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AVOIDING THE PITFALLS OF GRANT-WRITING Non-profits should develop proposals that don't detract from main mission


It's an old adage in the non-profit world: "The good news is we got the grant. The bad news is we got the grant."

Non-profits should invest time and energy in learning to write grants and develop proposals. Those activities can be especially rewarding in today's economy, as non-profits struggle to secure outside money to replace lost government funds.

Unfortunately, grant writing is not without costs to a non-profit. On the surface, a federal grant program that looks tailor-made for a non-profit may be a Trojan horse. Writing grants usually consumes large blocks of time for overworked staff members. This is particularly troubling at a time when personnel cutbacks have increased the workload of existing staff.

If an organization is applying for one of the typical federal programs, a lead time of only three to six weeks is not uncommon. This places inordinate stresses on staff, as they try to conceptualize, write, revise, budget, photocopy and mail the proposal by the deadline.

There is yet another danger in pursuing grants, especially for smaller non-profits with small staffs. A poorly prepared grant may reflect a poor image of the non-profit.

In its desperation to generate needed cash, the agency may take a shotgun approach, submitting proposals to many sources. The quality of writing is usually poor, the approach is often conceptually weak, the agency often has not formed community alliances to strengthen its approach to the problem it is addressing, and factual errors may be present.

But, the greatest danger in seeking grants is that, in its desperation to raise funds, the agency may submit to a program that does not quite fall within its main mission. This is often the first symptom of a potentially fatal malady. If an organization is detracted from its main mission, it can start slipping in a downward spiral.

What can a non-profit do to ensure that grant-writing is not fatal?

* Design a grant response system that makes sense for your non-profit's operations. This includes everything from getting on mailing lists of potential funding sources to deciding whether to apply, from developing the proposal to tracking it after 'u submission.

* Develop grants proposals through a team, preferably one that includes key upper management. While one individual must coordinate the process, each team member should contribute to the final document.

* Reward grant-writing, whether successful or not -- and most will not bring dollars -- within the agency's personnel evaluation procedures. This is critical if grant-writing is to be enculturated with the organization.

* Never send out a poor quality proposal. It is far better to establish a relationship with the funding source, miss a deadline, and then prepare a winner for the following year.

* Use technology to your advantage. While I have serious doubts about how much more efficient offices are due to computerization, grant-writing is one area that truly benefits from technology. Non-profits should have an entire directory of boilerplate items that can be retrieved as needed in developing a proposal. And, please, use your computerized spell checker every time a proposal goes out.

* Find people who can act as "naive readers" for a proposal. These are people who have no connection to your agency and who are not experts in your field. Have them check for logical flow, grammar, readability, excessive jargon.

"But," you might say, "our field is so specialized, you need to be an expert to understand our proposals." Trust me on this one. If it takes an expert to understand what you've written, do it over.

* Finally, make sure your proposals reflect your agency's strengths. Never apply for funds that will detract your agency from its primary mission.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works wit charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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