This article was written for Circles Charity Register and Datebook, a magazine that features a calendar of philanthropy and benefit planning events in Jacksonville. It appeared in volume 4 (2018-2019).


“Raising funds to fuel programs that save lives.”

That’s Christy Smith’s tagline on LinkedIn. And that’s the perfect description of what the 39-year-old grant specialist for Wounded Warrior Project does for a living.  

Smith, who is also president of the Grant Professionals Association North Florida Chapter, graduated from the University of North Florida with a bachelor’s in history and anthropology in 2007. She started work downtown Jacksonville at The Museum of Science and History upon graduation and over time got involved in writing the annual grant for the city.

“It’s funny when you talk to people in the grant profession, it’s rare that you will hear one of them say, ‘I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to be a grant writer,’” she said. “It’s kind of one of those things that you fall into.”

Smith said she worked at the museum for nine years and typical of a lot of smaller nonprofits, she got to dabble in different areas. After a couple rounds of writing the city grant, however, she discovered she really enjoyed it and wanted to learn more. So, when an opportunity came along that allowed her to focus specifically on grant writing, she jumped on it.

Types of grants and how to find them

“Here at Wounded Warrior, we focus on grants from foundations,” she said. And there are several types.

A private foundation, also referred to as an independent foundation, is a nonprofit organization generally funded from a single source, such as an individual, a family, a civic club or a corporation. It exists to make grants to charitable organizations doing work in specific areas of interest.

“Sometimes there is an application process, and sometimes there’s not,” she said. “Sometimes they’ll have an open call for requests, and other times it’s closed – they already know who they want to grant to, and they will contact those organizations and go from there.”

Public community foundations exist, as well. And Jacksonville is fortunate to have one.

The Community Foundation of Northeast Florida has about 550 funds established by the public it serves. Each of the funds has a singular mission, but the community is at the heart of all of them.

The community foundation has competitive grants, which as the name implies, are awarded through a competitive application process overseen by the foundation. These are the only grants available by application, and they function quite differently than the foundation’s donor advised funds.

With donor advised funds, the person establishing the fund – the donor – gets to choose what organizations to support. The foundation does not accept solicitations, and there is no application process.

Typically, the donor will let the foundation know they want to grant a certain dollar amount from their donor advised fund to an organization, she said. The foundation then contacts the organization directly and manages the process.

“It’s really all about getting to know each individual foundation, what their interests are, how they want to be contacted, if they’re open to receiving requests, or if they’re closed to that, and they already have people they want to grant to,” Smith said. “It’s really a lot of research.”

The most obvious form of research is done on a foundation’s website. If the foundation has a competitive grant process the information about eligibility and guidelines is usually there. But, not all foundations have websites.

And, this is where an organization’s IRS Form 990, the annual return required of most tax-exempt organizations, comes in handy. Smith said the form contains all the pertinent information needed to approach an organization for funding.

“It tells you if they accept unsolicited requests,” she said. “It will also tell you what address you should send them to and if they have an online system. It’s all spelled out in the 990. The other thing that’s really cool about the 990 is most of the time they will have a list of the organizations they have granted to in the last year. So, you can gauge if they would be a good fit for your organization or not.”

The forms can be found online through GuideStar, a nonprofit that publishes information about charities, and the Foundation Center, a research organization that focuses on philanthropy.

“Sometimes there is an application process, and sometimes there’s not. Sometimes they’ll have an open call for requests, and other times it’s closed – they already know who they want to grant to, and they will contact those organizations and go from there.”

– Christy Smith

Kristen Dietzen, chief development officer for the Jacksonville Speech and Hearing Center, said another good resource for new grant writers or those looking to expand those sources is the Foundation Directory Online. The Foundation Center offers the research tool as a standalone subscription that is quite pricey, she said. But, it is available to the public for free through the public library.

“They have a center set up where you can go online and search for all of the funders throughout the United States,” she said. “You can narrow it down if your searching for funders in Jacksonville, or for example, funders who support early childhood initiatives or those who provide emergency assistance.”

She said the database is a great tool for experienced grant writers to find new sources of funding, too. “So, you’re not having to rely on those same funders year after year.”

Dietzen, who also fell into grant writing after graduating in 2013 from UNF with a bachelor’s in political science, said she started with small grants. Her first grant was for a piece of technology for one of the center’s audiologists.

“I believe it was for $2,500,” she said. “It was with a local organization who had supported us one time in the past, so we kind of knew what they were looking to fund as far as their priorities. And, we worked on a grant that worked for them and their funding guidelines and then was good for us, as well.”

When she found out she got the grant a few months later, she said she was incredibly excited. She moved up from there writing $10,000 grants all the way to six-figures.

“Really, it’s just you have to be comfortable spending a significant amount of time doing research and really knowing the background of your organization and why you need that funding,” she said. “And, you have to be able to illustrate that effectively to the company or the foundation for the grants that you apply.”

Writing a compelling application

Applications for grants awarded competitively are typically online and available on a funder’s website. She said there is a standard financial component to the application, and it is submitted beforehand or at the same time as submitting the application with all the necessary data that demonstrates the need for services and how the organization is capable of carrying out those services.

For the financials, Dietzen said most grantors want to see an organization’s IRS Form 990. They also want to know if the organization has an outside audit with a CPA. And, they are interested in learning where the organization gets its funding – fees for services, grants, or other fundraising events.

“There are a lot of nonprofits out there,” she said. So, it’s important to demonstrate the nonprofit will spend any funding “in the most responsible way and have the effective leadership and staff and financial control in place to ensure that the money is not only being used properly, but that [the funder] is getting the most services provided for that dollar amount.”

The narrative portion of the grant application follows, and this is where an organization can tell their story. This typically includes a section for the history and background of the organization – how long it’s been in existence, as well as the program for which the grant is sought. But more importantly, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate the impact the program, if funded, will have in the community.

“It’s your opportunity to differentiate yourself and your organization and the programs you are applying for from everyone else,” she said. “To be able to show the before and after effects of your program is really critical.”

Data plays a role here, too. It is necessary to provide numbers and statistics that demonstrate the problem in the community and the need for services to solve it, she said. It’s also important to illustrate successful outcomes from previous programs and show those numbers.

“But at the end of the day, you have to remember you are applying for this funding for people, and it’s equally important to tell their story,” she said. “The story the funders going to remember is the story of the little kid who came into our organization. They had trouble communicating. They couldn’t tell mom when they were hungry, or if they don’t feel well. And, they are getting bullied at school because they can’t communicate properly with their peers. And then – their process of getting the services they need – having access to the health care they require and not only at school, but later in life, as well – being able to show that change is really critical.”

To help show the impact of the program, Dietzen said she thinks about where the community would be, and where the recipient of the services would be, without it.

It’s important to create that compelling story.

“But, you’ve got to have the data to back up the request,” she said. It demonstrates the organization has the infrastructure, staff and expertise to carry out the program and make an impact.

“At the end of the day, you have to remember you are applying for this funding for people, and it’s equally important to tell their story.”

– KRISTEN DIETZEN

Jacquelyn Gubbins, the senior manager of marketing and communications who oversees grants for Jacksonville based Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, said what makes for a compelling grant application “is one that is well organized. It communicates distinctly the impact the grant would have on the community. And, it provides a situation where a life could have been changed or saved if the grant was funded.”

She said she also likes to see statistics about the potential for change in the community and statistics about the equipment if included in the proposal. “We really want it to be lifesaving,” she said. “Not just the newest technology coming out.”

The foundation’s singular mission is to impact the lifesaving capabilities of first responders and safety in the communities they serve. That mission is translated into funding priorities, and the guidelines for those are outlined on its website along with directions for the grant application.

It’s Gubbins team who reviews the applications for completion at the close of the quarter, and vets them for the quarterly Board of Directors meeting.

“If the grant applicant doesn’t follow those directions and meet the requirements of the program the request won’t be able to be considered,” she said. “And, it is not time well spent on either end for the applicant or funder.”

She said the grant application requires some basic information about the organization, the community that would be impacted, how many people would be impacted if the grant were approved, and if an education project, how many children and seniors would be potentially impacted by the program.

From there, grant applicants are required to upload attachments to provide the background and history of the department, which, she said, can usually be obtained from an organization’s annual report. If organizations are requesting equipment, an accurate vendor equipment quote is one of the most important considerations. And, the foundation has a lot of specifications that need to be met for a vendor quote to be complete.

“Say someone’s requesting 10 AEDs for $13,000, we want the quote that’s submitted to have all of our required information on there, and for their grant request and the quote to match,” she said.

The foundation also looks for financials to look for a balance of funds within the organization. Gubbins said they always recommend an organization work with their accounting person for this.

Because the foundation donates across the country, completed applications go to area representatives who help prioritize needs and make recommendations. It doesn’t mean the grant will be approved just because they recommend it, however.

“If someone applies for a gymnasium, and we have someone apply for jaws of life, we’re going to choose the jaws of life because it fits within our guidelines,” she said. “We are always addressing the needs and relevance of those funding areas and evaluating opportunities with our Board of Directors, but it’s a balance between staying true to our mission and helping where it’s needed in the safety sector.”

How much funding is available makes a big difference. And, the amount of fundraising support received from each community is a consideration, as well.

Even then, though, Gubbins said, “Sometimes there is a volunteer fire department that is 50 miles from a community that we have fundraising in. And, we see that need, and we are able to support it through some of the other funding that we have available . . .. Sometimes there’s just such a compelling need that it’s our duty to bring it to our Board of Directors to see if they’re able to support it.”

Relationships are also important in making community change. “We can’t say enough about the value of community partners,” she said. “We know our donors would prefer that we team up to make greater change across the country rather than duplicate the effort of other nonprofits.”

One organization Gubbins recommends to help nonprofit organizations build relationships and develop community-based partnerships is the Nonprofit Center of Northeast Florida.

The center’s mission is to connect, strengthen and advocate for nonprofits in the region.

Deirdre Conner, senior director of strategic initiatives and evaluation for the center, said that encompasses a lot of things – professional development, programming, advocacy work, interfacing with government organizations, and just making sure the public understands the value the nonprofit sector brings to area.

The nonprofit sector makes a substantial contribution to the vitality of our community, she said. It’s important to leverage those relationships – to bring grant makers and grant seekers together to share knowledge to improve the community. That’s the core of its mission.

Callan Brown, a program manager with the center, said its base of more than 300 members includes nonprofits, foundations and community business partners. They offer a number of courses and tools year-round. And their programming includes grant-writing workshops that not only explore how to write a successful proposal but delve into how the organization can find grants and understand what kinds of grants might be more useful than others.

Sustainability is also a topic of focus, she said. And they talk about the different types of grants and what it looks like if an organization is funded primarily through the federal grant system versus public and private foundation grants.  

“People give to people. And they give to people they know and trust, and people that they see outcomes from.”

– nina lopez

Grants and the power of partnerships

Kim Sirdevan, president and CEO of the Youth Crisis Center, understands the importance of relationships and the value of community partnerships in growing revenue sources to accomplish the mission of her organization.

She is in the business of transforming the lives of young people who have been impacted by trauma, and who, in many cases, have run away, threatened to, or are homeless and living on the streets. She runs about a $4 million private nonprofit agency that provides five programs focused on mental health and transitional living services at its Jacksonville campus and has a sixth program on its way – the House of Hope.

As an authorized agent for the Department of Juvenile Justice providing prevention services, the center receives about half its funding through a state grant, or contract, which is funded through the legislature, she said. Its outpatient behavioral health services are fee based. So, they also receive a mix of revenue from Medicaid, commercial payers, self-payers and some grant dollars from United Way. And this year, Sirdevan said she also hopes to land a $180,000 federal grant from the Department of Health and Human Services. That application was 90 pages long, required copious documentation – including letters of support, and a federal registration process to be eligible to apply.

Sirdevan said they also receive funding through private, public and corporate foundations.

For competitive grants, the statement of need, or executive summary – the cover letter that outlines the problem the organization wants to address and the solution it proposes – is important, she said. And, if an organization can demonstrate they are working in collaboration with community partners to solve the problem, that is an “added bonus.”

One such partnership Sirdevan developed is with Feeding Northeast Florida, a hunger relief organization and food bank. It was a natural given they served 22,302 meals in 2017 to young people in their residential crisis center, she said.

Another collaboration – House of Hope –  was inspired from a study that revealed about 60 percent of Jacksonville’s homeless youth are LGBTQ and often become displaced from family because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, she said. The need for an emergency shelter serving this community became apparent, and the crisis center had space available in its former residential shelter that, with renovation, could serve the purpose. It was also uniquely positioned to solve some of the challenges of space that arise in the traditional shelter system owing to sexual orientation and gender identity.

The partnership that emerged was one among the crisis center, Changing Homelessness, the lead agency for the homelessness coalition in Northeast Florida, and JASMYN, a nonprofit youth services organization for the LGBTQ community.

The program got off the ground with a $100,000 grant for renovations from the Chartrand Family Fund at the Community Foundation of Northeast Florida. It received another $100,000 in the form of a matching grant from the Delores Barr Weaver Fund at Community Foundation of Northeast Florida for operations. Neither grant required a application.

The Chartrand family connected with Sirdevan through their partnership with JASMYN. And, the Community Foundation, who manages Weaver’s fund, contacted Sirdevan by email and asked for a proposal. She said she wrote about 3 pages outlining the problem, the proposed solution and made the request.

Sirdevan said in September that they are about 75 percent of the way. They have until Dec. 31, 2018 to receive a match on every dollar donated to $100,000.  

She said they have several other new partners, too. One of them is with the Lowe’s Companies.

That partnership came about from a safety and security assessment conducted on their campus that resulted in recommendations for improvements in several areas. She asked for a report detailing the recommendations and obtained vendor quotes for the proposed work. Sirdevan said she went on the Nonprofit Centers website, thereafter, and found a grant opportunity with Lowe’s Charitable and Educational Foundation that appeared to be a good fit.

She wrote the grant, which included some improvements for the House of Hope, and asked Nina Lopez, director of strategic partnerships for the crisis center, to reach out and build a relationship with the local store. Within two weeks, they had formed a new relationship.  

Now they have a store manager in the community invested in their project, she said.

Lopez said, “People give to people. And they give to people they know and trust, and people that they see outcomes from.”

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