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Getting your nonprofit grant-ready: Part one

Just because you have a great idea for a nonprofit and an enthusiastic group of supporters, that doesn’t mean the grants will follow. You may currently be attractive to individual donors, but if you want to grow and sustain, you have be to the attractive to multiple groups of funders and grantmakers, including high-wealth donors, companies, government agencies, and, perhaps most importantly, foundations.

If you want foundations to recognize your nonprofit as legitimate, able to accomplish its mission, and here to stay, there are a few things you need to have in place. In fact, your nonprofit can become grant-ready in just five steps. This article covers the first three; we’ll review steps four and five in December.

Step 1: Develop (and demonstrate) competent leadership.

Executive directors must be strategic, not simply reactive. They must focus on the long-term, and not just on what’s in front of them. Many nonprofits operate opportunistically, taking whatever support they can get no matter what the downsides may be. Instead, you have to be willing to say ”no” to the people who aren’t able to help you meet your ultimate goals.

Leaders must provide focus for the organization. They are the ones who should be most committed to making real progress toward fulfilling the mission. They have to look critically at what they and the organization have been doing, and make tough decisions to better realize the mission through efficient methods, productive partnerships, and thoughtful goal-setting.

Step 2: Establish a full strategic plan.

Many nonprofits develop a strategic plan only to satisfy the requirements of a granting agency, rather than to make their work truly strategic. Producing an accountable, comprehensive roadmap requires research, including an environmental scan, as well as a real commitment of time. Think in terms of months: A realistic, prioritized strategic plan can’t be created in a few weeks, much less at a planning retreat.

It also pays to bring in outside perspectives. We strongly recommend hiring a good consultant to work with you in crafting your strategic plan, not just for their expertise but because they can identify and counteract the internal biases that can undermine your plan. A consultant will interview stakeholders, look at trends in the organization and the environment, and facilitate the planning process so you can keep up the day-to-day work.

If your budget doesn’t allow for a consultant, seek out foundations that fund capacity-building work, such as the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. It’s also appropriate to approach key funders for unrestricted funds that can be invested in organizational sustainability.

Step 3: Surround yourself with people who can truly help.

Once you have a solid strategic plan, it’s time to consider the people who will help you get there.

The board you start your nonprofit with is not necessarily the same board your organization needs as it grows and evolves. As you begin thinking beyond the day, the month, or the year, you’ll need to reevaluate the people on your board in terms of who can help you meet your long-term needs.

To ready your organization for the future, think of the expertise you’ll need in a board of directors. Venture beyond the people you know, and aim for quality, not for numbers and titles, letting your strategic plan guide your selections. For example, do your goals to increase the reach of your services require securing a new building? If so, perhaps you should recruit someone with experience in real estate acquisitions.

Be sure you know the skill sets of your board members, and help them put their passion for your mission to its best use by giving them clear roles and responsibilities. People are most engaged when they feel useful and see their work paying off.

Getting grant-ready is not a quick process. These three steps can take a good amount of time—half a year or more—but putting in the time and effort will create a nonprofit that has the potential to last for generations to come.

Be sure to watch for next month’s follow-up, when we’ll discuss two final steps for making your nonprofit an attractive investment for foundations.

Nicole Morado is a consultant at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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