planning.
Despite our cautions, there’s no need to cross grant funding off your list. Applying for grants can be well worth the effort, particularly in terms of the amount of money you might receive.
For example, Mary, a volunteer parent in California, describes, “The first grant application I ever prepared, on behalf of our children’s co-op preschool, took many hours of work. But it was worth it, when we got $50,000 to rehab the playground. (Technically it was a loan, but if the preschool kept operating for another three years—which it did—we didn’t have to pay it back.) The money—plus a lot of help from other parents, including one who was a contractor—let us transform a shabby play yard into a safe, fun space that fostered lots of hands-on creativity and play.”
What’s more, you needn’t be shy if you’re not a professional fundraiser, but a volunteer with your organization, or non-development staff member (such as a librarian or teacher). Being a nonprofessional may actually be an advantage. Grantmakers are often thrilled at the level of commitment shown by people who attempt a grant proposal because they are involved with and believe in a cause, rather than because they’re paid to write grant proposals. (We don’t mean to slight professional fundraisers, who are often passionate about their work and underpaid to boot, but rather to describe a common perception.) Of course, we’re assuming you’ll get the permission of, and full cooperation from, the organization you work with before proceeding.
The groups most likely to succeed at applying for grant funding—and to satisfy the funders with their follow-through—are those that:
Make sure your organization has gotten 501(c)(3) status. It’s nearly impossible to obtain grant funding without first having obtained IRS recognition of your tax-exempt nonprofit status (or without having arranged fiscal sponsorship by a 501(c)(3)). Not only does your 501(c)(3) status make the grantmakers’ administrative tasks easier, but it gives them at least some assurance that your group knows how to be fiscally responsible.