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What Went Right? What Went Wrong?

Written by Stephenie Slahor

You applied for a grant. You wait restlessly. The chief comes in and asks, “What’s happening with that grant application?” You don’t know. But then, a few days later, comes a letter with the return address of the grant-maker. Forget the letter opener—you rip it open, get a paper cut, but ignore the cut and quickly start skimming the words of that letter. Did you let loose with a burst of glee or a groan of disappointment?

The answer depends on how well you did your homework for that grant application. If you’re whooping with delight, when you come down to earth, you’ll remember and learn from all the things you did right, and that knowledge will serve you well in future grant applications. If, however, you’re muttering under your breath, it won’t be just you asking, “What went wrong?” You will be hearing that question from your superiors.

For a few failures, the reason is that the grantor has only a certain amount of money, and not every project can be funded. But for most of the other failures, the reason is not based on the grantor—it’s based on what the grant applicant did or didn’t do. The sad fact is that many, if not most, failures could have been successes if only the applicant had given more attention to the task of applying for a grant. Here’s how to ensure that your work engenders that yell of triumph you’ll voice at finding out your application was approved.

If you start your research at a Web site that is a clearinghouse of information about available grants and grantors, remember that a clearinghouse, by its very nature, can only state the “bare bones” about a grantor. What you’re looking at is a list, and not a very full one at that. Also, you might be seeing only the topmost grants in terms of scope and money. Those very generous grants are probably not the norm for the grantor, but exceptions, to fund particularly major founding or developmental projects of a grand scale. Remember that clearinghouses can be good starting points, but they won’t give you the detail you’ll need for writing a successful grant application.

Go to the grant-maker’s Web site, but do more than just “look” at it. STUDY it thoroughly. Be able to state what departments or categories there are and what the priorities and initiatives are for each one of those departments or categories. Only then can you know definitively whether your project fits the grantor’s initiatives and interests. Don’t focus only on the money available. Get to know that grant-maker.

Look at the mission/philosophy statements, the annual report and annual tax return, know what assets the grant-maker has and how those assets are used and to what extent, who got funded by them and with how much and for what kinds of projects, and who the key people will be in the chain of applying for a grant. Be sure that your geographic area matches the geographic area served by the grantor because some grantors will fund projects only in specific regions and not elsewhere, despite the worthiness of the project.

Determine whether your project is a likely “fit” with what the grant-maker funds. Don’t “take a chance” and submit something to that grantor (or worse, multiple grantors), thinking that “maybe” the application will succeed. It won’t. You need to be sure that the project fits with the grantor. If you have a doubt, study that doubt to determine its basis. Phone or e-mail the grantor’s contact to discuss the feasibility of your project.

While your contact cannot say whether you’ll be funded, he might be able to help you determine whether your project has the potential to fit with the grantor’s preferences. But do your homework before making that call or e-mail. The discussion is only AFTER you’ve explored everything on your own, and you need to clarify one or a small handful of specific points about the “fit” of the project. The discussion is not an opportunity to side-step preparation to “run the proposal by” the contact. You’ll get nowhere with that approach.

If you find that there is a possibility that your project can be funded, study the guidelines for applying. Know every one of them well. Know what is due and when it is due. Know whether you are able to provide everything that will be needed, and whether you’ll be able to provide it in time for each deadline in the grant application process.

The grantor will have “directions” for applying in the guidelines for the grant. These are not “suggestions.” They are “directions.” Be sure you follow each and every one of them or your grant application will be rejected. If the directions prescribe a certain type font, margin size, paper quality, or number of pages, be sure you’re doing exactly what’s wanted by the grantor.

Any deviation is cause for rejection, and screeners going through hundreds of applications will toss those applications in which the applicant didn’t take the time to learn what to do and do it right. In the grantor’s eyes, laxity by an applicant in following directions translates to irresponsibility and lack of commitment.

Apply to one contact person, for one grant, for one program. No grantor is going to consider an application in which a multitude of projects are proposed in hopes that the grantor will “pick one” and fund it. And no grantor wants to find multiple copies of the same application sent to numerous contacts at its headquarters. Increasing the number of applications is not going to improve your chances for the grant; it will lessen or eliminate your chances.

By the same token, be sure the grantor knows who to contact at your agency—the right name, phone number, fax number, and e-mail. Clearly indicate who the contact is so no one has to dig through letters and supporting documents to determine who’s representing the agency. That kind of digging is wearisome, and it will adversely affect your chances of getting your application considered for the grant.

Be sure your application looks as neat as possible. Most likely, it will be typewritten, but some grantors do accept hand-written applications. If a hand-written application is sent, be sure it is completely legible in its letters and numbers.

While we’re on the topic of numbers, triple check numbers and calculations that are a part of the application. Besides making sure they are accurate, make sure they are realistic. Yes, a grant is for money, but accountability is a part of the receiving of that money. Grandiose figures will be rejected. If math is not your strong suit, get the help of someone who can help you make projections that are true assessments of the reality of the project over the term of its budget.

Think cost-effectiveness. Show how you will use the money to generate money, or sustain and enhance a program. If it’s a new program, show how the grant will start and develop the program that will meet a need or enhance a current project or service. If you can’t state your numbers correctly and cost-effectively, you aren’t letting your grantor know your needs. Do the math homework, and be sure numbers are exact and realistic.

If appropriate, mention other grants that your agency has received and the successes you’ve had with other projects. A good track record can go a long way toward helping your current grant application succeed. You can also describe, if appropriate, your agency’s long-range, strategic planning and discuss how frequently it is examined and updated. That “blueprint” for your agency shows your grantor that you have a plan for the best uses, and evaluations, of resources in time, personnel, projects, and money.

Remember that you are competing with others whose projects are also, most likely, as worthy as yours. Grant money is limited. If your application is denied, find out why from your contact. Learn from your mistakes. Find out if there is an opportunity to apply later in another grant cycle, and start the homework to correct or modify what you did so that success can come in a later application.

Your application should stand out from the crowd by being professional and correct. There are no substitutes for preparation and hard work. Use both if you want your grant application to succeed.

Stephenie Slahor, PhD, is a lawyer who writes in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at DrSS12@msn.com.

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2006

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