What’s the One Secret to Winning Foundation Grants?

“It does not happen all at once. There is no instant pudding.”

W. Edwards Deming

When a colleague sent me a link to a web page with the following claims and asked me if it was legitimate, I had to smile.

Hundreds of Billions Up For Grabs — Every Year!

… there are the more than 75,000 foundations that give away billions more every year — large organizations you may have heard of, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (with over $35 billion earmarked for giving — and upwards of $2 billion handed out each and every year) … all the way down to smaller, little-known family and community foundations set up to help places like local food banks and animal shelters with a few thousand dollars at a time.

In fact, according to the U.S. Government and The Foundation Center, there are over $544 billion up for grabs each and every year from thousands of sources. (To put that number into perspective, its about what the U.S. Government spends on Social Security in a year — and about $40 billion more than what’s spent on Medicare and Medicaid!)

Yet another Internet site with shades of Matthew Lesko’s *free money* scam.  You remember Matthew?  The guy in the goofy question mark suit who regularly shows up on late night TV proclaiming that anyone can get *free* government grant money by following his program?  His pitches are so outrageous and his style so over-the-top that it seems like anyone with an ounce of common sense would know better than to believe his claims.

And yet, when it comes to winning foundation grants, many otherwise intelligent people believe that there are *secret* writing tactics to writing funded grant proposals, when, in reality, the truth about winning foundation support for your mission is simple.  If you were to believe the pitch above, knowing how to write *the* perfect case statement or putting together a great budget or finding a foundation that provides an ideal fit with your mission would be all it takes for your organization to enjoy a stream of foundation grants resulting from your well-crafted proposal.

This isn’t meant to say that writing foundation grant proposals doesn’t require thought, persuasive writing skills and attention to detail.  I worked for a sizable family grant-making foundation for seven years and if I had just one dollar for every grant applicant who failed to follow our guidelines, I’d be a wealthy woman today.

So, yes, you should be constantly honing your writing skills, living your mission and researching prospective foundation funders.

And following these basics will guide you in establishing a foundation grants system:

  1. Study the foundation’s giving histories, preferably for the past three years. Note the range of grants – and tailor your request accordingly. Is this your first request? Come in on the low end.
  2. Study the foundation’s last three 990’s you can find – most assets are declining but not all
  3. Target local foundations. Send as many targeted proposals regularly as possible. (Note: I did say targeted – do your research!)
  4. Clean up your website. Why? In addition to your proposal itself, your website is one of the first things a foundation will look at during the review process. Red flags? No online giving, a site that was last updated in 2005, outdated contacts …
  5. Study the guidelines.  If they say no to videos, do not include your organization’s latest dvd.  If the guidelines say to include 3 copies of everything, include them.  Pay attention.
  6. It’s good to have 2-3 sets of extra eyes to proofread your work – and one writer. (I’ll cover that topic in a later article).
  7. Make weekly research a priority, and
  8. Maintain your foundation stewardship. Before you reapply to the XYZ Foundation who funded you last year, if they didn’t require a reporting, send them a gracious letter giving them an update. You didn’t miss that reporting deadline, did you?

So, what is the number one secret to winning foundation grants you ask?  I’ve already given you a hint above …

The number one secret to winning foundation grants is by establishing systems for your success.  When it comes to foundation funding, it’s an unfortunate but often true reality that oftentimes *third time is the charm.*  Many organizations give up on grants following a few declinations.  Don’t make this mistake in your organization.  Seth Godin said it best:  Obsessing about the last inch of follow through ensures that the important parts of what you do get just as much (if not more) commitment.

Learn how to follow through and build genuine relationships with foundation funders.  It takes time but the rewards are worth it!


Pamela’s Grants System will guide you, step-by-step, through the foundation grant writing process.  On sale now!

“I have been writing grants for seven years and it has taken me that long to develop some of the processes that you outline. I wish someone had shared that information with me years ago.”

John Mercer, 
The Washington Hospital Foundation




4 Responses to “What’s the One Secret to Winning Foundation Grants?”

  1. Jacquie Woodward says:

    Is Grant System out of print other than kindle version? I can’t find a way to order it?

  2. Pamela Grow says:

    Not at all. It’s been recently revised and you can find it at http://www.writegrantproposals.com/

  3. HigherPixels says:

    Pamela – Great Article. Very concise with actionable, attainable items to follow.

    Could I add an item…perhaps #2.5(falling somewhere between items 2 and 3): When you stay local, use those 990’s to see if you or anyone on your board knows someone on the board of the granting foundation. A simple phone call/visit to introduce yourself before a submission can go a long way!

  4. Timothy says:

    Thanks for the article, Pamela. (So that’s the name of that “free money” guy, Lesko…)

    I agree with HigherPixels that checking a potential funder’s Form 990 can be very useful, especially for cultivating a connection to a board member who could potentially champion your cause. 990 tax returns can be viewed on Guidestar or Foundation Finder, or requested from the IRS. Now my honest plug: I write about this at eCivis’ blog, blog.ecivis.com.
    Thanks again!