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Tips from an Executive Director: How I Landed My First Grant

Paper dolls stacked like a pyramid.

I hopped in my car to drive down to San Diego from Los Angeles. I was 27 and this was my first job as an executive director of a nonprofit and I was on my way to introduce myself to Karen, a program officer at a a local foundation. A few days earlier I had introduced myself to her over the phone. I was interested in applying for a grant that I thought would be a perfect fit for the nonprofit organization where I served as executive director. Our mission interested Karen and met the foundation guidelines but I could tell she wanted to get to know the leadership of the organization a bit more. The nonprofit where I worked had never applied for a grant with this foundation, so I felt the urgency to develop a relationship with her.

On the phone, Karen mentioned that she was leaving the next day for San Diego and I asked what she would be doing in southern California. She mentioned she was attending a ribbon cutting ceremony for a park they had helped fund and I saw this as my opportunity to introduce myself to her in person. My mentor had always shared with me that “people give to people not brick buildings” so I knew that I needed to make an effort to connect with Karen. I figured a phone call and an in-person meeting was that extra effort I needed to do to get Karen to know me as a person.

After the ribbon cutting ceremony, I approached Karen and introduced myself. She was flattered that I took the time to drive down from Los Angeles to meet with her and spent about 15 minutes chatting with me asking me questions about our nonprofit’s sport programs and the population we served. Two months later when we applied for the grant, we got it.

Below I share with you a few tips that I have helped me in successfully securing grants.

Remember: People give to people

People give to people. It is imperative to develop a relationship or attempt to have face-to-face contact with a potential funder. Foundations want to know who they are giving their money to and the leadership abilities of the nonprofit executive.

Sharon Jones, a colleague and program officer shares, “When funding a new nonprofit, I always want to get to know the leadership team of the organization. I need to make sure they have the leadership qualities and expertise to fulfill the grant guidelines.” Looking back, I think my willingness and desire to meet Karen in person helped me build some trust with the foundation. From our conversation, Karen better understood the work our nonprofit was doing in the community and got to know my leadership skills. Funders want to know the leadership behind an organization so it was good strategy to meet Karen in person.

Tips on connecting with program officers:

  1. When applying for a grant, spend an extra few minutes and call a program officer.
  2. Look online and see if there are “Meet the Funders” roundtable events in your community. This is a great way to meet foundation officers face-to-face.
  3. If you get an opportunity to meet with a program officer or speak with them over the phone – send a thank you card. Stand out from all the organizations that they meet on a daily basis!

Write a fantastic case statement

All nonprofits should have a case statement. A case statement is a document that explains the following information to key stakeholders:

  • services and programs your nonprofit provides
  • who benefits and/or is helped by your nonprofit
  • what your nonprofit needs money for
  • why is your nonprofit uniquely qualified to complete its mission
  • specific funding or resources that your nonprofit needs to fulfill its mission

Working on a grant application without an organizational case statement is very disorienting! During the process of applying of to that local foundation we did not have a case statement and it was very difficult to pull together all the necessary pieces of information that they requested. A case statement ensures that you have all the information that you need in one place and forces you to have answers to important questions that funders will undoubtedly ask!

Tips on developing a case statement:

  1. Read through your organization’s marketing materials and pull out information such as organizational history, programs and services, and the organization’s mission to incorporate into your case statement.
  2. Talk to board members and get direct quotes that highlight the impact your organization has on the local community.
  3. Check out this resource from Grant Space about case statements to start crafting yours.

Make sure your programs and missions are aligned with the funder’s

When submitting a grant application to a funder, make sure your organization’s mission and programs are in alignment with their funding priorities. Review funding priorities on a foundation website prior to working on a letter of inquiry or grant application. If possible, pick up the phone and call a program officer from the foundation. It is a complete waste of your time to submit a letter of inquiry or grant application without completely knowing if your organization aligns with the funding priorities of the foundation.

The first few years I started writing grants I would send out dozens of letters of inquiries per month and received the same number of rejection letters. Once I started calling program officers, I developed a more targeted approach in applying for grants because I knew which foundations funding priorities fit my nonprofits mission. In hindsight, it would have been a much better approached to also develop relationships with program officers like I had with Karen.

What to think about before applying for a grant from a foundation:

  1. Looking at the foundation’s website and make sure their funding priorities align with your nonprofit mission.
  2. Find out which nonprofits the foundation has funded in the past.
  3. Find out target populations and geographic regions that the foundation prefers.
  4. Try your hardest to talk to a program officer before submitting a grant.

Hopefully these tips will assist you when submitting your next grant application. If you have additional questions please reach out to me via email at

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About the Author | Leah Weiner, Ed. D. serves as the Executive Director of The Division for Early Childhood, a nonprofit organization focused on advancing the field of special education. Leah has a doctorate in organizational leadership from Pepperdine University and a background in fundraising, volunteer management, board development, and planning giving. She provides consulting for small to mid-size nonprofits. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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