Grant writers beware: The pitfalls of forcing a grant to fit

Amy Stephan

Grants and foundation funding can’t be overlooked for many nonprofit organizations (NPOs). It’s one of the cornerstones of funding for programs, but it can also be a pitfall if not applied for carefully.Grant writers for NPOs can get caught in the mindset that the most important thing is to secure a grant and get money in the door. While we all know that it takes money to run programs, the reality is that if it’s not the right grant, it could actually end up costing you more. Trying to force a grant to fit your organization’s priorities can cost you money, compromise your mission and add external overseers to your NPO.

If the shoe doesn’t fit…

Grant writers beware: creating programs to fit a foundation’s requirements will not make you successful (and will cost you money).

Foundations typically have particular areas of programs they will fund. And in those areas can be even more specific criteria for programs that will be awarded grant money. Unless your NPO is already implementing a program that fits these criteria or has budgeted to start a program that fits these criteria, don’t apply for the grant.

Creating new programs based on a grant award is not a plan for success. Grants very rarely cover the entire cost of program implementation. Once you’ve agreed to take the money and start the new program your organization will be on the hook for all the excess costs of the program. In addition, grant awards come with specific timeframes – one year, two years, maybe three years. What happens when the grant money is no longer available? Very few programs generate enough money to sustain it. Does your organization have staff time and money set aside to keep the program afloat?

Grant writers should be seeking out grants based on their organizational priorities. What programs are the most important to the people you serve and how can grants help grow that program? If a new program is part of the budget, then certainly seek out grant funding for it. Just don’t force the proverbial shoe to fit.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it…

Your organization’s mission is its guiding light. It dictates what you do and how you do it. When grant writers accept funding that requires you to step outside of current objectives or even outside of the mission itself, you take the risk of compromising that mission.

We all want to bring money in the door. But not all grants are the right grants for our organizations. Not only does the grant itself have to be a good fit, but the foundation or granting organization needs to fit, too. Make sure that the source of the money fits well with your organization’s mission. You don’t want the values and principles of the funder to conflict with what your organization stands for and is trying to accomplish.

Big brother is watching…

With money comes great responsibility. And funders will be happy to remind you of that often. When you accept money from foundations and grants, there are usually strings attached. You’ve promised to do things and they want to make sure you are doing them. While most of the time this is just part of accepting a grant, there are times when it can become more than an organization is prepared to handle.

Depending on the size of the grant and the intricacies involved with it, accepting funding can actually be an agreement to add an outside overseer to your NPO. The foundation that gave you the money can ultimately have control over whether the program you agreed to fund is up to snuff and what changes they may want to see before they actually give you the money or next installment.

Enter into all grant agreements with great caution and make sure you understand exactly what is expected and whether or not you can deliver those expectations. Grants are a great thing when they fit what your NPO needs and is already planning to do. Seek out grants that fit your needs and never try to make your programs fit theirs. Make grants an advantage, not a pitfall.

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About Amy Stephan

Amy has more than 15 years of experience in the nonprofit field, where she has learned a little about a lot of things and worked hard to become really good at a handful of them. Amy works as a consultant and non-profit professional, as well as writer and blogger. She has worked as a full-time journalist and editor and is the mother of two beautiful children.

2 responses to “Grant writers beware: The pitfalls of forcing a grant to fit”

  1. Frustrated says :

    What advice do you have for grant writers at organizations where they are being told by upper management to apply for grants we know won’t work? Example – we’re being told to write several general operatng support propoals without first identifying the prospects. These proposals involve the creation of new programming (even though we’re just intend to ask for general operating dollars) where the program staff have not been involved from the get go.

    • Amy Stephan says :

      That’s not an uncommon problem for larger organizations. My first question would be why the proposals involve creation of new programming if you are applying for grants that fund general operations? Second, I would ask if the creation of those programs are going to happen with or without the grant funding. If management only intends to start the programs in order to get a grant, I would have your program staff sit down and outline the costs and staff time related to that program. Then outline what potential funding the grant provides. More than likely, you will show that the grant won’t cover all of the costs. In addition, I would pose the question of sustainability and how that program will continue without the grant funding in the future. If the answer is that the program would be discontinued, I would argue strongly that offering a program and then discontinuing services will do more harm for your reputation with donors than a single grant award is worth.

      Organizations that are heavily pushing to apply for grants that don’t fit typically have a weak (if any) strategic plan for fundraising and are grapsing at any available funding. That may be an alternative place to start. I’d be happy to talk more with you about that, if you are interested. Please feel free to email me at any time!


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