Victoria Atkinson White: When does a grant help an institution?

It is logical to think that water will fix or bring health to dry land. But the conditions of the water and the land determine whether it will bring nourishment or ruin. Unsplash / Red Charlie

Before submitting a grant proposal, consider whether it is the right grant for the right organization at the right time, writes Leadership Education’s managing director of grants.

“The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” Isaiah 58:11 (NRSV)

Having grown up in Texas, I am accustomed to parched land. When the weather radar gets colorful, I recognize the conditions that cause flash flooding. And now that I live in North Carolina, every year I expect a hurricane or two to dump inches of rain hundreds of miles inland, causing massive flooding and sinkholes and toppling trees older than I am.

When the ground is dry, you might think that a lot of rain would be a blessing. But the opposite can also be true.

The first half an inch or so might have time to soak into the dry earth, but when the rain falls faster than the land can absorb it, the water begins to accumulate, and gravity quickly pulls it to the lowest available spots. This process creates mudslides and erosion, robbing the land of its healthy topsoil; it overwhelms storm drains, floods buildings and stalls cars in swamped roads.

It is logical to think that water will fix or bring health to dry land. But the conditions of the water and the land determine whether it will bring nourishment or ruin.

The same is true for grants and institutions.

When an institution is operating in a scarcity mindset, it is logical to think that a windfall of money will bring immediate health, creating the conditions for growth and sustainability.

But Robert C. Saler, the executive director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary, which administers Lilly Endowment’s Clergy Renewal Programs, notes the importance of giving “the right grant to the right institution at the right time.” These three markers are helpful in determining when and whether the conditions are present for a grant to promote health within an institution.

The right grant. Many funders have specific criteria -- usually outlined clearly in their RFP (Request for Proposals) documents -- that guide their decision making. These criteria, clues to the funders’ priorities, are developed from years of research, pilot programs and best practices. If you are looking for seed money for a startup, a grant program for writing one’s first book will not be the right fit. Similarly, if your organization needs a grant for strategic planning work, an application for a sabbatical grant will not be successful.

To discern whether a grant is right for you, consider the impact it might have. How might crafting the proposal and (eventually) administrating the grant project help move your organization toward health, sustainability and collaborative partnerships?

The right institution. Is your institution positioned to manage a grant? Is your church new, or do you have a long history? Do you have effective leadership in place so that the grant would contribute to the ongoing stability of your organization, or would a grant interrupt the balance of power and cause conflict? What makes your church, organization or community unique? In a stack of grant proposals, what details about your institution would heighten funders’ curiosity about your work?

Researching other institutions who have received similar grants, including reaching out to them directly, can be enlightening. Is your organization similar to or different from previous grantees? How might this information help you craft an application?

The right time. Is this the right time for a grant for your organization? Is there a major staff transition in the works? Is your institution experiencing growth or decline? Does your denominational status affect your sustainability? Writing a grant proposal is not an easy task. It requires research, time, reflection, planning, partnerships, vulnerability and patience. Finding an open application window that fits within your calendar is not the same as finding the right proposal to pursue.

Consult multiple calendars when considering submitting a grant proposal. Does your organization have the administrative and financial services professionals to handle the details of the funding? Is your staff in a position to take on the additional work of a grant program? Who has the time to maintain the relationship with the funder and complete the evaluations?

Let’s return to the image of rain and parched land.

Those who care for the land are intentional about cultivating the conditions for health in dry as well as rainy seasons. Healthy land contains multiple layers of soil capable of absorbing rain and storing it in underground wells for use in drier seasons. In an ecosystem of trees, grasses, weeds, flowers and shrubs, the roots intertwine to keep the soil in place and prevent erosion.

Funders pay particular attention to the potential impact, the institutional circumstances and the timing, because a grant is an investment. Much like in medicine, funders operate with a “first do no harm” mentality. Funders do not want to disrupt a community or organizational system. Typically, they want to come alongside institutions already doing good work and help them do it better. They are looking for grantees who are prepared for the next season of work.

What steps does your organization need to take to be like Isaiah’s “watered garden” so that it can perpetuate health and flourishing when an opportunity springs forth?