Controlling for the Chaos
Major grants have less in common with our nonprofits’ run-of-the-mill awards than we often acknowledge. It helps to treat them that way.
The application process can feel like a stew that colleagues concoct in advance of a tight deadline. On my first development team, our approach was messy. Program directors provided the meat of the proposal content, to which we’d sprinkle in goals and data, with a pinch of hoped-for outcomes. There was never enough time to fully vet the opportunity at hand. I wondered, “Is this what my peers are up to?”
With time, we better prepared for uncertainty. The lead-up to many of our submissions felt like episodes of Iron Chef. If you don’t know that competition show, it features chefs whose teams build meals from required ingredients. The result must be stunning and delicious—as judged by a panel—and prepared in limited time.
In the nonprofit equivalent, each funding application requires specific ingredients, too. You are time-limited in creating a “gourmet” proposal for your foundation reviewers. Whether you know Iron Chef or not, you can likely relate to the reality show parallel in your professional life:
You regularly face the unexpected.
You are constantly tested with tight deadlines.
Your success relies heavily on teamwork.
You compete against some of the best in your field.
You can choose to look at these as a set of difficult circumstances. Or, you can acknowledge that this field demands that you prepare accordingly. If you are committed to securing ever-larger private grants, your goal becomes a financial one, yes, but also a series of steps designed to prepare for high-stakes opportunities.
The stories that follow show how you can cut through the chaos to pursue major foundation or corporate grants. There are many ways to get there. Here are two. (The stories are real. The names have been changed.)
A Steady Simmer
Cozy Homes is an affordable housing nonprofit whose staff had its collective eyes cast on the Money Bags Foundation for years. They had no personal connections to the funder but were determined to forge a partnership with this leading housing investor.
Efforts to reach and cultivate a program officer continued over many months. During that time, Cozy Homes staff refined what would become its proposed program if given a chance. They were like sous chefs, prepping in advance of the big meal.
When staff finally secured a meeting, they didn’t pitch anything right away. They got to know their new contacts and patiently waited for the senior program officer to invite a proposal. When that request came, they were ready. It took only a few days to polish their existing plans. The program officer offered to read the draft and suggest revisions that would appeal to the board. Four months later, a $2 million, two-year grant arrived. It was, by far, their largest grant.
Only a few months into the grant period, Cozy Homes’ leaders began to discuss how they might renew the award. Their advance thinking paid off. At an industry meeting, the grants lead had coffee with the program officer. The latter initiated talk about the next funding round. By the time the initial grant period was at its midpoint, a larger and longer award was successfully winding its way through the foundation’s board.
How did this team do it? Their combination of preparation, teamwork, and tenacity top my list. In my work with them, our ongoing theme was this: to compete with the many other savvy teams on this funder’s radar, Cozy Homes would need parallel internal and external strategies. They executed beautifully, steadily connecting with the foundation while forging an organization-wide culture of planning.
A nonprofit that is less intentional than Cozy Homes can also explode onto the foundation scene with a recipe of luck and grit. That happened for Just Justice, a criminal justice advocacy organization. It existed on a modest budget buoyed by local family foundations, until its core issue burst onto the public’s radar.
Suddenly, national funders were eager to invest. Some wrote checks proactively, while others required complicated proposals with short turnaround times. The two-person development shop was unprepared for the volume and complexity of the opportunities.
Just Justice’s quick-thinking executive pulled together contractors who could create a temporary team. I worked on strategy and proposal review. Another consultant swooped in to analyze a heap of new data sets that became core to the case for support. A third updated other public-facing assets to reflect the nonprofit’s latest work.
All three had been unbudgeted. Like an Iron Chef, Just Justice’s executive met the moment by taking measured risks and performing under pressure. Those decisions enabled one development staffer to work on the foundation solicitations while the other focused on burgeoning support from individuals. Each nurtured loyal supporters and revenue streams that flowed long after the criminal justice reached its public awareness peak. The collective efforts funded a program manager and a new development colleague who took up where the contractors left off.
The CEO took risks when the moment seemed opportune and propelled the nonprofit toward sustained revenue that spared putting all of the pressure on the limited development staff. In the process, the team secured multiple major grants while exponentially growing gifts from individuals.
To return to our Iron Chef analogy, major grants are not a weeknight supper. They are a Saturday night dinner party for your boss, your role model, or your A-list dream date. If you’re aiming high enough, you might have all three at the same table. You want to be at your best.
Sure, you can go on securing incrementally larger awards. Or, you can drive your organization to create or respond to opportunities that allow you to think bigger in regard to scale, impact, or financial stability. You’re likely to feel mounting satisfaction as your work increasingly effects the course of your organization and those it serves. That is the power of major grants.