Money for Nothing:

Rethinking How You Approach Funders



By Mary E. Costello © October 2007

Independent Consultant

Grant Writing & Program Development

Creative Edge Consulting



Both in working with my own customers and in the subcontracting services I offer to other consultants for organizations that do not know I personally exist, I am frequently told that a group wants funding at a certain level for a rough idea of a program.  It is usually some “magical” number with no real basis for its specification.  Rarely are there any details at this point  about how funding would be used, budgets that indicate true costs or any clear-cut plans for what the program will look like.


You need to ask yourself an honest question if this is how you approach funding.  How can you write a proposal to ask for money for a program where you have no delineated plan?  You certainly cannot formulate timelines for activities that have not been determined, let alone measurable goals and objectives.


I certainly harp on this issue with the folks I serve, insisting that an idea is not a program or project.  Prior to requesting money, unless it is for program development itself, you need to lay the groundwork to show how you will implement this effort once funding is awarded.  It is simply not good enough to say you will figure that out later.  Funders expect you to have completed this preliminary work prior to contacting them.


At very least, you should be able to offer this information:


1.    Who you will serve through the project, including the number of people impacted by it and the demographics of this population


2.    Demonstration of need showing statistical data that supports the reason it is being created, in addition to research that shows it is not a duplicated service in your area


3.    The full staffing needed to successfully implement the project


4.    A detailed description of what the program will offer and accomplish


5.    Qualified leadership for the initiative, including bios and resumes, or job descriptions if these are new positions and currently unidentified personnel


6.    The duration of the project


7.    Measurable goals and objectives


8.    Comprehensive list of activities to be accomplished, with associated milestone target dates


9.    An evaluation plan to objectively determine success


10.  A detailed projected budget of all associated costs


11.  A marketing plan, as well as how you intend to sustain the project through additional funding


12.  A solid fiscal history within your organization, including independent financial audits, 990’s, and other financial statements



One of the mistakes I frequently see groups make is to target an amount of money first, and then trying to “back into” that amount by creating a program to fit it.  To me, that is completely backwards.


So, when an organization asks me, “how much do you think we could get?”  I respond by saying, “how much do you need?”


The cost of a program is based on your homework and program planning.  If the real costs of implementing this project are $150,000, you need to pursue all the resources necessary to cover those costs.  It might mean that you need to approach five funders to make this happen.  Maybe it can be accommodated by one—but that all depends on the funders and the particular grantseeking organization.  It also depends on how many other programs your organization operates, since no funder wants to be your sole source of support.


Still, you can’t possibly come up with your budget numbers until you evaluate all your program needs—everything from staffing to equipment purchases.  Without doing so, you are potentially putting yourself in a tough spot of needing to fulfill an obligation to a funder without having the financial means to effectively conduct your activities.  That is, if you even get as far as receiving a grant award.


Given how competitive funding requests are, it is in your best interest to lay the groundwork before contacting any source of financial support.  Not only does it increase your potential for funding success, but you need to be very aware of how you represent your organization to the folks with which you hope to build an ongoing relationship.  It is a matter of reputation. Being vague and trying to sell an “idea” will not serve you well.


The most important point for you to digest is this—Funders are investing in you.  What are you giving them in return?  They want to know.  And, they want details.


You wouldn’t buy a product if you didn’t know what it did or how it worked, would you?  And, you would put your hard-earned, limited money toward the purchase that gave you the best service for the best price.  As a non-profit, your services are your product—a product that is in competition with all the other groups who seek contributions.  How does yours stand up?


Show the funder that you are ready to hit the ground running.  Prove to them that you have the competence and organizational skills necessary to implement this new initiative.  Provide the details to show you have fully thought this through and that you not only know WHAT you hope to do…but HOW you will do it.






About the Author: Mary E. Costello holds a BA degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.  She is a former Social Work Administrator who specialized in the management of complex human services programs and leading new projects creation.  Forming Creative Edge Consulting in February of 2005, she now is the “resident expert” on grant writing and non-profit program development issues on the Boys Project website, a sponsored project of the University of Alaska/Fairbanks.  She serves clients throughout the United States, including both community based programs and those of national scope. Programmatic and grant related questions or inquiries regarding her professional line of services may be directed to  Mary will attempt to answer all general questions from the public but cannot guarantee a personal response, dependent on volume of requests at any given time. 


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