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The Nonprofit Strategist

Is Your Program Grant Ready?

Private foundation funding (grants) is a great source of income. These gifts have the potential to be much larger than your average major donor’s, can provide stability through multi-year investments, and often open the door to other foundation investments. Yet foundation funders almost always require more of their grantees than a typical individual donor, in terms of recordkeeping and reporting.

You need more than just a good program to attract and keep foundation funding. Here are six questions to help you assess whether your program is ready, and some tips to help you get you there:

1. Can you clearly describe why your program is important and what sets it apart?

You want to be able to make the case to a potential funder that your program is filling a need, not duplicating efforts, and that it is the best investment they could make if they want to serve a certain population or tackle a particular problem. Don’t expect them to intuit this on their own: foundation program officers are busy and they see a lot of proposals for similar programs. You need to lay the case out for them clearly.

This requires knowing something about other programs and players in the space. Where does your program fit into the landscape of programs benefiting the same population or tackling the same or similar problems? What makes yours unique and necessary? Are you filling gaps? Tackling something in a more cost-effective way? Take honest stock of where your program fits and write out a case for what it brings to the table that others do not.

2. Do you have a clearly articulated program goal and desired outcomes?

Foundations have their own goals, which they work toward by making investments in programs and organizations. This means they assess every program for alignment with their goals, and you need to be clear about the big, ambitious change you’re trying to achieve.

Foundations measure their returns on investments in form of results. What happened with the money they invested in your program? Did it move them any closer to achieving their goal? In addition to knowing what your big, ambitious goal is, you’ll want to set a few near- and mid-term outcomes: the measurable changes that tell you you’re on track to achieve your goal. Nearly every grant proposal will ask you to describe your projected outcomes. You’ll be better off if you’re prepared to explain them and you’re consistent in describing them across proposals.

3. Is your program logic clear?

It’s great to have ambitious goals and desired outcomes, but foundation program officers are also going to want to be sure that what you’re working toward is realistic. Can you really achieve what you’re proposing, and on the timeline you’ve set? To do that, they’ll want to know that you’ve thought about your program logic: how do your activities directly lead to the program outputs and outcomes you’ve proposed? What assumptions does this logic rely on, and have you considered what risks or challenges you might face along the way and planned for those?

The best way to be prepared to demonstrate this is through a program logic model (or program logframe or theory of change). In fact, many foundation proposals will require one.

4. Can you describe the relationship between project activities and how you will spend grant money?

Most foundation grants require you to submit line-item budgets, and program officers will be assessing these to ensure they line up with what you’ve proposed to do. Have you thought of and included all of the likely costs? Are the costs you’ve estimated reasonable? Both under-budgeting and over-budgeting, as well as submitting a budget that just doesn’t align with what you’ve proposed, can be red flags that reduce your risk of winning grants (and your chance of program success!).

5. Do you have a plan in place for monitoring progress and evaluating outcomes?

Many foundations treat their relationships with grantees like trusted partners. But that doesn’t mean they’ll simply take you at your word that things are going great. You need to be able to show them the evidence. For each outcome you promise, you need to have a plan for how you will document and measure your success, for example, through surveys or other data collection. You also want to keep track of where you are relative to where you promised you’ll end up so that, when asked, you can provide updates on progress. Because even the best laid plans can go awry, you also want to have a plan for identifying challenges and indicators that you’re not on track, so you can communicate setbacks– and plans of action–along the way.

6. Do you have a process for collecting success stories, testimonials, and/or case studies?

Just like other donors and supporters, foundations like to hear the human stories behind the data. It is important to tell foundation donors the big picture through data, for example, that 90% of local underprivileged youth enrolled in your afterschool program are still in school after one year, compared to 60% overall. But it’s equally important to explain what those numbers really mean in people’s lives by telling the story of one or two of those students: like Jamie, who was close to dropping out when he signed up, but has since brought his grades up and started applying for colleges with new dreams for a career in computer tech. Have a plan for how you’ll collect quotes, testimonials, or case studies that best illustrate the power of your program (just be sure you’re also respecting your beneficiaries’ confidentiality and/or desire to have their story shared.)

 

If you answered ‘no’ to any of these questions, it would be worth your while to go back and work on them. You’ll increase your chances of winning more foundation grants and repeat investments.