June 21, 2012

Grant Seeking is a Journey (and it’s Worth the Trip)

I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about clients’ return on investment, or ROI. At The Grant Plant, we are always mindful of our clients’ limited resources, and try to be as efficient and effective as possible when working on projects. To help ourselves and our clients put a number on the value of our services, every year we quantify what we have contributed to their organizations. This means going through a process in which we analyze our project list, noting the nature and number of grant proposals submitted, the outcomes, and the end of year ROI  for each client (meaning how much the client earned in grant awards versus how much they spent on our services).

It’s always an interesting process and one that is both enjoyable yet daunting. Thanks to our stellar administrative assistant (shout out to Carrie Bullen), we are much more prepared for the process next year, and have fleshed out an entire system for tracking! We won’t, actually, reinvent the wheel every year from here on out.[1]

But I digress. This post is meant to be about the process – or journey – of grant writing. Some of the greats have said it best:

  • “Life is a journey, not a destination.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.”  – Don Williams, Jr.
  • “It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end.” – Ursula K. LeGuin

And my personal favorite: “A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” – Tim Cahill[2]

While these writers may have been thinking about life more broadly, all of this applies to grant writing as well. The process IS a journey – some are shorter (letters of inquiry, short online submissions); others are lengthier (government grants). But no matter how far you are going, planning a trip is an undertaking. There are so many considerations: Who will I travel with? (Your collaborators); What will I pack? (Your budget); What is my itinerary? (Your implementation plan); And even, why am I going? (Your needs statement).

The journey is always well worth the effort. Even if a proposal is not funded (not an ideal outcome, but an oft-occurring one nonetheless), the organization and the individual(s) who put forth the effort to research, write, and submit the request have benefited from the experience. Why?

(1)   You are forced to think through your program. What are your goals? How will you reach them? What is required to get there in terms of financial budget, staff, time, and external resources?

(2)   You begin to think about data and accountability. Most funders want to know whom you served, what you did, and where their money went. If you do get the grant, you’ll need to report on this later. Determining this upfront helps prepare you for program implementation and future grant seeking.

(3)   You have compiled a needs statement. And this is daunting! Both you and I know that for the vast majority of social services, health, education, and other programming out there, there is a definite need for services – either here in New Mexico or elsewhere. But you need to document that need using reputable sources. This can be a time-consuming process, but the information will be helpful in other future proposals, or in conversations and other communications with donors and partners.

(4)   You’ve found others working toward similar issues. You can work together – a collaboration! (The golden word in grant seeking.)

(5)   You’ve compiled attachments – which means you likely have most of the “usual suspects” in place and accessible. Most funders want to see your audit, 501(c)(3) letter, Board of Directors list, resumes, job descriptions, etc. Keep that in a file, and you are good to go on the next application.

(6)   You’ve increased your visibility. This may be locally, regionally, or at a national level, depending on the foundation or agency to which you’ve applied. This can open doors for future discussions with the funder, a second proposal, or connections to other funding sources.

(7)   You had to talk about your program’s sustainability. That’s difficult, especially for those programs that serve indigent folk, or provide a unique service. How are you going to sustain the program beyond the funding period? One way you can do that is by seeking other funders with similar interests. This means that you have both addressed the sustainability section, and begun to make notes on your next grant proposal to XYZ Funder – you are almost ready for your next trip!

Through the process of writing a grant proposal, you were able to figure out all of these things. (Or, perhaps your contract with TGP forced you to do so!) In the interests of justifying our own highly honed nagging skills, don’t you think you are better off for having taken the time to thoroughly prepare for grant seeking? We would say that most, if not all, of our clients are. In fact, the USDA stated: “Remember that you will need to take the time to work with them [professional grant writer] to complete the application. You are the best source of information on your business and your business plan.”[3] And are you ever! Our clients – their vision, passion, and leadership – continue to fuel our desire to successfully seek the funds needed to bring these plans to fruition. We’re honored to be part of the nonprofit landscape here in New Mexico.

And, maybe we’ll get a chance to write a grant for the tourism industry here. With that, we’ll place the emphasis on the destination rather than the journey – the Land of Enchantment!

[1] See this great article by Scott Berkun in Business Week at http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/jun2010/id2010062_565850.htm. If only every RFP that came out was informed by this point of view, the overly-used word “innovative” – or gratingly, its cousin of a verb, “to innovate” – would have to find a field where it is more meaningful. Personally, I’m going to start using “curation.”

[2] I admit, Ursula’s quote was a close second as a favorite, given its obvious slant toward deadlines. Where would we be without a concrete date and time to get something submitted?

[3] This is the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  Word to the wise, if you want to apply through the USDA’s grant programs, hire a professional grant writer.


Contact: Erin Hielkema, Vice President erin@thegrantplantnm.com

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