The Secrets to Successful Grant Writing

by | Mar 16, 2022

Grant writing may be the most valuable skill in nonprofit fundraising. In a single grant application, you could change the fortunes of your entire organization.

Many nonprofits–established as well as new ones–are intimidated by the process. But you don’t need to be. Grant writing is more of a science than an art, and in this episode professional grant writer Kate Hephner sits down with Tosha to reveal the secrets that have helped her secure grants for nonprofits for over 20 years.

Kate is a freelance grant writer and Grants Specialist at Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin. In this episode, she’ll share:

  • The FIRST place to look when you’re ready to start with grants
  • The best resources for searching and finding grants
  • Why “following the rules” is essential to getting funded
  • How to organize your team to meet your grant application deadlines
  • Why program directors make the best grant writers
  • What NEW nonprofits can do prove they’re worthy of funding 
  • And much more…

Thanks for listening and be sure to subscribe for new episodes every week!  

For more nonprofit accounting resources check out www.thecharitycfo.com  

If you need a freelance grant writer to help you win more funding, you can reach out to Kate through her LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kate-hephner-019a522/

Links to the grant directories mentioned by Kate:

Want to learn more about finding grants for your organization? Check out our episode with the founder of Grantwatch here: https://thecharitycfo.com/libby-hikind-how-to-find-grants/

🎧 Click here to listen to the Podcast on  AnchorFM or Apple Podcasts

👇 Or scroll below the to read the full transcript of our conversation

A Modern Nonprofit Podcast The Secrets to Successful Grant Writing

 


A Modern Nonprofit Podcast

The Secrets to Successful Grant Writing

3/16/2022

Tosha Anderson:

Computer. Hey everyone. Welcome back again to a modern nonprofit podcast. I’m Tasha Anderson. And today I’m talking with a fellow, you know, I guess employee a person that actually works for a nonprofit organization and Kate, a lot of times we have guests on here that just so happened to work with the nonprofit, um, industry, or maybe one point they worked with the nonprofit industry, but now they work in some sort of consulting way. And for those of you that don’t know, I used to work for a nonprofit organization. So I always love hearing from people that are actually in the trenches day in and day out working within the organizations, trying to solve problems. So, um, today I brought along my friend, Kate Kate is actually, um, a grant writer and grant specialist that works within the nonprofit space. And we’re gonna talk all about, um, grant writing and specifically how to understand and work with grants.

Tosha Anderson:

Many of our clients starting to dabble their toes in grant writing, or we start getting introduced from the accounting perspective. Hey, Tasha, I’m interested in working with, um, a grant writer or we’re trying to get more sophisticated funding. What does this look like? We hear about that on the accounting side, in case you deal with that on the grant writing side. So I’m excited to dive into this conversation and, and talk a little bit more about, um, what these organizations need to do to be prepared, um, for all of the unintended consequences of, um, the grant work. So Kate, thanks so much for joining us.

Kate Hephner:

Sure. Thanks for having me.

Tosha Anderson:

Good. So let’s just dive right in the most obvious question, I think, uh, people wanna know right from the beginning, how do they find grants grant money? Uh, especially if you’re a founder you’ve relied on, you know, public support through individual donations and things like that. Maybe some online giving campaigns, and you’re really trying to elevate your fundraising game grants is usually the next thing, um, during that journey, but most people don’t even know how to get started. So let’s just start with that. How would you recommend people finding these grants?

Kate Hephner:

Sure. I, I, I think the easiest place to start is looking at where you’re getting some of your donations already. Um, if there’s corporations that are already giving to your organization, they might be doing annual gifts to you, or they might be giving for a specific promotion, but they probably also have a foundation, um, side of their corporation that often then they have a grant process for that. So really to checking with those people that you already receive funds and see if they have additional funds that are available through grants, um, then you can move on to be, um, registered for one of the directories. If there are there’s foundation directory, there is, um, instrumental, which is one that I’ve just recently, um, joined on, um, grant station, grant watch. Um, all of those are clearing houses. Um, but that really on a daily basis tend to, to update a, a, um, a directory that they have of grants that are available. They’re usually searchable by, um, geographical area by, um, the type of funding that you need. Um, and then if, if you’re lucky, some of those will actually interface with, um, like Razor’s Edge or whatever your internal fundraising software is, um, so that you can, um, can download the information directly to that.

Tosha Anderson:

Oh, interesting. I didn’t realize that was a thing.

Kate Hephner:

Yeah. Well, instrument instrumental has that. So you’re able to take spreadsheets off of instrumental and inter it will download right onto Razor’s Edge. So,

Tosha Anderson:

Well, there you go. Well, there you go. Yeah. So it’s funny. Um, I think people sometimes question, you know, how do you get into grant writing? And one of the things that I’ve learned, because I’ve been working in and around the nonprofit space for, I’ve been saying 15 years for a few years now. So upwards of that, and one of the things when I was in business school, when I’m a CPA, so I went to, you know, the accounting program and I would’ve never get in my life. I would’ve spent so much time in the grant writing space and writing the grants. And I was, I guess I just thought it was some sort of, you know, special, like, I don’t know, where do you learn these things? There’s not a school there’s classes for it, but how does someone even start doing this? And when you’re a smaller organization, it’s usually the executive to actor, the founder, someone that starts writing those grants initially, and then they will graduate to hiring grant specialist, um, in advancing.

Tosha Anderson:

But I think for, for people that are starting from ground zero, they need to get an understanding of grant writing skills. There it is a skill and there are good grants and there are not good grant applications for, and, and from the accounting perspective, I’ve seen so many grants because I read the narratives, you know, we have to put the budgets together for these sorts of things, and it is a difference, um, and a good grant writer and a bad grant writer. So I’m actually kind of curious to hear from your perspective, you’ve been doing this for a while and I’m sure you’ve honed your skills over time and you gotta start from, um, ground zero. How would you, um, or what advice would you give people if they need to build on their grant writing skills or start some of their grant writing skills? Where, where do they need to go? Where do they need to focus on

Kate Hephner:

Just start writing? I mean, honestly, just digging in. I came from the programming end of things. So I’ve been an executive director, I’ve been a program ran manager. Um, so usually I wrote grants for small organizations that didn’t have money to have a grant writer. Um, and so staff, existing staff were kind of tasked with those, um, with those duties. So, um, when I was an executive director, I was like a staff of two people at the, at the time. So it was really just, um, looking at how we wanted to grow our organization and, and finding the funding that, you know, that would match up with that. Um, the first grants that I wrote was as an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer, one of the things is, is a, a Vista volunteer as you’re supposed to fundraise. Yep. So the very first, um, two grants that I, that I wrote I was able to get for the organization. So it was, it was kind of beginners luck in, in that regard. Um, but if, you know, if you come for the programming end, I have found that that is actually helpful as a grant writer. Um, because I’m, I know the programs intimately. So when it comes to writing the grant, um, I’m able to, to take those program components and really sell them to, um, to the funder at that point.

Tosha Anderson:

Yeah.

Kate Hephner:

And, and there’s, there’s no specific certfications necessarily as a grant writer. Um, I have a bachelor’s degree, a lot have master’s degrees. Um, but a lot of it is really just on the job, um, training. Yeah. Um, just getting in there, writing the grants, going if you’re lucky, sometimes the, the funder lists grants that have that they’ve awarded a in the past. Hmm. So you’re able to take a look at maybe some of the things that they’ve awarded in the past so that you can see a style that they might prefer

Tosha Anderson:

Their priorities, like what they like to fund those sort of things. Yeah. So if you had to narrow it down to one tip that leads to successful grant writing of, of all the different skills, um, you’ve of accumulated, what would you say is most important thing if you were to start somewhere?

Kate Hephner:

Yeah. Being organized

Kate Hephner:

Because especially if you’re gonna write a lot of grants, you’re gonna need a lot of that same information. So if you can kind of consolidate all that information in a place that you can go to for each grant, um, you’re, you’re always going to need to, um, have pretty much the same, um, attachments. You’re gonna have to have your, your 501c3 letter. You’re going to have to have your 990 very often. You’re going to need case statements on all the programs that you have so that you’re not really recreating the wheel. Every time you write a grant, um, that a lot you can pull from that information. Um, and then you need to have whatever your metrics are. Um, how do you evaluate your programs? Um, what I work for a food bank right now. So we look at poundage, a lot of how many pounds have been distributed, um, sort of thing, but having all of those, um, stats kind of readily available so that it makes it a lot easier. Once you actually start the writing process.

Tosha Anderson:

I love that you say that Kate I’ve worked with lots and lots and lots of fundraising professionals, whether it’s, they have a bigger title than just writing grants, like a development director that writes grants in addition to other things, or just grant writers. And from my end, one of the collaborative partners working with essentially the grant writer, the deserving as kind of the project manager, in that sense you could, there’s definitely a difference between those that are really organized and those that are generally not organized. And I, I don’t really know if it’s a theme, but sometimes that’s like creative brains tend to be a little less organized and those that like storytelling and writing, um, if they’re more of a creative brain that the organization is not always there, I have to say, and not just on you’re right. It’s, it’s reusing a lot of information that, um, pertains to the organization or to the, to the nonprofit that you’re working with.

Tosha Anderson:

But I would also say organization in just the collaboration with other people. So you came from the pro programmatic background, and I think that’s really advantageous. I met a lot of grant writers that have not, so they don’t really have the technical jargon, the yeah. The programmatic speak that goes into a more technical grant. Right. Correct. But then they also need to work with the accountants perhaps to get the budget together. Right. Um, those are usually the biggest pieces that you’re collaborating. And then of course, you’re adding all of the other, um, more frequently asked information about the organization, mission statement, you know, like those sort of things, um, that maybe you could reuse from other previous grant applications. And I think one of the, when you get to that place where you start collaborating with more partners, is that organization also on like the timeline.

Tosha Anderson:

And I don’t know Kate, if this is the same in your world, but more often than not, the team is running around frantically the day before the grant is due. And maybe I just have some bad experiences, but this is more often than not the case. And it’s trying to pull all of these pieces together at the 11th hour be. And usually, you know, going back to organization, what I love seeing is just like a grant schedule and everybody knows like, this is the grant, this is the purpose. The narrative is gonna be done by such and such. The budget’s gonna be populated here. Like it’s gonna be go through final review before submission by here, and we’re gonna submit it days in or longer in advance if possible. Right. And then everybody kinda knows where they’re at along that process. Um, more often than not, I find that it’s not that way. So I don’t know. Kate, are you more on the, um, timeline schedule? Have you found any tips and tricks for collaborating better with other members of your team or at least scheduling it out or having an organizational tool for what that schedule could look like?

Kate Hephner:

Sure. I mean the main thing, the first thing I do when I, uh, find out about a grant is I, I comb that request for proposals, what is going to be required. Um, what is, what are the key components if they’re looking for? So then I can, if there’s time, you can have a meeting and as it’s nice to have a team meeting, so you pull together the person that might be giving you the financial information, the person that’s maybe doing the research and getting you the statistics, um, the person who’s actually running the, the, the program that has those elements, um, and then create a timeline from there. Mm. Um, I try to not bump up on deadline. I am kind of very organized in that regard that I do not like making, waiting until the last minute, because I think that’s when mistakes happen,

Tosha Anderson:

Right.

Kate Hephner:

Is when you wait, wait till the last minute, and then also your, your data isn’t necessarily as good. Um, and you know, I mean, some people think of grant writing as creative writing. It’s really not. It’s technical, it’s technical writing. Um, and it’s really kind of categorized as that because it’s, it’s formula,

Kate Hephner:

It’s, you know, most, um, grants are, they file a specific guideline. They have some of the same components in them. Um, they usually don’t want a lot of flowery language. Um, so the narrative portions usually have to be very specific. Some of them, um, have to have a certain type set set. They have to have so many characters for section. Um, so there’s really a lot of parameters on, on those grants. And sure, the, the, I mean, in, in the, the foundations and the corporations, they might have to read two, 300 of these. So really they’re trying to make their evaluation of these grants as easy as possible. And that’s really by streamlining the, the grant application itself.

Tosha Anderson:

You know, it’s interesting you say that because, in the nonprofit I worked at, we, um, we had a lot of government grants and we had to go through, you know, this huge application process. And it’s really interesting. Some of the feedback that we got, um, we, we were an organization. We always joked, like we follow the letter of the law. Like every single step we try to follow the directions very, very, very carefully. And what was interesting is that, um, the, the government, um, agency had said that they used kind of our grant because we follow very clearly all the different steps of kind of like the guideline of this is a grant on really real really well. And to your point, it’s not necessarily creative. Like, are you writing the most appealingly case, although that’s certainly important, but have you provided all of the information that is needed in order for them to assess your request?

Tosha Anderson:

Um, and does it align with their funding priorities? And, uh, they, I would imagine that many funders are that way that they have kind of a standard, a benchmark of this is what we’re measuring all the other grants too, to your point, when they’re reviewing hundreds, if not more grant applications, that they can kind of compare apples to apples. So I asked a grant writer one time, I said, what is your secret to, you know, successful grant writing? I just said, follow the directions, like follow the directions to its T if they want, you know, two copies in paper, or if they want, you know, very specification give them very specific information and the templates that request like follow the directions to a T. And I thought that was kind of an interesting, very basic, um, uh, piece of advice, but I guess very important.

Kate Hephner:

Well, it is, and not, you know, not attached, um, flyers and things that they haven’t specifically asked for them only give them what they ask for. Yeah. Because there’s, there’s reasons behind why they’re only asking for certain information.

Tosha Anderson:

Sure, sure. That makes a good, so any other skills that you may not necessarily think of, or that, that maybe seem a little bit more obvious that people should know when you become a good grant writer, not just, I got this grant complete, but to be a good grant writer, what are some of the other skills that you would recommend?

Kate Hephner:

Sure. I mean, I kind of see it as a sales job, um, in the regard that I need to sell these programs to who the people that we wanna get the money from. So it’s really, um, selling them that our program is going to get the best outcomes for, um, what the subject matter is. So if I’m working on childhood hunger, um, I want to show that we can reach more children, um, in a rural area or an urban area, whichever they’re looking for, um, and really, and really change the, the direction for them. Um, so it’s not just poems that we’re gonna get out, but how are we actually transforming lives through that money? Um, the corporations and the foundations see it as an investment. Um, so the money that they’re, they’re going to award you, they’re investing in, in furthering whatever their goal is. So if that’s to, to reduce hunger or to, um, increase educational opportunities, um, that is what you have to convince them that you’re going to do, um, in that grant. Um, and that’s, and that’s coming up with a good portion of it. They wanna know that you’re going to evaluate that program, um, so that they have evidence that you’ve accomplished what you’re going to accomplish in that way. You’ll hopefully get future money from, from that organization.

Tosha Anderson:

Well, and it’s interesting that you mentioned sales because not just selling on like this, the program purpose and the outcome of the program, but I think going back to our original comment, um, what I felt like we were always selling is that we are rule followers. We do what we say, you know, we follow your guidelines, we’re a good partner through the initial application process upon awarding the money, keeping track of the funds and the way that, you know, we’re supposed to be keeping of them delivering the services that we’re supposed to down to the periodic reports that you might need to provide them and sending them on time and being responsive, making sure they’re accurate all of the different steps and just selling them, not just on our program is worthy of funding, but we are solid partners in this and we will continue, um, working in a way that of benefits us both. So, um, I really like that. The sales. Yeah, definitely, definitely.

Kate Hephner:

I, they wanna know that you’re good stewards of the money. So often they wanna know, um, grants that you’ve had in the past, um, so that they can see that you have some sort of a history of knowing how to manage the money.

Tosha Anderson:

Yeah. Um,

Kate Hephner:

And, and those are all, yeah. All things that they’re going to look for. Um, it’s a lot easier to be a grant writer for an established organization. Um, you know, the food bank that I’m with has been around since 1986 and very well established in the community, very highly regarded it’s, it’s a lot easier to get money for the programs that we have because of our reputation. Sure. Um, if you’re a, a nonprofit just starting out, it’s, it’s a lot harder, um, because you don’t necessarily have a proven track record for knowing how to manage that money and, and doing those programs. So usually my freelance work I do on that end and try to help the smaller organizations that can’t afford that don’t have a full-time grant writer that makes, um, how to get those first initial grants so that they can start, um, kinda coming up with a history of funding, history.

Tosha Anderson:

Yeah. Grants it’s, it’s tricky and especially being new. It makes it that much harder, but, you know, starting with just a strong proposal with, through the grant process is key. Because to your point, if you have established funding, if you have an established operations, you have history, you have a good reputation in the community that certainly helps you, but kind of going back to those organizations that haven’t started this process, you know, what are those things that they should include in their grant proposal that would make them a, a strong case to fund, even if they don’t necessarily have that history.

Kate Hephner:

Right. Well, I mean, most grant proposals are gonna have things like they’re gonna want an abstract or a summary of whatever your program is. So that, that’s why those case statements are really important. You can prepare and have a case statement on, on, on all of the programs that you have, um, which is basically saying what the program is, what it’s going to accomplish, um, what the evaluation, what the outcomes are. So that, that is sitting, waiting for you when you write the grant. Um, you’re also gonna need to have some sort of the institutional background. So you’re going to need to, to tell this story of the organization. Um, when was it established? Um, maybe what the, what the growth has been, what the change has been is the, has the mission stayed the same, things like that. Um, you’re also going to need to have the problem statement and how it’s going to be solved.

Kate Hephner:

So if our, our problem is, um, food insecurity, how are we going to address food insecurity, how it’s going, you need the problem statement, and then basically how you’re going to solve the, the problem. Um, and then you have the goals and, and objectives of whatever your program is. And you wanna outline those of, are we going to do it through school, food pantries? Are we going to do it through, um, programming and community centers? Those are all those program elements, um, that they’re also going to want. Um, and then of course the, the methods and, um, of how you’re gonna, it’s gonna be implemented and then evaluated, um, evaluation is, is key, especially to future programming, um, because you can anecdotally say you’re making a difference in the community, but unless you can actually show some proof, um, that you’re kind of moving the needle, um, in the direction of where the funder wants to go, um, you probably won’t have, have repeat money from that funder,

Tosha Anderson:

You know, something I was thinking about when you were chatting a little bit about a strong proposal, too. This usually comes again from the accounting side, cuz that’s where my angle is. Um, there’s always this interesting balance I’ve found about when to demonstrate that you have a need for the funds and when to demonstrate that you’re financially sustainable, and this is an investment and you’re not a sinking ship. Um, and then really knowing your audience, I think is important. For example, I have found in my experience that with government agencies, they wanna make sure that you are a sustainable business. That’s going to be around to deliver the services in a quality way, um, for the betterment of their community, right? Generally they wanna, they wanna give the money to organizations they know can get the job done. Cuz typically they’ve generated tax revenues and made promises to the citizens of that community.

Tosha Anderson:

The X, Y, Z services are gonna be done or they’re gonna fund these sort of initiatives. So they want to invest in really solid organizations that said those same solid organizations. If they went to a different partner and asked for money to fund an initiative and they couldn’t really demonstrate a need for funds, right. A different fund, my might say, why would I invest in that? You don’t need the resources. And they might say well, but we can make them better. Or we can, you know, invest in this to enhance or to serve a few more people or whatever it might be. So I don’t know if people always kind of take that into consideration, but that is an observation that I’ve made over the years on figuring out who’s your audience. What, and, and that’s hard to do when you’re brand new to grant writing. Cause you don’t really know these folks very well. Yes. Um, and I don’t know if you have that same, um, experience or not, but striking that balance between demonstrating a need, but not being, um, too much of a need to suggest that you can’t get the work done.

Kate Hephner:

I mean, it, it’s, it’s a fine line. It, I mean, it really is. If, if you’re asking them for increased money for, for a program that might be already funded, you have to show that either you’re going to add a new element to that program. Um, you’re going to double the number of people that you’re reaching. You have to have some, some sort of a of reason why you’re asking for increased money. Um, most grant proposals, the reasons they ask you for, you know, who is what funding you have had in the past and who’s funding the programs. Now they, they wanna know that there’s other people that have trusted you, um, that they’re not the only ones and they’re not the first ones they, they prefer knowing that other organizations have given to you in the past. They also wanna know that they’re not the only people paid for this program. They usually do not wanna pay a hundred percent of your program. They’ll pay a percentage of your program. So they wanna know who, who else is making an investment in this. Um, and then they, because they also wanna know, is this going to be sustainable? Right? Um, I may give you $50,000 for this program this year, but I’m not going to be able to give you $50,000 next year. What are you gonna do to replace that 50,000? Right,

Tosha Anderson:

Right.

Kate Hephner:

Um, so that they, they wanna know that it’s going to next year, you’re gonna have the same problem of needing to fund program. How are you going to do that? Um, and so they, they really want that, that plan. And that comes down to a lot of showing in the budget of showing what’s there and what kind of holes that you have so that you can show the need

Tosha Anderson:

And their line kinda summarizes just the, the biggest challenge or one of the many challenges and managing the funding of nonprofits. Because as you were kind of mentioning many funders don’t wanna fund the full cost of it. Right. And so when you’re growing, expanding, or starting a new program, you have this, you know, grant application out for this part of it and this, for this part of it. And then what do you do when at the end of the day you do only have partial funding or, or for a particular initiative, a program or, or whatever, uh, a person, right? So you’ve now, um, broadened your kind of fundraising gap from unknown sources, meaning individuals or, you know, those sort of things. And, and that’s something that I really recommend to the nonprofits that I work with, the very careful with the grants that you put out there and the expansion plans that you have and how aggressively you do that.

Tosha Anderson:

And, and, and what kind of deal you’re striking with the funders. Um, especially with some of these government contracts, it’s kind of an open ticket on like however many units of service that you can provide, but we’re never gonna pay you the full cost of the, the service that you’re providing. So what I’ve to my clients that the more services that you are, uh, providing you are expanding your fundraising gap that much more, you know, so we have to think about these things very carefully. And, um, I think that’s the balancing act that many people find themselves in, um, which kind of goes back to, you know, I think which we haven’t really talked about, but of course from the accountants perspective, and I’m sure from your perspective too, to the degree that we can get operating grants, that don’t have strings of tie to specific programs or specific purposes, that just goes into that, um, pot of money that we can use, that we need to cover, whatever it is that we have holes in that haven’t been covered by some other right.

Tosha Anderson:

Um, source is always ideal. And I know, um, some grant writers are really effective at tailoring the message to a funding priority area, but keeping it, um, open to the degree of any restriction. So it’s still operational in nature, but they know that they’re funding, um, a focus area that they’re, they’re passionate about. Yeah. So this has been super helpful. Um, Kate, thank you so much for having this conversation. I know it’s been a good eye opener. I think for those that are kind of starting to think about what would it look like to grant, right. One of these things that we should be thinking about, um, I know you do some freelance work as you had mentioned. So if there’s any organizations out there that are interested in, um, you know, tapping in, on your work or your services, what is the best way that people can reach out to you? Would LinkedIn be the best way? Or we can drop that in the show notes, if anybody’s interested in connecting with you.

Kate Hephner:

Yeah. Um, for freelance probably LinkedIn, is probably the best source for that.

Tosha Anderson:

Okay, great. We can absolutely do that. All right, Kate and I

Kate Hephner:

Know, I mean, grant writers, it’s a big need out there right now. It’s a growing tends to be a growing field. Um, people are realizing that they need to maybe build up that, that grant section of their fundraising plans. Absolutely. So anybody that wants to go into grant writing I think is actually a, a really a growing field right now.

Tosha Anderson:

Yes, please. There’s a talent shortage. That’s what I say about accountants, accountants consider going into the nonprofit industry. There is such a shortage. I mean, there’s a shortage everywhere, but especially here. Yes. Um, yeah. So Kate again, thank you so much for joining us. And that is our show today everybody. Thank you so much for joining us until next time. Bye now.

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