Grant Seekers Must First Answer the Question: ‘Who Are You?’

Grant Guru is an occasional feature in which we answer questions from our readers about fundraising and the giving universe. It is part of our continuing effort to enhance our coverage.


Dear Grant Guru: We have heard a lot about finding operating funding. We could sure use some help in paying our overhead. Is that something that is available to all organizations or only the largest ones? How do we judge if this is a good fit for us.

Grant Guru: Insightful question. There are actually two types of operating support usually available – funds that help pay for overhead associated either with a specific program or the organization in general, and capacity building grants, which are designed to specifically to build up an organization’s capacity to perform its mission.  

Following the basic grant instructions is, of course, always key. But before you start filing out blanks in a foundation app, step back and take a long look at what your organization is all about.

Who Are You?

Are you an organization that provides a service, paying your bills through contract work or providing others with technical assistance?

Or are you a member-based organization, relying primarily on dues from like-minded members? Maybe you’re an advocacy group, spending your time responding to legislation or policy, writing issue papers and articles, and generally fighting for the cause? Maybe you’re even a bit of each. For successful fundraising, make sure you know exactly what kind of an organization you think you are – because if you don’t know, chances are your potential funder doesn’t either.

Know What You’re Selling; Know What You’re Asking For

Further, your funder needs to know not only exactly what you are, but also exactly what it is you’re asking for. Unless you’re lucky enough to find a donor who will give you carte blanche to do what you like with his contribution, you’ll need to let your potential benefactor know just what it is you intend to do with the funding they’ll be giving you.

Don’t let your knees wobble when you’re making your pitch; be absolutely clear – are you asking for operational funding, or are you asking for an investment in a particular project of yours? Never equivocate – if you intend to put all of that donor’s contribution toward operational costs, you had better say so. Don’t tell him that you might use some of his funding for a report you’re working on, or may pay for a project you have in mind.


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If a funder thinks he’s contributing to help you produce a specific product or fund a particular project, then he’s going to be looking for it when you report back next year to ask for continued funding. It doesn’t matter if it was clear to you that you were asking for operational costs all along; if it wasn’t clear to your funder, you didn’t do your job.

If you are asking for funding for a particular project or product – one of those “I’ve got a great idea and only need $170,000 to put it into place,” sort of ideas – then by all means, sell that project. But once again, don’t sell yourself short – know how much that project will really cost and let your funder know what to expect for the investment.

If need be, give them a projected budget to look at, and go over it with them. If you bill a percentage of your overhead costs to each project, let them know what that percentage will be and how much money that translates into.

Smart Budgeting Truth

Be honest in your budgeting – whatever you do, don’t ask for $170,000 to produce a report that will ends up costing you $295,000 once you’ve paid your contractors, printed 2,000 copies and paid for staff time. While your donor may be elated at the return on the investment, your bookkeeper won’t be nearly as delighted.

Finally, don’t be shy about asking for operational costs. This is especially true if you’re primarily a member- or advocacy-based organization, and thus don’t have a contract or project to charge a percentage of your operational costs. There’s no great shame in letting a funder know that you need money just to keep the operation running and fighting for your particular issues. You’re selling your organization, and your funder needs to know that the return on the investment is the overall health of your organization and your continued ability to advocate for your particular cause or issue.

Info: Ask questions through Editor Frank Klimko at (email).

About Frank Klimko

Frank Klimko is a nationally known journalist, grants expert and speech writer/speaker. He has years of experience helping nonprofits devise lists of the right funding opportunities and secure funding from these foundations and corporate entities. Clients have focused on an array of areas including child care, homeless, hunger and K-12 education. Additionally, he is a Freedom of Information Act expert, who has helped numerous clients with securing proprietary information from the federal government. Currently, Frank Klimko writes the Children & Youth Funding Report and Private Grants Alert, which are Washington DC-based publications. CYF is a daily publication covering Congress, the Education Dept. and the various federal regulatory agencies. PGA, another daily publication, covers the world of private philanthropy.
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