Last week I offered a short tutorial on how not to get a grant. Now, by popular demand, I’m sharing thoughts about what you can do—beyond not committing those seven deadly sins—to increase the chances of getting funding for a project from a foundation like ours.
As you read these suggestions, keep in mind two important caveats: First, these are my idiosyncratic views, and represent no more. Grain of salt, and all that. Second, many factors well outside the control of prospective grantees affect their chances of success. These include, for example, a funder’s grantmaking budget, the type of strategy being pursued and the particular moment in that strategy’s lifetime. When the budget isn’t growing and a strategy is already well underway, a funder may find it difficult to start a relationship with a new organization, regardless of the brilliance of the idea being proposed. If, on the other hand, a funder is in an exploratory mode or has recently seen a bump in her budget, she may be actively searching for new ideas and partners. That’s a great opportunity just waiting to be seized.
With those qualifications, herewith my best advice:
- Know your niche. We have a field-wide view and are supporting a constellation of work within a particular area—in our case, for example, reproductive health and rights, women’s economic empowerment or transparency and accountability. Beyond a project’s intrinsic merits, we’re going to be wondering how your organization and the project you’re proposing fit into the bigger picture. Do you have special technical skills, the ability to reach audiences that others do not, or some other asset that would make a valuable addition to our portfolio? If so, help us see that.
- Lead from strength and connect to mission. Tell us about the one or two genuine strengths your organization has that make you the right folks to take on the project you are proposing. Help us understand how the project fits into your larger institutional mission. We want to see how funding for a particular activity will leverage organizational assets and why you’re eager to pursue it.
- Be able to answer the question “What would success look like?” Period.
- Use the pitch as prototype. When you’re describing the project, demonstrate the skills you are going to need to successfully implement it. If it’s a research project, convey that you have done your own research on what and where we fund, and on who else is working on the same question. If it’s research intended for direct policy uptake, show that you can talk about technical issues in ways that non-specialists can understand. If it’s a data visualization project, show us the implementation plan in a way that communicates information about timing and level of effort in a compelling way. If it’s an advocacy project, put your best communications staff onto the task of communicating with us.
- Figure out how to articulate your theory of change in 60 seconds. That’s too little time to get across all the nuances, but enough to demonstrate that you’ve thought through the logic connecting dollars to impact. Being able to give a snapshot of your thought process is critical to demonstrating that you’ve thought long and hard about how to succeed, and that you can get others—staff, policymakers, us—to understand, and buy into, your vision.
- Eschew abstraction. Help us get a picture in our minds of what you’re proposing to do. Instead of “convenings with decisionmakers” try “ three meetings in our Washington, DC, offices with officials from USAID and Treasury, along with a couple of the leading academics working on illicit financial flows.” Instead of “promoting a rights-based approach” try “analyzing the relevant provisions of the UN conventions, and developing a country-specific strategy, starting in Uganda, to support human rights lawyers working on precedent-setting safe abortion cases.”
- Balance enthusiasm for your idea with openness. Once we’ve heard what you’re proposing to do, we may have some suggestions about ways to strengthen the idea and increase its potential impact. We’re looking for partners who will engage in a back-and-forth about what will make for the most successful project—but we’re not interested in working with groups that will do anything we suggest just because we’re on the funder side of the conversation. It’s a delicate balance and achieving it takes real effort on the part of everyone involved.
- It’s a relationship, not a transaction. When we start a serious conversation about a grant, we’re committing far more than money. We’re committing time and a collaborative spirit, entering into a relationship of trust. And so are you.
Let’s stick with these eight, knowing that in the Chinese tradition eight is the number associated with one of the most important determinants of whether a pitch is successful: luck.