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The Runner’s Guide to Grant Writing

March 18th, 2009

I have loved to write since I was  young, but I’ve only begun to enjoy running in the last few years. I have joined  legions of adult-onset athletes who bike, swim and run, often in the company of lifelong athletes.  I believed it was some sort of genetic destiny that aimed me towards the cerebral and away from the physical. Now that I’ve become more athletic, I realize this was a big rationalization. So as someone who has always been more comfortable in the pages of Hamlet than in the drama of torn hamstrings, l now realize that physical and mental are complementary … and that lessons learned in sports can translate to the world of words.

Preparing for the Event

Our first triathlon

Our first triathlon

Celebrating the correlations between writing a good proposal and running a good race, I suggest focusing on a solid base, protection from the elements, and sustenance. My base foundation is a pair of well-fitted running shoes, my protection is a trustworthy all-weather running outfit and my fuel, or sustenance, is water.  (Sure, the sports magazines entice runners with the gorgeous GPS gear, the special diets, and fancy recovery drinks but one of running’s appeals is its simplicity and purity; rather than get tempted by excess gear, I’ve try to keep it simple.) Can we do the same for grant writing?

Preparing for the Proposal Race

In writing proposals, a strong base is research that fits funder priorities with needs of the organization. Without the correct match, the process is fruitless. Most foundation and government agencies provide background on their philosophy and priorities. As well, most publish past grants and success stories. I’ve seen prospective grantees to try to adjust organizational realities to the grant maker, an transparent and counterproductive effort. If this initial research and “match-making” is ineffective, there can be discomfort, unnecessary delays and futility. Just like finding the right running shoes, grant research can take time, it may involve some wrong turns (or returns!) but finding the the right fit is essential.

Protection is the grant writer’s understanding of the subject, an ability to show that the outcomes of the project are measurable and attainable. A good grant shows that vision and goals of an organization will translate into strategies that will create public value. The grantor’s objectives will be manifested through the performance of the grantee, and that performance can be measured and evaluated at the end of the grant period. Some projects are lofty in intent, visionary and inspirational, but like the emperor’s clothes, are not rooted in reality and reasonable outcomes. Developing a program that has measurable and quantifiable objectives may seem as mundane as putting on that reliable set of running clothes, but without them the proposal is nakedly uncompetitive.

Sustenance. It’s frightening to watch an runner dehydrate: a strong athlete’s legs turn rubbery and their face white. You may have read stories of illness and even death when pro and amateur runners do not hydrate correctly; it is serious and can be fatal. So now, in the midst of an economic crisis many charities – and even foundations – are failing, running out of “fuel” and even declaring bankruptcy. The Madoff financial scandal has wiped out important private charitable foundations. See http://money.cnn.com/2008/12/29/news/newsmakers/zuckoff_madoff.fortune/index.htm

Will a non-profit dry up if one major funder goes out of business? Most foundations, and even government grantors, see their funding as temporary,  not permanent fuel for a non-profit organization. A demonstration of future sustainability and development of a diverse funding stream – or multiple fuel sources – is a high priority for most grantors. A strong proposal will address sustainability and future funding sources. A runner will make sure he or she knows where the water stops are located, and if there is any doubt, a smart athlete brings their own supply of water – to ensure they are not dependent on any one source!

Finish Line

The non-profit grant writing process can feel like a long run: sometimes lonely, sometimes triumphant.  Staying on task with the core essentials- the base of savvy research, the protection of measurable outcomes and the sustenance of funding diversity – can help an organization cross the finish line with successful proposals. Are you ready to run?

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