In the field of fund development, grants don’t get a lot of respect. I’m well-known for bringing in millions of grant dollars for community programs, but at a social function, a fund development director once identified me as the woman who raises all the junk money. Junk money? Really?”
Fund development professionals focus on individual giving because it’s a huge piece of the philanthropic pie. In 2018, individuals gave $292.09 billion, which was 68 percent of recorded charitable giving.1 Fundraisers also focus here because dollars are the most flexible, renewable, and growable. Individual giving done right can be the beanstalk to the golden eggs that just keep coming. But grant funding is also a huge resource for private and public nonprofits. The quip, “a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money,” is apropos.
In 2018, foundations awarded $75.86 billion grant dollars, and corporations gave $20.09 billion to charities. 2 That’s well below the individual giving mark. But because federal grants aren’t considered “charitable giving” they’re not counted in reports detailing where philanthropic dollars come from. Realistically, almost every decent-sized nonprofit organization gets or wants federal grant funding and those grants are often well targeted to meet specific and pressing community needs such as substance abuse, homelessness, hunger, and health concerns. When you throw in the $613.5 billion in grant funds awarded by the federal government in 2018,3 you’re starting to get the picture. Combined, that’s $709.45 billion in foundation, corporate, and federal grants. And that doesn’t even count grants from states and municipalities supported by non-federal taxes and fees.
There are a number of reasons why grants work doesn’t get a lot of respect in philanthropic circles. These are just a few.
- It’s often poorly integrated with strategic planning. That’s unfortunate because when driven by a big-picture strategy and integrated with other fundraising approaches, grants are particularly well suited to establishing new services, testing new ideas, and kick-starting large-scale community action.
- When grants aren’t pursued in an intentional, mission-driven way the process devolves into helter-skelter money grabbing. If the question is “How much cash are we bringing in?” rather than “What are we accomplishing?” you can bet you’re on the wrong track. When grants respond intelligently to clearly identified needs and focus on results, they can put rocket fuel behind the pursuit of your mission.
- The prescriptive nature of government grants limits their usefulness for many purposes. But they can be quite large compared to most foundation and corporate grants and when you’re highly selective in which opportunities you pursue, government grants can be astonishingly helpful.
- Grantseeking is not glamorous work. We’re not talking cocktail parties and galas here. We’re talking long hard hours, weekend and night work, enough details to sink a cargo ship, crushing deadlines, too much coffee, and some poor fashion choices. Grants professionals are often overworked and underappreciated.
Grant funding is not appropriate for every purpose, must be coordinated with the strategic plan, and must be integrated into overall fundraising approaches. But grants are an incredibly versatile tool and between foundations, corporations, and governments, there’s a lot of funding available. Grant money is not “junk” money. It’s a substantial resource that when used appropriately is a powerful tool for social change.