After helping nonprofits, hospitals, local governments, and schools get over a BILLION dollars in federal grant money, I noticed a pattern developing: some people had been wasting their time. By the time they came to our group of professionals to write a grant, too much toothpaste was already out of the tube. They were pulling their hair out and kicking the dog in frustration. They said things like “I sure wish I would have known that!” or “Why didn’t someone tell me it was going to cost $3,500 for a study to get this thing finished?” I feel compelled to help more people begin signing the front of a paycheck and not just the back of one. Our country needs the spirit of nonprofits now more than ever and I don’t want good people wasting their time on applying for a grant that simply isn’t going to happen.

It’s America – you can apply for a grant all you want. The question is if you have a true shot at getting it.

That’s why I developed the 13 Questions a Non-Profit Should Ask Before Writing a Grant. I see too many business owners get discouraged and spend valuable time chasing a “maybe” when they could be producing an “absolutely”.

Questions You Should Ask

  1. Do you have the time to invest in writing the grant? Grant writing takes time. Essentially you are making a statement or a proposal and you must back up that statement with third party facts. Go back to the days of your high school term paper. You are trying making a point and must have footnotes for the quotes. Do you have the time to find all that information?
  2. Show WHO the money? Most grants for nonprofits come through local governments or chambers of commerce etc. on your behalf. Do you have a relationship with them? Does their board understand the risk? My experience is most boards are willing to help a business but only if that board has bought in to you or your idea. Also keep in mind whatever grant the chamber (city, economic development district, etc.) applies for on your behalf they will own.   So forget using grant proceeds for collateral. You’ll likely sign a truck-load of paperwork keeping the chamber from any liability.
  3. Do you have the match? There are very few 100% grants and most require a match of funds in the forms of CASH. There used to be something called an “in-kind” match where you could count services or property with a certain dollar value as the match requirement. Most of the government grants don’t allow that although in some cases it can be done. By “match” say you want $100,000 to build a parking lot so people can park to buy your really nifty widgets. The city applies for the $100,000 and there is a 50/50 match requirement. That means someone has to come up with $50,000. Will the city do that? Are you going to provide it? Plan on having at least a 50/50 match and your part being in cash.
  4. Why should I believe you? Your nonprofit may need a new piece of equipment and this new equipment will add some jobs. In addition to creating the jobs you notice you’ll get more points on your grant application if there has been consistent unemployment in your community. How are you going to prove the unemployment? What facts do you site? This is a first-cousin to Question 1 about the time but be ready to back up what you say.
  5. Do you have the money to pay for supporting documents or studies? Attorneys, architects and engineers, Oh My! We’ve seen grant money go toward a non-profit’s new building but before a dollar showed up there had to be architectural plans. And engineers had to make sure the water/sewer capacity was available. And the non-profit had to create another entity to actually own the building. Find out what up front costs for professional fees must be spent BEFORE the grant application is made. Be sure you have the funds to pay for any services or documents. Sometimes you can get reimbursed for those out of pocket costs but “reimburse” means you had to pay out first.
  6. Can you benchmark? Governments want accountability for the money they spend. Are you prepared to measure what you did with the money? Say the grant gave you $10,000 to buy some machinery and it was in turn to create some jobs. Can you track how you did and why you were a good investment? How many jobs were created and when? What were the wages? Are the still employed? These are all the type of benchmarks you should expect to watch.
  7. Do you have systems and internal controls in place? Keeping up with every dollar spent is crucial. It’s like the IRS showing up and wanting to see all your receipts PLUS the verification that you indeed hired those out-of-work people and not your 3rd cousin PLUS you paid them a wage you said you would. If you have the internal controls and systems in place to access that information you’ll be ahead of the game.
  8. Do you think this money is an entitlement? Guess what? The grant isn’t an entitlement. And they don’t have to give it to you just because you are a flag-waving American. Be prepared to say why its worth investing in your idea/company as if it were your money. Getting angry that you see all this government money going to waste while you’re out here trying to earn a living isn’t going to solve anything. Too often I see people believing they are entitled to “their fair share” and that mindset bubbles over into the application process.
  9. Can you convince the guy in the cubicle? Most likely, some guy in a cubicle in Washington, DC is going to give your project approval. Think about the scene in Gladiator and everyone is looking at Caesar to see if they are getting the thumbs up or down. The cubicle guy doesn’t know Ashland, Maine from Ashland, Mississippi from Ashland, Oregon so get in line with everyone else who wants the same grant as you. One key component to getting funded will be determining if you have written a narrative that convinces the cubicle guy he should move your project forward.
  10. Can you follow instructions? It’s a simple question but every little box has to be checked.
  11. Do you shoot the messenger? Somewhere along the grant writing journey you’ll ask yourself “why in the world are you people asking for this insane information?” Some of the information you have to supply seems silly but the government folks have to have it. More than likely it wasn’t the government folks you are dealing with that added the silly question – it was Congress. In some galaxy far, far away somebody somewhere didn’t like some thing and swore “we’ll never do another application without that information in it!” and they changed the rules. And you have to supply the answer. So don’t get mad at the guy in the cubicle because he probably thinks its silly too but the box still needs to be checked. (See Number 10)
  12. Will your business work without the grant money? If these are the “do-or-die” funds for your business then you really need to re-think whether this is the right move. You need to be operational and profitable without the government money. I constantly tell my clients that grant funds are the extra – the sugar – the cherry on top. Plan like the grant won’t happen and be thrilled when it does.
  13. Do you have patience? How quick do you need the money? If you need the grant funds right now you better have a B plan. Unless its the IRS, government and quick are two words that don’t sit well together.



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