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telephone: (734) 542-3946; fax: (734) 542-3952; http://comnet.org/mwf
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telephone: (616) 742-2389; fax: (616) 459-8460

Michigan Women's Foundation
Women's Road Map
Special Issue: Grantwriting 101
December 1997 - January 1998

Should You Write A Grant | When You Write | The Site Visit | Budget Preparation | Evaluation | Layout
Youth as Grantmakers | MWF Grant Cycles

Grants: The Pros & Cons of Chasing Grants
by Andy Robinson
The following article is excerpted from the book Grassroots Grants: An Activists' Guide to Proposal Writing, published by Chardon Press.

Many groups consider fundraising the most unpleasant subject possible, so they tend to avoid it. Here's a typical meeting: After fighting your way through a discussion about the latest staffing crisis, what the recent election means for your work, and why nobody washes the dirty dishes, you finally get around to the hole in your bank account. Everyone is tired and cranky. You talk of fundraisers past and future, but without much enthusiasm. Finally a voice is raised in hope: "I know! We'll get a grant!"

Watch out.

You should understand that grant money comes with a variety of strings attached. Some of these strings are visible and beneficial, like the final report in which you describe, in detail, how you spent the money. Others are less obvious and potentially dangerous.

Before evaluation the pros and cons of grant funding, let's take a quick look at the universe of charitable giving and see how grants figure in the mix.

Who's Got the Money?

Willy Sutton, the old-time gangster, was once asked why he robbed banks. "Because that's where the money is", he replied. If someone questioned you about submitting grant applications, you might give the same answer...and you'd be wrong.

In 1993, U.S. nonprofits received $126.2 billion from the private sector: foundations, corporations, and individuals. You might be surprised to learn that 88% of charitable money came from individuals, while only 12% was given by foundations and corporations (the people who read grant proposals).

These percentages change very little over time. In fact, dead people -- through their estates -- give away more money, year after year, than all U.S. corporations combined. Here's another surprise: the vast majority of these donors aren't rich. Of the total funds provided by individuals (about $111 billion), 80% came from families making less than $50,000 per year.

If you seek grants you are only raising money from 12% of the private-sector pie. Many organizations are too small, too marginal, or too radical to receive corporate grants -- indeed, hundreds of groups are directly challenging corporate power -- which further reduces the field to 7% of charitable funds provided by private foundations. But we're talking about $9.2 billion -- a significant sum of money and certainly worth some effort.

If you're sensible, however, you'll understand that the time you put into grantwriting should be proportional to the return on your effort. If you rely too much on grant applications, you limit yourself to a small piece of a very large pie. Over the long run, you risk starving your organization to death.

Let's first consider the problems that accompany grant money.

  1. Lousy odds. Roughly 10-15% of all grant proposals get funded. There's a lot of competition for foundation grants. Many "successful" proposals are only partially funded, which leaves the organization scrambling to run its project on a reduced budget or to find additional money from other sources. If you want better odds, you have to go where the money is: individual donors.

  2. Long waits. In most cases, it takes three to six months to get an answer. I've waited a year, which is not uncommon. Even if you get funded, paperwork can delay the check for another month. If you need money today, or next week -- and most of us do -- grants are not a good solution.

  3. "Soft Money". Grants are seldom renewable. A particular foundation may provide support for three to four years, but not forever. This problem is compounded by the fact that most foundations are interested in new, innovative projects, and are less likely to fund ongoing programs. Individual donors, on the other hand, have been known to support a particular nonprofit for fity years or more.

  4. Restricted money. The majority of foundation grants are directed toward specific projects, not general support, which greatly limits your flexibility. A grant is a contract, and you are legally bound to use the money as described in your proposal. Any significant changes in the program or budget must be negotiated with the funder.

  5. Grants don't empower your group. Grantwriting does not empower people or organizations the way community-based fundraising does. When you write a proposal, you transfer a critical decision -- whether you will have some of the soft money you need to operate -- to someone outside your constituency. The more money you raise from your own community, the stronger your group will be.

  6. Too few people are involved in the process. Grantwriting concentrates organizational power in the hands of a few people. Most proposals are developed by one or two staff members (and, in some cases, approved by a board of directors). When you rely too much on grants, you miss out on the leadership development opportunities that come with campaign planning, one-to-one solicitation, house meetings, benefit events, and other fundraising strategies involving lots of people.

  7. Who's accountable to whom? Your work can get distorted in the pursuit of money. If you're not careful, grants can shift power over your programs to someone outside the organization.

    In the worst case, you become more accountable to foundation supporters than to your own membership. You risk the chance of being under the influence of "outside interests" who don't live in the community and, according to the critics, don't have the community's benefit in mind.

  8. The "dirty money" syndrome. Some organization refuse to submit proposals to certain funders because they disagree with how the money was raised in the first place. For example, a number of environmental groups won't accept grants from oil companies or their corporate foundations..even when courted by those companies.
Why Pursue Grants Anyway?

Okay, that's the frustrating part. Now let's talk why grants are attractive, useful, and worth the trouble.

  1. "We Give Away Money". Most charitable foundations exist to give away money. That's their goal. They publish guidelines on how to apply, so there's no guesswork. (Of course, you should always, always, always follow the guidelines.) Since they advertise "FREE MONEY -- LINE UP HERE," we don't feel like we're begging. Grant proposals are guilt-free.

  2. Lots of options. With 7,000 foundations providing more than 90% of foundation support in the U.S., you can probably find one or two that will help your group. When I worked at Native Seeds-SEARCH, a regional conservation group in Tucson, I maintained files on 250 foundation and corporate prospects. Forty of them provided funding at one time or another, and it took five years to fill that file cabinet.

  3. You have to be organized. A grant proposal is an organizing plan, and by putting the details down on paper -- goal, objectives, deadlines, etc. -- most of us become better organizers. The process of developing a proposal can help us do our work more effectively, even if we don't get funded.

  4. Grants come in large amounts. Most grassroots groups don't have major donors they can approach for $5,000 to $10,000 gifts. On the other hand, these are fairly modest grants. Sometimes you need a big infusion of cash to create a new program or redefine or jump-start an old one.

  5. Preparation for a major donor campaign. The process of developing relationships with foundation officers and board members is a lot like courting major donors. It can help staff, board members, and volunteers develop the cultivation skills needed to approach individuals for big gifts.

  6. Credibility. A foundation grant signals that someone outside the organization is impressed with your work and willing to invest in your success. This can improve your credibility with the news media, local businesses, prospective major donors, and other foundations. Your opposition might even take you more seriously.

  7. Leverage. Some grants, specifically challenge grants, are designed to help you raise more money. For example, a foundation may provide a grant on the condition that you match it, dollar for dollar, with donations from your members. Challenge grants are very helpful in encouraging individual gifts.

  8. It's fun. I enjoy the detective work that goes into discovering new foundations and figuring out how best to approach them.
How Grants Fit Into a Complete Fundraising Strategy

By now, you should have a clear idea of both the opportunities and problems associated with grants. Keep writing your proposals, but find other ways to raise money, too. Anne Firth Murray of the Global Fund for Women sums up the challenge:

Diversity is essential in all aspects of the work of an organization; it is through diversity that one learns and is able to gain access to different funding sources. It is essential that in a fundraising plan there be built-in goals for obtaining funding from several different sources.

These sources can and should include:

This article, taken from Grassroots Fundraising Journal, is reprinted with permission of Chardon Press. If you want to learn more about fundraising please see their web site at

When You Write...
by Andy Robinson

  • It's okay to use an informal, we're all in this together tone. Think of the reader as an interested friend.

  • Avoid jargon and fancy language. Keep it simple.

  • Write the way you speak. If you're having trouble, try talking into the tape recorder, then transcribe and edit your words. If a tape recorder makes you uncomfortable, ask a friend to write down your spoken words. If you can talk, you can write.

  • You won't get it right the first time, so leave time for a rewrite. Let your words sit overnight before reading (and writing) again.

  • Ask a co-worker or friend who writes well to read your work and make sure that it's clear and concise.
  • Taken with permission from Grassroots Fundraising Journal, December 1996.

    Site Visits: The Make It or Break It Decision
    by Susan Castelli

    Many funding organizations conduct site visits not only during the grant application process, but also after funding is given in order to check the progress of the project. Most of the information contained in this article pertains to pre-funding site visits, but some will be applicable to either type.

    For many nonports, a site visit from a funder can be a scary prospect. These visits play an integral part in most funding decisions, and therefore require the same level of attention and preparation as the grant proposal. Nonprofits should also view site visits as a great opportunity to show their good work and to build relationships with funders. In this article, the site visit process will be explored from the perspectives of both funders and nonprofits.

    Purpose of Site Visits

    Most of the funders we spoke to agreed that the site visit is one of the most important steps in the grant application process. The grant proposal provides introductory information, but the site visit gives the potential grantor more hands-on data about the program, the agency, and the people who will be working on the project. Through this data gathering, funders want to get a realistic "feel" for the project and the organization on its own turf, to verify the information from the grant proposal, to clarify issues and to answer questions. Sometimes funders use site visits to try out changes they think will strengthen the project. In post-grant visits, the funder wants to gauge project accomplishments.

    Some of the specific things funders look for are:

    Preparation for Site Visits

    While funders have specific goals for the site visit, the nonprofit organizations should decide what they want the visit to accomplish also. Organizations should use this time to find out if they are on the right track with their proposals and if the project is appropriate to the funder's goals. Use this visit as an opportunity to show what you've accomplished and how your organization is different from the others. In order to do this, careful planning is needed. Most funders will ask for the information that they need in advance of the visit. Be sure to provide clear directions to the location where the meeting will be held. If not included in the proposal, some things to offer funders are:

    Remember that the information discovered during a site visit can be a "deal maker" or "deal breaker", so it is important for organizations to plan carefully what message they want to get across. Make an effort to talk with the funders before the visit to find out exactly what they want to see while they are there. Some funders will even provide a list of questions they would like answered during the visit. One very important suggestion from several nonprofits is to make sure that the proposal is reviewed thoroughly before the visit takes place. Specific questions concerning the information submitted in the proposal will be asked and everyone needs to be familiar with that information.

    Who Should Participate

    A key element in preparing for the site visit is deciding who will participate. This decision is important for both funder and nonprofit since these people will decide the fate of the grant. Some funding organizations we talked to suggested thse individuals should be present: directors, fiscal officers, people who wrote the proposal, people who will be running the project, community member involved in project planning, people served by the project, and board members.

    What Takes Place during the Visit

    So, what's going to happen once the day of the site visit arrives? The agenda is usually set by the funder, in cooperation with the organization. As stated before, funders usually have in mind what they'd like to see and what questions they want answered. Most of the time they will share this with the organization, giving the agency the opportunity to plan. Funders stated that site visits last anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours depending on the depth of the program and the amount of information requested.

    What the funder wants to see will vary depending on the program and the grant being offered. Some basic items include:

    Since the site visit is a relatively short amount of time for the funder to get to know everything about the organization, spend this time productively. Some suggestions from funders include:

    Horror Stories

    Why is preparation so important before a site visit? Check out some of these horror stories.

    Great Experiences

    So what happens when you do prepare? Here are some examples of great experiences from both perspectives.

    Funder perspective:

    Nonprofit perspective:

    Do's and Don'ts

    Funders and nonprofits were asked to give suggestions to each other.

    Nonprofit Organization Do's:

    Nonprofit Organization Don'ts:

    Funding Organization Do's:

    Funding Organization Don'ts:

    Most of all, both sides should look at site visits as great opportunities. Funders are allowed to see the program at work and learn more about the ideas behind the proposal. Organizations are given the opportunity to give funders in-depth detail that can't be covered in a proposal. Meet each other half way by planning ahead and working through the process as you would any other mutually profitable relationship.

    This article, taken from Grassroots Fundraising Journal, was re-printed with permission of Chardon Press.

    Can you answer these questions?

    If you and your staff can confidently answer these questions and back up your answers, you are well on hour way to being prepared for a site visit.

    • What is your mission - why were you created?
    • How does this project help carry out your mission?
    • How will you judge if your project is successful?
    • Is the time period reasonable?
    • Have you listed everything you will need?
    • What difference will this project make to the community?
    • Are others providing this service?
    • Could a partnership with another agency be possible?
    • Is your budget appropriate?
    • How will the project pay for itself in the future?
    • What would happen if your project didn't get done?

    Grant Smarts
    by Mim Carlson

    Q: I'm about to draft the budget section of my proposal. What common mistakes should I avoid, and can you give me a checklist to use to ensure that I've covered all the bases?

    As many funders will tell you, the budget section of a proposal is one of the most important. It indicates whether your plan is financially realistic and cost-effective. Many a proposal has been denied because of unclear or poorly constructed budgets.

    When preparing your budget, it's important to review all the activities you say you'll be doing as part of the proposal and estimate adequate funds to cover those activities. One mistake I often see is a budget that doesn't cover all the costs! It's an unpleasant surprise to receive all your grant funding for a program and realize you don't have enough to accomplish your objectives.

    Along these same lines, one of the more common mistakes I've seen is providing funders with only the expenses. This makes it unclear where the funds will come from to cover these expenses. Generally funders want to know that your organization is capable of sustaining the project with a variety of funding sources. These sources need to be reflected in a revenue section of the budget.

    The exception to this rule is when you're asking for one funder to cover all your expenses (usually for a small project) or when a funder asks you to complete their budget and it has no revenue section. Incidentally, if a funder gives you a budget form to fill out or request specific line items, then follow thier directions. Always.

    For those organizations that do include both revenue and expense sections in their budget, another common mistake is to have a larger amount for estimated expenses than for estimated revenues.

    In other words, a budget might show $100,000 in expenses, but only $75,000 in revenue for a program. I personally find it baffling that an organization would present this unbalanced budget and expect to get a grant. Again, funders have to believe that you'll be able to generate enough income to sustain the project. If your budget shows an income shortfall, they're unlikely to be interested in your proposal.

    Too, organizations sometimes fail to include overhead costs in the budget. The results are that the proposal covers only direct costs but not administrative costs.

    Examples of administrative costs are salaries for the executive director, accounting, and fund raising staff; rent and utilities; and some office equipment maintenance costs. You can generally think of indirect costs as an ongoing part of the organization whether your proposed program is in place or not.

    It is true that some funders clearly state they will only pay for direct costs. However, many grantmakers expect to see administrative or indirect costs as part of your budget. It is beyond the scope of this column to explain how to allocate indirect costs for a budget, but there are some excellent texts that explain how to do this. I recommend getting one of them for your bookshelf if you will be preparing lots of proposal budgets.

    Finally, another common mistake I see in proposal budgets is the absence of a narrative that explains the line items. It's important for funders to understand your logic when you're estimating expenses. So a one or two page summary of some of the key line items is essential.

    For instance, you may have a line item in your budget for a Program Director with a salary of $36,000. Funders reviewing the proposal might wonder why you chose that salary level since it appears to be out-of-line with what they think such a person should make. On the budget narrative page, you would have a brief statement that might say the following:

    "Program Director: Salary of $36,000 is derived from a review of salaries paid to other program directors with similar responsibilities in organizations having budgets of our size. This is a median range salary for the position."

    Some funders will ask you to provide an explanation of your expenses for each line item in your budget. Other grantmakers expect to see a narrative only for those items that might be unclear to them. In addition to salaries, these might be travel, printing, consultant fees, and miscellaneous costs.

    The rule to follow is that if you feel a line item expense may be unclear to a funder, write an explanation of it in the budget narrative. It's often better to over-explain rather than keep a grant-maker guessing.

    As far as a checklist goes, I will share the following list that appears in the first edition of my book Winning Grants: Step by Step. After developing your proposal budget, you should make sure that it:

    The bottom line in proposal budget preparation is to have a budget that makes sense based on what you're planning to do. The estimated expenses need to be clear and realistic. Your budget needs to tie the rest of your proposal together and give funders your progam plan expressed in dollars.

    This article from Contributions, September-October 1997, was reprinted with permission of the editors.

    In Search of Outcomes...

    This article was written in response to a symposium entitled "In Search of Outcomes" led by Grantsmanship Center trainer Eve Berry.

    Outcome evaluation is what tells an organization whether or not its programs are having a meaningful impact on the lives of clients. Social service providers may instinctively believe that certain strategies are working, but too often they fail to systemically measure and illustrate the impact of such strategies.

    There are several reasons for this:

    Even so, MHSC officials say, the fact that outcome evaluation is hard work should not become an excuse for avoiding it. "Outcome evaluation should be an intrinsic, funded, and expected part of the human services system," they argue.

    Just what is meant by the term outcomes? "People in human services use the term in a variety of different ways, referring to objectives, their results, and process measures all as 'outcomes'", MHSC found. "They all use terms such as 'goals,' 'visions', 'objectives', and 'measures', almost interchangeably. And people frequently develop outcome measures first, without doing preliminary work, such as establishing goals and objectives that are linked to an organization.

    So, what exactly are outcomes? "It makes sense that we understand outcomes as describing people and their condition," MHSC says. "They indicate the extent to which methods and strategies result in the desired changes in people and their conditions", MHSC says. "They indicate the extent to which methods and strategies result in the desred changes in people and the community. Outcomes do not measure inputs, processes, or methods. Instead, they measure the extent to which a strategy is reaching its objective." To be useful, outcomes should tell...

    1. who (individual, neighborhood, target population)
    2. is doing what (change in condition, behavior)
    3. when (change occurs by this specific date)
    4. how that change is measured (what data shows changed condition or behavior
    Berry believes that the large number of people attending the symposiums attests to a growing interest in outcome evalution. "I doubt if anyone would have shown up for such an event in the mid-to late 1960's, during the era of the federally funded Great Society social programs," she says. "Even as late as the 1980's, the concept of program evaluation was met with considerable resistance. But with growing competition for funding, shrinking dollars, and more public scrutiny, more people are becoming interested in outcome evaluation as a tool for both 'proving" impact and improving programs."

    "One of the most important messages we wanted to get across was that outcome evaluation is one of the most effective means you have for building your organization's credibility," Berry says. "Too many agencie point to the number of people they serve, rather than identify the impact that their programs have had on those people's lives. When you're able to show that the services you provide are really changing people's conditions for the better, funders are much more likely to support your efforts in the future."

    This article was reprinted with permission from "The Grantmanship Center Magazine, Fall, 1997. If you would like to learn more, visit their web site at http://www.tgci.com.

    Layout: Easy on the Eyeballs

    The basic principles of layout can be summed up with the cliche, "less is more". In general:

    You do not need to be a graphic artist to create an attractive document. Just keep in mind the following points:
    1. Leave lots of white space -- At least one inch on all sides of the page.
    2. Use 12-point type.
    3. Beak up the page -- bold, italicize, and bullet.
    4. Don't justify the text.
    5. Use graphics where appropriate.
    6. Use a good printer.

    Youth as Grantmakers
    By Laura Bucklen

    A current trend in philanthropy throughout the state of Michigan is the involvement of youth in grantmaking through community foundations. Over eighty youth grantmaking committees are now operational in Michigan! Although youth generally come with little or no grantmaking experience, they quickly learn grantmaking principles and begin to impact their communities. The development of these youth grantmaking committees has opened up exciting possibilities for adults and young people to learn and grow together.

    As the number of youth in philanthropy continues to grow, it becomes increasingly important that nonprofit organizations understand what youth are looking for in their funding decisions. Youth and youth advisors from grantmaking committees in Grant Rapids, Ann Arbor, Fremont, and the Upper Peninsula share their expertise on what types of programs and proposals appeal to youth:

  • Youth grantmaking committees often have a set of focus issues which they have determined as the key issues facing youth in their area. These focus issues, which are based on the results of needs assessment surveys, may include teen pregnancy, violence, substance abuse, dysfunctional families, child abuse, and adolescent suicide. Therefore, before applying for funding, an agency should inquire as to whether the grantmaking committee is concerned with certain focus issues. If this is the case, the agency should question whether the program for which they are seeking funding addresses one or more of these focus issues.

  • When making funding decisions, youth are particularly attracted to programs which are designed by youth or with youth input. "After all, who knows better how to address the issues of young people buth the young people themselves!", remarked Gina Covert, youth advisor for the Fremont Area Foundation. Youth can easily identify programs which are designed only by adults and they generally do not favor such requests. Agencies are encouraged to begin with a program idea that originated with young people, convene a group of youth to design the program, use a trained youth facilitator in the discussion, and include in the grant proposal the names of the young people who contributed to the design of the program. Agencies who recognize youth as the experts and choose to involve them in program planning and implementation are far more likely to receive funding from youth grantmaking committees.

  • Young philanthropists also tend to favor programs which offer creative and original approaches to youth issues. Carmela Barnes, YAC Member of the Grand Rapds Foundation, shared that youth are generally less interested in programs which duplicate already existing programs. On the other hand, young people want to fund projects which are reasonable and realistic for the goals which they set out to accomplish.

  • Youth value the funding for which they are responsible and expect programs that will have significant impact on youth. Many grantmakers believe that programs will have the greatest effect when they provide opportunities during "high risk" times when children are often unsupervised. These times include after school, weekends, and the summer months. According to Martha Bloom of the Ann Arbor Community Foundation, grantmakers prefer programs which occupy youth during these times because they address many issues at once, including gang activity, vandalism, sexual activity, and drug use.

  • Agencies should make every effort to be professional when requesting from youth, just as they would when seeking funding from other sources. Young grantmakers expect proposals which are thorough and presented in a timely manner. Proposals should be carefully reviewed for spelling or typing errors. The presentation of ideas in a proposal should be well-organized.

  • If the request for funding is denied by a youth grantmaking committee, an agency should ask the youth for feedback on how the proposal could be improved. When doing so, agency representatives should make every effort to be respectful, cooperative, and honest.

  • Gina Covert of the Fremont Area Foundation offers a final piece of advice. "Keep your intentions true! If your goal is to serve youth and improve the quality of their lives, then let them decide what is best by providing a healthy, positive setting for a project of real value and impact to grow, flourish, and be funded."

    Laura Bucklen is currently working on her social work practicum at the Michigan Women's Foundation. She is a senior at Calvin College.

    Michigan Women's Foundation
    Requests Concept Papers

    The Women's Health Funding Initiative grant cycle has been changed to an April-October cycle. Request for Concept papers will be released on April 3, 1998, with a deadline of May 15, 1998. Organizations in the state of Michigan are invited to contact Jennifer Crute Steiner at 313-542-3946 with questions.

    Young Women for Change, a girls' grantmaking group, is now accepting concept papers until January 16, 1998. Grants for this cycle will be made within Kent County only. Please contact Kristin Gootjes or Laura Bucklen at 616-742-2389 for more information.

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