We hear it said all the time: “We’ll just get a grant for that.”

There are many people working in the nonprofit world who believe that grants are the low-hanging fruit of the fundraising orchard. We understand why that is—grants usually have a clear protocol, process, and decision-making timeline. Unfortunately, grants are just not low-hanging fruit. In fact, let’s call them high-hanging fruit, the kind of fruit that you need a team of people, a ladder, and an extended cultivation period to pick.

Here are a few essential things you need to know if you’re thinking about pursuing grants as a fundraising strategy to support your organization or program.

  1. Foundations are looking for a proven track record of stability and success. Some foundation grant guidelines will even explicitly state that you should not bother applying unless you have been operating for a minimum of three years. Others may not consider an application unless you can provide audited financial statements.

  2. Not all foundations accept unsolicited applications. You can find this information easily on the organization’s most recent 990 form, just scroll to part XV, question two. Is that little box checked? If so, the foundation only makes awards to pre-selected organizations. Luckily, with a little bit of research and strategic donor cultivation, you may be able to get yourself on that pre-selected list, but that could be a lengthy process, even if you do already have a connection to a foundation trustee.

  3. Established Foundations often already have a full roster of grantees. This is especially the case with small or family foundations that have no professional staff. These foundations are often already giving annually at capacity, and even if they do accept unsolicited proposals, will not have the ability to offer funding to a new organization without penalizing one of their current grantees.

  4. The guidelines do matter. Missing deadlines, providing insufficient or incorrect supplemental materials, and submitting a proposal that falls outside of the stated goals of a foundation are all grounds for your application to be declined. Foundations regularly receive more proposals than they can possibly fund and a failure to follow the rules of submission can help the decision-makers winnow down their pile of prospective grantees.

  5. Foundations are just a bunch individuals making funding decisions as a group. Much like working with an individual donor, if you make an ask to a foundation without taking the time to find out what inspires their charitable giving, you are much less likely to be funded. To improve your chances of receiving that grant, treat the foundation’s staff and board as you would a group of individual donors: get to know them, cultivate them, and thank them appropriately when they do give.