July 23, 2014

LITTLE DETAILS: Seek and sometimes you find

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By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

July 3, 2013

I look for money. As a nonprofit development professional in a program for at-risk youth, that’s what I’m paid to do. How well I perform my job is easily measured—in grants secured and donations received. How I accomplish this work if far less quantifiable: it’s about relationships.

I’ve had people say to me, “I could never do what you do. I could never ask people for money.”

In all fairness, there are jobs I could not do. Surgeon, physicist and math teacher come to mind. I lack the skill set. Selling “widgets” that people don’t really need—the tchotchke of life—I’m not cut out for that either.

Twenty years’ time spent in the trenches of human services—working in shelters and prisons—emboldens me to make the “asks” my work requires. Building a new school or therapeutic space for child survivors of trauma is, as far as I’m concerned, an easy ask.  To me, it’s about giving kids who entered this world with a less-than-optimal hand a shot at building a better life. It makes moral sense. It also makes economic sense. Emotionally healthy children are more likely to grow up to be productive adults.

Development involves considerable research and writing, a boon to this former history major. When researching grant-making foundations or governmental agencies, teasing out what is most important to them is crucial. Gaining a sense of whether their mission and goals mesh with those of my organization is key. Identifying what they’ve supported in the past points to whether there’s a potential match. The goal is to write compelling copy deemed worthy of funding.

Engaging donors while learning what they care about and why has proven very humbling. Everyone has a story. Philanthropists give for a variety of reasons. Donors are not necessarily those with the deepest pockets.

I’ve met individuals who give because someone helped them when they needed it. I’ve met others who give because that is what they were raised to do. Somehow, their parents brought them up with a sense of duty to share their good fortune, however small or large it may be. Some donors like to see their names on buildings as a way to inspire others to give. Others relish the sweet secret of anonymity.

Grant writing is a little like playing the lottery. It’s estimated that forty percent of grants written in the United States are funded. That means sixty percent end up in the recycling bin. The odds are not the best. I’ve had my share of grants rejected. It’s always disheartening when I consider the hours of research and writing. That said, it’s great when a match is made. My most satisfying grant experience was co-writing a proposal that infused $2.2 million in prevention funds to a consortium of schools in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. It felt a little like a coup.

Grant writing affords an interesting analogy for life. Neither offers guarantees of success, but there are some basic rules worth following:

Read the directions. Funders are inundated with grant requests. Read the grant guidelines and follow them exactly. A missing form or question left unanswered can be cause for disqualification. How well you follow directions can affect the grantor’s perception of how well you can carry out the project for which you’re seeking funding.

Learn where people are coming from and look for opportunities to connect. It’s not about you. It’s about how your organization can help the grantor’s organization meet its goals. Give them what they want. If they want three hole-punched copies of a grant sent to three distinct addresses, do it. If they want electronic versions only, don’t take down any trees in your submission.

Dot your I’s and cross your T’s. With overwhelming competition, there is little room for mistakes. Attention to detail is key.

Edit, edit and edit some more. Grant writing—and life—are about rough drafts that benefit from refining.

Remember to say thank you, regardless. Even if you don’t receive the grant, the funder has taken time to read your application. Use the thank you to ask what you might do differently next time.

I nearly dropped the telephone when, in the midst of a capital campaign, a donor called to say she was donating $40,000 to our project because, “we said ‘thank you’ so graciously.” As disappointing as rejections are, I am awed by the generosity I encounter.

These aforementioned rules also apply to completing a homework assignment, a job application or a project at work. Your mission is to determine how you can best achieve the greater goal. Paying attention and performing quality work while remembering to express gratitude for opportunities given are not guarantors of success, but they can certainly help.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston.  Reader comments are welcome at [email protected] or [email protected]

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