What's a Grant? Why You Want One, and How to Get It: A Blog from Bob

Meet Bob Arnold, Grants Manager and margarita extraordinaire for the Brooks. Learn more about Bob here. Bob.

Let’s start today’s blog entry by dispelling some myths:

(1) Frogs cannot give you warts.

(2) Serial killers are not using the sound of a baby crying to lure you outside.

(3) You can end a sentence with a preposition.

(4) Grants are not free money.

Of these, number four is perhaps the most shocking, or at least the most widely misunderstood. As Grants Manager for the Brooks, I’m here to tell you: If you’re a grant-seeker who thinks grants are free money, you’re in for a lot of heartbreak.

Why? Because grants are hard work. And rightfully so. Think of it this way: You have a pocket full of cash, and you want to use that cash to make the world a better place. Would you hand it over to the first person who asks you for it? Or would you rather give it to the person who comes along with a clear plan, a reasonable budget, a solid base of support, and a logical method of proving that they can make the world a better place? Right. The latter individual is a good grantee.

The process of writing a grant application for a particular program starts as soon as that program is designed. I like to be involved in program planning meetings here at the Brooks, helping to define goals, consider audience needs, and think about how we’ll evaluate results. A good program addresses a definite need—one backed up by studies, surveys, or other hard data. The program should address this need logically, directly, and as frugally as possible. And by the time it’s over, it should have had a demonstrable effect on the problem. All of these elements must be carefully thought out and defined before a grant application is even begun.

Writing an application requires you to tell the story of the program in a compelling, succinct, and sometimes completely illogical way. (You’re at the mercy of the grantor here, and if they want to hear about the program’s outcomes before you even tell them what the program is, that’s their privilege.) Using the framework you’re given, you’ve got to make an airtight case for what your organization wants to do, without having any idea what’s most likely to move the person (or people) reviewing the grant. Inspiring stories of clients you’ve helped? A lean, carefully categorized budget? Rock-solid logic? It’s all got to be in there.

Of course, submitting a grant application is just the beginning. In the event that your organization receives the grant, you’ve actually got to carry out the program, and you will be asked to report on it at least once. Depending on the grantor and the term of the grant, the reporting requirements may be a lot tougher. The U.S. Government is a major grantor, for example, and if you’ve ever tried to renew your driver’s license, you know they won’t let anything slide. I’ve seen government grant guidelines that are the length of a novella. (I wish I were exaggerating.) Their reporting schedules can drag on for years.

None of this is an attempt to convince you of how hard my job is, or to surreptitiously promote myself in front my boss. (Hi, Diane!) It’s just a profile of one of the many, many facets of a nonprofit organization. The Brooks relies on dozens of grants each year in order to present the world-class exhibitions and programs we’re known for. If those grants were handed out freely and carelessly, we—and a lot of other great organizations—would be less likely to get them, and therefore less likely to accomplish anything meaningful.

I hope that clears up at least a little of the mystery and mythology concerning grants. Now, who wants to help me recover the fortune of an exiled Nigerian prince?

Posted by Karen Davis at 9:29 AM
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