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A Tale of Two Boards

Although I began my journey as a grants professional as the assistant for a Grants Director at a medical research institution, I have had the special honor of working with small to mid-size nonprofits, both on staff and in a consulting role, for the bulk of my career. This has allowed me to gain much insight into the inner workings of nonprofit boards and their expectations for grant funding, as well as broader fundraising initiatives.

Two small organizations stand out from my experience on either ends of the nonprofit-savvy board spectrum. Comparing them has helped me strategize about how to communicate with boards that may not have an optimal understanding about the role of grants within their overall fundraising plans. What are some universal methods of communication that grant professionals can utilize with boards of any size and composition?

Both organizations in my comparison had annual budgets of approximately $250,000, and employed 5 or fewer staff members. Both were in the social services sector. The first board was composed of 16 members who were carefully recruited with the needs of the community served and the mission at the top of mind. The second board was composed of the two founders who started the organization 15 years prior, and a third board member who did not have any significant ties to the organization or the population served. Both boards had high expectations for grant funding, and held many of the common assumptions that we as grant professionals regularly encounter in our work, e.g. using grants as a “quick fix” for funding overhead, the amount of effort that is involved in the grant development process, understanding eligibility requirements, and so on.

As you might expect, the time, patience, and methods of communication were different for both boards, but similar strategies, over time, did improve the grants culture in both. And as a bonus, the second board began to invest more time and energy into their own growth and diversity. What strategies worked for both?

I found that regular, brief communication regarding specific topics were most effective in my grant education efforts. I was able to provide written materials through the Executive Director, and in some cases, I gave brief in-person presentations during board meetings. To keep the focus on the overall purpose of grant seeking efforts, and those who ultimately benefit, I put the organization's mission statement at the top of each takeaway document or on the first slide of a presentation. Some of the topics that resonated most with board members were:

  • Top ten “grant myths” (aka: the answer to why The Gates Foundation can't just give us a grant)
  • Who gives? A breakdown of nonprofit giving by source (utilizing Giving USA data)
  • Reading a 990 to identify funder type, potential connections, and more
  • Community foundations and donor-advised funds
  • Identifying the scope of what is included in a proposal through logic models (in one instance, some board members formed a team to review a proposal)
  • Writing for capacity – can grants fund staff and overhead?
  • Sharing the annual report of a successful nonprofit in the sector, with attention to their grant funding and composition as part of the larger fund diversification
  • Grants as a reciprocal relationship – what does a funder expect?

What methods have worked for you in your communication about grants with nonprofit boards?

Elisa is a staff grant writer and consultant working in South Carolina and Colorado. She has over 15 years of experience in the grants profession, and currently works primarily with organizations in the human services and education sectors. Elisa lives in Pueblo, Colorado with her husband, 5-year-old son, and rescue dog.



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