Benjamin Franklin's Advice on Grantseeking


Benjamin Franklin is a legendary figure in American history. While he may be fondly remembered for his scientific discoveries, he is also considered by some to be the father of American civil society. Most of us are familiar with his contributions to the creation of an independent American republic, but he also was an innovator when it came to philanthropy.

Franklin helped lead "the first effort in British North America to offer tax relief in exchange for charitable activity" when he "persuaded municipal authorities to offer a property tax abatement in exchange for participation in a volunteer fire company." Of course, charitable deductions are now an entrenched part of our tax code and help encourage charitable giving.

Franklin also helped create the idea of the matching grant, persuading the colonial government to match private donations of £2,000 to build the Pennsylvania Hospital. In addition, he is remembered for his final bequests to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, which he ordered to be held in trust for 200 years.

However, despite his storied history as a scientist and statesman, he may be most famous for his ability to turn a clever phrase. Let's take some of his famous quotes and see if we can apply them to the modern art of grantseeking.

"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."

Old Ben might as well have been talking about the 80/20 rule of grantmaking: spend 80% of your time planning your proposal and 20% of your time writing it. (Check out our free webinar Mapping the Course: A Practical Approach to Grant Writing for more information.)

If you gather your information, outline your arguments, and take care of other preparatory work, you'll save yourself plenty of time on rewrites and your final product will be easier to follow.

"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing."
"Well done is better than well said."

There are two main factors that determine whether your grant application ends up getting funded: the merits of your program and the strength of your presentation. Ideally, you will have a worthy program that you present to the grant reviewers in a way that is flawless and engaging.

However, it is the strength of your program that matters most. A lot of nonprofit organizations can't afford professional grantwriters, and most funders understand that. If you have an amazing program and do your best to present it honestly (and follow the application procedures), you have a chance at the grant even if your application isn't "perfect."

While a great grantwriter may be able to make a compelling argument for a mediocre program, most reviewers are able to see through the smoke and mirrors.

"Diligence is the mother of good luck."
"He that can have patience can have what he will."

Despite your best efforts, you won't always win the grant. But don't get discouraged! Other opportunities will come along, and with additional applications, you are more likely to get the funding you need. Our State of Grantseeking report shows that 75% of organizations that only applied for a single grant were successful. Those that applied for two grants had an 84% chance of winning at least one of those. And that number goes up to 94% for organizations that applied for three to five grants. Continued effort will equal success.

Our series of articles about what to do when your grant application falls through, You Worked So Hard – But Didn’t Get the Award, can also help you cope with the fallout. You can examine your unsuccessful attempt and figure out how to best approach your next application.

Through hard work and patience, you can create your own luck. Ben would be proud!

"A penny saved is a penny earned."

Like a lot of historical "quotes," that's not quite what Ben said. In the 1737 Poor Richard's Almanack, Franklin phrased it as "A penny saved is two pence clear." Decades later, in the 1758 Almanack, he came even closer to the wording we all now know: "A penny saved is a penny got."

We've already mentioned Ben's history with the concept of the matching grant, but what about today? Is your organization using matching and challenge grants to their full advantage?

For small organizations, it can be daunting to have multiple applications hinging on each other. But these types of grants might open up some new opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable to your organization. While multiple funders equals more work on your part, you are broadening your chances for success. Be willing to take a chance; the reward may be worth the effort.

When looking at these types of grants, also pay close attention to what is allowable as a match. Some funders will allow in-kind services or other non-monetary types of support as a means of acquiring the matching funds. Particularly for small organizations, it can pay to get creative.

"Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle."

Lastly, Ben and GrantStation would like to take a moment to thank you for your hard work. Mr. Franklin knew that improving the world isn't easy; he constantly had his hands in numerous ideas and ventures. Your organization, through its charitable actions, is helping to continue his legacy of bringing light into the world.

Action steps you can take today