Grant Writing – What Foundations Look For

Grant Writing – What Foundations Look For

Grant Writing – What Foundations Look For


Grant Writing – What Foundations Look For Program Transcript

NARRATOR: To find out what foundations look for in a successful grant proposal, we went to the experts, those responsible for grant funding programs. JoAnne Birkholz is the foundation director at Medica, the charitable arm of Medica Health Plan, an insurance company based in Minnesota with a regional presence in the Dakotas and Western Wisconsin. They provide grants focused on improving the health of the communities they serve.

JOANN BIRKHOLZ: We focus on funding programs with seed money to help them get off the ground. We look for innovative programs that are in line with our funding priorities and also have the potential for greater systemic impact.

NARRATOR: Heather Quackenboss is the program director at the La Crosse Community Foundation in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Heather runs the grant program, assisting nonprofits with the grant making process and awarding grants. Each year they give about $2 million back to the community.

HEATHER QUACKENBOSS: We’re a community foundation, and like all community foundations, we take care of a specific geographic area. So in our case, it’s La Crosse County, and any nonprofit in that county can apply for funding. So we look at a variety of different topics, anything from arts and culture, to the environment, to education, to human services, to wellness and recreation. So we cover all the gamuts a good, healthy community would have. And we make sure that we fund all of those different areas.

NARRATOR: Denise Blumberg-Tendle is the director of mission initiatives for Susan G Komen Minnesota, and manages their grant program. Susan G Komen is a private breast cancer foundation made up of 110 affiliates across the globe. Denise lost her mother at a young age to breast cancer. And she herself is a breast cancer survivor.

DENISE BLUMBERG-TENDLE: Our mission statement is fairly simple, to save lives and end breast cancer forever. And we do this by granting funds to nonprofit institutions that provide breast health and breast cancer awareness education, outreach, screening, treatment support, and research.

NARRATOR: Our three experts share their advice on what makes a successful grant proposal.

HEATHER QUACKENBOSS: The application process starts with me. An agency, or the person at the agency, needs to call me and tell me this is what I want to do. Would this fit? We don’t want an applicant wasting their time, writing something that’s going to take a long time to do when we know it might not fly.

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Grant Writing – What Foundations Look For

And it’s all online. So if there’s ever a question in that time, they can certainly call me, and I can see what they’re doing.

JOANN BIRKHOLZ: Our process is a 2-step electronic process. The process begins by visiting the website and clicking on the funding priority. Takes you into an eligibility quiz, and the eligibility quiz really helps organizations determine whether or not they would be eligible and meet the criteria. From the eligibility quiz, they’re automatically taken into the application. And complete the application, and then that is submitted electronically online with their budget.

DENISE BLUMBERG-TENDLE: We encourage organizations that are thinking about applying for funding from Susan G Komen Minnesota for the first time to contact us early on, to run by their idea of their program so that we can make sure that both the organization and the proposed project are eligible for the application process. It’s really important to me and to our organization to make the application process as simple as possible. It doesn’t have to be any harder than it needs to be. And that’s my job is to provide that technical assistance.

What makes a proposal strong to us at Susan G Komen is when a community need is clearly identified. That’s very important. Also, if the application is written concisely and the project description is very, very clear.

JOANN BIRKHOLZ: We also encourage organizations to make sure that they’ve thought through what their outcomes are going to be, what the key objectives are from their program, and so that they can develop a measurement plan, an evaluation to demonstrate the impact from their program. We look for organizations to think about sustainability. We don’t expect them to have all of the answers. But we like to know that they’ve thought about that, that they have some ideas for how they’ll secure additional funding to be able to continue their program.

HEATHER QUACKENBOSS: A strong proposal is one that fulfills a need. And in our community there’s certain community needs that we have. And oftentimes, when people hear the word need they think, oh human services, basic human needs. And that’s not the case. That might be arts. A community needs a good environment for people to live in and be happy.

We don’t want to know that you need more beds in your homeless shelter. We want to know why you need those more beds. And what are you doing to actually really solve that problem? And what comes with that, in a good application, is data, and hopefully local data since we’re a local community foundation.

You’re going to be writing them to people who are lawyers and accountants and like those details and that data. But you’re all so writing to a person. And a story is going to draw them in.

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Grant Writing – What Foundations Look For

JOANN BIRKHOLZ: Applicants, when they’re filling out proposals, do make some common mistakes, one of which is, at times, trying to fit the square peg in a round hole. It’s really important for nonprofits to review the guidelines, review the RFP and the funding priorities, to make sure that there’s a clear fit.

HEATHER QUACKENBOSS: A big mistake that grant applicants make is not contacting me, or their program director or program officer. A lot of times we know information that you may not, and that you really could benefit from. People in nonprofits are very passionate, and they have a great passion for what they’re doing. And we love that.

It’s a hard translation sometimes to take that passion and write it so other people understand that, and want to fund that. And getting help with that translation is very important.

JOANN BIRKHOLZ: There’s also a common mistake that people make around budgeting. We ask our nonprofits to submit a program budget, the details, the expenses line item by line item, telling us how the Medica funds will be used, as well as the other funds.

HEATHER QUACKENBOSS: Another thing that we see as a mistake is not prioritizing the budget. We cannot always grant everything we would like to. And when a person prioritizes their budget, we can say, OK, we can’t pay the whole thing. But we could pay this much, or we could pay this portion of it. And it’s just a mistake to not think that we can do this.

DENISE BLUMBERG-TENDLE: I highly recommend that grant writers read the request for applications and the information posted on the grant foundation’s website thoroughly. And make sure to include all of the required information. If you’re going to say in your grant application that you’re collaborating with an organization, then your application should definitely include a letter of support.

And then make sure that letter of agreement is current. And also proofread. Proofreading is so important.

JOANN BIRKHOLZ: Acronyms is also another problem, when organizations will put in acronyms that are very common to them, but not so common to the layperson. So we’re absolutely fine with use of acronyms, but the first use of the acronym should be accompanied by a description of the longer words.

DENISE BLUMBERG-TENDLE: Don’t wait until the last minute to apply. You wouldn’t believe how common that is. If you say the deadline to apply is January 1, for example, there are so many organizations that wait until that last week to start their application. And then their project is rushed, and then they come with questions and everything.

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Grant Writing – What Foundations Look For

And it’s a more stressful process. Foundations vary on how they determine which applications they’re going to fund. Our organization, for example, utilizes a grants review committee. Staff is not allowed to make the final decision on which grants are funded. Our grants review committee is an independent panel of experts.

And they take about four weeks or so to carefully and thoughtfully review each of the applications. And then we utilize an online grants management system. The scoring for our applications is based on criteria such as impact, feasibility, collaboration, sustainability, and capacity. The system averages out all the scores.

And then the system produces a ranked list of recommended– a recommended ranked list, I should say, of applications that we should fund. Then the grants review committee convenes in person. And they use that list to guide the discussion.

HEATHER QUACKENBOSS: My boss and I actually look at the nonprofit and give that a score. Do they keep with their mission? Do they have a credible board? Are they doing what they should be doing in the community? After that system gets done, everything goes to grants committee.

That grants committee then grades everything online. What happens after that is everything gets scored, but it’s not necessarily a ranking system. It’s very much a starting point for a discussion. And we meet, and sometimes it can take a very long time. And some of the things that get graded highly are, of course, funded.

However, some of those things that are scored low, may be funded because it wasn’t understood in the grant application itself. It’s that translation again where the grant applicant is so passionate they don’t write it so somebody else can understand it. And once they hear from the program officer, who can translate it a little better sometimes at that meeting, things change. And that score doesn’t matter anymore.

JOANN BIRKHOLZ: We have an initial screening that happens when the proposals come in, where we look at whether the proposals meet the criterion, the giving guidelines. And at that point, if they don’t, they are eliminated from the review process. But other initial applications are then forwarded to our grant review committee. So those folks get together and review the proposals, and narrow that down.

Then we request full proposals from those organizations. It includes things like a narrative that tells us more about the organization and their work, as well as the program that we’ll be looking to fund potentially. It gives us a logic model that identifies the measurement, and evaluation, and the process by which they will be collecting data to demonstrate the impact. We also ask the nonprofits to develop a risk assessment.

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Grant Writing – What Foundations Look For

And that tells us a little bit about how they will identify things that might come up in the process that don’t go the way they expect. And then ways that they would mitigate those situations. And lastly, we look at their board. We want to see that the board composition of the nonprofit is strong and represents the areas that are critical to helping that nonprofit be strong and viable in the community.

HEATHER QUACKENBOSS: If you’re rejected from a grant, be nice. We are human too. And sometimes we get yelled at, and we understand that getting rejected from a grant hurts. It really does. And it’s going to happen, probably a lot, because there’s so much money out there.

And even if you had the greatest program in the world, maybe there was just all kinds of other greatest programs in the world that did maybe get some funding, or didn’t get funding. And you can call. You can certainly ask, could I have done something better? What was wrong? Is there something that wasn’t liked? We’ll talk to you about it.

DENISE BLUMBERG-TENDLE: If you don’t get funded, I recommend to reapply the next grant cycle. It’s such a competitive process, as I’ve tried to stress, and only because there’s limited funding. But we get so many wonderful proposals in each year, it just breaks my heart sometimes that we’re not able to fund more or even all of them. And so if you don’t get funded, please don’t give up, don’t get discouraged. Try again next year.

HEATHER QUACKENBOSS: There are some times when people look at a program, and maybe you think it’s great, but nobody else does. And we can tell you that. And we try to do it in a nice way too.

JOANN BIRKHOLZ: We are humans. We are people. We are very approachable when it comes to discussing projects and answering questions. And I would say, be prepared when you call us– have reviewed the website, have reviewed the funding priorities. And come with questions.

DENISE BLUMBERG-TENDLE: This process can be simplified by just going to the grant manager and asking for clarification on anything that you don’t understand. We can make it easier for you, and it’s always great to develop a relationship with that grant manager anyway. Not that it’s going to help the chance of your getting funded or not, but I just believe good communication is always important in every situation.

HEATHER QUACKENBOSS: Call the foundation you want to apply at, or look them up on a website. And find out everything you can find out, because that’s where you’re going to learn if your mission fits their mission, if your program fits what they want to fund.

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Grant Writing – What Foundations Look For

JOANN BIRKHOLZ: Budgeting is real important. One of the line items that we really encourage nonprofits to include is for measurement and evaluation. We recommend that organizations allow up to 10% of their grant for measurement and evaluation resources, whether that’s staff or other ways to measure the grant work, and demonstrate impact from their program.

DENISE BLUMBERG-TENDLE: Be thoughtful and mindful when you’re putting together your budget for your proposed program. And to ask for exactly what you feel that you need to run a successful program, and not a penny more than that. And that way, maybe more programs can be funded, including yours.

JOANN BIRKHOLZ: Grant seekers, whether they’re new or old, are very passionate about their work. Sometimes they get too close to their proposal and too close to the work that they’re doing. And it’s hard for them to express in layman’s terms, or terms that are little bit more objective, about the work that they’re doing. And so I always recommend that people tap into somebody that’s not as close to their work, and that has a layperson’s view.

HEATHER QUACKENBOSS: Go find the biggest cranky person in your life, and ask them to read your application. Because if you can sell your program to that cranky person, it’s going to be much easier selling it to a foundation or a board that may have some cranky people on it. I think sometimes people think grant writing is a scary thing. And really, it’s taking what your program is, or what your project is, and telling your story to someone who could help you pay for it.

And that person who wants to help you pay for it wants to be part of that story. And that’s when you think of how to write a grant, is develop that relationship so you can tell your story, and those funders can be part of it.

JOANN BIRKHOLZ: We want all of our applicants to be successful and to write strong proposals. So anything we can do, any questions we can answer, any resources we can help identify, we’re here to do that. They’re the folks that are out on the street, working with the people that are in need. And they’re the boots on the ground. So we appreciate all the work that the nonprofits do and really look to see how we can fund as many as we can.

Grant Writing – What Foundations Look For Additional Content Attribution

Susan G. Komen® Minnesota. (2015). ‘How to Apply for Funding’ and ‘Registration’ [Screenshot]. Retrieved from Susan G. Komen® Minnesota. (2015). 2015 Community Grant Request for Applications. Retrieved

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Grant Writing – What Foundations Look For


La Crosse Community Foundation. (2015). Grant Information – Screenshot [Screenshot]. Retrieved from

Medica Foundation. (n.d.). Medica Full Proposal Page I and II, Medica Funding Priority I and II, and Medica Sign-in Page [Screenshot]. Retrieved from courtesy of The Medica Foundation.

Medica Foundation. (n.d.). Medica Foundation – 2015 Funding Priorities, Medica Logic Model Form, Medica Eligibility Quiz, and Medica Risk Assessment Form. Retrieved from Provided courtesy of The Medica Foundation.

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