Writing a Grant? Don’t Forget the Secret Ingredient.
Updated: May 25
I’m convinced my 3-year-old, Elliot, is going to be a gourmet chef when he grows up. Few things excite him more than when my wife and I start to cook; he eagerly unfolds his stool, steps up to the counter, and asks what he can do.
Yes, it creates its fair share of messes, but it’s totally worth it to watch the joy on his face as one of his favorite meals comes together. He gets particularly excited about the chance to open up the recipe book and help us grab ingredients for that day’s meal.
I often find myself thinking of Elliot and all of those recipes when I’m helping a client with a grant application. As odd as that connection may seem, grant applications tend to be a lot like cooking a meal: a long list of ingredients (all of those required documents), a specific process (the narrative), and the harrowing first bite of a new meal (finding out if you received the grant). Just like some meals don’t turn out, some grants don’t turn out. That’s okay! It’s an opportunity to refine your process and perfect your recipe.
Every great chef has their secret ingredient for a great meal, and as I’m working with clients, I like to tell them about my secret ingredient. It isn’t some formula for great writing or a killer budget spreadsheet. It’s the most basic ingredient for any kind of fundraising success: relationships.
There’s a great temptation to treat grants like job applications, where we fill them out and send them into the world hoping they turn into something. While that’s necessary sometimes, we need to remember that there are human beings on the other side carefully reviewing and evaluating applications. Naturally, the people they know and connect with will get an extra look.
I learned this several years ago when I was employed by a growing organization and we came across a foundation that was an imperfect fit for our mission. There was some alignment, but we really had to convince ourselves it was worth applying. I made the decision to put together the Letter of Interest (LOI), but I followed it up with the secret
ingredient: an email to the Program Officer asking for a meeting.
They agreed to meet and confirmed my feeling that this grant was a stretch for us, but after hearing my pitch, shared a special bit of information with me: the trustees of this fund had been personally impacted by our mission. The Program Officer couldn’t guarantee funding, but knew our pitch would move them.
Just like that, the grant went from being impersonal and distant to being deeply personal.
We were invited to submit a full application and received a small grant that year. After one year of proving ourselves, sending regular updates, and sharing our gratitude, we made a second pitch. This time, we asked for a 6-figure gift over the course of 3 years. We were granted the full ask, and to this day, it’s one of the proudest moments of my fundraising career.
The secret ingredient of relationship building was the difference between an application that went nowhere and a transformational gift. A good grant writer can craft a beautiful narrative, provide data, and help you get every detail you need lined up, but the final piece that carries you over the finish line may be that email or phone call to introduce yourself.
It’s also important to remember that the call may go nowhere. I’ve reached out to funders and had those meetings where I’ve been told my organization may not be a fit, and I’m just as grateful for those conversations! Rather than invest time and resources into a grant application, I can pivot and start working on the next thing. You have nothing to lose building a relationship, and just may find the chance to move the needle for your cause.
When you’re ready to start building relationships with prospective funders, here are some things to keep in mind:
Be genuine: Don’t shy away from your mission, what draws you to it, or what you hope to do with funds. If your mission isn’t a fit, it’s better to learn that early in the process.
Be transparent: There’s no such thing as a perfect nonprofit. If they ask about a potential weak spot for your organization, address it openly and share your plan to correct it. Candor is both refreshing and reassuring.
Tell your story: The best fundraising centers around storytelling. Your grant application will need data, but human beings are moved by stories. Use the opportunity for a face-to-face meeting with a funder to move them emotionally.
Relationship building can be daunting, but if you’re ready to take the plunge, Team Kat & Mouse, Nonprofit Consultants are here to help.
Contact Team Kat & Mouse to talk about all of your grant writing and donor relation needs.
...and if all the talk about food in this post made you hungry, here’s a favorite recipe of mine. With fall just around the corner it’s time to start thinking about chili!