Don’t Start Your Nonprofit Grant Writing Until You Read This

Before you start your nonprofit grant writing and filling out grant applications, stop.

There’s an important question you need to ask yourself before applying for grants:

Should we be applying for grants in the first place?

The answer: Yes!—but always with some qualifications.

Let’s be clear: there are tons of opportunities for grants to be part of your fundraising plan. But too many people run to grants first thing as one of their biggest funding sources, and end up hurting later on. We want to keep you from that fate.

3 Reasons Grant Writing is Perfect for Your Nonprofit

Grant writing can seem almost mystical. If you aren’t familiar with the field, you probably have one of two perspectives.

Which of these do you believe?

  • Grant writing is a mysterious, capricious art. You might as well consider playing slot machines as a viable nonprofit funding source, or devote all your marketing efforts to getting on the front page of the New York Times.
  • Foundations are the benevolent Santa Clauses of revenue—just waiting for you to ask. Simply write the correct combination of words to instantly fix your funding problems and delight in the richness of unrestricted funding.

While the reality is more complicated than both of these positions, here are three reasons why a nonprofit SHOULD pursue grant writing for their organization:

  1. There’s a lot of money out there: Over $50 billion dollars are awarded every year through foundations and corporate grants. If you aren’t applying for a piece of the pie, that’s money left on the table—or being given to other organizations. 
  2. Grants exist for any kind of nonprofit: Even new nonprofits can get grant money. Many foundations fund exclusively local nonprofits. It’s simply a matter of whether you’re willing to research and connect with the right funders. 
  3. You can fund any kind of need: While project-specific funding is most common, it isn’t the rule. There are grants that exist to provide funding for capital campaigns, operational costs, endowment funding and even unrestricted funding.

But before you dive into foundation research and looking up grant writing tips, know there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

And for many of us, jumping into grant writing too early, or as your sole focus, can be a costly mistake.

3 Reasons Grant Writing for Nonprofits Could Be a Huge Mistake

If you think that grant writing is a quick, simple solution to your nonprofit’s funding woes, you’re in for a surprise.

  1. Applying for grants is hard work: If you want a reasonable chance of getting your grant application accepted, you won’t be able to write one generic application and send off duplicates to foundations. You’ll need to do some intense research to tailor your application. And even when you do the work to stack the deck in your favor, there’s no guarantee you’ll be funded!
  2. Grants can’t be your bread and butter: Grant-based funding isn’t sustainable alone—it has to be part of a diversified fundraising plan. Most recommend around 20% of your funding be grant-based; any more than that, and you risk sinking your organization if a key grant falls through.
  3. There are strings attached: While unrestricted funding exists in the funding world, it’s much rarer to win than grants with more specific goals. Typically, the grant will be allocated to fund a new program, which encourages frequent grant applicants to create new programs instead of supporting past successes.

The Cheat Sheet: Don’t Start Grant Writing Until You Complete These 5 Steps!

In other words, applying for funding from foundations, corporations or the government can be an awesome way to supplement your current fundraising plan.

But by itself, grant writing won’t solve huge problems in your fundraising plan.

Here’s your cheat sheet when deciding whether to rally your resources to apply for grant monies:

  1. Create a diversified fundraising plan, where grant-awarded money constitutes no more than 20% of your fundraising goals. This is true for any part of your fundraising plan—for example, you should be nervous if a single major donor represented much more than 20% of your revenue. √
  2. Make sure you have the resources and time to research foundations and grant writing opportunities for your organization. Commit to this in advance. √
  3. Find a qualified writer who has experience writing grants, or invest in grant writing training for an existing staff member. Otherwise, minor errors might leave you without a grant and wasting precious time. √
  4. Commit yourself to applying to a grant only if:
    • You match all the foundation’s qualifications √
    • You’re willing to research and write tailored applications for each foundation √
    • You apply only for the kinds of funding you already identified you are pursuing in your fundraising plan. (e.g., Don’t decide to apply for capital funds if you really need unrestricted funding!) √
  5. Understand most first-time grant applications are rejected. It’s rare to be accepted for a grant without an existing relationship with the foundation, and like all fundraising, no might mean “no for now.” Grant writing is for those willing to play the long game. √

Applying for funding is well worth it for those who are willing to put in the hours and understand that grant money is just one piece of the puzzle. Just don’t except grants to solve all your problems, or you’ll get burned.

  • Thank you for this article. It’s full of great advice!

  • Oz

    May I add one more point? Data!

    A lot of nonprofits don’t have their data together, and that makes for a very painful process of writing a grant application. Even if they have an experienced grant-writer, messy data that’s sprinkled throughout the organization had prevented some grant-writing from ever getting started.

    • That’s a great point! Thanks for sharing. Organized and easy-to-understand data is key.

    • Simone Sander

      You are absolutely right. Data is what wins grants or proposals. Some clients don’t understand that we are not psychics and we can only evaluate what they give us and use it to win. If they have not tracked, managed, and updated their data….. well, they can just forget it! I had one company that just wanted to hook me into their share drive and told me to look over thousands of files. They were paying me by the hour, so that was ok, but what a headache!!!!! How unpleasant it was trying to make that puzzle! When people interview me and ask me about my English and Journalism skills, I run. I don’t leave without telling them that my job is more so data management and analysis. If they don’t understand that – I don’t want to work for them, not even by the hour!!!

      • Oz

        Years ago I attended a bootcamp for nonprofit directors. One afternoon was spent with a panel of people from foundations. They made it clear that they operate from data.

        A warm story will get someone to give you $20 out of their pocket. But a foundation with $15,000 grants can’t operate from warm stories. Actually, there was this very cold, aloof guy from a foundation who bluntly said, “Don’t send me pictures that were drawn by kids in your program. They don’t influence my decision.”

        It sounded heartless but it drove home the point that he wants data.

        Simone, you mentioned something that I hadn’t heard before. You’re sometimes interviewed for just English and writing skill, and not data? It’s also interesting that you view data as central to what you do. I don’t hear that often.

  • Google grants is an online advertising grant valued at $120,000 and is available to most eligible non-profits. Google grants can be complex, time consuming, and confusing to administrate, especially if a non-profit does not have an in house online advertising specialist. Updentity can make it easy for non-profits utilize the grant to its full potential so they can reach, connect, and engage with more people. We offer a low cost administrative solution for the Google Ad Grant for Non-profits. Contact us at 888-297-4694 or welcome@updentity.com or visit, http://www.updentity.com.

  • Adriana

    I’m actually looking for a way to create a grant writing program at our nonprofit or at least a guide book of sorts–not sure where to start!!

    • Marvin

      Who can I talk to for help

  • TGood

    How do you find out about Grant writing courses?

  • A lot of non profits need advice like this. Many can’t afford to hire a full time grant writer so they turn to their volunteers and employees to write their grants, most of them aren’t trained in how to write grants or even hour to find the right ones. Stephtanner.com is another great resource for nonprofits who need help with grants.

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  • Hello I am in the process of filing for my 501c3 and I am researching everything under the sun that has to do with running a non profit community outreach center. Is there any advice anyone can give me on where to start getting or when to start applying for start up funding and how does a new non profit organization afford to hire a grant writer if there’s no funding yet?

    • Rose, the best bet would be to find a similar organization and ask to see the documents that they submitted for their IRS 501(c)3. You can’t copy them exactly, but can use them as fodder. You can also look up similar websites, and if you have your own, be sure to take screenshots of it for your application as well.
      Hope this helps!

  • Tramella

    All i can say is thank you!

  • No single grant should be more than 20% of your income stream, but your total grant income can certainly be more than that. The problem is when organizations rely on any one source, but healthy grant engagement can mean a much larger portion of your budget is from grants…just many of them!

  • Does anyone know about writing grant proposals to open a women’s shelter in NYC? We already have obtained the 501(C)3.
    Now we need to find a building which will accommodate 40 women and their children. PLEASE HELP

    • Look who is already funding similar shelters. Talk to leaders of non-profits in your geography. See what you can learn. Join a collaborative, get a coach. And you might want to start a crowdfunding campaign stat.

  • Angela

    My husband and I have created a Veteran’s support group and also have a sister group for spouses of Veterans. It’s something we are involved with daily and we both have “servant’s hearts”. I just signed up for classes to get an Associates Degree in Human Services. I am basically the only “civi” admin and they also reference me as the “social worker” for the group. My question is, how do we come up with the money to get 501(c)3? Also, I have been doing a lot of research on grants for SSVF and I really want to tap into that resource to help these Veterans and their families out, but we are what my friends call “the broken philanthropist”. There are several different programs that I want to be able to offer, but I also know that I need to have a strong base for meeting eligibility. Can you write for a grant to become 501(c)3? Or should I just ask each of our group members to donate $5.00 each? I appreciate this article as it has been the most helpful by far! Any comments or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

    • I would start by asking your own members to donate for your 501(C)3 status. Most grantors will not fund startup costs or organizations that don’t have their tax exempt status. Generally you won’t start looking for grants until you have 3-4 years of tax exemption.

      • Rell

        So what are other ways to begin looking for funding? I have an organization that I have had since 2009 as a non-profit in Florida. However, I just received my tax-exempt status November 2016. I have created partnerships in my community, and I pay for most things out of my own money. Would I maybe still be able to apply for smaller grants?

        • Small Foundation grants are the best place to begin with grants. Hop on over to my website where I have resources including grant writing courses and places to look for grants: http://stephtanner.com

      • Ronald Cloudwalker Collins

        Crowdfunding “Gofundme.com” is a very good resource that you can utilize for many causes, needs, and can be linked to your social media accounts also.

  • Nicole C

    I have a question, I recently came up with an idea for an awesome nonprofit organization but don’t know what to do with it, I mean should I take the steps to start it myself and start the grant writing process, or should I just pass my idea along, I’m not interested in getting rich or making this a business even though I’m practically homeless but my idea is for the disabled kids of this country and they need it more than me, any ideas.

    • Hello, I have some articles about starting a nonprofit on my website stephtanner.com that you could check out. One thing I would say is to look up similar organizations in your area. There are millions of nonprofit organizations and it is likely that one of them is serving in your area with special needs kids. If you find one that has a similar mission then you could propose the idea to them to collaborate. If you don’t find an organization doing what you are looking for then it might be a good idea to look into starting a nonprofit or pushing your idea on to someone else.

  • I recently started a program called Produce for Veterans in Peterborough ontario. I’m looking into becoming a registered non profit organization. Any advice would be great. Also do I need to be registered npo to apply for grants?

  • Sharon Larson

    I would like to open a workshop that prepares young teens and young adults on the autism spectrum for careers in digital animation. Any advice would be great.

  • Chanda Guerin

    Is there a best practice or “rule of thumb” in terms of how much grant funding an organization should apply for based on their grant income goal for the fiscal year? Ex. My Foundation income goal is $435,000 this year. Is there a recommended about of funding I should apply for to guarantee I reach/exceed that goal? 20% over my goal? 40%? More?

    • Grant writing should definitely only be a portion of your entire budget, but I have seen different percentages for different organizations. What kind of organization do you work with? If you’d like to contact me through http://stephtanner.com I’d love to help you out.

  • Tracey Moore

    I am new to this and I really don’t know where to start, My husband wants to have a karate school, we will probably start out in the back yard, but I just want someone to point me in the right direction as to how to get started. should I take a training class?

  • Beth Wolf

    The non profit I wish to start does not exist within my church denomination or for ministers and their families who are licensed within our organization. This is a brand new idea and there are no such non profits or groups like these in which I can draw from or use as a resource.

    I want to start a non profit for ministers wives and children who are dealing with crisis in their families or ministries and to also be a resource for those who’s minister husbands abandon and leave there. This happened to myself and my 2 children 2 year ago. Had it not been for my parents financial assistance we would have been homeless. I have since completed my last year of my bachelors degree and have started my masters degree in clinical mental health counseling specializing in crisis and trauma. I feel called and such a passion to help these women and children who will go through one of the most difficult times of their lives. Any advice is greatly appreciated.

    • Mara Clemente

      Why does it have to be confined to a ministry?

  • Enoch

    My non profit is in Africa can I get grants from the US.

  • I’m a certified grant writer, but still learning my craft. Good stuff here.

  • Phillip Thomas

    I am starting a relief organization that replaces bicycles for victims of bike theft for free. I am hoping to build an alliance between private citizens, law enforcement and businesses.. the victim qualifies simply by filing a police report of the theft, presents it to us and receives a new bike free. Are their organizations that can assist us financially? we already have a large inventory and a commercially zoned location but we are a start up and is there no organization that will be willing to take a chance on us, that are sacrificing every thing to see this worth while project come to life

  • Phillip Thomas

    what type of data are we talking about that be included in the application for a dran t

  • J Hua

    If you still need help learning how to grant write I found http://stephtanner.com/ which has a whole course on how to write a grant. It’s well done in my opinion.

  • Wonderful list

  • Stravenski Sylvain

    I am looking to start a nonprofit organization. We just got approved for our certificate of incorporation yesterday and are working on the next steps to begin our nonprofit. We are looking to help individuals with substance abuse disorders stay clean by connecting them to the right providers and services, as well as helping them finds jobs and housing while they are working on staying clean. I guess my question is how long does each next step take?

    • Greg

      it depends. There’s a few factors. Are you using a lawyer? Are you filing the EZ non-profit form (under 50K) or the long form?

    • GetItRight2016

      Use th EZ 1023 online application process, takes 2 weeks. But before that you need to adopt Bylaws, a conflict of interest policy, name your officers from your Directors. Create a plan of action of everything you need to do.

    • worldrunner

      How knowledgeable are you about assessing each client? To obtain funds from your State, and be an approved provider, you will likely need at least a CADC person who can give approved assessment, such as the GAIN and ASAM Patient placement criteria. (One size does not fit all! To help clients best, not only do you need to know their level of chemical dependency and risk for relapse, but you need info regarding whether or not they have co-occurring disorders, housing, vocational or other needs to stabilize them.) When you are up to passing requirements that’s your State uses to distribute funds, you will also be more likely to obtain funds for your nonprofit. SAMHSA is the Prime governmental organization that distributes federal funds to the states. (I am a prior CADC).

    • Sandy Dickson (Grants by Sandy

      Grants by Sandy is currently offering “Starting Your Own Nonprofit” for $450 through the month of June. This service includes: applying for your E.I.N., composing of your Articles of Incorporation, filing of your Statement of Information, filing of your Corporation Tax Exemption Forms, completion of your IRS forms and submission to the IRS. And anything else that your State of Residency requires to become your own Nonprofit. (State & Federal fees are extra)

  • Christopher Kim

    I just got my 501c3 and need funding. it’s to raise money for children and elderly, sick and injured, emergency and disasters. Where can I find grant writers and how much do I pay them?

  • Ronald Cloudwalker Collins

    Hi Everyone! Please remember there are also various methods of “crowdfunding available online” that link to social media. “Gofundme.com” is just one of many crowdfunding platforms that you can choose from to raise money for a multitude of needs.

  • Sandrine Elkaim Linglet

    Hello I am looking for a grant writer, our non-profit needs one asap.
    Anyone ?
    Thank you very much

    • Darlene Brice

      I have an awesome grant writer with very reasonable fees. If you’d like to private message me with your contact info I can forward it to her

      • Morgan Chapin

        Hi! Can I send you a private message for the grant writers info as well? I work for a horse rescue as a full time volunteer and really need some help with the grant writing!

      • Alexis Stone

        I need this grant writer information as well
        Alex 704-430-4513

      • I would like to go tact your grant writer as well. I’m not sure how to send you a private message.

      • Vashonda Allen

        hello can you provide me with the info as well at vallen1987@gmail.com.
        thank you

      • E B

        Hi- please email me as well: info@texasdpsfoundation.org
        Thanks!

      • An S.

        Hi, I wanted to know if you could share my info with your grant writer: mstyx89@aol.com

      • Gfa

        Hello…can you forward my info to your grant writer please, I have a non profit organization. Jshewaun75@gmail.com

      • Jennifer Parker

        Interested in your contact. Also a nonprofit. Jennifer Parker at cfChildCare@aol.com.

      • Tee Monroe

        May you please send me your grant writers contact information also?

      • Tee Monroe

        May you please email me your grant writers contact information as well? Thank you! teenagunnoe@gmail.com

    • Sandy Dickson (Grants by Sandy

      My name is Sandy Dickson and I’m the Funding Coordinator at Grants by Sandy. Feel free to visit my website: http://www.grantsbysandy.net and look around.

  • Alexis Stone

    I just received my 501C3 and need direction on reasonable Grant writers and resources for food, clothing and community help articles.

    • M. Watts

      We prepare Grant Proposals”
      Email: firstsolutionsllc7@outlook.com

    • Sandy Dickson (Grants by Sandy

      My name is Sandy Dickson and I’m the Funding Coordinator at Grants by Sandy. Feel free to visit my website: http://www.grantsbysandy.net and look around. If you are interested in speaking with us, simply click on the tab on our website’s homepage “Book Our Services Now” and you can pick the time & date that works best for you. Or you can fill out the online New Client Questionnaire and hit submit…we will contact you within 2-4 hours (during business hours). Thanks!

  • M. Watts

    “We prepare Grant Proposals”
    Email: firstsolutionsllc7@outlook.com
    Seriously inquiries only

  • Ishmael

    Hello friends, I’m Ishmael and have worked as a grant-proposal writer for years. Kindly, you can mail me at Ishmaelissi@gmail.com for discussions if you might need a service.

    Regards