Losing a grant that you applied for is not uncommon. Most grant applications fail. That does not mean it was wasted effort. In fact, many times, it is essential to apply and fail more than once in order to help a foundation build a file on your organization before they decide to approve you. The more familiar they become through you numerous requests, the more comfortable they become with supporting your cause. It also provides you opportunity to learn about areas you need to improve on in order to qualify and receive grant funding in the future. In this case, failure is part of the approval process. This chapter will discuss some of the most common reasons for grant funding denial.
One of the requirements for Zelenz Consulting to provide the best possible grant application is sufficient details from the client about their organization and program(s). Many times, we have received paltry client information forms that have generalized statements as if they are universal information known to all. We do our best to ask more questions of the client to suss out the details we need, but sometimes it is very difficult because they do not seem to know the answers themselves.
In these cases, we often do our own research to find out as much as we can about the issue, but that does not mean we know the details about the organization’s history, efforts, successes, and failures. If we can’t find those answers, the foundations will ignore you completely. Details include specifics on how the funding will be spent. How you will implement your plans. Be specific on what is being done, daily, monthly, and annually and who are the people responsible to ensure these things happen.
Nobody Knows You
As mentioned earlier, it may take several declined applications to help a foundation become familiar with you. If they don’t know you, they are less likely to fund you. They also can’t have every nonprofit calling them and poking around all the time, so this is a hurdle that must be endured as you continuously make strides to become familiar to that foundation.
Sometimes you may be lucky and happen to find yourself in opportunities to forge a relationship with foundation board members, but this is not the most common reality for most. It does speed up the process, but only if the person you met likes you personally. That does not mean that foundation likes the organization or that the particular foundation member you met is a permanent fixture. Don’t rely on these relationships as your primary source of support, as helpful as they sometimes can be.
Build community support and a brand name for yourself that is known community wide. Many funders look at your community activity and connections to see your commitment to community, but also to verify that you are providing what the community wants and supports. This is your loudest microphone in obtaining foundation funding approval.
Budget Missing Pieces
Since they require two types of budgets (line-item and narrative), it is important that these align. It is also important that you do not forget any aspect of the budget that impacts the bottom line.
We have had clients who were approved for a grant, but because their budget kept shifting, the foundation wouldn’t release the funding. This made the foundation nervous. The client didn’t understand what the foundation wanted. So they made changes thinking they were showing how their program was growing. What the foundation saw was ballooning expenses, which can be a red flag for irresponsible spending or poor planning. We were able to rectify the issue for this client by explaining exactly what the foundation was looking for and the check was released shortly after the client provided this information. The client had spent 6 months inflating their budget before they had us step in. The turn around was a mere few weeks once this happened. Had they not included us, they may have lost the grant entirely simply because they did not understand.
If your budget changes, then you have to be clear about this with all of your budgets and provide explanation for the changes in the budget narrative. It is better to have done due diligence on all costs before pursuing grant funding, but there are times when unexpected and unpreventable costs can arise. Foundations are open to this, but they need you to provide solid justification. Padding your budget is never the answer. Legitimacy is at stake and future funding support can be permanently destroyed if handled poorly.
Our clients have probably noticed a repetitive pattern in our LOIs and proposals. That is because these formats are standard formatting practice across all foundations, with rare exception. Those who try to rewrite what we send them will not realize what they are doing and that can actually harm their potential for funding. Some of our clients have removed critical pieces from the narrative we provide because they think it is redundant or they think everyone already knows this information. If we included it, there is a reason for it.
Funders skim applications. They don’t deeply read every single proposal unless it stands out to them professionally and is well written. They will go by sections (thus our use of headers and division of segments). They may not read all segments (thus the reason we may repeat information to ensure the funder is aware of something critical).
Not all funders are experts in every single crisis in the world, so if your organization feels that everyone knows the thing you are doing, you would be wrong. There are so many issues in the world that no one foundation is going to be an expert in any particular area unless that area is the only area they fund. If you are not professionally trained on grant writing structure, then please do not rewrite what your grant writer provides.
We aren’t fans of it and neither are your funders. Some go-to labels are so over-used that people start to gloss over when they hear them. Some may not be familiar with the term because they are from a different area of expertise.
Abbreviations are just as detrimental if not properly defined at least once in the narrative. Using professional terminology when it is crucial can make or break a proposal. Those who try to water it down to something simplistic, yet not very definitive of the issue, will only appear ignorant of the topic they address and much less likely to succeed at addressing the issue.
It is important to tailor your narrative to the audience, and most foundations are pretty sophisticated in this realm. They will not shy away from medical terminology nor critical social justice or humanitarian legal terms. They want to know you know what you are doing and the larger scope of what that world looks like.
Language choice matters. Smaller family foundations may not be as demanding, but they still want to see that you are thoroughly educated on your subject area and can demonstrate this confidently. Avoid jargon to look impressive. Inappropriately used large words do not substantiate qualification and expertise.
Every organization that has approached us for grant funding support thinks they are the next best thing to sliced bread. Literally all of them. You aren’t unique. So, in order to prove you are unique, you need to demonstrate quality.
Talk is cheap. What do your actions say? Your impact speaks volumes. Your fine tuned focus demonstrates awareness of need and how to implement constructive programs to make a difference. Being generally excited about saving the universe is not going to cut it. You will lose funding to those who are highly organized, can demonstrate impact, and have continuously evolving programs that are always improving their actions to make demonstrable change in the long-term.
Foundations want to support something they know is going to really make a lasting change. They are not keen at throwing money to those who are just excited about helping whatever dire scenario in the world that exists that you feel strongly about. Feelings are not actions. Focus on your actions and strategy to accomplish these goals. Implement them. Provide demonstrable evidence of success. Document everything. Prove you are great. This is not a speedy process, so do it correctly in order to save time in the long-run to get your much anticipated financial support.
Change can impact your organization and it can impact your funding support. Major change is problematic. This can include leadership changes, staff changes, losing community partnerships, or less than stellar program outcomes. Focus intently on your organization’s goals and don’t make hasty decisions. In order to demonstrate you are stable to a foundation, you have to demonstrate that you are prepared to do a thorough job of seeing transitions through in a stable fashion. Frequent changes are a red flag for irresponsible leadership, mismanagement of funding, and potential legal implications for any foundation supporting your cause. They do not have time for that, so get your ducks in order and demonstrate that you are not a risk.
Your ask has to be realistic. Asking for too much or too little is a red flag to any foundation with knowledge about what it takes to run a nonprofit. They know, so you had better know, too. This also means being aware of what that foundation has been willing to fund similar organizations such as your own.
Grant databases only tell you the top limits, that does not mean they give that to everyone. They often only give that top limit to a very specific set of organizations they have a long history with. They are not going to hand that over to you as an unknown to them.
Additionally, if you cannot demonstrate that you are seeking additional sources while asking them for a lesser amount than your program requires, they will not support you as they will be concerned you will not be able to implement. Nor will they provide you with all you need to fund that program. Yes, you need to do more fundraising, seek more donors, and apply to many more grant funding sources.
You and Everyone Else
If you aren’t unique to other organizations in your community, you aren’t really that important to support. You need to justify why funding you is more important and how it will make a substantial difference in your community that isn’t already being addressed by other organizations. Unlike the for-profit world, competition is not in your favor. You need to set yourself apart or provide something that no one else is. Make yourself valuable. It is very possible that the foundation has received 18,000 applications for grant funding and can only fund 700 of them. This is reality. Why should they fund you? If you don’t know, then they won’t fund you.
Those who will change their values in order to get grant funding are not the type of organizations who have a handle on their organization. They can be easily swayed by a singular funder and as such, manipulatable enough to self-destruct. Most foundations want you to have additional funding sources in order to prevent this type of behavior. Additionally, foundations can lose their nonprofit status if they are found to behave in such a manipulative manner.
So, if you are able to be manipulated, you can also lose your nonprofit status because you won’t have the essential boundaries and policies in place to ensure your organization stands by your core mission and values. There is nothing more unattractive to community supporters, corporate funders, donors, and foundations than a wishy washy nonprofit willing to change its modus operandi for cash. Desperation is a sign of weakness and weak leadership. Organizations that operate this way have a short shelf-life and foundations know this.
This also means do your due diligence on the foundation before you accept their check. Are they the type of organization your organization wants to be affiliated with? Their image can tarnish yours. Buyer beware.