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Looking Back: MHNA Rates The Best Of The Best Grant Tips For 1997

Over the year, MHNA has brought readers many grant tip stories, containing one or several ideas for improving a nonprofit's chances of winning federal and private funds.

We've heard often, and from many sources, that grant proposals need to be well-written and organized, scrupulously checked for typos and -- absolutely, positively -- sent in on time.

All of these are vital pieces of advice, but in honor of the year's end, MHNA would like to take this opportunity to look back at the 10 best and most creative -- and perhaps less obvious -- suggestions for improving one's chances in the grant game.

10. Send the latest grant application. Sure, it seems like an obvious tip, but a staffer at the Dr. Scholl Foundation (MNHA 5/27p8) tells us applicants occasionally send old ones. So be sure to call and request all the latest guidelines before you send anything. Some foundations can be sticklers for form, and if an application/proposal doesn't fit the current guidelines precisely they quickly rule it out as "incomplete."

9. Get acquainted with new foundations as soon as possible. This advice comes from Terri Gibbs of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (MHNA 6/23p12), one of the largest health care funders in the U.S. He says it's wise to make contact with foundations, especially local ones, as they are setting up and seeking direction for their giving priorities. In the same article, Shirley Girouard of the National Assn. of Children's Hospitals confirms the value of this strategy, "These are opportunities for you to influence foundations by working with them."

8. Integrate key points/criteria throughout a proposal. This may take some planning, but it could be worth it, according to the Dept. of Commerce. (MNHA 3/10p8). For example, the agency points out, if a grant request asks applicants to demonstrate how they will involve the community in a program, it's best to address this in several parts of the proposal -- and the project, for that matter. So if the community will be served by a program, perhaps they also need to be involved in its planning and implementation, to be integrated throughout the project. Otherwise, a quick reference to community involvement in the proposal -- plainly included just to satisfy guidelines -- may seem superficial.

7. Collaborate. No doubt, this advice has been hammered into readers' heads over the year, but it's undeniable that private and federal funders are turning to collaborations more often now to provide comprehensive solutions to problems.(MHNA 7/15p8). As Judy Kosterman, a collaboration expert with the National Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, explains, "Historically, we've learned that single efforts don't work. It's important to have a big picture, comprehensive approach."

6. Don't force-fit your program to a foundation. This may be otherwise described as the "square peg/round hole" syndrome, where a nonprofit bends over backwards trying to make its program fit the criteria and goals of a foundation in a way that is clearly not appropriate. On the whole, it's not a great strategy, says Kenneth Eichel, a grant reviewer for the Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge, Colo. He recommends looking at the indices of the foundation's annual report to see where and to whom previous grants were given. Writing an effective proposal can be hard enough, but you can make your work a lot easier by at least sending it someplace where it is likely to be accepted.

5. The closer you get to a donor, the more money you can raise. Distance is indeed the enemy, consultant Andy Robinson would attest. (MHNA 8/11p13) In his advice to us about building a better nonprofit board, Robinson stresses the idea that all board members should be active fundraisers. They, along with another foundation representative, should also make a point of visiting prospective donors in person. "Better to start with people you know," he adds.

4. Tell a compelling story. Normally a proposal will allow some room for narrative. John Hicks, a grant expert with J.C. Geever, Inc., believes in making the most of it. (MHNA 9/29p13) He advises proposal writers to not only give the facts, but make them interesting by using the stories of real people that are served through your program. The reader should feel a sense of hope from reading the narrative. Hicks also suggests using action verbs to make stories more compelling. It's also better to say your organization will do something, rather than would.

3. Get involved with review committees. We think this is probably something every nonprofit program director should try at some point. How else to get into the mind of grant review committees than to be part of that mind for awhile. MHNA subscriber Anne Lezak, grants coordinator for Rutland Area Community Services in Vermont, tells us doing so gives you a clear idea of "what holes make an otherwise successful program not work." (MHNA 1/28p1) Who couldn't use that sort of inside information and perspective? It can only benefit you the next time you sit down to write a proposal.

2. Don't ask for 100% funding. Sure, it's what a nonprofit may want for its program, but think of the funder's perspective, advises Kenneth Eichel. "It's like buying a house, leverage is key," he explains. "Why is the interest rate lower when you put 20% down on a house? Because the likelihood of default is less." (MHNA 2/10p10) It's also good to line up additional funders. It shows foundations that others have confidence that your program will succeed.

1. Have someone who is not involved with your program edit the proposal. Grant reviewers stress that a proposal should be easy to read and understand, and not filled with jargon and unfamiliar terms. Therefore, even a person "on the outside" should be able to read it and have a clear understanding of what's proposed. To go one better on this strategy, have a high school student read the proposal, advises the Justice Dept.'s Maria Amato. (MHNA 10/27p5) She points out that if the student has major questions about some portion of the proposal, grant reviewers may very well have the same questions later on. It's better to catch those oversights early.

While those are MHNA's top picks for 1997 grant tips, there is another -- a bonus, if you will -- that should definitely not be left out any proposal worth its salt. Subscriber Douglass Teschner says it best, "You've got to convey enthusiasm for the project. It has to do with the language you use....You've got to convey passion."

We couldn't agree more.

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