by Maya Casagrande, Grants Specialist


“If we’re not careful, we’ll all end up wearing our underwear on the outside.”

– A not-so-ancient grant world proverb

Especially for those new to the grant world, it can be a challenging, daunting, and mysterious place – full of nuances to decipher, rabbitholes to fall down, and hoops to jump through. But it can also be an exciting, constructive, and fruitful world…when you’re prepared. Whether you are a maternal health organization in India or an environmental organization in the United States, here are a few general tips we follow and hope are helpful for you in your own journey through the grant world.

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  1. Assess your organizational readiness.

Small nonprofits often dive into the grant process because they are in need. However, those most in need of funding are also sometimes those least prepared to seek it, secure it, and appropriately and responsibly utilize it. By ensuring you have the appropriate organizational and programmatic elements in place before you start the process, you will not only eliminate the need for additional work, but will also position your organization for success with grant applications.

Each foundation sets their own criteria and application processes, so start by reviewing several potential funders’ websites to get an idea of what elements you need (certified financials, statement of need, target population information, monitoring and evaluation frameworks, etc). Ideally, you will already have all of this in place. If not, don’t fret – this is a great prompt to stimulate your own development and refinement of the parameters for your approach, as well as the frameworks and tools you need to make it happen. Just be sure that everything is in place before you begin the grant process. Or, not only will you end up making more work for yourself as you scramble to evaluate and explain, but you may also end up harming future chances with funders if you approach them unprepared.

  1. Don’t follow the money.

Counterintuitive? Probably. However, remembering this unwritten rule will not only make your life easier, but also enable you to most effectively serve your target populations. Funders can inadvertently put pressure on potential grantees to fit within their (sometimes narrow) focus and philosophy. It is easy to muddle priorities when much-needed dollars are within view, and making (significant) compromises to appeal to or appease funders can be a slippery slope. An organization dedicated to water and sanitation development in Uganda may suddenly find itself building a school in Rwanda. While it is of course wonderful that these kids now have a school, the new school probably isn’t furthering the mission of providing water and sanitation to those in Uganda.

To effectively serve your target beneficiaries, your objectives (hopefully formulated based on results from needs assessments) should dictate your funding needs, priorities, and allocations, not the other way around. If you start expanding or changing programming to match funders’ interests, you may very well find that your organization is no longer doing what it intended, or what makes sense. Thus, how we can end up “wearing our underwear on the outside.” The cost of saying “no” to a funder can be great, but the cost of saying “yes” can be much greater. So, stay true to your mission and your objectives, and seek out funders that support the scope of work as defined by YOUR mission. Finding the right fit can require a good deal of exploration beyond the obvious funders, so set aside a chunk of time, get your research hat on, and dive in!

  1. Embrace the opportunity to ask yourself hard questions.

By no means are we suggesting that organizations should be rigid and unwaivering in their approach, only that there can be great costs to pursuing grants that are beyond an organization’s scope. However, beyond the obvious benefit of providing increased financial support, foundations can inadvertently serve as a sort of “devil’s advocate,” encouraging (and often requiring) organizations to thoroughly assess their programming, operations, and processes.

Our advice? Seize these opportunities – the grant process can serve as a great stimulus for comprehensive internal evaluations and improvements. This is especially true of the reporting phase (during and after the grant period). It can be easy to consider reporting a dreaded and tedious administrative task, but approaching it instead as an opportunity to review and reflect on your work, ask yourself hard questions, and work to resolve them can be an incredible catalyst for improvement. Discrepancies between projected and actual financials, activities, outcomes and impact can be discouraging (and yes, at times embarassing), but they are also valuable, so don’t sweep them under the rug. Instead, use them to formulate lessons learned and adjust accordingly, and you will be that much closer to maximizing your impact.

  1. Miscalculations? Shortcomings? Yes, honesty is still the best policy.

In conversations with foundations at any stage, be cautious about how you present your organization – targets, impact, financials, etc. The inclination to present your organization in the best possible light is natural, but can, and often will, come back to bite you. Communicate your problems and challenges honestly. You may be surprised how many funders appreciate the candor, particularly when it comes with a plan of action on how best to address challenges moving forward.

Furthermore, glossing over your organization’s challenges and shortcomings will almost certainly prove problematic during the reporting phase – always keep in mind that goals, activities, and budgets outlined in the proposal will be what you’re measured against down the line. Proposals written with rose-colored lenses may both set you up for failure and jeopardize future funding. So, be realistic from the outset, explain shortcomings honestly, and bring your best problem-solving skills to the table when necessary.

  1. It’s okay to push back. Gently.

Generally, it’s best to adhere strictly to funders’ guidelines and requirements when it comes to the application process, but a lesser known fact is that there is room for discussion when it comes to the scope of the grant and reporting. You may find that a foundation asks you to provide quarterly, rather than biannual or annual reports, or to visit field staff on a regular basis. In these instances, evaluate the cost of meeting these requests – where would resources NOT be going if they went to fulfill these requests? If the administrative burden of a grant feels unreasonable and would significantly detract from the work at hand, have an open conversation with the funder. Remember that foundations exist to support organizations’ work and are generally interested in maximizing impact, so they can be surprisingly flexible if you (diplomatically) outline the strain they are unintentionally putting on the organization.

With the size and diversity of the foundation world, you will surely encounter funders all along the spectrum, from traditional to progressive, rigid to flexible, simple to complex. But, whoever the funder, be prepared, embrace requirements as opportunities, and have open, honest conversations with funders. Keeping these tips in mind as you navigate the grant world will help make the experience more constructive and productive. And, this will hopefully keep your underwear on the inside, where it belongs.

For a comprehensive compilation of philanthropy news, funding opportunities, tips, and other helpful resources, we recommend visiting the Foundation Center and The Grantsmanship Center.

For more information on how we prepare our partners for grants and a portfolio of our work, click here.