"Joe, I just don't understand it. Our proposal matches that foundation's giving interests. But we keep getting declined. What's the use of submitting another one?" You could feel Nancy's frustration over the phone. She was ready to give up.
We had connected with Nancy, an Executive Director of a smaller nonprofit, through our mission's outreach program serving peer organizations. She needed help learning the basics of fundraising, so our Development team set up a monthly phone visit to work with her.
It was evident Nancy had hit the proverbial fundraising wall. She emailed us a copy of the declined proposal. When we reviewed it we noticed some of her answers on the grant application were underdeveloped. And she had left several questions unanswered.
The next day I called Nancy. "It looks like you gave incomplete answers to questions 7, 9 and 13. Questions 3, 8 and 15 are totally blank. What's up?" Nancy explained that she didn't have some of the information being requested. So she opted to leave those questions partially answered or blank. I probed. "Why don't you have the information?" Usually when you ask "What's up" and "Why" enough times, you get to the real issue at hand.
Nancy had several issues.
First, she regarded the foundation's grant application as a suggested template to consider, not a requirement to fulfill. Knowing she was a fellow foodie and enjoyed cooking, I cut to the chase. "Nancy, writing a grant is like following a classic recipe. Exactly. Precisely. Meticulously. No improvisation allowed. You can't leave out a single ingredient. You have to answer every question. You don't have an option." That's pretty straight talk to someone who was more inclined to experiment in the kitchen.
Second, it was an incomplete grant application because she had yet to think through the implications and consequences of her request. In one section she defined the need the proposed project would meet. But when asked how her approach was unique when compared with other nonprofit ventures aimed at that same need, Nancy struggled to make the differentiation clear. So she skipped over that question. In addition, the foundation wanted to know how outcomes would be measured against the stated goals after the proposed project was implemented. Nancy had given little or no thought to developing these metrics. This was another question she left blank.
Third, her budget for the proposal was underdeveloped. It was vague. Not detailed enough. There were still project costs she needed to identify. And the foundation asked how she would sustain the project financially after it was initially funded. That question was also left blank on Nancy's proposal. These and other obvious omissions had to be addressed.
Nancy was listening.
She began to see the declined proposal and grant writing in a new light. She went back to work on a new version of her request, answering each and every question on the grant application. She kept sending us updated drafts to review. We kept offering feedback, giving our suggestions, and probing the rationale of her answers from different perspectives. This time she was following the recipe. Exactly as written. Precisely as stated. She was meticulous, not leaving out a single ingredient.
Finally the day arrived for Nancy to resubmit the request. Every question on the grant application was answered fully. Every line item in the budget was accounted for. Every angle of the project was addressed. She mailed it. Would following the recipe really make a difference?
A few months later I got a phone call from Nancy. "Joe, I can't believe it. We just got the response from the foundation. They've approved a $500,000 grant!" This was the same foundation that kept declining her previous requests. Obviously she was thrilled. You better believe we shared her joy!
Can we attribute this favorable response to the fact that every question was answered fully, every number was accounted for, and every angle was addressed in Nancy's proposal? Does following a grant recipe---ingredient by ingredient---ensure 100% success?
What we can say for sure is this. Even if your proposal is aligned perfectly with a foundation's giving interests, giving cycle, and giving capacity, an incomplete grant application has a high probability of being declined. Rejected. Deemed ineligible. Google "incomplete grant requests" and consider these sample statements from foundation websites:
Incomplete grant application forms may be considered ineligible;
Incomplete applications will not be accepted;
The submission of an incomplete grant proposal may cause delays in the Foundation's review and consideration of the request;
Due to a large number of requests that we receive, the Foundation will not review incomplete grant applications;
Incomplete grant request forms will be rejected;
Incomplete applications will be returned and will not be reviewed.
And while submitting a completed grant application is not a guarantee your project will be funded, it is still one of the fundamental first steps in the grant making process. Following the recipe definitely gets your proposal ready for consideration with a foundation. Or, as we foodies might say, gets it ready to be baked, broiled, braised, or gently basted. Hopefully, to perfection.