January 17, 2020

Understanding the Grantmaking Process

Tom Linfield

Tom Linfield

Monday afternoon I stood looking out at a room of 90 people, including nonprofit staff, MCF donors, board members, and the press. This was an annual press conference at which we announced more than $600,000 in grant awards for 22 agencies.

What a wonderful array of agencies, from the arts to environment, learning to community development, newly established organizations to one celebrating their 150th anniversary. It was a wonderful melding of all that makes philanthropy in Dane County so special. A room full of knowledge, vision, passion, tenacity, and generosity.

Getting a grant isn’t a trick

A lot of people ask, “What is the trick to getting a grant?” The short answer is there is no trick. The longer answer is that you need a great idea, strong credibility, a desire to foment change in the community, a strategic plan, and a project that aligns with the mission of the funder.

Donor alignment is key, and probably the number one reason projects are not funded. An agency may be doing wonderful work, but the project submitted does not fit the guidelines.

How do you know if your project is a fit? Ask. If the foundation doesn’t have staff with whom you can communicate, the next best thing is talk to other agencies that have received funding from that foundation, or read samples of funded proposals.

Do your legwork before you submit

Madison Community Foundation (MCF) staff are always willing, when time permits, to read draft proposals and discuss project ideas. This is some of the most interesting work we do, hearing from nonprofits about their plans and their priorities, and discussing project alignment.

If MCF is not a funding fit, we often are able to give advice about which other foundations might be. This is one reason we ask on our grant guidelines if we can share the grant proposal; it allows us to send a copy to other foundations or funders we think might be interested.

If the project is a fit, we can offer counsel about which costs are eligible, and how to create measurable outcomes.

Understanding MCF’s grant process

MCF follows a three-tiered grant process:

  • First the staff discusses and analyzes grant ideas organizations have submitted.
  • Second, the MCF Grantmaking Committee reviews the grant request and the staff’s analysis and makes recommendations.
  • And, finally, the Board of Directors reviews the Committee’s recommendations and makes the final decision on which grants to award.

In a typical year, we may start with 80 Letters of Inquiry (the applicant pool has grown each year), ask 25 of those agencies to submit a full proposal, and then fund 20 projects. In our last grant round, we received $3 million in initial requests and awarded $610,000 in grants to 22 agencies, in amounts ranging from $15,000 to $50,000.

It starts with a Letter of Inquiry

MCF staff review the Letters of Inquiry for each round of grantmaking to ensure that the projects submitted fall within our guidelines and to weigh the potential impact and feasibility of each.

We also look for ways we might help strengthen a program. With 3,000 501(c)3 nonprofits in Dane County, there is a lot of overlap between organizations in each of our focus areas. We often are able to suggest potential partnerships or make connections between organizations working in the same field. We are happy to make introductions and help build agency coalitions to help advance a grant applicant’s mission.

Grantmaking Committee review; Board approval

Based on the staff review, the projects deemed to be the best fit with our guidelines are invited to submit a full proposal, which goes to the MCF Grantmaking Committee. The Grantmaking Committee looks at the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal, discusses funding levels and challenge grant opportunities, and offers feedback to applicants.

The Committee then sends a list of funding recommendations to the board for approval.

Finally, we celebrate

Monday, at the culmination of a months-long process, we celebrated the grantees, invited press to meet them, and had a reception. Donors and Board members and agency staff all mingled, shared ideas, discussed issues, even broached potential collaboration.

These nonprofit leaders are the lifeblood of our community, each day working hard to make sure this is an exceptional, rich, welcoming, accessible and equitable community for all.