3 Ways Forward When You’re Not Grant Ready

If you search online for information about “grant readiness,” more likely than not, you’ll come across information about becoming prepared to write a grant. You’ll likely stumble upon a list of documents that you need to gather to be prepared to make sure that you are ready to write and submit a grant (a list like the one I posted here)). These lists are helpful. But they are lists about grant writing preparedness and not about grant readiness.

Grant readiness is about your organization or about your organization’s programs. It’s about whether or not your organization is an organization that is going to be considered a good investment in a funder’s eye. Grant funders do not want to rescue failures or organizations on the brink of failure. Instead, what they want is to invest in organizations that are a wise investment, organizations that have the capacity to succeed and to bring returns—not, of course, to them, but to the community, to the people or cause that they serve.

Whether or not an organization is grant ready include:

  • Does your organization have capable, respected, appropriate leadership at the highest levels (board and CEO)?
  • Has the leadership of the organization been stable for a few years?
  • Is the organization well-established? Many funders will not fund a start-up. Most are looking for an organization with a long history of delivering results.
  • Is the organization financially stable? Growing? In decline?
  • Is there clarity of mission and vision?
  • Is there a history of community support? What is the organization’s reputation for integrity in its community? (Few funders want to be the only supporter of an organization or an organization’s programs. They look for community support as an indicator of a vote of confidence.)
  • Does the organization have a track record of program success?
  • Does the organization have the ability to demonstrate success (measurements, evaluation of past success)?
  • Is there evidence of thoughtful planning (strategic planning, development planning, capital campaign planning, succession planning, etc.)?
  • Is there appropriate, qualified staff?
  • Is there evidence of a respect for diversity?
  • Is there evidence of a healthy volunteer program?
  • What is the size of the organization’s reach or impact?

This list is not exhaustive. Some funders may have other criteria, but the above list are issues that in round-tables and panels, I have heard funders discuss as issues that are of concern to them when they evaluate and choose organizations with which to partner. 

This does not mean that organizations have to be perfect in every way to apply for a grant, but it does mean that if an organization is not strong in one or more of these categories, the organization might need to reflect on the fact that this could cause it to have some challenges in being funded through a grant-seeking process. 

A funder is looking for evidence that a nonprofit organization, applying for funds, will be able to deliver the program it is promising to do. Most funders look at the list above as an indication that the nonprofit organization will be able to deliver the results it is promising. Funders look for you to have “yes” answers to the questions above.  If you can’t say “yes” to many of these questions, you might want to consider one of the strategies below to address some weaknesses:

  1. Apply anyway. No one is stopping you. You can apply anyway. However, with grant funding success rates being about 5-10% across the nation, this probably isn’t your best bet.  If you do apply, despite the recognition of some weaknesses, recognize you may have a bit of an up-hill battle getting funded and that your argument will have to be particularly strong so make sure your argument in your application is air-tight.
  2. Address the weaknesses in your application. Consider, instead of applying for the grant you were planning to apply for, applying for a capacity building grant to address some of the issues that are glaring weaknesses in your application. Can’t demonstrate success of your program, for example? Apply for a capacity building grant to bring in some expertise to develop some outcomes measures and being to assess your program, gather data, and analyze data.  Now you can prove what you already know:  you’re miracle workers! Even if you’re not able to receive a capacity-building grant, your organization will need to have a plan to address your weaknesses. Being able to demonstrate that you are addressing your weaknesses means, of course, that you acknowledge that you have some weaknesses so be honest with funders.   
  3. Partner! If, for example, your organization’s history is short in years, or you don’t have a CEO or a strong financial record, collaborate with a really strong, stable partner.  Maybe you have a brilliant program model, a small army of passionate volunteers, but you don’t have the infrastructure.  Who is the community has the long, well-established, well-respected infrastructure, but not your energy and cutting-edge, innovative program?  Find someone who has the strength you lack. Get your CEO’s and Board Chairs together and start talking. Hammer-out some formal agreements through Memorandum of Understanding and go from there.  Apply together. Let the established organization be the formal applicant and your organization be the co-applicant.

Grant readiness is not just about being ready to apply, it’s about whether or not a funder is going to perceive your organization as ready to execute the project and to achieve the goals of the project. Ultimately, your goal as a nonprofit writing a grant is to convince the funder that you can deliver the promised results. If you can’t say “yes” to the questions on the grant readiness list above, you’ll probably have a hard time convincing the funder that you can succeed in achieving the objectives.  You can apply anyway, but be prepared to make a strong argument, marshalling all your best evidence. You can also address (or make a plan to address) your weaknesses (with or without a capacity-building grant) before applying. You can also team-up with someone else to collaborate. 

Three ways to move forward. Good luck!


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