Best PracticesGrants

How to start a grants office/department

Is your organization at the point where you want to formalize your grant seeking efforts with a dedicated full-time employee? Wonderful! You can only get so far with someone going after grants in addition to their other responsibilities. If you want to take grants to the next level, you need to start a grants department—even if it consists of only one person. Here are the three keys to success with any new grants department:

  • Preparation
  • Expectations
  • Patience

Preparation

First and foremost: Educate yourself and your organization’s leadership on grants—especially if you’re new to grants in general but, more importantly, if you’re new to federal grants.

It’s extremely important for you to understand how the federal grants process works. A thorough understanding of how long it takes to apply for grants; how long it takes to receive funding; and how involved it is to manage them will help structure your new grants department. This knowledge will also help you select a qualified department manager.

Expectations

Here’s where many organizations get into trouble: they set lofty expectations and goals that are wildly unrealistic. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Federal grants don’t magically appear overnight. From the time a grant opens for applications to the point when funding decisions are made and dollars start flowing to grantees, it can be as few as six months to as many as 12 months.
  • Federal grants come in cycles. You can figure out those cycles by searching the grants.gov database a few years back. That’ll give you a really good idea when different grants will be released by department (e.g., Education, Justice, Transportation, etc.). It’s not perfect, of course, but you’ll at least be able to put together a simple planning calendar.
  • Not every grant is a good fit for your organization. Sometimes, the best move is to pass on a grant and wait for a better opportunity.
  • Not everything will go as planned. When you start a grants office, your first reaction is to think, “we’re going to get millions.” Yes and no. Chances are you will eventually get to millions but that takes time. It can take some organizations years to reach a point where they’re annually bringing in millions of dollars.
  • Create realistic annual goals (e.g., $200,000 in year 1; $500,000 in year 2; $750,000 in year 3; $1 MM in years 4 and beyond). Get some momentum going. Thinking you’re going to receive millions within the first year is setting yourself up for disappointment.
  • Make your expectations very clear to your new department manager from the beginning and give your person a chance to voice any concerns but, most importantly, give them a chance to be successful. Don’t start out telling them to only go after large grants, then a few months later tell them to go after anything/everything regardless of dollar amount, and then finally drop on them you expect millions of dollars in the first year when they’re already nine months into the new position. That’s not fair to the employee and it’s not fair to your organization. Once reality smacks down your unrealistic expectations, everyone will be disappointed.

Patience

  • When going after grants, think of your efforts as a laser beam, not a shotgun. If you pick the right opportunities and capitalize on your strengths, you’ll be successful in the long run.
  • You can’t instantaneously go from 0-100mph. It takes time to get a new grants department off the ground and flying smoothly.
  • You can’t force the timeline. Grants—public and private—operate on their own schedules. Once you apply, it will be months until you hear the results. The same hold true for when grants become available from funders. Foundations and government agencies do their own thing. Learn to roll with it.
  • If you expect to receive “millions,” you need to focus on state and federal funders; you need to adjust to their timelines/schedules; AND you need to remember “millions” is a long-term play.
  • Going after private grants when you’re not applying for public grants is a nice theory, but it’s not realistic when your goal is “millions.” Millions doesn’t come from piecing together $5,000 and $10,000 grants. Most foundation grants are pretty small. And, large private foundation grants are rare. Foundation grants, in my opinion, take more effort than going after government grants because there’s a period of relationship-building with foundations before you can apply with any reasonable chance of success. If you want millions, the fastest way to get there is with $200,000, $500,000 and $750,000 grants from public agencies. But that takes focus and discipline and patience. When you’re at square one, it might take 18-36 months to hit your goals. (Please note: I’m not saying don’t go after smaller grants, but give them to staff outside the grants office. If the grants office is weighed down by small private grants, they can’t focus on the larger opportunities that will push your organization to the next level.)

Trust the process. Be patient. Keep trying.