Ask the Funder: What Constitutes A Strong Grant Proposal?
One of the hardest parts of a funder’s job is objectively evaluating grant proposals and deciding which organizations make the strongest case for funding. It is also the part of my job that elicits the most curiosity. There are many aspects I consider besides the obvious - is the proposal complete? Is it a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization or have a fiscal agent? Following is a list of questions I ask myself during the proposal review period.
1. Does the request fit the foundation’s guidelines and objectives? Guidelines are often written to state what the foundation is trying to accomplish with its grantmaking and what types of grants it will or will not consider. Additionally, guidelines serve as a way to help staff and directors hone in on specific strategies, grantmaking categories and to learn which approaches will most likely lead to desired outcomes. The more specific the guidelines, the more information applicants have to consider whether their program or organization will be competitive. Furthermore, guidelines reduce the number of unfunded proposals and wasted time for applicant organizations and foundation staff. Some foundations, however, prefer not to issue specific guidelines or no guidelines at all because their goals are to fund organizations across broad areas – often these foundations are more willing to offer general operating or general program support. In either case, it is imperative that an applicant carefully study the foundation's webpage (should one exist) before submitting a proposal or contacting foundation staff for information that is clearly outlined on-line.
2. Is this program/project likely to be successful? “Success” may mean different things to different funders as well. Success for one foundation could mean that funds were used to expand or replicate a program that has already been piloted and evaluated with good results. For another foundation, success might mean that grant funds helped to financially sustain an existing program or organization. For another, success might be to create agency-wide, permanent systems change that is long-term and measured by data and pre-determined metrics. And to yet another foundation, success might be characterized by the joy its directors feel from giving a financial gift to an organization they like. Besides considering what each of my foundation clients defines as “successful”, I also consider why each applicant organization thinks it will be able to fulfill its goals and ours, especially for pilot programs or high-risk programs. (High risk could be due to financial issues, staff turn-over, changing needs of clients, etc.)
3. Who was involved in the creation of the proposal? Often times, Development staff or grant writers submit proposals. They find grant opportunities and determine whether foundations are a good fit. Development staff often know a lot about the organizations for which they work, how they operate, who their programs serve and what impact programs make for participants. They know about program costs, staffing, chain of command and other operational systems. Additionally, most effective development staff are personally passionate about the organization and its mission. However, development staff are not involved in direct services on a daily basis as their priority is fundraising. Therefore, it is crucial to me to know that proposal creation involves 1) program, 2) financial and 3) executive leadership. All three pieces and the organization’s board of directors need to be intentionally connected and aware of the proposed project or program. Of course, there are also smaller sized organizations that do not require a division of labor and there may not always be separate development staff.
4. If the foundation is interested in supporting an ongoing program, has the applicant organization addressed realistic plans for sustainability? I believe there are two types of sustainability: 1) financial (how an organization/program be funded in the future) and 2) organizational (there are strategies and structures in place to guarantee that the program will continue regardless of factors such as staff turnover.) Has the organization thoroughly planned for different scenarios and challenges?
5. Does the budget make sense? The majority of all proposal budgets are estimated to some degree. However, does each line item seem realistic? Has the organization proposed that 40% of the budget go toward travel when the program takes place within one community? Has too much of the budget been designated for materials when funds are meant to support something else? Conversely, has the organization under-estimated costs or omitted any costs? Are we the only funder for the project or are there others as well? Again, each foundation is different and some are less concerned about how funds are utilized (especially for general operating support) if the applicant organization itself is deemed successful or likely to meet the foundation’s needs.
6. How much consideration and forethought went into the proposal? Sometimes we receive proposals that do not address the questions we have asked or do not include enough information to truly understand the program. While a program might seem great in theory, is the organization truly prepared and ready to implement a project? Have the objectives, which staff will be involved with the program, when the program will occur and/or how long will it take, and what the organization expects for the future of the program been discussed and established? I believe that it is understandable and sometimes even preferable to include some degree of planning time within the grant period; however, a proposal for a project or program should not be presented to a funder for immediate consideration until the idea behind it has not been thoroughly discussed, vetted, planned and agreed upon by the appropriate staff and the board of directors. Funders are also adept at knowing if a program has been highly altered or even created just to fit within a foundation's guidelines. It is always appreciated when a potential applicant determines that it is in fact not a good fit.
7. Is the program truly accomplishing what the application says it does? Proposals and marketing materials often paint a very rosy picture of how much impact the organization has. As a grant reviewer, I have to look at the agency’s claims and assess if the “huge success rate” or “one of the strongest organizations doing the most good” is accurate. Even external evaluation reports tend to elicit very positive findings. What looks good on paper is not always what happens in reality. The best way to ascertain whether a program lives up to its description is to meet with program staff and ideally, conduct a site visit to see the program “in action” and meet the people benefiting from it. Are they truly as excited and engaged as the application avers? Is this “very popular program” actually attracting people or are they struggling to find participants?
8. Are there any red flags? There are a few red flags that may mean that an organization is either in trouble or not well-managed. Examples of these warning signs include: poor communication, incorrect or severely outdated information in the submitted proposal materials, vague budgets with no clarification, organizations that have previously neglected to send reports or updates, a consistent operating deficit (over multiple years) due to poor budgeting or a cumulative deficit with unsubstantial payment plans. Another red flag is if there is high staff attrition, executive leadership is constantly changing or if multiple directors leave within a short period of time. None of the previous examples mean that there is not a feasible explanation; however, I would expect to be able to find satisfactory answers to my questions with some follow-up.
Of course, there are many more considerations: geography, population served, available funds, program emphasis, diversifying across different grant categories, organizational budget size, organization's philosophy, director or trustee preference, just to name a few. A good proposal evaluator will be understanding, flexible, inquisitive and exhibit just about the right combination of optimism and pessimism. He or she should understand that a deeper dive may be necessary to truly understand the impact of the proposed project or organization.