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  • Kathryn Greener

Updated: Jul 14



“Whatever else anything is,

it ought to begin by being personal.”

Kathleen Kelly, You’ve Got Mail


“Don’t you just love New York in the fall?” I’ve never been there, but I think I’d love it. Then again, with Covid cases surging and my Christmas tree looking all cute, I think I’ll stay home, light a li'l candle, and re-watch Meg Ryan skip down Manhattan sidewalks in You’ve Got Mail.


Meg Ryan’s character Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail is one of my all-time favorites. There’s a scene where Joe (Tom Hanks) stops by her apartment. Tail between his legs, he utters a semblance of an apology for running her bookstore out of business. “It wasn’t personal,” he reassures. Kathleen says, “But it was personal to me. It was personal to a lot of people. And what is so wrong with being personal anyway? … Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”


I was thinking about why grant writing is personal. Far more personal and relational than people give it credit.

How do I know this? Well. When I was first introduced to grant writing, it seemed about as exciting as a rhombus. Remember rhombuses? (Or rombi, apparently.) Those ninth-grade geometry class shapes that were suspiciously perfect but too dull to aspire to anything great? That was my initial impression of grant writing from a half-semester college course. Grant writing was a linear progression. It was about playing by someone else’s rules. It was reading The Only Grant Writing Book You’ll Ever Need and not knowing what I didn’t knowthat successful grant writing isn’t a soulless textbook. It’s relational.


For those of you hoping (more like panicking) to secure grant funding, or are new to grant writing, or wondering why you feel like a wet sock after submitting 10 applications into the great grant abyss, hear me out:


Successful grant writing & stewardship begins in relationships.


This may sound overly cutesy. But let me outline three common “rhombus” mindsets—more like mistakes—in grant writing and where a relational approach is a game-changer for sustainable, successful grant stewardship.


1. “We need to get as many grants as possible right now.”


In a global pandemic that’s drying up revenue streams and entire programming, this is the most common sentence I hear. And for good reason. For tens of thousands of nonprofits in the United States, this isn’t simply a fight for funding, it’s a fight for survival for their organizations and those they serve,” says David Morse, who’s been chief communications officer at various national foundations. Foundations need to quickly mobilize funds, lighten up on reporting requirements, and increase their endowment payout rates.


Yet, I often hear this sentence coming from nonprofit reps who are in no way ready to handle what it takes to manage one grant, let alone whatever “as many as possible” means. Why? There’s an apples-to-apples assumption at play: more grants = more success. At best, this comes from a misunderstanding around how much of their budget should be sustained by grants. At worst, it assumes that grants are merely a transactional process requiring little personal energy.

Try this: “What is our fundraising ‘sweet spot’? What are we ready to handle?”

This question, instead, speaks to a willingness to learn whether grants are even the best means of fundraising to begin with. Giving USA reports that growth in future fundraising revenues lies in individuals, especially in bequests, major donors, or regular donors. In 2019, individual giving accounted for 69% of nonprofit contributions. And it’s no wonder. Grants take time and resources to manage that many nonprofits are simply not ready to manage. And that’s okay. Just because you fit grant eligibility on paper doesn’t mean that it makes sense to receive one.


How to get in this “sweet spot” mentality? Talk with a regional foundation rep, other like-minded agencies, or a grants consultant. I always tell clients to start local. A splashy grant from a national foundation doesn’t mean much when local shops down the street don’t know that you exist. Focus on your reputation within a community. Your HyVee manager. The HR department at the car dealership. A newfound local relationship could be the means for a family to not only be impacted by your mission but become potential lifetime givers who far outweigh the financial gain of a one-time grant.


2. “Could you just write some grants for us?”


Again, this comment assumes a false linear progression that getting grant awards = problems solved. It assumes that there is no relational skin-in-the-game required of nonprofit staff. It also assumes something on the part of the grant writer, aka someone like me. That my job is merely to submit grants on your behalf. Sometimes, I definitely do that. But most of the time, my job looks far more like coaching folks on when to follow-up with donors, who to talk to in their community, or whether applying for a grant is not in their best interests.


Getting people in your corner, regardless of potential grant dollars involved, is far more valuable to your organization’s longevity than a shotgun approach to grant writing.



Try this: “Can you show us where we need to grow to be grant ready?”


The relational dynamic at play here is a willingness to accept feedback. Accepting feedback says, “I am a person, you are a person. I want to grow, and I trust what you think of me.” Be prepared for feedback that requires—you guessed it—living, breathing, relational changes. For example:

  • You need to focus on improving your follow-up with people who already give to your organization.

  • You need to beef up your volunteer engagement before you brag about it in a grant.

  • Your board members need to better understand what your programs actually do.

  • You could benefit from more diverse perspectives at the table who could speak to your program’s effectiveness.

If you’re one of the few nonprofits operating at optimal pace with little room to improve, then all the more, make some friends and share your secret sauce!


3. “How could they reject us?!”


This is where the grants world really does feel personal some days. Rejection happens. It sucks. I’ve heard similar woes: “I can’t believe they rejected us again.” “Last year we got the grant, but this year we didn’t. What happened?” Or in You've Got Mail, Kathleen gets "stood up" on her date to meet chatroom user NY152, or eventually has to close The Shop Around the Corner. There’s a place for dangit, back to the drawing board to be sure.

But the whiny “how could they POSSIBLY reject us?!” is different, and often married to an impersonal assumption: checking all the boxes = getting grant dollars.


Let’s debunk this one. First, yes, following application instructions and being legitimately eligible for grant dollars is a standard prerequisite for your application to be considered, or even make it into the “consider” pile. However, approaching the grants world thinking that this is all you have to do is setting you up for failure. No wonder rejection feels so off-putting.


Try this: “This isn’t what we hoped for, but how can we learn from this?”


Relational grant writing changes the way you see rejection. If you’ve been in contact with a foundation rep through the application process, for example, a rejection letter is an opportunity to follow-up with that rep instead of putting them on your bridges-burned list.


When grant writing starts with a humble posture of learning, suddenly rejection is an opportunity to get more clarity about a funder’s giving priorities. In the long run, these post-rejection conversations could position you well in the eyes of the funder. But more importantly, they cultivate an attitude where your organization is more concerned about building a bridge instead of haphazardly burning one. Suddenly, rejection is both more human personal and less heartbreak-y personal.


Foundation elitism is real.

Sometimes our honest efforts to ask questions or accept feedback or shake hands are met with “privilege, power, and personal conflicts.” Instead of a symbiotic relationship where nonprofits and foundations mutually rely on each other, top-down control makes it obvious who’s in charge. If you’re feeling tiny and unseen, start binge-reading Vu Lee’s blog at nonprofitaf.com. This is one of my go-to resources where I remember that I’m not the only one seeing some shenanigans in the nonprofit sector.


And… if it seems like funders care more about a 750-word word count than the fact that your nonprofit is made up of PEOPLE solving complex issues that affect PEOPLE, start taking it personally. We’re people. They're people. It’s personal.




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  • Kathryn Greener

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

Originally featured as a guest piece on the NCD blog and national EFCA blog.


A couple months ago, I attended our district’s conference at Camp Shamineau. It’s the first of many of “firsts” for me. New to ministry as of last June, new to marriage, new to home-owning, new to small-town Minnesota after leaving my suburban St. Paul stomping grounds for the farming community called Windom.


Feeling new wind in my sails after the conference, I’m beginning to make better sense of what it means for God to call people to small-town ministry. Because, frankly, there is sense to be made. Coming from a metro area, I’ve had to wrestle with the misconceptions around entering ministry in a rural place. At the conference, conversations long and short confirmed that I am not the only one who needs encouragement.


To the pastors and pastor’s wives hesitant to enter ministry in small places, or perhaps are already there, let me encourage you: small places need you.

Small places are worth being understood.

First, let me define what I mean by “small places.” Stephen Witmer, author of A Big Gospel in Small Places, clarifies this language as the “forgotten” places “lacking influence” that are “smaller and more isolated.” These are the towns that are often validated by their promise of Dilly Bar pitstops during road trips down country highways.


I had much more to learn about what we were really doing when we accepted the call to a church in one of these beautiful, broken places. I wondered what exactly was meaningful about small-town ministry. How could that possibly be worth our time?


If you’ve kept the prospect of small-place ministry at arm’s length, I encourage you to a simple mindset shift: small places are worth being understood.


To truly understand means setting aside what you think you know and seeing brokenness and beauty exactly as they are. In small places, cornfields are not monotonous landscape. They catch the falling sweat of saints, grow the family of God, and provide for the poor. Weather reminds us that we submit to the grace of God’s rain. The shopfronts of the town square may be half-empty, but the waitress at the local eatery knows your name and one day might know Jesus, too.


For the task of ministry in small places, you have to be willing to come, embrace it, and stay for as long as God would have you. This sacrifice requires a constant laying down of some idols of ministry—splashy programs, urban resources, full pastoral teams, your career ladder—and a growing willingness to enter into its culture. It’s not unlike Jesus’ embrace:

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)


After a couple of weeks of living in Windom, church ladies threw a charming open house for me complete with Folgers coffee and tuna crust-less sandwiches. They tenderly smiled, “So, how do you like it here?” What they were really asking was, Are we worth your time? A pastor I met at the NCD conference put it this way: “Small-town people see themselves as ‘here-to-stay’ and the pastor as transient, whereas urban folks see the people as transient and the pastor as ‘here to stay.’” The reckoning of a pastor’s eagerness to commit to rural ministry can sometimes be compounded by the pressure of locals wondering the same thing.



The grace in this is that God, and only God, can move you to embrace a willingness to understand the places and people that seem far from your preferences. Or are, quite literally, far away. This is nothing new to ministry, and nothing new to how God sees us:


“He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:17-18)


The grace in this is that God, and only God, can move you to embrace a willingness to understand the places and people that seem far from your preferences.

Small places need eager, patient pastors and pastors’ wives willing to accept God’s call to rural ministry. And if God has made it clear that he is not calling you there, lean in to attitudes that seek to understand small places and affirm the leaders who go there.

Small places give us Gospel clarity.

I remember the night we accepted the call to come to our church. We candidated with the full intent to come, my husband especially eager since his upbringing on a third-generation dairy farm has given him a heart for rural ministry. Yet we held with open hands a possibility: a split vote was likely. We were engaged at the time, young enough to be the children (and grandchildren) of most of the church members, and my husband was finishing seminary after getting licensed in the EFCA. Yet, a nearly unanimous call. It was all so counterintuitive and glorious. This is the kind of thing only God can do, I told myself.


Friends, consider the possibility that entering small-town ministry will pull you into a setting rich with opportunities for saying “only God can do this,” for crisp Gospel clarity different than the context of urban ministry.


Because small places are often under-resourced, it would be naïve to think rural measures of Gospel-change are the same as that of urban areas. Our church’s lack of visibility in mainstream channels means that no one beyond our church membership may hear my husband’s sermons. Our worship team doesn’t have a drum set. “No, we actually don’t have a youth group,” I tell my suburban friends. And when I heard other ministry couples share their COVID-19 coping strategies at the NCD conference, I felt a tinge of doubt: are we doing enough? Could God really be at work here?


Being in a rural area is a constant reminder that God does, in fact, change hearts in places where typical markers of ministry success seem absent. Discipleship has to first be the prayer that people’s eyes would be opened (Ephesians 1:18) to see Jesus. Yes, it can happen with professional worship teams, strategic capital campaigns, and a blossoming pastoral staff. But disciple-making is ever and always the work of God in small steps through our meek belief, the “immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might” (Ephesians 1:19).


Small places, then, are this glorious opportunity to reckon with the notion that it is God alone who makes his people become like Jesus. This becoming happens through incredibly small, back-to-the-basics forms.


Small places, then, are this glorious opportunity to reckon with the notion that it is God alone who makes his people become like Jesus. This becoming happens through incredibly small, back-to-the-basics forms.

For example, my husband’s relationships with our church overseers have laid the groundwork for radical discipleship, one tractor ride and McMuffin breakfast at a time. I’ve celebrated normally tentative church members’ newfound eagerness to pray aloud. Most nights, my husband and I pray prayers like “thank you that you moved so-and-so to join Katie’s Bible study.” And one of my favorites—a retired woman biked to our house and knocked on our porch door to share with teary eyes how God, through my husband’s online sermon on recent racial issues, deeply convicted her. These moments are where I see the Gospel most clearly. And it takes even bigger prayers for a humbled spirit inside me that rejoices in these smallest of moments.

Small places are loved by Jesus.

At our installation service last year, an NCD staff member charged us with a call to live “loved by Jesus.” He turned to the writings of the disciple John, who often referred to himself as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Living loved changes us. It’s our new identity. It’s why we love ministry in the first place.


Friends, small places, too, are loved by Jesus. When I look at the footprint of Jesus’ ministry, I see that it was podunk towns like Nazareth and Galilee where he spent his time and called ordinary fishermen to be his disciples. I believe Jesus loved these places. And if he loves them, then they are worth investing in for the long haul.


Perhaps you’ve been in rural ministry and felt God’s calling out of it. Or you’re on the cusp of a career change but have disregarded the possibility of ever going to a small town. I get it—it’s not for everyone. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m still finding my vocational niche. Driving in blizzard whiteouts to work certainly doesn’t win any points for me. Admittedly, it will take years of small discipleship victories for us to truly be seen as “belonging” to our community. And that’s okay.


Consider anew that rural places—and people—are loved by Jesus, and that Jesus can awake in you a love for them. Not because of anything they inherently offer you, but because God loves them first. This is, once again, the Gospel: the good Shepherd loves his sheep, knows each of their names, and unashamedly devotes his life to theirs (John 10:11-18).

Feeling loved.

Ironically, in our prayers for Christ-like love, God has surprised us with love completely uncalled for. A church member has freely supplied our frozen beef for the last 16 months. Another farmer has generously backed up his personal Dodge, his trailer, and even grain truck into our driveway to help clear the debris of multiple house renovations. And even when I have to tell yet another church lady, “I’m really not into crafts,” the hand-stamped card she delivers on my birthday reminds me that we’re really, really loved.


Jesus has softened me to say, “I love being here.” It’s the most true, unexpected reality I know. I’m glad that God’s idea for “all God’s people” (Eph. 1:15) is better than any one southwest Minnesota farming community or inner-city church plant or Iron Range congregation. To our ministry brothers and sisters specifically in small places: you are not alone. Know that because of God’s transformation in our small place, we are praying for you like Paul does in his letter to the Ephesians:


“For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” (Eph. 1:15-16).


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  • Kathryn Greener

Updated: Jul 14

I believe leaders and entrepreneurs should be as widely read as possible. This versatility virtue is even more important in grant writing, where sifting through tons of research on everything from infant diapers to chronic homelessness to Lego’s is totally normal.

What I do? I subscribe to various blogs, email lists, YouTube channels, and research powerhouses. I listen to podcasts and hop on webinars. And my occasional plea to the local librarian “can you renew this one again?” reminds me that I still shortchange the attention books demand of me.


Therefore, even as you seek books that you will enjoy reading, demand ones that make demands on you. In so doing, you can’t help but grow in virtue.

-Karen Swallow Prior, "Good Books Make Better People"


Being widely-read in the nonprofit world does a few things:

  • Builds intuition. You learn to better speak the language of the industry you’re in. And, by extension, the language of the people you’re working with.

  • Sharpens writing. Good readers are good writers, able to pull from an ever-expanding repertoire of facts, illustrations, and really punchy vocabulary.

  • Broadens perspectives. Like the connection between reading stories and being a person of empathy, staying widely read broadens my understanding of the quirks and challenges facing nonprofits across the sector.


If you're not sure where to start, here's a few of my go-to nonprofit specific resources.


GrantAdvisor

Like TripAdvisor, GrantAdvisor is my go-to for honest reviews on grantmakers. The crowdsourced website is fairly new in the philanthropy world. Reviewers can rate and leave honest feedback related to key areas like a funder’s timeliness, accessibility, and the average time spent on applications. It’s basically awesome. Reviews have helped me discover “I’m not the only one who had this experience” or whether to say “they’re not worth my time” to funders I had my eyes on. The hope is, too, that funders would see GrantAdvisor as a means of accepting feedback they would otherwise have no platform of receiving, and to break down some of the stiff-arming that can happen in Foundation Elitism.


NonprofitAF

NonprofitAF is a “no-BS approach,” so-dang-on-point, slightly irreverent blog and resource site of Vu Le, nonprofit specialist. There are days when pesky character counts or re-formatting entire budget spreadsheets or papercuts while stuffing envelopes make me wonder if I’m the only one going crazy. NonprofitAF reminds me that I’m not alone. Power dynamics are real. Burnout is real. But I can’t take myself too seriously. "There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it.” #nonprofitunicorn


FundingforGood

Amanda Pearce doesn’t know I’m saying this, but her consulting business FundingforGood is the best! I’m a big fan of their client approach. Mandy & co. are experts when it comes to becoming grant-ready and developing boards. Her team has tons of freebies on the website, relevant blog posts, and quick-listen YouTube videos that have helped me in my grant-seeking strategies.


MN Council for Nonprofits

Minnesota Council for Nonprofits is pretty standard in the MN nonprofit world, and certainly a go-to for me when it comes to nonprofit directories, resources, networking, and sector research. When I lived in the Twin Cities, I attended various network luncheons and the annual conference. I'm not a member, but certainly could be persuaded.



Nearly every website has some kind of free newsletter or updates for email subscribers. These are excellent for staying up-to-date on grant cycle announcements or relevant webinars. I subscribe to updates (for free) & check in on these platforms:

  • Minnesota Compass

  • Wilder Research

  • Facebook Nonprofit Happy Hour

  • Nonprofit Quarterly

  • Puget Sound Grantwriters Association

  • Minnesota Council on Foundations

  • The Grantsmanship Center

  • Wild Apricot

  • Big Duck

  • GrantStation

  • Local funders (like Southwest Initiative Foundation)


A few of my go-to podcasts (available pretty much everywhere) include...

  • Freakonomics Radio (The "hidden side of everything")

  • Planet Money (MPR explains the economy)

  • RadioLab (Documentaries in podcast form)

  • The Holy Post (VeggiesTales creator hosts conversations on evangelicalism & culture)

  • Pass the Mic (An arm of The Witness Black Christian Collective)


Books I'm reading? That's another post for later.


Reach out if you've got a great read I didn't mention. Or pick my brain about how to get in-the-loop on news in the nonprofit world.

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