Tonya applied to the same large foundation prospect every year. She called the grantmaker annually in the lead-up to her proposal submission, always with the same result: No one returned her calls.

Each year, she’d move onto the written application, spending dozens of hours refreshing her earlier approach. One year she tweaked the previous proposal with the latest organizational messaging and outcomes data. Next, she lowered the amount of funding requested. The following cycle, she changed course completely and requested funding for a different project. In a silo, she spun round and round looking for a new “in.” Tonya was determined to succeed, since an award from this funder would constitute her nonprofit’s largest, and its wide name recognition would put her organization on the map.

A wild ride

Funders’ seeming lack of responsiveness can make you question your investment of time—until the next year, when your inner optimist is likely to whisper, “This just might just be your year.”

I can relate. I’ve been in development shops that boasted a portfolio of regularly recurring awards that we renewed with relative ease. But those largest opportunities seemed to speed into our nonprofit leaving a major wake within the organization. Their quick turnaround times and narrow interests forced an already-busy staff to halt pressing priorities for the promise of a long-shot windfall. It was like clinging to your sailboat while the passing cruise ship threw you around—a mix of thrilling and nauseating.

If you see yourself on an equivalent ride, you might consider viewing your work in a way that our colleagues in individual giving know all too well: by viewing your largest foundation and corporate prospects as a distinct part of your portfolio. In doing so, you can begin to see them more clearly as the priorities they are. You can view them as more than just a ratcheting up of annual awards. You can plan accordingly for them year round. Your most significant proposals require a fresh look at your work and the way you approach them. They require a major grants mindset.

Steady the ship, then sail

Some might argue that major private grants do not represent much other than intensifying the work it takes to secure smaller ones. I disagree. As institutional funders go the way of individual donors, I see more of them making larger grants to fewer nonprofits. If you want to be part of that mix, it’s worth creating a more proactive, intentional culture that responds to the needs of major private grantmakers, at whatever size your nonprofit defines them.

Consider asking yourself and your colleagues:

  • Are we examining our grant-related priorities on a regular basis?
  • Are we dedicating resources to the major grants effort, or are we treating it as an extension of our more modest awards?
  • Does our staff have the right skill sets to strengthen our foundation income stream?
  • Does staff not primarily responsible for this work understand its respective role in the process?
  • If a major funder put out a request for proposals tomorrow that seemed ideal for our organization, how ready would we be to submit an application to fund our highest priority project?

If your answers lead you to think that your organization could do more to become competitive, learn more about how to secure major private grants on Thursday, January 27, 2022, during Candid’s webinar, “Make Your Major Foundation and Corporate Grant Applications Stand Out.” 

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