Are you a good match for that funder?

Fundraising for a small and growing nonprofit can be an emotional roller-coaster of hopes and disappointments. At times you may be aware of an exciting opportunity to submit a proposal, and your judgment can be eclipsed by the short timeframe to the deadline or the heady potential of thinking, “This is THE grant that will really boost us forward!”

Although it’s tempting to go after as many funds as possible, take time to think. Writing a detailed proposal may be a wasted endeavor if you’re not actually a good match. BoardSource (, in their wonderful series, Nonprofit Board Answer Book: Beyond the Basics, offer some great tips to save your valuable time and a funder’s impression of your organization.

This front-end research isn’t always easy, especially of the grantmaker has a broad mission. Don’t rely solely on the language in an RFP; you’ll need to research the types of grants awarded in the past to detect any patterns, and identify what elements of your organization’s programs or services may resonate with the funder. Grantmakers often post their funding guidelines online, and you can also review their annual reports for valuable clues.

Before you start writing, here are some suggestions from BoardSource, with our observations as well.

1. Are your needs too small or too large? If you’re seeking $15,000 in support, you may want to hold off on approaching funders that typically write checks for $150,000; they probably don’t want to devote administrative time to your small-scale proposal. Of course, the revere is also true: if the funder typically awards $5,000 to grant-seekers, asking for $15,000 may not be wise. This is where your personal contacts and pre-proposal conversations can be critical.

2. Are matching funds needed? You will find grants that come with the caveat that you demonstrate community support for your work, requiring that you raise other funds within a certain timeframe. In same cases a grant can even be rescinded if your efforts to land matching funds fall short. Find out whether a funder will accept volunteer hours, calculated by accepted hourly rates, to fulfill part of this requirement.

3. Conditions and control. Some foundations take a venture-capital approach to grantmaking, seeking ongoing influence in the way their dollars are spent on start-up nonprofits. They may even ask to place a representative on your board, a request that might not mesh with your culture. Still, this level of oversight and outside expertise may be invaluable to your long-term success. Is your ego getting in the way?

4. Eligibility. You may be asked to team up with another nonprofit proposing a similar project to avoid duplication of efforts and to ensure adequate capacity. Such a process can be a challenge for you if the other organization has the lead role on the project and brings a different approach to the table. You can see that your personal relationships with other grantseekers may be just as important as a relationship with a potential funder.

5. Reporting. You’ll quickly learn that funders will ask you to measure outcomes in a certain way. Make sure at the onset that complying with their conditions will not strain your human and financial resources—or, consider building those additional costs into your proposal.

6. Future funding. Make sure you’re being realistic about grantmakers who fund only start-up initiatives or don’t renew grants for ongoing programs after a few years. This is a critical lesson for emerging nonprofits—making sure you can continue and sustain the work you start.

7. Try to sleuth the competitive landscape. How many proposals does a foundation receive each year? How many of those are successful? What are your chances of success? It’s wonderful to dream big, but don’t lose your head.

8. It’s not just about you. Grants are a team effort. Remember to consider your relationship with a funder as a partnership—you’re in this together, toward mutual but also discrete interests. Ideally, the funder fulfills its mission while helping your nonprofit fulfill yours. Your proposal should address the benefits for both parties, which in turn translate into helping the people you are working together to jointly serve.

9. Don’t try to start at ground zero. You’re in love with your mission or you wouldn’t be fundraising for it, but the world may be unaware or even ambivalent. What is your brand, your reputation, your image? What groundwork can you lay out that will make submitting grant requests easier (outreach, media, and so on)? Don’t assume that a submitted proposal can cover this awareness; it’s rare that a proposal for an organization the funder has never heard of will be successful out of the gate.

10. Remember our rule, “Relationships first, grants second.” Explore what connections you have to this funder. A pre-proposal meeting can make all the difference. A well-written proposal should seal the deal, not introduce it.