Adopt a Major Grants Mindset
It doesn’t take much time or money for your nonprofit to ratchet up its major grants potential. Success begins when you look at your largest foundation and corporate partners as a distinct category. When you segment those funders from the rest of your portfolio, you can give them the heightened attention they deserve.
You might assume that your office already operates with this major grants mindset. What I find is that nonprofits give each significant proposal added attention. What they don’t do is think about the largest 5-10 percent of their private grant makers collectively. With the latter frame of mind, you can build out the range of assets that will benefit your work with all of them, from messaging to outcomes to program plans.
A Wild Ride
I’ve been part of development shops that saw mid-sized awards renew with relative ease. But the largest opportunities sped into our office leaving major wakes within the organization. Funders’ quick turnaround times and narrow interests forced an already busy staff to freeze other priorities in favor of long-shot windfalls. It was like clinging to a sailboat while a passing cruise ship tosses you around—a mix of exhilaration and nausea.
If you see yourself on an equivalent thrill ride, consider viewing your work like our individual giving colleagues do, by segmenting your largest foundation and corporate prospects. In doing so, you will develop tools that will appeal to many of them. You will view them as more than just a ratcheting-up of annual awards. You will plan for them year-round.
Yes, your work will benefit supporters of all sizes and types. But if you develop things like annual program plans with your most promising funders in mind, you will see a surge in quality.
Steady the Ship
Most grant makers receive overwhelming numbers of inquiries. Many of those calls and emails come from groups whose work is ineligible under a foundation’s guidelines. It’s a program officer’s their job to determine which of the 25 messages that arrive before lunchtime are worth a response. It falls to you, the grant seeker, to determine how best to stand out. Whether you eclipse the masses due to your messaging, your achievements, or both, three core values can propel your nonprofit’s competitive position:
Focused. When requests for proposals emerge, you shouldn’t have to wonder whether your nonprofit’s priorities fit the guidelines. Ideally, you’ll have worked with your leadership to outline clear goals that allow you to move forward confidently, or confidently move onto other prospects. With discipline, you seize the best opportunities. Too many organizations have changed lanes to please an investor, only to crash into the reality that the promised funding caused their organizations headaches and lost productivity related to their core work. Nonprofits’ reputations—and bank accounts—flourish when they do a small number of things well.
Prepared. Your goal is to stand out. Every call, email, or meeting with your foundation contact presents an opportunity. I’ve worked with CEOs who didn’t take these communications for granted no matter how well-known their organization. They employed various forms of briefings, talking points, and meeting agendas for even the briefest exchanges. While it’s good to prepare for all funders, there are simply too few in your top tier to risk unforced errors.
Deliberate. Do you devote adequate time to major grant makers outside of imminent deadlines? If not, consider the value of concentrating more regularly on that portfolio. Future posts will outline the exact steps you can take. They range from polishing budget formats to advocating for demographic data to educating your colleagues about their role in the process. Yes, the activities span from your desk to your department to your agency. This work requires leadership, and that requires a wide lens. You might start by committing an hour a day. Or Wednesday mornings. The most successful grant seekers create space in their schedules to advance their major grants agenda.
When you adopt these values, you develop a confident stride that invites investment in your nonprofit’s journey. You convey your priorities clearly, consistently, and in depth. The larger the funder, the more you stand to be rewarded for arriving at that clarity.
I see institutional funders making larger grants to fewer nonprofits. The competition can be fierce. If you want to be among the chosen few, it’s worth nurturing a proactive, intentional stance that makes your nonprofit more attractive to your largest foundations and corporate partners, at whatever size your nonprofit defines them.
That doesn’t mean your work morphs in the face of considerable philanthropy. It means that your dedication to partnering with powerful investors inspires you to strengthen the factors that investors care about most. It begins by asking yourself and your colleagues these questions:
Are we dedicating ourselves to the major grants effort, or are we treating it as an extension of our more modest awards?
Do staff members who are not primarily responsible for this work understand their respective roles in the process?
If a major funder issues a request for proposals that seems ideal for our organization, how ready will we be to submit an application for our highest-priority project?
A major grants mindset allows you to create plans, strategies, and tactics that speak to the same issues that your largest prospects prioritize. It lets your boss know that you are serious about upping your game. It enables you to advocate for the kind of cooperation you require from colleagues. In short, it sets you up for sustained success, as opposed to winning one award at a time.