Grantwriting secrets with Bethany M. Planton

Episode aired Nov. 18, 2020: Grant Writing Success

Bethany M. Planton of bmpconsulting is an expert grant writer. Her success with grant writing isn’t just because she can answer questions. It’s way more than that. In this episode Bethany discusses

  • the importance of conducting research prior to applying
  • what documents you have to prepare in advance
  • 3 writing secrets- including which editing tool you MUST use
  • why your application was rejected and  
  • how to build relationships with funders and why it’s crucial to success. 

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us a grant and nonprofit specialist, Bethany Planton. Bethany, how you doing today?

 Bethany: I am doing great and I’m excited to be here. How are you?

Ephraim: I’m doing great. I’m glad you’re here. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Bethany Planton GPC is the founder and CEO of bmpconsulting, a grant consulting firm located in Louisville, Kentucky. Bethany has worked with many different organizations, such as arts and culture, after school youth programming, historic preservation, health care and community centers, to secure more than five million dollars in federal, state and foundation funds.

Bethany earned a graduate certificate in Nonprofit Administration from Western Kentucky University in 2015, the Grant Professional Certification from the Grant Professional Certification Institute in 2016, the Social Media Strategist Certification from the National Institute for Social Media and the Licensed Scrum Master Certification from Scrum Inc. in 2020. Bethany is a member of the Grant Professionals Association, Fundraising Executives of Metro Louisville and Young Professionals Association of Louisville. She serves as the communications coordinator for the Kentucky chapter of the Grant Professionals Association.

Bethany loves reading, traveling anywhere and everywhere, eating ice cream and cheering on the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Funder Research

In today’s episode, we’re going to discuss the secrets to successful grant writing. Let’s dive right in. Bethany- grant research: what are you looking for when researching a foundation for a client and why do all that research?

Bethany: This is a great question, because doing the research ahead of time saves you time in the long run. When I’m looking for grants to see if that’s a good fit for my client, I’m specifically, the first two things I’m looking at is what is that funders focus area, because if that doesn’t align with my client, that’s out the door. What is their geographic focus? Do they even give money to the area we work in? If we’re just a small city or county-wide nonprofit, they may not give in that area. They may give the county next to you but not your county. So it’s checking those things, because that is the first step of going, yes, I fit within this funders requirements. They’ll at least maybe give me some attention. And then knowing that, then you can start building your relationship, looking at the requirements, which will save you time in the end. 

Grant Readiness

Ephraim: Important. Grant readiness- almost every foundation application is different, infuriatingly so. However, there are certain pieces of information a nonprofit has to have ready to go that can be used for any application. What would those be?

Bethany: There’s kind of a long list but it’s the stuff, the documents, the information that makes you a strong nonprofit. So things like your IRS determination letter. Now this may be slightly different. Most nonprofits are going to have a 501c3. There will be a few, if you’re working in healthcare or higher education or even elementary education, where you might have a foundation that’s raising your funding, but they have a IRS determination letter.

You better have your board of directors and make that a list and have it, you know list them and their affiliation. So where do they work, what’s their position where they work. An organization budget? Yes, you have to have an organizational budget. You don’t have to do anything special with these lists. It’s just having that information together, that way you can easily pull it. Your strategic plan, mission statement, financial statements like your 990, an audited financial statement, a W-9 for the current year.  

And then if it’s a new program, you probably won’t have this but if it’s a program that you’ve been running, you can go ahead and have project, program or project descriptions kind of ready. Not that you just copy and paste but you have the main details ready, that you can just see what question the funder is asking and be able to plug that information into that question.

Grant Writing Secrets

Ephraim: Perfect. That’s a good list to get ready in advance for any application. So today’s actionable item: Could you please tell us three to four secrets related to the actual writing of the grant application that will help make it successful? 

Bethany: Yes and this was a fun question. I had to like, as I was thinking through, I had some tips and I was like, wait, that’s not about actual writing. So it was fun to narrow it down.

But the first secret tip, tool is to use Grammarly. Grammarly is a tool that you can have on your browser. You can even have it in your phone now and it checks your grammar as you go and it will underline things that are incorrect and then it will give you some suggestions, if it goes, I’m not sure you’re using the right preposition there or that’s really wordy, maybe you should cut out a few words of that sentence. The other one that I get all the time is passive voice. It tells you when you’re using passive voice. So it’s a great tool that’s kind of like in your back pocket, but as you’re writing it can tell you and it can kind of be that editor.

A second tip is having an editor and or mock reviewer. A writer really cannot edit his or her own work. You don’t see the mistakes that you’ve made, because your brain goes ahead and fills in the gaps. So if you have someone on your grant team and maybe your grant team has a finance person who just kind of is a grammar… loves grammar, they can check it for you really quickly. Or if you’re a consultant, I know consultants who maybe share it with each other. So if it’s my client, then I send it to another consultant. She edits it, that’s hard to say. And then I maybe edit her proposals and that trade. But it’s great to have that other set of eyes on there to catch a few things.

The mock review side is a little different. Someone who’s mock reviewing it is looking specifically for content and does this make sense and how can we make this proposal stronger to the actual funder? Sometimes you have time for that, sometimes you don’t but it is a good tip to use, to make the proposal and the writing stronger.

The third maybe seems obvious but answer the question the funder asks, not what you think they’re asking, not what you want them to ask, but write to the questions that the funder is actually asking.  

 Reasons For Rejection

Ephraim: That third one, yes. Always follow instructions. That’s a good rule for anything but certainly for grants. Based on your experience, what are the main reasons why a funder will reject an application?

Bethany: This got my favorite answer or favorite answer in grants is: It depends. Often the rejection letters I see often say, they just receive too many applications and they can’t fund them all, which I feel like we’re getting that more and more each year of. Everybody’s finding these and they just can’t fund them all.

So because they can’t fund them all, it probably goes back to how much of a relationship did the nonprofit build with the funder before submitting the application. Some funders don’t allow you to but a majority do and often those are less likely to get rejected than those who just kind of blindly submit an application.

Ephraim: Quick follow-up. What’s one or two ways to build that relationship, prior to submitting the application?

Bethany: A phone call, an email. When I’m doing… going back to our first topic of this podcast, when I’m doing my grant research, I also look to see what staff and what board members are on or involved with that funder and see if my nonprofit has any connections to those people. Do the board members have any? Do the board members of my nonprofit have any connections to their board members that they could start the introduction? Does somebody know the staff? Is somebody’s cousin working at that foundation and get that as an in. But if you don’t have that or even if you do, asking questions about their process, like if you read their materials and go this doesn’t make sense or just doesn’t feel like they have a lot of information about this, asking a question about their process can be a start of that relationship.

Myths About Grant Professionals

Ephraim: Perfect. Excellent advice. You do a lot of trainings to help nonprofit professionals get into grant writing or become better grant writers. What myths about grant writers would you like to bust?

Bethany: You hear writing, you hear grant writing. I think sometimes the thought is we might be boring. But we’re not boring! We do have  a lot of introverts in our midst but we like to have a lot of fun,  as you can see in pictures from our association, national conferences and when we get together, we are not a boring group.

Learn More About Bethany

Ephraim: I like that answer a lot. Excellent. Alright, let’s move to the lightning round and learn more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Bethany: Really, volunteering at the library when I was in middle school. They had us… the summer reading program. I had phased out of it, I couldn’t read in it anymore but they had us come in and like stamp to make sure the little kids had gotten theirs written and stuff. And that was so much fun. Then as I grew up, I was volunteering with my church and then went to do humanitarian aid in Kazakhstan and just fell in love. And because I’d done all that, I chose my major because I knew I wanted to be in nonprofit work.

Ephraim: Amazing. If you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Bethany: The expectations on employees that lead to burnout. I’ve been knee-deep in burnout research for the last year and it’s a problem in the grant profession and in nonprofits in general and just to build a new organizational structure so that we have healthy nonprofit employees and consultants.

Ephraim: If you can build such an organization, I know a lot of people who would want to work there. I know you love Louisville. Three places in Louisville that a tourist must visit.

Bethany: This is probably the toughest question you sent me, because I do love Louisville and there’s just so many good things to do here.

But Kentucky specifically is known for horses and bourbon. Top of the list has to be visiting Churchill Downs where the Kentucky Derby is run every year. So you can visit both the track, the racetrack and the Kentucky Derby Museum. Both of those are very interesting.

Then I would say okay, you need to go on a bourbon tour even if you don’t enjoy it, because I don’t enjoy bourbon but I think the tours are kind of fun, because you get to hear how it’s made. There’s several. We have a whole bourbon trail, so you can start at the Frazier History Museum, which has the history and that’s kind of the start now of the trail. Has a history of bourbon, a little bit of that and you can get your passport and then down the road, there’s Evan Williams here, Angel’s Envy, Bulliet, I think there’s a Jim Beam Urban experience.

We’re also known for our bats, so visiting the Louisville Slugger Museum and factory. It’s a really cool thing. I suggest doing it during the week when they’re actually making the bats. It’s just a little more exciting than watching the videos of the machines doing it. But all of those really scream Louisville and Kentucky to me. 

Ephraim: Excellent. You read a ton of books. What’s a favorite book from your childhood?  

 Bethany: So some people, this would be a tough question. Was not for me. Louisa May Alcott, Little Women is one of my absolute favorite books. And then Nancy Drew Mysteries. I just love those.  

Ephraim: I was a big Hardy Boys fan when I was growing up. This might be a tough one, given how much you love it, but favorite flavor of ice cream?

Bethany: Actually super easy. So there’s been three distinct time periods of my life. As a child and elementary student, vanilla always. Vanilla, love vanilla. Then it’s teen and college, bubble gum ice cream. So it’s pink with chunks of bubble gum in it. And now I feel like I’m mature and older I drink, I drink. I eat coffee ice cream but with nothing in it. I just want the coffee taste.

Ephraim: Excellent answer. I like the way you divided up the different stages of your life up till now via ice cream. That’s excellent. Last thing. Let’s turn the tables and you get to ask me a question. I have no idea what’s coming. Go ahead.

Bethany: Well I had to go through a couple, because I know you’re cooking a lot so I thought, well maybe I’ll ask what favorite dish you’ve cooked. Then I thought, no, we both really like football. What are your bucket list football stadiums to visit. Also interesting. Then I thought maybe I’d tease you a little bit and go, what’s  up with your Patriots this year? But I landed on, because we have connected over this often, since starting your one book a week challenge in February 2018, what have been some of your favorite reads from that challenge?

Ephraim: Wow. You know what? It’s weird. There’s so many books that I’ve read, so many different types of books. It was the baseball book, I think it’s the Summer of ’49 and I can’t believe I’m blanking on the author. It is a very famous baseball book that I never read and I love sports books. That was one.

A lot of the business books I read were decent, though the ones by Dan Ariely were fantastic, not just because of his writing style but because of the experiments that he runs to prove the data how people don’t necessarily do what’s rational. People are irrational but that’s okay and we can deal with that. Some of the Chip and Dan Heath books. Their book about sticking and all that, those were excellent. But I’ve read now, I think, it’s been over two years. There was that one year where I did a book a week. Now I kind of slowed down but I’ve read books on history, sports, business, a wide range. I just read my first exercise book a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t that good but whatever.

Bethany: Not always exciting reads.

Ephraim: But definitely some of the business books, the ones I mentioned were definitely at the top of the list and that one baseball book was just… it’s just a fantastic… it’s a look at the summer of 49, the pennant race between the Yankees and Lord forgive me I cannot remember who. I want to say the Brooklyn Dodgers but I cannot 100% remember. But it was just an excellent book. So if I had to put that… I’m sure I’m forgetting one or two because it was two years ago. I certainly am not as avid a reader as you are because I see how many you post and I’m like, I don’t know where you find the time but bless you for being able to find the time to read all those books. It’s amazing.

Bethany: I don’t do much else, I can tell you that. I don’t watch very much TV except for football. My time now… you’ll see less books now because it’s football season and that does take up a lot of time but as soon as football season ends, it’s like oh, I have time to read again.

Ephraim: I totally understand that. Thank you very much for appearing on the podcast. You can learn more about Bethany on her website and you should definitely connect with her on Twitter at @bethanymplanton. Bethany thanks very much for being here.  

Bethany: Thank you for having me. This was so much fun.

Ephraim: A pleasure. Have a good day.

Bethany: You too.

Ephraim: Bye.