When grants are a primary source of funding, designing new projects is a critical competence. How can you continue to come up with new proposals that will attract funding? Adopt the following techniques so that your people are always thinking beyond your organization’s current work and coming up with new project ideas.
“Initiate, Improve, Innovate, Iterate” is the mantra to follow as you look at current programs and beyond for new project sources. Here’s what I mean:
Figure out how you can regularly try new ideas as test cases within current programs. Don’t wait for funding, initiate. Conduct small pilot projects now and then to jumpstart subsequent funding for new work. It’s a strong way to justify a new request. Another way is to look to your connections – your network and community – for ways to partner or plug in to existing systems for added value. Propose working together with other community organizations. Offer your strengths. Many funders have strong preference for partnered grants featuring collaborative efforts to create change.
Sometimes program improvement is obvious. If past performance hasn’t met expectations you’ll no doubt be conducting very thorough reviews to figure out why. This process may lead to the improved Program v2.0. But you should always be looking for possible improvements regardless of past performance.
Start a continuous process of action research: talk to your stakeholders at every opportunity. Consider ALL of your stakeholder groups (staff, volunteers, clients, board members, donors, funders). Ask specific questions to get actionable information to input to program design. What are the problems and can we help solve them? Take it further by conducting interviews, surveys or focus groups. And always gather social media insights. Whatever the method, make sure you are always listening.
Review the challenges presented by the problem you address or by your existing programs and try to trigger new ways to address them. Abstract or break apart the challenge to get at different angles. Consider the ways you differentiate your services. Take close look at costs, processes, service offerings for possible improvements. Analysis of any of these aspects of current programming may uncover new ways of approaching your work.
Your organizational goal is to thrive. This requires constant attention. In a very crowded world, innovation is now critical. In terms of funding, new and bold ideas are connected with hope and emotion and can expand your opportunities if presented to funders as such. Tell the story! At the same time, always work to increase awareness of your organization and what it stands for. Being a known innovator may make funders more likely to take risks with you (again, present your new ideas with hopeful impact scenarios).
Innovation requires deep thinking. Really ponder your core service to find ways to broaden its scope.
- Challenge the current explanations.
- Evaluate every point of contact your organization has with your mission’s target – whether that is people, place or idea – with an eye to expansion. Where can you insert a new type of program or broaden an existing one?
- Use flexible thinking, playing with context and perspective to get beyond obvious ideas.
- What are your areas of impact and work – do they coincide or can you increase impact by broadening work?
- Is there a data gap in your field – can you conduct projects to yield new research findings? Conducting shorter programs in this vein allows you to test new possibilities.
- Keep asking, “How else? What else? Why else?”
Testing new program designs allows you to discover what attracts funders as well as what works for your cause. It allows you to see trends over time, which itself can spur new ideas.
Apply for multiple grants each cycle, and evaluate which are awarded/rejected. Talk to the funders who reject your proposals to determine what might improve your chances next time. This risk-taking approach may not be for everyone, but it can help bubble up the transformative ideas that win grant awards.
When you hit on successes, you’ll be able to create a larger program with a lengthier cycle. Evaluate the impact of any awarded projects in a feedback loop to sustain the next round of funding. As we’ve said before, “embrace your data.” Measurement drives change.
Your applications will undoubtedly yield failures. Rejections are always tough. Using the information they can offer, though, is a powerful part of innovation. It is a long game and continuous movement is the way to sustain your work. Try the Initiate, Improve, Innovate, Iterate strategies and let us know what works.
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