Article by Bryan Yannantuono, Schmidt Public Affairs


You’ve heard it too many times: “there’s money everywhere, you just have to know where to look!”

But if you just established your nonprofit or are new to the world of grants, the task can seem nearly impossible. How do I find those mysterious moneymakers? What does RFP or NOFO mean? How do these grants fit with our mission and strategic plan? And, most self-defeating of all, why would they ever give a grant to us?

Fret not, friends. This guide will help you understand how to identify suitable grant opportunities to help your organization truly thrive.

Grants are the Fuel that Keep Nonprofits Going

Grants help nonprofit organizations like yours sustain the great work they are doing. Put simply, grants are resources (monetary or in-kind) given to organizations without the expectation of repayment so that they can carry out activities to support their mission.

Seeing grants as “an investment in positive change,” funders almost always attach strings to grant funding, which can vary by funder as well as the type of grant being offered. For example, program grants typically restrict funding to specific activities outlined by the funder or described in your proposal, while general operating support grants can help you build capacity by broadly applying funds to the areas where they are most needed across your organization.

Though grants are “free” in the sense that you do not need to repay them, you will have to comply with the requirements and restrictions set by the funder. Such requirements may include stipulations on what activities you may carry out with grant funds, the scope of the population that you serve, and monitoring and evaluation (M&E), especially in terms of measuring the extent to which you achieve your stated outcomes. Make sure you understand the funder’s expectations before applying to avoid any unforeseen challenges down the road. This includes reporting requirements, the period of performance, cost-sharing obligations, and M&E procedures.

Strategic Considerations

When applying for grants, is it better to follow a targeted approach or cast a wide net? The key is to be strategic about which grant opportunities you write proposals for. While the pressure for resources is real, it is almost always better to apply for grants that align closely with your organization’s mission than to seek funding for programs outside of your core competency.

Doing so will increase your success rate, which even for the most effect proposal writers will never be 100%. It will also save you time: why waste valuable resources preparing lengthy applications for grants that are only marginally related to the issues you care about?

Being strategic will also help you avoid mission creep, which happens when organizations drift away from their original mission by carrying out unrelated programs. Just because a grant looks like easy money (and I hope, by reading this, you understand that’s never the case), it does not mean you should apply. Declining some opportunities will help your nonprofit be much more focused on your stakeholders, beneficiaries, and mission, which will ultimately give you more leverage when writing proposals for grants that are a much better fit for you.

Finally, it is important to consider your capacity. Say you write 10 proposals for the fiscal year and receive funding for 6. Does your organization have the manpower to successfully meet each of the funder’s expectations? If the answer is no, you should discuss with your team which opportunities are most worth going after. It is not only embarrassing for an organization to fail in its obligations to a funder, but it can lead to long-term harm: the funder will not renew the grant due to nonperformance, harming your reputation and chances for applying to new opportunities in the future.

Where to Search for Grants

After your team comes to a consensus on your grant strategy, it’s time to begin searching for opportunities. If you already have an idea of the funders you’d like to pursue, great! By all means browse their websites and see what they might offer. But don’t stop there: there are thousands of funders who may not be obvious, but want to invest in programs like yours. With so many opportunities out there, where do you begin?

Funders will typically post grant announcements online as Requests for Proposals (RFPs) or Notices of Funding Opportunities (NOFOs). Below are a few databases for researching new grants and funders.

  1. Federal Grants — To search a wide array of grants from the federal government, explore grants.gov. You can easily filter the results by agency, issue category, grant type, or your organization’s eligibility. If it is your first time applying through grants.gov, be sure to prepare your application well in advance since you will need to have a unique entity identifier (UEI) (also referred to as a Data Universal Numbering System/DUNS number from Dun & Bradstreet), as well as a valid registration on www.SAM.gov to apply.
  2. State and Local Grants — States, counties, and municipalities can be fantastic funding sources, especially if your nonprofit is anchored in the community. You may have to navigate the government websites for your state and city, but a useful starting point is the Grantsmanship Center’s State Grant Resources page. Grantwatch is another great place to find state and local grants.
  3. Foundations and Corporate Funding — Since 90% of the 140,000 foundations in the U.S. don’t have websites, searching through databases like the Foundation Center’s Foundation Directory Online can be a gamechanger. This highly responsive system gives users the ability to identify potential funders that care about your mission, dig deeper into the roles of key staff members, understand funder expectations and limitations, and explore the size, number, and focus of the funder’s past grants. You can also gather more in-depth information by delving into funders’ IRS Forms-990, which detail organizations’ grant awards. Guidestar is another great resource for gathering up-to-date information about nonprofits which can help you decide whether — and how — to approach potential funders. Meanwhile, the Community Foundation Locator can be a useful tool for finding foundations in your area.
  4. Professional Grantwriters — Many nonprofits enlist the help of professional grantwriters to help them land new grant opportunities. Given their expertise and dedication to development, professional grantwriters can help you save valuable time by identifying new funding sources that align with your organization’s mission. As the name implies, these experts will also draft stand-out proposals for you to submit, helping you to diversify your revenue streams and increase your cost-efficiency. Though they may not have the institutional memory that a member of your staff brings to the table, professional grantwriters can wield their nuanced understanding of funders to help your organization boost its success rate over time.

Call to Action

Want to learn more about seeking grants for your nonprofit? 202works is happy to offer professional advice on finding the right grant for you and how to write winning proposals that will sustain the programs that are vital to your community. Contact us today to set up a consultation.

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About the Author

Bryan Yannantuono

Bryan is a mission-driven nonprofit professional specializing in program development at every stage of the grant cycle. After successfully penning proposals for six-figure grants, Bryan designs all aspects of the program, evaluates its effectiveness through rigorous M&E procedures, and strategically communicates the impact to key stakeholders in order to gain wider support and secure future funding.

With an eye for the creative, Bryan especially enjoys crafting engaging content for social media, advocacy, and fundraising campaigns. Devoted to promoting worthwhile causes, Bryan is especially passionate about public diplomacy, international exchange, foreign policy, and all things China, having studied in Beijing as a U.S. State Department Critical Language Scholar. When not working, Bryan enjoys writing poetry, seeing underground bands, burying his nose in obscure books, and sampling street food in far-flung corners of the globe.

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