5 tips to get from draft to done
A request for proposal (RFP) lands on your desk. You scan it. It looks like a good fit for one of your organization's programs. It's due in six weeks.
You send a brief summary of the opportunity to the program director and/or your CEO. And then you return to the other 10 things on your desk — the grant proposals, the semi-annual reports, the budget modifications, the requests for extensions and a dozen other things.
A week or two later, the RFP resurfaces at the top of your to-do list. You realize you haven't heard back from the program director, or maybe the response was "go for it."
You sit down and read through the RFP carefully, highlighting and making notes. The anticipated award amounts are attractive. From what you know of your program, it appears competitive for this opportunity.
But now you've compiled a list of things you need to know about the program that you don't already have at your fingertips. How many people does the program serve? How many more could benefit if this grant were awarded? What are their demographics — gender, age, race, income level? How would the program be run differently if it had this grant funding? Where would the program expand geographically? What other organizations would play a role? How much will it cost and what is the line item budget? What are the SMART goals and objectives? How will it be evaluated and by whom?
In a perfect world, you'd call a meeting of all the parties involved — the program director, a finance/budgeting person, representatives from other departments or organizations that would be affected, perhaps even a client.
In a perfect world, you'd walk out of that meeting with an agreed upon, comprehensive picture of what this grant funding would do for the program. Each of your colleagues would be sent on his or her way with a piece of the proposal to complete and return to you at least two weeks before the due date.
In a perfect world, you'd receive everything back from the committee within days of the meeting, leaving you to smooth out the flow of the narrative to a single voice. You'd re-read it against the RFP and any scoring guidance provided by the funder. You'd follow up by requesting and receiving any additional information you need to clarify and strengthen the proposal.
In a perfect world, you'd get sign off from your CEO and submit the proposal with days to spare.
Sadly, we don't live in a perfect world. We live in the not-for-profit world where every staff person plays multiple roles. For instance, program directors are likely to be responsible for administrative oversight of several programs, as well as supervising and training their staff, filling vacancies, managing budgets and perhaps providing direct client services personally.
Their work weeks are so filled with day-to-day responsibilities and the fires that need to be doused that it is hard for them to even imagine what the future could look like, let alone take the time to assist you in writing and securing a grant. And if that is the reality of the people who should be most invested in your programs, how will they ever be able to administer the program under an additional new grant?
So how do you keep your grant proposal development from coming to a standstill? How do you meet your departmental goals when program directors have priorities that conflict with yours?
Prepare for the future
Just like you have a canned boilerplate statement describing your organization and its mission, make sure you have readily available the financial and statistical information for your organization — preferably specific to departments and individual programs. This information is something that you should routinely collect over time as you write multiple grants for each of your programs. Note that you shouldn't be afraid to use sections of previous grants in a new proposal. Just be sure to update it and match it to the funder's interests.
Meet with program directors before a grant opportunity arises and learn as much as you can about their programs. Find out if they keep statistics specific to their program — perhaps something required by an existing funder or regulatory body. Make note of how frequently this data is gathered and by whom. Find out if the program uses evidence-based models; and, if so, inquire as to which ones are used and why they were chosen. This is valuable information that can help you develop stronger proposals.
Identify the person who can get you statistics
Find out who in your organization can pull statistical and financial information. This may not necessarily be restricted to someone who works for the program you're helping. It may be someone in finance or IT. You want to find out who can manipulate the database that your organization keeps to track client information so that you can get baseline data and other pertinent facts for your proposals.
Get buy-in from administrators and senior staff members
Make sure that the program director's supervisor knows about the RFP, the new proposal's concept and how much money it could bring in. You need the administration to buy in to each proposal long before it's submitted to a funder. Most importantly, you want senior staff to understand the importance of grant funding to the organization.
To ensure their interest and commitment to grant funding, you might consider offering a mini-training session for senior staff, directors and managers so that they better understand what you do and why — and how it can help their programs. Having their support will also help when it comes time to report back to funders.
Draft as much as you can without them
Obviously, you need to have some understanding of the program that you will be writing about and some guidance as to what the grant funding could do for the program. You'll at the very least need the go-ahead from the program director and/or senior staff to begin. Also, you'll need them to provide you some basics. For example, you will need to know if they plan to expand the program or if they hope that that new monies will fill a funding gap in the existing program. Once you have all the information that you need, you will be ready to respond to the RFP as best you can.
As you write the proposal, use placeholders for things that you need to confirm or gather. For instance, write sentences that have blank spaces indicating the need for specific information — such as "A grant from ABC Foundation will allow us to provide hot meals to XXX more people in 2015 than we did in 2013." Then look to fill in the placeholders with accurate information from the program director. Asking a program director for very specific information is much less daunting to the program director than asking him or her to complete a section of the proposal.
It's easy for emails to get overlooked in a busy program director's life. To make sure you get the needed information from the program director as soon as possible, don't wait until the week the proposal is due to ask for it. Send your placeholder statements as soon as possible. Then, follow emails with personal phone calls. Be sure to set reasonable deadlines for the information to be returned to you. And if you don't receive what you need in a timely manner, follow up with another friendly phone call.
Lastly, don't consider yourself a nag. Consider yourself a squeaky wheel — going round and round, all in pursuit of additional program funding for your organization.