Why Grant Writing is Personal, Not Transactional
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 know—that 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.