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Q&A: What you need to know about applying for grants during COVID-19

Q&A: What you need to know about applying for grants during COVID-19

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Traditional revenue streams like fundraising events, door-to-door donations, and fee-for-service programs are no longer viable for most charities and nonprofits in the current social distance climate.

Organizations must adapt and pivot to weather the storm, and grants are a great way to diversify your portfolio. That being said, they aren't without their downsides — which is something to consider, particularly in times of crisis or change. For example, the application and approval process can drag on for what can feel like an eternity, and grants often require long-term planning that isn’t feasible for some organizations in this time of uncertainty. 

According to our recent report, Sector Monitor: Charities & the COVID-19 Pandemic, over 40% of Canadian charities reported that grantmaking funders are acknowledging current challenges and beginning to adapt. Many are extending deadlines, honoring and relaxing restrictions on existing funding arrangements, changing reporting requirements, and announcing the availability of new funds, among other measures. In the last two months, Imagine Canada has seen grantmakers across the country operate with ever increasing flexibility and agility — both typically rare traits of the grantmaking landscape. This is promising, as their support during the pandemic will help protect the capacity and resilience of our sector.

Kyra Tudlong from our Grant Connect team recently sat down (virtually, of course!) with Peter Hoppe, a seasoned grant writer and fundraising instructor with more than 30 years of experience in the sector, to get his perspective on the evolving grantmaking landscape in Canada and his thoughts on grants as a fundraising strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What observations have you made regarding grantmaking throughout the crisis? And what sorts of changes are you observing in the way grants are being distributed (restrictions, criteria, deadlines, reporting, etc.)?

Some of my observations after conducting preliminary foundation and corporation prospect research using Grant Connect and visiting funder websites are that, surprisingly, most funders have not addressed COVID-19 in their funding considerations. It seems most foundations are staying the course and sticking to original funding interests and parameters. However, some of these funders have extended application and reporting deadlines. This includes the Ontario Trillium Foundation, which has just announced that Grow and Capital grants cycles for 2020 are under review. 

What opportunities and/or challenges might this present to organizations seeking funds during this time?

Restrictions on the use of funds granted are being relaxed to take into account the financial strain many organizations are experiencing. This is good news for charities that may have fallen behind on preparing stewardship reports and organizing information for programs and projects requiring funding this year. Even funders that have not yet made formal announcements regarding changes to application and report deadlines will be sure to consider this option for charities that can explain how COVID-19 has impacted their operations.

The challenge will be in the area of research and prospect identification. Reviewing prospective funder websites and making advance contact – if possible – will be more critical than ever. While I’m sure that Grant Connect is working hard to keep funder information as current as possible, fundraisers may find it difficult to catch every update a foundation may provide on a timely basis.  

(To find out more about how we’re keeping up with new funding programs and changes to existing programs amid COVID-19, follow us on Twitter or contact us at grantconnect@imaginecanada.ca.)

Should an organization’s case for support be shaped around how COVID-19 challenges are affecting them and how support would assist in recovery, or continue to focus on the long-term impacts of their work beyond the challenges?

While I believe every grant proposal and funding application should include a statement on how the pandemic impacted the organization, this should not be part of the case for support. The exception would be applications for COVID-19 recovery funding to funders that have announced they are considering these requests. Your case for support should stick to the need served by the project or program for which funds are being requested. However, developing a COVID-19 impact statement that focuses on organizational recovery efforts will strengthen the request for funding by demonstrating the organization's resiliency and sustainability. Grant writers should remember that foundations fund the needs of people, not the needs of organizations.

Another temptation to avoid is to position your program or service as addressing the COVID-19 crisis – especially if that relationship is tenuous. Don't try to compete with front-line organizations. Better to stick with your genuine case for support and match this with funders that have an interest in and history of supporting that cause.   

Would you recommend that organizations pursue grants to cover lost fundraising revenue due to COVID-19? Why or why not?

Unfortunately, pursuing grants to supplement lost fundraising opportunities due to COVID-19 may be a frustrating experience. While some large foundations — and, as Charity Village just announced, a growing number of corporations —  have earmarked significant funding to support COVID-19 relief efforts, these grants are mostly going to preselected organizations — primarily hospitals and food banks. The basic research I conducted concluded that many funders have not yet modified funding guidelines to reflect the impact of COVID-19. Hopefully, more will come forward with these modifications soon. 

Do you have any recommendations or resources for fundraisers who might be applying for grants for the first time and/or shifting their fund development strategy to include applying for more grants?

Bolstering your grant writing program is good advice at any time. Grants from foundations and corporations should be a primary pillar of any diversified fund development portfolio. Developing a strong relationship with a core group of funders will see you through the bad times and help you build during the good times. Here are some of my recommendations:

  1. CRA charitable registration will open funding options to a broader pool of prospects that only support registered charities.  
  2. Ensure your case for support and statement of need are evidence-based and well-documented.
  3. Invest in a database like Grant Connect. These tools provide a pivotal platform and process to inform prospect research.
  4. Spend the time it takes to conduct solid prospect research. This includes visiting funder websites and making contact before you develop your proposal.
  5. Abide by funder guidelines and information requirements.
  6. Follow up on your proposal with program updates and new organization information.                         

Are there any other thoughts or pieces of advice that you would like to share on finding and applying for grants in the COVID era?

Stay connected with your funders. Let them know how your organization is coping during these difficult times. This is an ideal time for stewardship and communication. Secondly, pay attention to new grant proposal deadlines and possible changes in funding interests. Finally, now is the best time to develop and send those grant proposals and online funding applications. Considering how long it takes for foundations to respond to requests for support, delivering requests sooner rather than later may give you an edge when funders are overwhelmed with applications this fall.

Over the past two months, Imagine Canada has been tirelessly advocating the federal government to recognize the importance of our sector during this crisis — including an ask for a Sector Resilience Grant Program to ensure our sector’s survival and the continuity of supports and services we provide to Canadians and the global community. To stay up-to-date on fundraising and grant-related news, subscribe to our monthly Grantseeker newsletter, and check out Grant Connect to explore thousands of grants and funding opportunities — updated daily by Imagine Canada.

Peter Hoppe is President of Fundamentals (fundamentals.solutions), a fund development consulting agency for charities and non-profit organizations. He is also a part-time professor in graduate non-profit fundraising and management studies at Humber College and Seneca College. He has over 30 years of experience helping organizations grow and diversify through strategic planning, grant writing, and individual giving.  

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