Is a good idea to “Kiss and Tell” in grant writing?

Most of us have had the experience of deciding if you should tell the new girlfriend about the old girlfriend or the old girlfriend about the new girlfriend, or tell neither and shower frequently instead. While I can’t help you with those dilemmas, I can tell you when you should kiss and tell in grant writing and when you should keep it on the down low.

Let me explain. In pursuing foundation grants for a new project, it’s always a good idea to tell the new foundation about the old foundation that has already committed funding. The old foundation’s commitment makes the proposal a “matching grant” request. Like having more than one date offer for the senior prom, this will make you much more intriguing to the new foundation—all foundations want to give the last dollar to a project, but it’s harder to get a foundation to commit the first dollar. Foundations are like lemmings and they prefer to jump off the cliff in groups. Still, they know that they’ll have to  go first in most cases.

Telling the new foundation about the old is particularly potent in capital campaigns. Say the Waconia Cyclops Youth Recreation Association want to build a new facility. It’s not a bad idea to start by getting the Waconia Community Foundation to commit a $100K grant toward your $1 million capital goal before seeking grants from other foundations. When the project is pitched to new foundations, you can trumpet that you’re one-tenth of the way there; if you want to really go old school, erect a 10 foot tall “capital campaign thermometer” in front of your building.

The new foundations may think that the Waconia Community Foundation knows what they’re doing and will want to get on train before it’s too late. NRP stations, like KCRW in LA, have honed this approach over the years for what seems like bimonthly pledge drives. KCRW knows that the closer the breathless announcer says the station is to that hour’s $10K matching grant from Himmelfarb Industries, the more likely it is that you’ll finally give in and call. Plus, there’s that “handsome” tote bag they keep dangling.

For most nonprofits, captive audiences lured by tote bags are not an option, as they have to hunt down that first foundation grant. Keep in mind, however, that you never want to seem like you have too much money, as foundations want to feel special, just like girlfriend analogy above. Enough money for momentum is good; so much that you seem like you don’t need the money is bad.

The situation is more complex for government grants. Some federal funding agencies like EDA or Rural Development more or less force applicant to demonstrate hard money matching grants,* since they mostly fund large capital projects and almost never provide 100% of the funding. The vast majority of government funders that require a match for human services projects, however, are perfectly happy with an in-kind match, an ephemeral beast I wrote about in “The Secrets of Matching Funds Exposed: Release the Hounds and Let the Scavenger Hunt Begin.”

Most government grant proposals we write use variations on the “but for” argument to demonstrate need: “But for the grant being requested, at-risk young adult Waconian cyclops will not have access to job training with wraparound supportive services and will be doomed to intergenerational poverty.” If you tell the new funder that you already have funding, they may conclude that you don’t need the grant as much as other applicants, who are all screaming poverty. Also, boasting about other funding in a federal grant proposal is likely to raise the dreaded specter of supplantation, which must be avoided at all costs. The Feds usually want to be the first dollar on projects that wouldn’t exist without them.

While contemplating this kiss and tell conundrum, keep in that the funder usually only knows what you tell them in the proposal. While we always advise our clients to be truthful in proposals, proposals can be like writing a match.com profile. It’s not necessary to list your seven previous failed relationships until you’ve gotten past the Starbucks meet & greet.


* We describe stacking several government grants for a capital project as a “layer cake” approach. The grant we’re writing about is invariably the top layer.

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