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When It Comes To Applying for Grants, Size Doesn’t Matter (Usually)

Faithful readers know that I’m very fond of what used to be called “B movies,” so it should be no surprise that I also love movie trailers. The otherwise forgettable 1998 remake of Godzilla featured one of the best theatrical trailers I’ve seen: old guys are fishing off an East River pier in Manhattan. One hooks something big, his pole bends, the camera moves to the water where a huge wake is forming, and Godzilla’s head emerges. Fade to black with gigantic type across the screen: “SIZE DOES MATTER.” The audience went wild.

Too bad the actual movie was awful.

The question of size in grant writing was posed by a reader in a comment on “Health Care Reform Means Green Grass & High Tides for Grant Writers.” Michael Leza wrote:

I’ve seen you say before that a good way to get into grant writing is to volunteer to write grants for small local non-profits. Do these kind of non profits have a realistic chance of getting funded or is this more of an exercise in going through the motions and learning the process? Would some of these big health care reform/stimulus bills be a more likely source of grants for these kinds of organizations, or would it be easier to try and apply for a more established grant (be it federal or otherwise)?

Michael is wondering if it is worth volunteering to write proposals for a small nonprofit in hopes of becoming a paid grant writer. Since only small nonprofits are likely to take him up on his offer, he probably doesn’t have any choice. But his question suggests the larger issue of whether the size of the applicant organization, and by extension the age and experience of the applicant, matters in applying for grants. Like most questions regarding grant writing, quantum effects cloud the answer, but in most cases size doesn’t matter. In some cases it helps if the applicant for a grant program is new and/or has no track record, as long as the applicant meets basic eligibility criteria. How is this possible?

Let’s take a real world example of a tiny faith-based nonprofit organization in Watts that came to us about 10 years ago for help in writing a LA County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) proposal to provide services for students at Jordan High School, which more or less is the definition of a high-risk high school. What made this interesting is that DCSF was re-bidding a contract it had had for years with an extremely well-known and very large nonprofit in Watts that has been scooping up city, county, federal and foundation grants since the Watts Rebellion in 1965 (those readers who know South Central will know which agency I’m writing about).

Our prospective client, a minister, asked if I thought he could compete for this grant against the local heavyweight champ of nonprofits. I told him that he was man of faith, and if he had faith in his organization, so did we, and we could write a competitive application that would put him in the ring, a nonprofit Rocky against a nonprofit Apollo Creed. Like Rocky, our client won the grant.

While we wrote a great proposal, it was likely funded because the incumbent large organization probably thought they had the grant in the bag and threw together a lame proposal. DCFS may al so have been tired of funding the same organization. Grantees that get repeated grants often end up becoming lazy: they don’t file reports on time and/or start fighting with the funding source. In other words, they act like a typical teenager. This opens up opportunities for new and frisky applicants to successfully compete for grants. The punch line is that once this small nonprofit got their DCFS grant, they used our grant writing skills to develop into a large, multi-program agency with lots of grant funds.

The same principle that size doesn’t usually matter in applying for grants is also true regarding small public agencies. Two examples will demonstrate this. I’ve already mentioned one before in Blue Highways: Reflections of a Grant Writer Retracing His Steps 35 Years Later, which involved us writing a funded $250,000 Department of Education Goals 2000 proposal for a tiny school district with just over 100 students in rural Oklahoma. We were able to make the client competitive against giant applicants like Chicago Public Schools by emphasizing the oddity of their situation: the District wanted to implement bilingual education because of an avalanche of immigrant workers arriving in the community for jobs at an about to open industrial-sized hog farm.

This year, we wrote a funded $1,500,000 HUD Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control (LBPHC) program grant for a small, rural city in California that caters to thousands of seasonal tourists. We usually write LBPHC proposals for much larger cities like Boston, but HUD apparently bought our argument that this city, although small in comparison to most LBPHC grantees, has a big lead problem and could implement a believable abatement program. We amped up the proposal by tying the lead problem to the current foreclosure mess (it never hurts to play up any related media-inspired hysteria you can find in a proposal). It also helped that our client had never before had a direct HUD grant, since all of their previous HUD awards were passed through the California Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Small Cities Program. I think HUD is always looking to fund new applicants for LBPHC and other long-in-the tooth grant programs and was pleasantly startled to get a credible proposal from an unlikely applicant.

As long as your organization meets basic eligibility for a given grant competition and avoids the “silly factor” that Jake wrote about last week in So, How Much Grant Money Should I Ask For? And Who’s the Competition?, get busy and write. As with many things in life, it doesn’t much matter how big the applicant is, as long as the grant writer knows how to use his skills to craft a compelling argument. With luck, the funder will see the application as an opportunity to fund someone new, while using grant funds to meet a real local need.

For an example of this principle in action, check out the Innovative Arts Ideas, which goes so far as to explicitly say, “Great ideas can start anywhere, so the challenge is open to everyone – established arts institutions, independent artists of all types, businesses and service organizations.” So they’re searching for very small organizations or individuals, as well as large, established organizations.

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