The view from San Jose, Calif.: 10 tips for grant-seekers

Photo above: San Jose’s Exhibition District. Credit: Vignesh Ramachandran.

As Knight Foundation’s program director in San Jose, I’m often asked for advice from those seeking grants or, more specifically, why we choose certain grants and grantees over others. While these decisions are based on a variety of reasons—experience, creativity, execution, partnerships, etc.—there are some fundamental elements of communication, candor and collaboration that I tend to find across successful grantees.

In an effort to help share some best practices, here are my top 10 tips for grant-seekers:

1. Be human. You are likely pursuing an idea because you’re passionate about it. Share your enthusiasm for the work and why you’re doing it; optimism is contagious. Remember that funders are investing in you, not just your idea. In meetings, let yourself and your personality shine.

2. Chase your vision, not the money. It can be tough to find funding, but try to avoid funding or funders who don’t align with your core competencies. I meet a lot of people who try to stretch their mission and mandate to fit our work. You might receive a grant, but this can also pull you and your team away from your critical work, which may have long-term implications.

3. Know what you need. Whether it is money, strategic advice, community connections or something else, be prepared to talk through the specifics of how a funder can support what you’re doing

4. Don’t just talk; listen. Some potential grantees spend so much time passionately describing their project that they forget to allow time for the funder to ask questions, offer insights and share information about the priorities of the foundation.

5. Learn to speak in numbers. Whether sharing the results of past projects or pitching new ideas, be able to quantify and measure the impact of your work with data. While not everything in this world is measurable, show that you have an understanding of how data can best be used in your work.

6. Develop an entourage. When pitching an idea, it’s helpful to have partners and supporters who represent diverse skills, communities and interests. Showing that you have explored ideas with other possible collaborators, signals broader buy-in for your ideas and increases the number of champions cheering for you.

7. Share bad news early. The world of philanthropy is small. If you’ve had issues with another foundation or are struggling in your work, be candid about challenges and possible roadblocks early. It’s better that you share this news rather than have a funder hear it from someone else first.

8. Under promise and over deliver. Be bold and think big, but set realistic outcomes that you can meet within your proposed time frame and budget.  

9. Be on time. Prove that you can keep time. Be punctual for meetings and calls.

10. Do your homework. Avoid asking general questions if the answers are easily available on the foundation’s website. Use your limited time with a funder wisely to show that you have a grasp of the foundation’s work and a vision and plan for your ideas.

Daniel Harris is San Jose program director for Knight Foundation. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @dyuliharris.