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Prospecting for Grants: Be a Bear and Bite that Salmon, Any Salmon

August 27th, 2011 · by Isaac Seliger · 6 Comments

A recent email from a prospective client got me to thinking about the best time to prospect and apply for grants.

Our would-be client presented the idea of hiring us to his board. One board member pointed out that the organization lacked a current strategic plan, the last one having expired at the end of 2010 while the new one not be approved until the end of 2011. Our client asked me:

Do you think trying to write foundation proposals without a strategic plan will be a hinderance?

I responded . . .

I don’t think that lack of a current strategic plan is an impediment to seeking foundation or government grant support. The status of the organization’s planning process can be included or not included in any proposal, at your direction. If the funder requests information about your organization’s strategic planning process, it would be our job as grant writers to address the question.

Or, as John Lennon put it in “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

The best time to prospect and apply for grants is always now, not at the end of an introspective planning process, no matter how well-intentioned—just like the best time to start writing a novel is now, the best time to start exercising is now, and so on. Strategic planning is a fine activity for a nonprofit, provided they have plenty of money and lots of time.

As I’ve been blogging about for the past three years, however, the continuing economic malaise means that most nonprofits have little extra money and are so overwhelmed with increased service demands that staff and board members are too exhausted to contemplate developing a plan for 2016—first the organization has to survive 2011. The very uncertain future of the discretionary federal budget funds (e.g., grant programs), combined with the roller coaster stock market (which impacts foundation endowments), make this a especially bad time to miss grant opportunities.

Obviously, I’m not a big fan of strategic planning. Leaving aside my view and whether strategic planning for nonprofits is efficacious, strategic plans have little to do with grant writing. While some federal RFPs and the occasional foundation guidelines will want some info on an organization’s planning process, funders are usually much more interested in what the organization has done, the need for the proposed service/activity, and plausibility of the project concept than the kind of generalities that are found in most strategic plans. And, as I pointed out in my email above, a good grant writer can fairly easily turn a marginal planning process into an passable one through the magic of proposalese.

Which brings me back to the question of grant prospecting. When talking to clients, I often describe the challenges faced by nonprofits and public agencies seeking grants as being analogous to those Alaskan bears we’ve all seen fishing for salmon.

Imagine you’re a bear standing by an icy Alaskan stream, and you’re pretty hungry after sleeping for six months. You could jump into the stream, try to bite the first salmon* that swims by and 20 more in a row, catching a few and missing most. Or you could first study the kind of salmon that might be found in the river, do a cost-benefit analysis of trying to catch sockeye versus pink salmon, decide that you only want sockeye, wait to look for somewhere the sockeye might to be likely to appear, mosey down to the river, and then bite a sockeye when you finally spot one. It might take awhile to get ready to go down to river and even longer until a sockeye swims by. But the planned sockeye has the potential to be the perfect lunch, provided you can catch it.

Bear # 1 will probably be full of salmon and lounging in the sun sending Tweets long before bear # 2 spots her first sockeye—and longer still until she actually catches one.

Let’s imagine two organizations, one called “Overworked and Chaotic Human Services” (OCHS) and the other “Well-Planned Human Services” (WPHS) in the context of our bears.

OCHS constantly looks for grant opportunities to fund its current services and any other services it could plausibly provide. Like bear # 1, OCHS closely monitors federal, state, local and foundation funding “streams” and tries to bite lots of “grant salmon.” Most of the time it comes up with water, but it manages to secure the occasional grant salmon, adjusting its programming to whatever grant salmon it catches. Although OCHS is pretty much willing to eat any grant salmon, the organization also closely monitors emerging trends and anticipates which grant salmon will swim by and when. It just doesn’t stop fishing while contemplating future grant salmon runs.

WPHS is tightly focused on delivering certain services and has a comprehensive overlapping five-year strategic planning process to ensure that the organization knows what it wants to do. Like bear # 2, it takes a long time for WPHS to actually get to the funding streams because it’s absorbed in delivering particular services and planning its organizational future. When it does take a dip into funding streams looking for sockeye, it may find out that the sockeye run was yesterday and there won’t be another one until next year. If this happens, it could become a very thin bear.

The prospective client, who declined to hire us during his organization’s strategic planing process, is like bear # 2. Over the years, we’ve worked for both kinds of bear clients and presently have one that is a bear # 2. Most nonprofits take the “let’s bite any salmon” approach. I think this produces better results. When I was a young grant writer during the Carter administration and writing proposals for a single nonprofit or public agency as an employee, I learned to dive into all funding streams at all times, giving my employer the best chance to get grant salmon.

In a future post, I will provide some tips on how to prospect for grant salmon. But, like most aspects of grant writing, one can only learn this by doing. Taking a two- or three- or five-day training course on grant prospecting, which lots of training outfits offer, will not teach you how to find and catch grant salmon. You have to be hungry and be willing to get your feet wet, or hire someone like us to dive in and bite the passing grant salmon for you. Just don’t be bear # 2, sitting by the funding stream and navel gazing, while the salmon grants swim by.


* Years ago, we wrote several funded proposals for an Alaskan Native organization to support the transition of their failing salmon canning business enterprise into a smoked salmon business. I had the opportunity to visit the cannery and learned quite a bit about salmon fishing, albeit by Alaskan Natives, not bears.

Tags: Advice · Clients · Grants