When people ask me what activities I engage in, I usually receive a puzzled look when I answer with “grant writing.” From rescuing endangered species to purchasing life-saving seizure-detecting devices for patients with epilepsy, grant writing has cultivated itself into something much larger than I ever expected.
Looking back, one might say I was quite naive when I started grant writing. My 15 year-old self had no idea what I was up against: I had no contacts, no mentor, and no idea my competition were people who were twice my age and possessed a breadth of experience I could only dream of having. Regardless, my naivety worked to my advantage; it obscured my mind from these seemingly daunting disadvantages. The idea of raising thousands of dollars for worthwhile startups and nonprofits intrigued me, so I jumped in headfirst.
It has now been over three years since I began grant writing, and the opportunities I’ve gained and the money I’ve raised is more than I ever thought I could. Proudly, I have secured over $40,000 in grants from corporations such as Patagonia, Innovating Worthy Young Projects, and Scholastic.
It can be easy to get caught up in the numbers, but what matters to me is the quantifiable impact this money has gone towards: 55 endangered species saved and 40 seizure-detecting devices purchased. If even one life has been changed because of my efforts, my mission is accomplished.
When Laurie offered to hire me as an intern for Descendant’s Media Group (DMG), I was beyond thrilled. I never had a mentor, so being under her wing and gaining real world experience was invaluable. Since working with DMG, I’ve been able to completely reinvent my approach to grant writing. Previously, I used an online grant search engine to search for grants. This site was effective, but it had limited access to foundations and information. Through DMG’s membership with Forefront, Illinois’ statewide association for nonprofits and grant makers, we have access to a professional online database called Foundation Directory Online. This website has access to thousands of grant-making entities and financial summaries. Since gaining access to this database, I have engulfed myself in searching for foundations and funding opportunities that align with DMG’s mission statement. And armed with this research, we’ve been able to decide which foundations to reach out to.
Although being a skilled writer is important, it is extremely difficult to gain traction in this field without conducting research about organizations. I’ve learned how to look up board members and key words to decode what an organization typically funds. Proposals are always stronger when the writer knows background information about the audience.
In the past I’ve worked with organizations that fit into 2-3 funding fields of interest. What made working for DMG unique were the 7-8 overlapping fields of interest that merged into our mission statement. From historical preservation and storytelling to antidiscrimination, researching grant making entities that fund these categories was an amazing challenge.
When it comes to determining an amount of money to request, I research the organization’s IRS 990 form to look at past recipients and the amount of money funded.
The most important part of grant writing is to be open to rejection. Foundations annually receive hundreds of proposals, only approving a handful for funding. Although receiving a “no” is common, nothing is more satisfying than receiving an email that says “yes.” Your hours of researching and writing finally pay off, and you become one step closer to fulfilling your foundation’s mission. Working for DMG has taught me the importance of not working hard, but working smart. Each rejection letter has allowed me to rethink my strategy and research on how to become a better grant writer.