Today’s article is part of our series on grant writing, one area in which Tiny Frog Strategies works with organizations to get from where they are to where they want to be.
Just last week I had a past client call me out of the blue.
“Julia,” she said, “We need your help – I found this great grant, we’re a really good fit for what they want to fund, and we have a relationship with the funder – they already know about us and the work we do. The only problem is that it’s due in a week.”
“That’s tight,” I said, “But great, we’ve worked together before, so I know we can make it work.”
I spent some time gathering up the details of the application and assessing what they would need for a successful application. As I worked, I got more and more worried. There was a lot to be done, but they could still make it work. It did seem like a great opportunity, but…
BUT. There it was. I hate raining on other people’s parades. However, asking hard questions about a grant application is part of what I do.
“Anna,” I said, the next time we spoke, “I agree with you that this is a great opportunity. But here’s what I now know about this application, the selection process and past winners. I’m not sure that applying for the grant is the best thing to do, although I will if you’ve got answers for me.”
It was a no go. They decided not to pursue the grant, and I went back to the non-urgent work I had planned for the week.
So, what happened? How did Anna decide this wasn’t worth pursuing after all?
Not every grant opportunity is worth acting on.
In my work with clients, here are three common times when turning down money is the right thing to do. There are definitely other reasons not to pursue a grant, but these are the ones I see most often.
- You don’t know what you’d spend the money on.
This was Anna’s biggest problem. Yes, the core work of the organization fit the funder’s profile, but almost all grants go to specific projects, not general operating funds.
(“It’s not fair,” Anna said when we talked about this on the phone. I agreed, but a grant application isn’t the forum where you can explain why a funder should fund general operating expenses.)
A successful grant application identifies a problem to solve and the activities you need to pay for that will solve the problem (or at least to research possible solutions). The problem: “we need more money for our core activities” isn’t usually enough for a funder.
- The cost of applying for the grant is more than the grant is worth. (Or more than you have available to spend right now.)
This was the second part of Anna’s problem – sure, she had enough funds to hire Tiny Frog Strategies to help, but, in part because of the short timeline, the input she’d need from staff and volunteers meant that they’d have to do nothing else other than come up with a viable project that week. They couldn’t drop everything else just to do that – it would cost too much.
Another real factor here is to weight how much the grant is for versus the cost to complete it – the amount of work to complete an application for $20,000 is annoyingly close to many applications for $200,000. So sometimes it is worth it to drop everything. Each situation requires consideration of the costs versus gains.
- The relationship with the funder (or other key stakeholders) could be damaged by a poor application.
Now, let me be clear here. I’m not saying that an application that doesn’t get funded is a poor application. If you’ve spent time on your application, thought through the project and the risks, and made every attempt to complete all the sections with integrity and thoroughness, then I don’t think submitting that application and being refused for funding would harm your relationship. In fact, I’ve been involved in several applications where the funder has come back and said, “Great application, sorry we couldn’t fund you this time, please try again next year.”
What I am talking about is if you rush to submit an application and it’s definitely not your best work. You’re loose on details and you know it. Your friendly grant writer (like me) will keep asking annoying questions such as: “What activities can we list in the budget as fundable?” and you won’t have good answers. (Or any answers.) I try hard, but even I can’t magic an application out of the air…
In this case, Anna knew it was an annual grant. This funding opportunity was going to come around again. And it was more important for the funders to keep their opinion of her organization as competent and a leader in their field. So, when she realized that she couldn’t put together an application that would reflect those qualities, it wasn’t worth doing.
I hope this article doesn’t sound like I’m trying to dissuade you from applying for grants, like I think it’s too much work, so don’t even bother.
On the contrary, I want you to apply for bigger and better grants than you ‘ve ever applied for before, AND I want you to be successful in convincing the funder that your project is worth funding.
Go forth and get funded! 😊