Why “It Depends” is the Answer to Many Grant Writing Questions

I think most people in the U.S. could name the TV show that has contestants clapping, high fiving each other and saying, "Good answer! Good answer!" Of course, that is  none other than Family Feud.

Unfortunately, when it comes to specific answers to burning questions from those new to grant seeking. I very often am forced to answer, "It depends." And, at least at first, most don't consider that to be a particularly "Good answer!"

Over the past three weeks I have been privileged to teach the Grant Writing Certificate Course at the Nonprofit Leadership Center in Tampa, Florida. It was a great experience that allowed me to meet great leaders from across the area who are working diligently to make a difference in their corner of the world. Being in a room with such devoted souls is "hands down" one of my most favorite things to do!banner_backgrounds_questions

From the very beginning of the class, as the Q&A sections began, I told the students to beware that my first answer will often be, "It depends." I lost count of how many times I said that, but by the end of our 16 hours together I know the class had a much greater understanding why. As we discussed all of the intricacies of the grant writing process, their eyes were opened to just how many different options and procedures are involved with each potential funder and grant proposal.

Over the years I have fielded many of the same questions over and over again when an organization and/or grant writer are new to the grant seeking process. I have listed below what I consider to be five of the most common questions in which the good answer is almost always, "It depends."

  1. Will the funder ask for an agency budget? It depends. Most funders ask for an agency budget. Almost all will at least ask for your total agency budget number, which is your overall projected income for the year - for example $3,000,000. However, many will ask for a Program Budget or Project Budget in place of, or in addition to, the Agency Budget. The Program Budget is for the program for which you are seeking assistance (preschool) and a Project Budget is just for this specific request within that program - say, to purchase playground equipment. It's possible the funder could ask for all three!
  2. Is it okay for me to add attachments like news articles and pictures? It depends. Some funders will ask for these attachments. Others will tell you not to attach anything additional because it will be thrown away. In my experience, most would prefer that you not attach additional documents. They have so many applicants and simply do not have the time to review so many documents.
  3. Should we try to call or email the funder before applying? It depends. As you research potential funders that are a good match for your organization, pay special attention to their instructions about contacting them. Some recommend that you call or email them prior to applying. Others will not give you clear direction, but make it almost impossible to find their contact information. Still others will give strict instructions not to contact them. The bottom line is to follow their instructions carefully so you don't start out on the wrong foot.
  4. How much money should we ask for? It depends. Once again, it is critical for you to diligently research a funder before applying. If you research through a database like the Foundation Center you will be able to look at the funder's application instructions and their 990 forms to discover their low, high and average grant amounts. For more developed funders, you can find this information on their website. I recently heard a funder say to be sure to ask for what you need. It is important not to ask for too little so you can't complete your project. Conversely, the funders are knowledgeable about nonprofit costs and they will likely know if you are asking for too much.
  5. Will the funder give to general operating costs and/or staff costs? It depends. See number three and four above about the nature or researching a funder before you apply. The Foundation Center, the funder's 990 and their website will tell you specifically whether or not they award grants for operating and/or staff costs. However, generally speaking, more funders are interested in funding direct project costs rather than general operating and/or staffing costs.

Question: I would love to answer some of your burning grant writing questions below. And I will do my best not to answer, "It depends."

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