By Sarah B Lange under Uncategorized on February 19, 2024

5 Ways to Revolutionize Your Grant Writing

Hi everyone, I'm Sarah Lange and I'm here to spark the philanthropy revolution. The word philanthropy means love of mankind. My show is all about the ways we can open our doors and hearts so we can do more good.

Hey everybody, happy 2024. This is Sarah Lange. For those of you who don't know who I am, I am a professional fundraiser. I have raised over $100 million and I have been in the sector for 35 years doing fundraising. I've worked with over 200 nonprofits and I'm here to share my tips and tricks with you of the things that I've learned so you can raise more money and do more good.

I was off for the month of January. I just needed to hibernate and re-calibrate for a little while after a crazy Q4. So I am back in the saddle and ready to get going with a really robust schedule of guests and to do more good. So I'm going to talk about a few topics for this year. So it's a little bit about me, a little bit about what I do. And today what I want to do is talk about ways you can revolutionize your grant writing.

So grant writing is actually the second most effective fundraising strategy there is in terms of return on your time and investment. But the rejection rate is about 80%. Back in the day, pre-2000. It used to be about 60%. But then when the market crashed, the competition for grants became more fierce. And then estates made cuts, became more fierce. So now the rejection rate is about 80%. So sometimes you have to keep knocking on the door of a foundation before you get funded. Our team actually has a success rate of 78%. So we have definitely cracked the code on grant writing.

How lucrative is grant writing? In 2022, $499.33 billion were given to U.S. charities. And foundations provided 21% of that funding or $105.21 billion. So you can see it's a pretty big, juicy slice of pie. And that number represents a 2.5% increase over 2021. And it's anticipated to go up again in 2023. So you can see why grants are worth your investment. So what's happening now is we're seeing that philanthropy overall is expanding while the last couple of years have seen a downturn in individual donors. But philanthropy is still growing so don't worry.

The first place you need to start is with your homework. And I cannot emphasize this enough. Doing your homework is going to save you a lot of rejection. So I would really recommend that you hop onto a grants database. I use Foundation Directory Online, but there are lots of others. I haven't used them, so I can't speak to them. But I'm sure those of you who are tuning in have your own favorites. And if that's working for you, then great. So what I do is I hop on the grants database and I type in a few keywords. So for example, I like to use very broad categories. So I will use the term “youth” versus “inner city youth” because I want the biggest return possible. Same thing with geography. I will type in Massachusetts instead of Worcester, again, to get the broadest return available.

Now, here comes the fun part. Every search return arrives, and then you have to go through each profile individually to see if the funder is a good match for you. And this is why I like the Foundation Directory Online because it has an advanced search feature. So it costs more, but it saves me a lot of time. And I only buy one month at a time and then cluster my research. And no, I am not a partner of Foundation Directory Online. I wish they were paying me for every time I mentioned them, but they don't. This is just me sharing my personal experience with you. And I use the Foundation Directory Online because I find the advanced feature really helps me cut through the research much more quickly. So now you've gone through all your profiles and you've slimmed down your list to funders you really think are a good match, and you're still not done.

Your foundation directories are not complete, they depend on foundations to provide them with the information, and they don't have all the foundations in the country necessarily. So they may have a good chunk of them, but they certainly don't have all of them. So the next step is to look at the foundation's website. Believe it or not, less than 50% of all foundations even have websites, I mean, how silly is that? So you may not find one, but when you do, you want to scour it for information so you make sure that you're in alignment with the foundation's giving priorities and geographic surface areas. Now, one of the things I want to point out is that there are a lot of older foundations which are housed in private wealth management departments in banks or at law firms. And so they aren't staffed, and that's why they don't have a website. So that's why these funding directories are so important, because some of these things just can't be found otherwise.

Now that you've scoured their website and you're still feeling like there's a green light, the next step is to look at their 990. Now, I look at their 990s for the past three years. I use GuideStar is about a year and a half behind, but you can still get three years of data. And the data that I look at is the types of organizations they're giving to, the amount of funding they're giving to these organizations, and whether it's just seems like it's a closed group. So if they've been given to, you know, the same five nonprofits for the last three years, then I'm thinking that may be a bit more of a stretch. And for a situation like that, I would develop a relationship first with the foundation if I could, start putting them on our communications list and just see if I can get to know the trustees somehow. Because if they're giving way to the same groups year after year, your chances are not that great. So the reason I look at the 990s also is to help me set a realistic ask. No funder wants you to come in the first time and say their range is like $5,000 to $25,000. They do not want you coming in through the door asking for $25,000. That feels a little too bold for them. Foundations tend to be a little more conservative. So I would set my ask at, if the range at like $10,000 or lower, just so you're making a nice, polite, well-timed entry. So like I said, you might have to actually apply a few years to get in the door of the foundation. In the meantime, you want to make sure that they're learning as much about you as possible.

Now that you've done all that homework, and again, I know it's not fun. I know it's not necessarily all of our favorite activities, but when you do your homework, it sets you up for success. And that's one of the reasons we have a 78% success rate is because we do our homework. So we diligently vet every single foundation that we approach. And we want to make sure that we are not wasting our time, energy, or our clients' money. So we do a lot of homework, but that's why we succeed at the rate we do. So what you're going to find, if you haven't already discovered this, is that most foundations have their own special precious application process. And this is something that really drives me nuts. In the United States, there is a common application format that college students, when they're applying, can just go to this portal and fill out the application. And it's one common application. So I really wish foundations would do this because when they have their own special precious application and budget forms, board forms, they're actually squandering their own resources because foundations are here to support the programming of nonprofits, and yet if they have all these forms and you have to jump through all these hoops, then they're kind of ending up wasting their own money because now you're spending time filling out that application rather than raising more money from other sources. Someday I'm going to take on this fight, but right now I have other fish to fry. But someday, I'm going to make a point of that.

I've actually sat on a number of distribution committees over the years. And what I can tell you from personal experience is that there are certain things that work and certain things that do not. So what I can tell you is you need to understand that most committees are comprised of average folks who are not fundraising professionals, they're just volunteers from different sectors. They may not know your organization. They may not understand the issue. And they may not be familiar with the work that you do. So it's your job to convey that to them because you just have to assume that your reader knows nothing about your organization. So this application has to do all the talking for you. The other thing to understand is that a lot of these committees meet after work. So think about how you feel, excuse me, after a day at work. You're usually pretty tired, right? So now you have to go to a committee meeting and actually read applications. So they're usually coming in after a full day of work, they're probably a little tired, and then they're fed something quick and easy like, “oh, pasta or pizza.” And that proverbial limp salad drowning in Italian dressing. And this means that as the meeting is starting, they're probably sliding into a carb coma, right? Just as they sit down to read your grant. It's not a good look, right? It's our job to wake them up and keep them awake throughout the review process.

I'm going to give you some tips and tricks on how to keep your readers engaged through the whole grant writing reading process. So what I like to do is I open with a startling quote or a piece of data. So for example, with one client, I wrote, “did you know that 95% of all homeless families in Massachusetts are comprised of a young mother with two children under the age of five?” Wow. I don't know about you, but usually the homeless folks I see out on the street are men, right? So we don't like to think that there are moms with little kids out on the streets, but in Massachusetts, that's what most homeless families look like. And we don't necessarily see them because mom is trying to keep those kids off the streets. So by having this quote, it immediately challenges their perceptions of who homeless people are in Massachusetts. And it kind of is like a little pinch, right? So we don't want to think of a young mom with two little kids who are homeless. We don't want to think about them living in their car. We don't want to think about them maybe living in a tent somewhere and they may not be safe, right? So we don't like to think about that. So it makes us a little uncomfortable. So now they're awake and they're paying attention. And here's where you can position your organization and programs and services as the solution to that problem.

Another way I used to present this information is by saying this, “imagine having no place to eat, to sleep or bathe. Now imagine living like this with two small children in tow.” Again, it's that painting a picture of the reality of the situation in a way that pinches their heart a little bit, because that's going to make them pay attention. It's going to make them have an emotional reaction. And that's what we want. Philanthropy is a heart-centered activity. So through our grant writing, we are trying to reach their heart. We are trying to get them a little bit upset that this problem exists. So this is why I like to throw out these pieces of data or a quote at the beginning of a grant to sort of set the stage. Another striking quote that I have used is about one in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point during her life. Chances are, you know, at least one person who's been delivered a diagnosis that's devastating.

Now that we've gotten their attention, we want to continue to provide them with engaging, powerful information. So how do you do this? Well, tip two is that you write in the first person. Like I said, philanthropy is a heart-centered activity and you have to you have to reach the heart of the readers with your words, since you cannot be there to convey your passion and stir up their compassion and their empathy. So I actually use something called the “wheel of emotion” to ramp up an emotional impact of the narrative I'm writing. And the “wheel of emotion” starts with like core emotions in the middle. And then as you move out, it gives you more dramatic or impactful words for that same emotion. So you might use the word, if the word is sad, you might use the word distressed. So distressed is a much more emotionally impactful word than just sad or upset, right? Those are fine words, but again, we're striving for that emotional impact. And so if you want to get a copy of the wheel, you can drop me an email at [email protected] and we'll get that to you. I can't believe I just mispronounced my last name, Jetlag. Anyway, Jesse's going to drop my email in the chat so you can get it. And if you want the wheel of emotion, just send me an email and we will get that out to you.

The third tip I have for you today is that as much as you can, you want to use visual cues to convey information in a quickly and easily to absorb format. So this might be a photo with a quote, especially if it's from somebody who you have served and they have had some sort of change or positive transformation and it's in their own words. Boom, right? Picture says a thousand words. So find those photos and get those quotes. You can also use pull quotes, which in the old days with the newspaper and sometimes even with digital stuff, you'll see a quote that's pulled out in like a little box. So you can do that in your grant as well. If there's some point that you really, really, really want to make sure that they get, you want to do a pull quote because they'll visually go, “oh, what is this?” It's been visually set aside and it kind of puts it in a spot of importance. So use pull quotes. You can use infographics, you can use graphics, and you can sync them right into your application. Now with online applications, this can be a little challenging, but you can still weave in those quotes. And some funders allow you to upload supplemental material. So you're going to want to use that opportunity to share this type of material with them. I remember back in the day, I used to work in a community development corporation. And so we had created this before/after photo page for every different year. And it was quite dramatic. So you would see this abandoned, triple-decker that was all boarded up. And then you would see this really nice brandy new triple-decker with a family on the front porch who was cutting a ribbon because they were now going to own the home and then rent out the other two units. So as if you could do something dramatic like that, awesome. And if your work lends itself really well to before and after, that can be a great way to convey the transformation that your organization is achieving. 

Tip four is from the mouth of babes. So I really encourage you to use testimonials, quotes from and stories about your service recipients to provide your readers with another perspective. So what we need to remember is foundations believe that they are change makers, and they are. They may not be providing you with every penny that you wish they were, or the funding you really need to implement your programs and services, but they helping you achieve your mission, and they are creating transformation and change for the people who are coming to you for services and help. So you want to make sure that they understand the impact that you're having. And sometimes the problems we address are really big and vague and overwhelming, like “homelessness.” That is a very complex issue. And the way out of homelessness is equally complex. So, that can feel overwhelming. But if you can tell the story of the mom with the two kids that now are in an apartment, whereas before maybe they were surfing on somebody's couch or living in their car, or like in a tent at the backside of a wooded area, that's a really uplifting story. And they can see, “oh, gosh, look, there's transformation happening.” There is change happening. So you want to break it down into bite sized pieces. But more importantly, you want to make it human, right? When we deal with big scale problems, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, healthcare issues, you know, mental health, it can feel like, “oh, this problem is so big, we're never going to be able to make an impact.” But by breaking it down to a single human story, you can help them understand like, “yeah, change is possible.” And this is also another really great way to connect with their hearts, because how do we connect with each other as humans? Through our stories, right? When I meet someone new, I want to know, who are you? Where do you come from? What do you love to do? You know, do you work outside the home? And if so, like, what, what do you do outside the home? What do you do when you're not working? You know, so we all want to hear each other's stories. And that's how we connect. So if you can provide the stories of your clients and your service recipients, then that can really help them connect and see, excuse me, the change is happening, and it also stimulates their heart.

This is another reason that exit interviews are really important. So if you are doing exit interviews with your service recipients, awesome, give that information to your fundraising team, because you want to make sure that they're getting this firsthand report on how your organization helped make a difference.

The fifth and final tip I'm going to leave you with today is that we want to make sure that we're focusing most of our narrative on the need that we're meeting, as well as the outcome or impact our programs and services are having, not only on the people who are receiving them, but on their families and the community as a whole. So no matter what your mission is, there is going to be a ripple effect. So for every person that you help, there are other people that will be uplifted whether it’s because the person has made some kind of transformation, so say it’s a smoking cessation program, “Okay, great, now we’re not exposing other people to cigarette smoke”Perhaps their health SES will be improved, perhaps their life will be extended.  But also now they can tell other people, “Oh! After like five tries, I finally quit smoking.” because they’re gonna be proud of that, right? I know my mom finally kicked cigarettes, unfortunately, it was too late, she already have lung cancer but she felt like she had ,like conquered the devil, right? Because she just could not unhooked from cigarettes, and finally she was able to, but took a long time for her, and she was telling everybody that would listen how she conquered this thing that had controlled her life for so long. It’s not just about the impact that you’re having on the folks that are coming to your organization and participating on your programs and services but it’s also their families, and the community as a whole so think about kinda those rings of change and you want to make sure you’re sharing that with your potential funders. Foundations, again we must remember that they like to think of themselves as change agents so we want to show them how their funding is going to make a positive difference for our community.

Let’s make sure we focus more on the goodnight sleep and not the mattressI. Well what is that mean? I like to think about the transformation is really the good night's sleep and your organization is the mattress. Now, when we go mattress shopping, do we really care about like the brand, individually wrapped coils, pillow top versus memory foam? Ultimately, what we're looking for is a good night's sleep. And ultimately, that's what your donors and your funders are looking for. What is the transformation or the change that you are having in the world? And with the people that you’re working with. Focus on the good night's sleep. Figure out what that is. Sometimes it can be a little bit ethereal. So for example, I was working with a women's organization for a while, and they provide housing and advocacy and shelter. And when we started really digging into words that the clients were using through our exit interview process, one of the top words was, “I had a safe place to be.” And for a woman who's been homeless to say, like “the minute I walked through your doors, I knew I was safe.” That's profound. That's really profound to have a mom with a couple of small kids who's been living in her back of her car say, I can actually sleep tonight because I know my kids are safe. Boom, right? And that's the work we're doing. That's the good night's sleep. So that's what our funders want to hear about. That's what our donors want to hear about. So we want to make sure that we focus on that good night's sleep, on the impact, on the outcomes, because that's really why they're... So we're in the business of ending homelessness, ending domestic violence, whatever, fill in your mission. That's our business. They're in the business of funding that change, right? So we want to make sure that we're providing them with that feedback that they are making a difference, that they can continue to make a difference.

At the end of the day, your application must outline the case of need, right? So tell them, why do you exist? What's your origin story? Why did your organization come into being? So for example, that women's organization I was just telling you about, founded in 1974 as the women's movement was taking off and a group of women decided that they didn't like the fact that there was no set-aside shelter for women, that the few homeless women that they could get into the shelter really didn't feel safe because it was a co-ed shelter. And so that women with children sure as heck weren't going to go in there because they felt like they were potentially putting their children at risk. And so they got together and they created a woman-only shelter and they made sure that it was a space that could accommodate children as well. So kept tipping back into that origin story of women needing a safe place to be, whether they have children or not. So we continue to talk about why does that need still exist today? They've been in business since 1974. Why do we still need shelter and affordable housing for women and kids? So we look at things like affordability of apartments. We look at the fact that a lot of these women are working lower wage jobs and can't pull together a deposit first and last month's rent to get an apartment. So we talk about the affordability issue, the cost issue, and other factors that prevent these women from moving into the next phase of independence. So we talk all about the need. We position the organization as the natural solution for the problem at hand, right? You guys came into being for a reason and you're still in business for a reason. So make sure that they know that you are the solution to the problem you're trying to solve. You also need to demonstrate that you are making and can make a difference. And again, that's all those stories about completion rates. So for example, one of my clients has the highest completion rate in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for graduating of their program. And so we talk about that all the time. Because honestly, when I first started working with them, let's just say it was a dumpster fire. So they are now the leading program in their niche in the entire Commonwealth and have been recognized as such. So talk about transformation. They didn't just transform things for themselves, but now they have the highest completion rate in the Commonwealth. So brag about the good work you're doing, people. You also want to create a sense of urgency. You don't need this money the next grant cycle. You need it now. Right. So you want to talk about why this funding is needed now. And remember, distribution committees usually have more asks on the table than they can possibly fund. So do everything you can to end up in the “yes” pile, so you'll end up with a check and not a rejection letter. 

Those are my five tips on revolutionizing your grant writing. If you have any questions or comments, you can drop me an email at [email protected]. If you want a copy of The Wheel of Emotion, again, shoot me an email. We'll get that out to you. And if you're not already doing so, I would really encourage you to follow me on social media because I dropped some of the fundraising tips and hacks that I used to raise over $100 Million. So I'm on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube. So I'm going to be back in a couple of weeks with my guest, Steven Shattuck, who is the author of Robots Make Bad Fundraisers, which is an awesome title. And he's going to share his latest findings on capital campaigns. So that's his main focus of work right now. And for anyone that's thinking about launching a capital campaign in the next 3 years, I would strongly recommend coming and listening to Steven. He really knows his stuff, and I'm excited to have him share his knowledge with you. So in the meantime, happy winter, happy Valentine's Day, and we'll catch you in a couple of weeks. Thanks.

Thanks for tuning in. I'll be back in two weeks with another episode. Got topics you want me to cover? Organizations you want me to showcase? Let me know. Also, I'm here to help you. Revolutionize philanthropy at your nonprofit. If you want to talk about what that looks like, drop me an email.


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