Several years ago, I started a job as a grant writer on a development team for a large nonprofit in North Carolina. Having worked in and around nonprofits for years, I’d responded to RFP’s and RFI’s (requests for proposals/information) and written the odd government or foundation grant application before, but I’d never been solely responsible for an organization’s entire grants program. As an office of one, with no clerical support other than what I could drum up with offers of lunch or chocolate, I found myself in charge of bringing in over $1 million annually, for two separate organizations.

I was responsible for everything related to grants – grant research, strategy, scheduling, writing, submissions, making copies, follow-up reports, filing, foundation relations, etc. It was a daunting prospect to say the least, especially since my predecessor had been gone for months before I started in the position, and I had no idea what structures were in place for information-sharing or program development, nor did I know who to ask to find out! With the amount of information that I was going to have to manage (and quickly), I was forced to jump in and make my own way.

I’m sharing with you what I learned during my trial-by-fire – most of these ideas weren’t created or implemented immediately – they were developed over months, and even years, in response to communication failures, missing information, and even a missed deadline or two, along with the realization that with a little effort, I could work smarter, not harder!

Build Your Own Grants Folder

Using a structure that works for you, build a grant-specific file that YOU control and fill it with everything you need to maintain a consistent and successful grants program for your organization. Create a regular schedule (quarterly, biannually, or annually) for updating information that tends to change throughout the year, such as program budgets, new employee resumes/duties, outcomes information, etc. These are the main folders I use:

  • Grant Applications
    I separated all in-process and completed grant applications into folders based on funder type (Churches; Civic Groups; Charitable, Corporate, Family, and Community Foundations; Federal, State, and City Government; etc.), and within that, by funder name, and then by year, and kept electronic copies of all documents related to a particular year’s application together.
  • Attachments & Appendices
    Include folders to hold every document you can think of that might potentially be requested in a grant application. I have folders for everything from tax documents (990s, w-9, tax-exempt status letters) to marketing materials/brochures, to resumes/bios of key staff. This allows you to easily put your hands on whatever might need to be uploaded to a grant application.
  • Planning & Tracking Tools
    Create a single place to hold information pertaining to all of the applications you’ve submitted for each fiscal year, amounts requested, amounts received, program allocations, grant reporting deadlines, and other information (see below for more on this!).
  • Prospect Research
    Searching and vetting potential funder prospects is an ongoing task for most grant writers. I keep information and contacts I’ve made with potential funders in one place, separated by funding priority, so I have a starting point for researching potential supporters for upcoming projects/programs.
  • Program Descriptions & Data/Outcomes
    One of the most difficult things for me was trying to quickly familiarize myself with what all of the many programs in two separate organizations did so that I could articulate the need clearly in a grant application. Keeping program brochures, program/project descriptions, and updated outcomes/numbers of clients served in a single location, by program and year made responding to numerous grant applications each month MUCH simpler/quicker.
  • Program Needs Information
    If there’s one thing every grant professional has experienced, it’s program staff tackling you in the hallway to tell you ALL of the things their program needs IMMEDIATELY for which you surely could find a grant, right?? Obviously, all of these requests should be vetted by management or other senior-level staff and in line with your organization’s strategic direction (more about that later), but once they are, it’s important to keep track of who needs what, when, and how often.

Develop & Implement Systems to Track Grant Information

If you don’t have access to a grants management database system, build your own in Excel and keep it up to date to manage potential funder prospect lists, your grants calendar/deadlines, submissions, and tracking/follow-up. Use drop-down menus to gather information so you can create pivot table reports that you can share with your Board of Directors, senior management team, resource development staff, and stakeholders. The amount of data you can collect and the information you can glean from that data is endless! Here are just a few examples of reports that I found useful:

1. Fiscal Year-to-Date (YTD) Funding Requested/Received/Pending – this information is great for your Board and/or senior management who might want to know how much funding could be expected in the coming year or to compare to fundraising goals on an ongoing basis.

2. Funder Gift Trends Over Time – for a particular funder that has given multi-year grants or a number of grants over a period of years and you’d like to continue that trend, it’s beneficial to have historical information regarding request amounts, purpose of the request, the amount of money received compared to requested, etc. Working in an organization for several years, I was always amazed at how often I was asked what so-and-so funder gave us three years ago for Program X, or how much Funder Y has given us in the last five years…

3. Total Restricted vs Unrestricted Grant Funding Received Annually – this is good data to have on hand when you need to show the worth of grants and grant writing to the powers that be in your organization!

4. All Grant Submission and Grant Report Deadlines by Month – whether you’re applying for 10, 20, 30, or more grants per year for your organization, having a calendar showing every deadline you have coming up over the next 12 months will be essential for ensuring you never miss one!

Develop and Implement Processes for Determining and Monitoring Program and Organizational Needs

During my trial-by-fire, the organization I worked for had offices and affiliates in several locations around the state. Each affiliate offered different programs, for different populations of clients, in different location types, and therefore, each affiliate’s needs were different. There was no existing system for finding out which program needed what and when, or any way to vet those needs with management to make sure they were in line with the organization’s strategic plan and direction.

I tried various methods of getting the information – attending program team meetings to ask staff what they needed and sitting in on senior management team meetings, etc. What I realized was that the issue of “ongoing program needs” is a much more complex, stepwise discussion that has to happen on several levels before the information is usable for grant writing, and feedback loops are CRITICAL:

  • Program Level: Program managers are generally intimately familiar with their own program budgets, so they know how much money they have on a monthly basis to spend on each line item. On the other hand, individual staff members are much more knowledgeable about whether those amounts are sufficient to provide quality services. Despite this, staff members are often not encouraged to consider what additional things (supplies, outside professional services, equipment, etc.) might improve the program, the impact of services, or the work environment.
  • Management Level: While program staff, if asked, could probably spend hours discussing all of the extra “stuff” they would love to have in order to do their jobs, management staff have to approve any requests, and they’re often the ones who have to say “NO” (in big letters). For me, this meant getting quietly accosted in the hallways by program staff asking me to write a grant to get “x” for Project A – only to find out that they didn’t get the idea approved first 
  • Development Level: In larger organizations like the one I worked at, there can be a number of development staff in different roles other than grants – managing volunteers, individual donors, events, major gifts, in-kind donations, etc.
    Program level staff would often come to me about a need they thought could be filled by a grant, but was really something more appropriate for an individual or a corporate donor to provide.
I had to come up with a way to determine, on an ongoing basis, what each program’s needs were (both annual and one-off needs) and a system for prioritizing them so that I could quickly and accurately match potential grant opportunities with the organization’s various programs and projects. The system I put into place looked like this:

1. Program Level Discussion – program managers facilitate a program needs discussion during monthly team meetings;

2. Request – managers complete a request form explaining the need(s), the expected impact, the cost and the priority level (critical/need it now, need it soon, or nice to have);

3. Development Staff Review – staff compiles all needs into one list and proposes a method of need fulfillment (grants, in-kind donations, volunteers, individual or corporate donor, etc.);

4. Senior Management Approval – executive director and accounting staff vet the final list and provide feedback to development staff;

5. Feedback Loop – development staff begin the process of fulfilling program needs and regularly inform programs of the status of their requests.

6. Monitoring/Updating – lists are updated every six months.

I have to admit that the grants management systems I created as a way to survive my trial-by-fire weren’t always so clear cut, and there was A LOT of training/education on the grants process that had to occur at the management AND program level before things started working more smoothly. That said, the effort was absolutely worth it. It takes time, but ultimately, building and implementing the infrastructure to manage grant information, potential prospects, requests, deadlines, and program needs was the only thing that saved me from being burned to a crisp.