One myth you have probably heard is about the ancient Greek myth of Zeus hurling thunderbolts from on high at Mount Olympus because he was unhappy. And when you hear thunder crashing, it’s just Zeus and his thunderbolts.
Grant seeking can feel as mysterious and magical as Zeus—like funders are sitting on high, randomly awarding grants to those who are lucky enough to be in their path. Many grantmaking organizations still operate without transparency in their review and awards processes—an old-fashioned approach that is now changing, thankfully.
Without access to the inner workings of foundation and other granting agencies, decades of speculation from nonprofit leaders, board members, staffers, and the general public led to some false assumptions about grants. In other words, myths begat more myths.
There are a few significant myths we’d like to “bust” for you today. Understanding what is true about grants will improve your skills as a grant seeker or leader of a resource development team. Here are five of the most common myths about grants with the reality and a reality check behind each.
- MYTH: I can get a grant tomorrow to fix what’s wrong today.
REALITY: Successful grant proposals require time and planning. Grant funds do not arrive quickly.
- Grant applications have deadlines – most only once a year.
- Federal grants typically do not send award notices very quickly – it can be 3-6 months after the application deadline. Some foundations are just as slow.
- Funding doesn’t typically arrive upfront for large grant programs. You are reimbursed monthly based on expenses.
- Applications often require a lot of information (responses to needs statements, budgets, goals, and objectives, etc.) as well as attachments (maps, resolutions, logic models, etc.), so you cannot put one together without planning.
- Signatures from leaders and letters of support also take time.
- MYTH: It’s our money; we can use it however we want.
REALITY: Most funding agencies restrict grant awards to a particular purpose.
- You receive an approved budget with your grant award agreement. Stick to it.
- If you want to make changes, you must submit a budget amendment. The funder does not have to approve your request.
- The funder does not have to reimburse you if you do not spend your funding according to the budget.
- The funder does not have to reimburse you if you do not keep track of proper invoices, receipts, and checks.
- You may be ineligible for future funding if you misspend funds.
- MYTH: Grants are easy to write, and anyone can do it. All you have to do is fill in the blanks.
REALITY: Every grant application is different. If you do not follow the directions explicitly and understand the scoring rubric, your proposal will not be successful.
- Grants are competitive, and you need a writer who knows how to play the game or be willing and able to dedicate resources to training someone.
- Quality writing is essential – spelling and grammar matter.
- Grants are so much more than writing. It also involves the collection of information and the creation of documents.
- Every grant proposal is unique – copy and paste does not work.
- Grant applications have very specific rules (page limits, character limits, deadlines, etc.) that must be met, or the application will be deemed incomplete.
- MYTH: Once you hit the submit button, the hard part is over.
REALITY: Writing and submission are just step one. If the grant is awarded, management and implementation is step two.
- There are two sides to grants: proposal development and grant management.
- Management includes:
- Spending the money and tracking every penny
- Implementing the project outlined in the proposal
- Following funder regulations
- Following procurement rules
- Documenting everything.
- Grant management can be very time-consuming.
- MYTH: We have the greatest need so that we will get the most money.
REALITY: Grant funding often goes to those with the highest score (or most significant connections to the funder), not necessarily the greatest need.
- Sadly, grant funding is not strictly needs-based. Awards are usually based on a scoring rubric. The applications with the highest scores garner the grants. Or, in the case of some foundations, funding may go to the applicant that the funder likes best.
- Agencies that do not have funding to pay a grant consultant or hire a grant professional typically do not have the time to play the grant game.
- This often prevents communities with the greatest need from receiving the funding they need the most—especially communities of color, minority-led organizations, and rural areas.
For more myth-busting, here is a list of resources to help you in your continued quest for seeking the truth in grants. The Grant Professionals Association (GPA) is a membership organization for everyone in the grant industry. From grant prospect researching, proposal development, and management to ethics and leadership skills, GPA provides professional development through conferences, webinars, mentorship, and so much more. Another membership organization is the National Grant Management Association (NGMA), focusing on federal grant management. They, too, offer conferences, webinars, and other professional development opportunities.
Podcasts are often a fabulous free resource for grant education. You can find our show, Fundraising HayDay, on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Episodes include grant and fundraising how-tos, interviews with leaders in the field, and thoughtful discussions on needed changes. Our colleague Lucy Morgan hosts Grant Talks, a podcast that highlights critical trends, helpful tips, and ways grants are changing the world for the better. You can find these two podcasts and a variety of free content focused on the nonprofit sector at www.nonprofit.courses. Site host Matt Hugg brings together online training for nonprofits through thousands of videos, podcasts, books, and documents.
Other helpful websites for anyone interested in the grant field include:
- Candid.org – Years ago, the Foundation Center and GuideStar were available for nonprofit and grant resources. They have merged to form Candid, where you can research nonprofits, find funding, use data, sign up for training, and so much more.
- Grants.gov – Most people know this is the free, searchable database for federal grant funding. And while it is that, it is so much more. Most federal funders host their applications on this website. It is also a source for grant training, blog posts, and information on grant fraud.
- Independentsector.org – This is a membership organization for nonprofits, foundations, and corporate giving programs. There is also a slew of free resources here, including the annual survey showing the value of volunteers, webinars, and newsletters.
- Fundraisingeverywhere.com – This is an international online community. Beyond professional development, it also provides peer support and networking.
Inevitably, you are going to hear a board member, boss, or colleague tell you that grants are easy, and there is money for everyone, so just go get it. You want to be prepared and able to dispel those myths the second you hear them. Just like scientific advances debunked Zeus as a lightning bringer, a clear understanding of how grants work, including their benefits and limitations, can help advance your organization’s mission to do more, serve more, and be a positive force for change. The more you know, the more you can educate your organization about reality. And when you know what you are talking about, you just might feel like Zeus standing atop Mount Olympus, hurling your truth bombs.
Amanda Day, GPC, is the cohost of Fundraising HayDay, a podcast about grants and such. She is a sought-after speaker, trainer, and writer focused on helping local governments, nonprofits, and other organizations understand the grant process and how to meet their community’s funding needs. With 20 years of experience in the industry, she has experience writing and managing large federal proposals, small family foundation requests, and everything in between. She’s a concert junkie, book nerd, and lover of sweet tea. Follow her on Twitter: @wholewheatgirl.
Kimberly Hays de Muga, GPC, cohosts the Fundraising HayDay podcast, where she shares more than 25 years of experience in nonprofit management, fundraising, and grant-seeking in the sectors of health and human services and education. Co-author of Prepare for the GPC Exam: Earn Your Grant Professional Certified Credential, she is a national keynote speaker, trainer, and coach through Hays de Muga Consulting. When not consulting, she writes Young Adult historical fiction and drinks ridiculous amounts of tea.
You can find Kimberly’s and Amanda’s show, Fundraising HayDay, at www.fundraisinghayday.com, apple podcasts, and Spotify. Episodes drop every other Thursday throughout the year. Together, we have a combined 45 years of experience in grants and fundraising. We both agree that there is room for improvement in the grant application and funding process, and we’re doing our part to make that happen. Just don’t ask us to agree on the best way to fix grits. We have feelings.