Confessions of a Development Director: I Don't Know Where to Begin with Grant Writing

advice confessions of a development director fundraising grants Jan 17, 2022

Confessions of a Development Director: I Don't Know Where to Begin with Grant Writing


In this series, entitled "Confessions of a Development Director," I share with you emails between real-life development directors and me about the struggles they don't want their boss to know they have. My email inbox is a safe place where fundraising professionals can ask the questions they need to without shame or judgment AND get the answers. If you would like to make a confession and/or ask a question – email [email protected]. Identities are, as always, confidential.


The Confession: 

I was just hired as a development director, and I am tasked with increasing our fundraising by nearly 50% this year. I have no fundraising experience, and I feel ill-equipped and scared. I am really trying to help myself, so I did some research, and it looks like grant funding provides me with the greatest likelihood of short-term success while I follow your plan to build the donor base and audience. I don't have a question, and I just needed to make a confession so I could feel like I am not so alone.  

- Lisa (Mobile, AL)


Kevin's Response:


You are not alone! Our little community is here with you, and I am happy to be a guidepost. Grants are misunderstood even by many fundraising professionals, so let me try to give you a no-frills download.  

A grant is basically funding received from the government, a corporation, or a foundation (private, community, public, operating, etc.). A friend of mine, Jonathan Hicks, brilliantly called grants "the Shark Tank of Fundraising" – meaning these funds or gifts are given after a thoroughly vetted presentation for a specific project to achieve defined outcomes. Project-specific and outcomes-focused fundraising is very different from any other fundraising, and it takes a certain amount of mindset shifting. As you can see, grants typically assume that a project is established and that the outcomes can be predicted, making grants a less than ideal choice for new nonprofits and early-stage projects unless (just like Shark Tank) the founder has a history to draw from or an idea so innovative it can stand on its own.  

I do not know what your organization does or how successful the programs are, but if you have been around for 3+ years and have quantitative and qualitative results for the work you do, you are moving in the right direction.  

The outcomes that will be achieved are what you want to focus on when searching for grants because those outcomes should align with the funder's goals and areas of support. When you search for grants, the goals and objectives of the foundation will be very clear, and you should be able to also research other programs that they have funded to get a more detailed picture of their philanthropic priorities. The decision-makers at foundations are usually tasked with making sure the funding they give is spent wisely and achieved the intended outcomes. Thus, the reason for reports following grant funding and often at multiple stages.

While some funders will give money for capital campaigns, operating funds, salaries, etc. I want to stress to you emphatically that those are the exception rather than the rule. I cannot stress enough how important it is for your grants program success to have your regular minimum operating revenue covered by other types of fundraising or revenue generation. Here is the mindset that will make your grant applications and your search for grants more successful: make a strategic plan for the next five years or so, and then think of the ways that your plan could be accelerated. THOSE areas of acceleration are where you want to apply for grants. Think of the grant as rocket fuel, not as seed money. The grant should take your already existing program to the next level.  

Grant applications are petitions for funds, so you do not have to have a program fully funded, but if you have it at least 50% funded and you are seeking the funds to complete the program, you are significantly more likely to stand out amidst the other applications.  

I will put together more in-depth grant-writing advice, and I will deliver that next week! Stay tuned.