Discern the Costs and Benefits of Grants

Stop!  Before you respond  to that grant opportunity you just read in your inbox, take a few minutes to discern if you should apply or not.  As I discussed in my blogpost, “Top 3 Grant Writing Tips,” just because a grant is available doesn’t mean it merits your time and resources to apply.  So, be selective.  The costs may outweigh the benefits.

Quick Feasibility Test

Before you invest time in applying for a grant, answer these three critical questions to help you discern the costs and benefits:

  1. Is your organization an eligible applicant?
  2. Does the grant’s purpose align with your organizational mission and vision?
  3. Does the grant support one or more of your program goals or initiatives?

If you answered YES to all three questions, the grant holds potential and is worth further consideration.

Strategic Considerations

Developing grant proposals is a time-consuming task, especially if you commit the time needed to be successful.  And, based on my observations, staff time at the typical nonprofit organization is a limited resource.  Consider the following questions to help you choose grant opportunities strategically:

  • Has your organization received support from this grantmaker in the past?
  • Is the proposal aligned with the grantmaker’s mission and funding interests?
  • Does someone in your organization (e.g. board member) have a relationship with the grantmaker?
  • Are any other organizations in your service area applying for this grant?

Budgetary Considerations

  • Will the range of funding available meet your need for funding?
  • Can you pull together the matching funds (if required)?
  • Can the grant funds be used for administrative/overhead costs?
  • Does the timeframe for receiving a grant award meet your projected cash flow needs?
  • If you receive the grant, will you be required to complete a fiscal audit?
  • How much will it cost to sustain the program after grant funds are expended?

Operational Considerations

  • If awarded, how will the grant impact your staff?
  • Does your management staff have the capacity to oversee the project?
  • Can you implement the grant within the grantmaker’s timeframe?
  • How will administering the grant impact your accounting system?
  • Will you be able to submit timely grant reports?

Proposal Preparation Considerations

  • Do you have the human resources available for completing grant development tasks?
  • Is the timeframe for submitting the proposal reasonable?
  • If it’s a federal grant, are your organization’s registrations with the System for Award Management and current?
  • Can you adapt verbiage from previous proposals or other existing documents?

The Take-Aways

  • Yes, keep looking for grants to fund your mission.
  • No, not every grant is a good fit for your organization.
  • Take a proactive approach – invest a little time to discern whether or not to apply for grants. How much are you willing to spend for the up-front and implementation costs in exchange for the potential grant funds?

Check out this tool I developed to walk you through the discernment process.

Rating Scale for Grant Opportunities (PDF)


Avoid Deadline Creep – Use a Grant Calendar

Summer is winding down, but the grant season is just getting started.  Now’s the time to get yourself organized so you don’t miss out on grant opportunities that come along in the coming year.  One tool you can use is a grant calendar.

It’s not a new concept – nothing magical – nothing I created.  Just a simple tool to manage grant deadlines.  I’ve outlined a few steps you can follow to get started.

  1. Decide Who and How Many.

Before you create a calendar, consider who will have access to it.  And, if that list includes more than one person, will they be allowed to edit the calendar content or merely view/print it?

  1. Choose a Format.

Choose a format that is easy for assigned personnel to use.  Will you use a dry-erase wall calendar?  Or create a monthly calendar—either a hard copy or stored on a network?  I suggest you consider the level of computer literacy among the people who will have access to the grant calendar.  Whenever you establish a new process, it’s important to keep it as simple as possible.  Otherwise, you create unnecessary barriers.

If you use an electronic calendar format, and if more than one person is authorized to edit the content, consider using an application such as Google Calendar or Microsoft Outlook that is designed for multiple users.  An alternative is to create a calendar in Microsoft Word and store it on Google Docs or a similar platform.

  1. Enter Grant Deadlines.

If you received one or more grants in the past year, insert any deadlines associated with submitting program and expenditure reports.  If you’re eligible to re-apply, also insert those deadlines.  Sometimes, funders require current grantees to wait a specified amount of time before applying for future funding.  Be sure to note on the calendar the earliest date you may re-apply.

If a funder has no deadline, be strategic about scheduling your own submission date.  Consider how often the funder meets, when they make final funding decisions, and how soon you need the funding.

Some grant cycles include multiple phases such as a letter of inquiry or pre-application followed by an invitation to submit a full proposal.  I suggest you insert the deadlines for both phases—if the information is available—to enable you to plan ahead.

I also recommend you plan ahead by considering events or staff-intensive activities such as training or a fiscal audit that may hinder you from applying for grants.  In those cases, don’t skip grant opportunities that coincide with those periods.  Work well ahead of the grant deadline and submit early.

  1. Keep it Simple.

Avoid cluttering the calendar with details that can be organized in a different format.  Limit the grant calendar to submission deadlines and other key dates.  For example, I maintain a funder list that includes contact info, application instructions, and other funder-specific details.  As I identify prospective funders, I add them to my funder list and insert their deadlines into the grant calendar.

  1. Establish a Process for Reviewing and Updating.

Of course, all your work will be for naught if you create a grant calendar and don’t actually use it.  So, schedule a regular time to review and update the grant deadlines until the process becomes a part of your routine.  Or, better yet, delegate that task to a volunteer or staff member.

Looking Ahead

My next GrantSpeak post will focus on the discernment process and several factors to consider when deciding if you should or should not apply for a grant.

Send your blog topic suggestions to me at


See the Logic: De-Mystifying Logic Models

Logic models may seem a little daunting at first.  Maybe even a bit confusing.  But there’s no need to twist yourself up in knots like Scarecrow.  Keep reading.  I’ll help you see the logic in logic models.

If you’ve never heard of logic models before, you might be surprised to learn that they’ve been around since the 1970s. I encountered my first logic model in 1999 in the context of a substance abuse prevention program for adolescents.  The state agency that funded the prevention program required its grantees to follow a logic model.

Over the past 20 years, logic models have become a standard component of most government grants that I write.  And, as you’ll discover later in this blog, I’m convinced that logic models can be a useful tool even when the funder doesn’t require one.

Not as Complicated as It Sounds

Simply defined, a logic model is a visual representation of how a proposed solution to a specific problem is expected to achieve the intended results.  In theory, we could use a logic model to depict every situation we face.  For example, consider the following situation and the corresponding logic model:  You start your car and notice that the fuel gauge is low.

Yes, it’s a simple example.  And it’s not practical to go to this much trouble to solve such a simple problem.  I use it here to de-mystify the concept of logic models for you.

Logic models become more useful as the situation becomes more complex, such as planning a vacation or preparing a seven-course meal—or addressing childhood obesity or reducing criminal recidivism or [insert your field of interest here].

Why Use a Logic Model?

From a grantmaker’s perspective, logic models offer an at-a-glance overview of the proposed program for which you are seeking funding.  Grant reviewers examine applicants’ logic models to get a sense of the program’s intent and to identify any gaps in the logical progression from planning to implementation to evaluation.  They rely on your grant narrative to describe in explicit detail the “whats” and “hows” and “whys” of your program.

When a project involves multiple organizations collaborating to achieve a common purpose, you can develop a logic model to communicate the nature and scope of the project to your external partners.  Use it as a conversation starter to discuss with them how they can contribute to the success of the project.

A logic model is also helpful if you’re working with an independent evaluator.  It’s likely they may not know anything about your program or the results you expect.  Developing an initial logic model and working with them to refine it will help the evaluator design an effective evaluation plan to measure the impact of your program.

Whether or not you submit a logic model with a grant application, you and your staff can use one as a tool to guide how you implement a program.  Think of it as an outline for a speech or a recipe for bread.  You have the freedom to go off-script or experiment with the ingredients, but the general plan is written down to keep you on track so you achieve the desired result.

Constructing Logic Models

If you search for logic models on the Internet, you’ll find many helpful resources, including templates, for creating a logic model.  If you’re concerned about which version to use, don’t fret.  Unless the funder specifies what format to use, you can design it to suit your preferences and the information you want to include.

The templates I’ve seen use either a flowchart design or a table design.  The screenshot below is my go-to version (a table format).  See other screen shots.

Basic Content

Notice that the majority of the samples I provided include inputs, activities, outputs, and outcomes.  But the power of the logic model goes beyond the content.  It’s the arrows—whether visible or implied—that depict the relationships among the program components, including a feedback loop for program improvement.  Ultimately, the longterm outcome impacts the original situation.

Not Set in Stone

Oftentimes, so much time elapses between when you submit your grant application and when you receive the funding that you need to revise your logic model before you begin the program.  For instance, you may have listed resources that are no longer available.  Or one of the organizations you intended to partner with may have changed their mind.  In any case, work with the funder to refine the logic model.

Keep in mind that a logic model depicts intention, not reality.  As you implement your program, you may discover that you’re not getting the results you expected.  Revisit your logic model to determine if you’re doing what you said you were going to do, and if necessary, either revise the logic model or modify how you’re implementing the program.

Additional Resources

To save you the trouble of searching for additional resources, I recommend you visit any of the following websites to learn more about logic models and see a variety of templates.

Looking Ahead

In my next GrantSpeak post, I’ll tell you about another useful planning tool – a grant calendar.

Send your blog topic suggestions to me at


Gleaning Information from an IRS Form 990

I invested a little time and money this month to participate in a webinar offered by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.  The topic:  “Winning Grants from Family Foundations.”  One of the presenters quipped, “When you’ve seen one family foundation, you’ve seen one family foundation.”  I found myself shaking my head in agreement.

It’s certainly not a new concept, but it’s a reminder that each funder in the private sector is unique.  And, despite how short on time we are, we need to cultivate each foundation individually.  Sending essentially the same letter to multiple funders may appear to be saving you time, but, actually, you’re likely to discover that you get little or no return on your investment.

Approaching any type of foundation requires a significant commitment of time up-front before you ask them for funding.  Do your homework – learn as much as you can about a given funder to discern, first of all, if you think it’s worth a further investment of time.

Which brings me to this month’s topic:  Gleaning information from an IRS Form 990.

It’s free.  It’s easy to access.  And it can reveal quite a lot about a foundation.  It just takes a little time.

Keep reading, though, because a little later I’ll show you how to pinpoint the most helpful info that will save you time with your research.

To maintain its charitable nonprofit status with the IRS, an organization that is exempt from paying federal income tax is required to file an annual information return called a Form 990.  Note: there are some exceptions.  As a type of nonprofit organization, foundations file the Form 990 PF (Private Foundation).

Enough prologue.  Let me show you where to glean the most valuable info from a grantwriter’s perspective.  And then after my illustrations, I’ll tell you how to access a foundation’s Form 990 online.

Unless you have a photographic memory, I suggest you keep detailed notes as you work your way through the document.  Then add to them as you continue your research.

Gleaning #1

On the first page of the 990, double-check when the foundation’s fiscal year ends – it may indicate when they make grant decisions.  Also confirm that you have the correct contact information.  See the screenshot.

Gleaning #2

A little further down on the first page, on line 25, note the total charitable contributions reported that year.  A little later, you can use the total to calculate their average grant award.

Gleaning #3

This is the point where you need to skip ahead in the 990.  Don’t read it like a book.  Trust me, it’s not that interesting!  Skip ahead to the list of their directors and officers in Part VIII.  Then share the list with your directors and staff to see if they have any connections you can use to cultivate a relationship.

Gleaning #4

Skip ahead to Part XV to read details about their grant process.  They may reference an attachment with even more details and possibly even a sample application form.  When you’re researching a foundation that has no website and discourages phone calls, this section of the Form 990 may be the only information available about how to apply for a grant.

Gleaning #5

And now, for the grand finale, the most valuable information for your grant search – the list of all the grants the foundation awarded that year.  The grant list is usually included as an attachment to the 990, either at the very of the document or before the list of investments.

Some foundations provide more information than others, but at a minimum, you can expect to find the names of the organizations they supported that year and the amount of each award.

  • Look for clues about whom and what they funded and at what level.
  • Count the number of grants they awarded.  Divide the total dollars awarded by the number of grants to calculate the average award.
  • Scan the list to find the smallest grant amount, the largest, and the most common amount.
  • If the list includes the recipients’ addresses, identify which organizations are located in your state or city.  Are they similar to your organization?

Free Access to the IRS Form 990

I’m aware of two websites that offer free 990 searches – GuideStar and Foundation Center.  GuideStar requires users to create an account before accessing the 990s.  Foundation Center, on the other hand, offers unrestricted access.  Choose which source you prefer, but just remember: the 990 is a public document and, therefore, you should never pay for access.

Looking Ahead

In my next GrantSpeak post, I’ll introduce you to logic models as a tool for planning grant proposals.

Send your blog topic suggestions to me at


Wading Through the Muck of Grant Guidelines

Do As I Say, Not As I Do.

Quoting Alanis Morissette, “Isn’t it ironic?” when funders publish grant guidelines that contain jargon, undefined acronyms, and vague descriptions.  These are the very issues that can prevent a proposal from being recommended for funding.  In the case of complex guidelines such as for a federal grant, sometimes one section of the grant guidelines seems to contradict another section.  Or, information about a specific component of the proposal may appear in more than one section of the guidelines, making it easy to lose track of everything they said.

Frustrating, isn’t it!

And, in the case of federal grants, we typically have 8 weeks or less from the time the grant is announced until the time it’s due.  So, there’s no time to waste in deciphering the instructions.


Support vs. Commitment Letters – Know the Difference

Collaboration among grantseekers has been trending so long, it has become the norm.  One way you can demonstrate collaboration in your grant proposals is by submitting extraordinary letters from your partners and other key stakeholders.  The type of letter you submit depends on the purpose—letters of support or commitment.

Support or Commitment?

Letters of support articulate general support for the grant request.  The letter should describe the author’s involvement with your organization and/or the community as well as explain how the funding will help address a need or solve a problem.

Consider soliciting support letters from

  • Consumers that use your services or individuals that benefit from what you do;
  • Government officials – aldermen, mayors, state and federal legislators; and
  • Other stakeholders with an interest in how the funding will benefit the community.

Kristin’s Top 3 Grant Writing Tips

As 2016 winds down, it’s time to reveal my top 3 grant writing tips to increase your success rate in the grant world.

Tip #3  Form a grant team.

Preparing and submitting a grant proposal requires a gazillion skill sets:  identifying grant opportunities, program planning, researching data for the need statement, writing, editing, budget development, partner relations, formatting documents, compiling attachments, completing forms, creating logic models with measurable outcomes, and on and on.

Although I thrive on the variety of tasks associated with grant “writing,” the most rewarding experiences of my career have been the result of working as a member of a grant team.  The team members divide up the tasks and agree to a timeline to ensure that we all complete our assignments and submit the proposal on time.


Grant Writing Tip #4: Invest Time in Pre-Writing

Have you ever taken a vacation without planning where you’re going?  In the film “Yes Man,” Carl (played by Jim Carrey) and Allison (Zooey Deschanel) decided to take a spontaneous trip to a random location.  They drove to the airport and purchased tickets on the next flight that was boarding, and off they flew to explore—where else?—Lincoln, Nebraska.

I admit that serendipity has its appeal, but my inner Girl Scout usually trumps my inner vagabond.  I like to know in advance where I’m going to sleep, and I plan a route that encompasses the sights I want to see at the pace I want to take.  Planning doesn’t guarantee the result.  The airline may lose my luggage, or the campground may flood in a storm.  But I’ll know when the attractions are open, where to park, what to pack, etc.

Time = Money

Writing a grant proposal is not nearly as fun as taking a vacation.  Like planning a trip before you walk out the door, however, the time you invest in pre-writing exercises will benefit you when you start typing.  There’s a good reason why this tip is in my top five:  spontaneity has no place in grant writing.


Grant Writing Tip #5: Use Active Voice

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Goldilocks.  One day while the forest was walked in by Goldilocks, a house was seen by her.  The door was knocked on, and, when a response was not heard, the house was entered by Goldilocks.  Three bowls of porridge were sitting on the table.  Hunger was felt by Goldilocks, so the porridge was tasted by her, one bowl at a time.

You know how the story goes:  the first bowl was too hot, the second bowl was too cold, but the last bowl was just right.

If you’ve read this far into the blog, you get the prize for tolerating intentionally passive voice.  Did you notice how indirect the wording is?  Or how many words it took to complete a thought?

As promised, I’m devoting this blog post to one of my biggest pet peeves – using passive voice.  So, I apologize in advance for the rant that follows.


Create Visual Appeal with Tables & Graphs

One of the strategies you can use to support your case for a grant request is to provide comparative data to describe the need. Describing the data in narrative form is a good start, but you can reinforce your points by inserting charts, tables, and graphs. And you will enhance the visual appeal of your proposal at the same time!

Is That Good or Bad?

Presenting statistics for one group, time period, or geographic area is better than omitting data altogether, but how does the grant reviewer know if the situation you’re describing is good or bad? Comparing one group to another group provides the context your reader needs to determine if there is indeed a need, as well as the magnitude of the problem.

The More Local the Better

Consider the scope of the project you’re seeking grant funding for and present data for the smallest geography appropriate for that scope. If it’s a statewide program, compare the data in your state to a neighboring state.