There is a reason why many nonprofit organizations hire grant writers and that is because grant writing — like tax preparation or auto repair — can be tough, nerve-racking work. But according to Joan Hollendonner, vice president of programs at Princeton Area Community Foundation (PACF), organizations can successfully untangle the sticky web of grant applications by taking a do-it-yourself, step-by-step approach into the process.

“We value the nonprofit organizations in the area and we know that the resources they need to operate with are scarce,” says Hollendonner. “That’s why we do our best to help people along with the application process.” She heads a free 90-minute grant information session on Tuesday, March 28, at 9 a.m. at Princeton Area Community Foundation at 15 Princess Road. Call 609-219-1800 for more information, or visit www.pacf.org.

Created in 1991, PACF is a public nonprofit community foundation that seeks to raise the level of giving in the central New Jersey area by connecting individuals, corporations, and nonprofits to each other and to common causes and issues. This is accomplished by managing charitable funds, providing discretionary grants, creating partnerships, and serving as a catalyst to help solve community problems. “We offer grants twice a year, in the spring and fall,” says Hollendonner. The next grant application deadline is Tuesday, April 11, with awards being made in July.

Prior to coming to PACF in 2004, Hollendonner worked as a communications and management consultant providing services to foundation, nonprofit, and government clients. Before that she worked with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton for 15 years as a senior communications officer and program officer.

This year PACF is expected to award more than $700,000 in grants, but competition for the money can be fierce. Last year about 40 percent of the grant applications received funding, so it is important for an organization to put its best grant-application foot forward. In order to make the grant information more user-friendly, the centerpiece of the session is a walk-through of guidelines for obtaining a grant.

In order to be eligible, organizations must have tax exempt, 501 (c) 3 status and be registered as a New Jersey charity. “We want to be there for the entire non-profit community, so we get proposals from large organizations with multimillion dollar budgets and a staff of hundreds as well as from small organizations that don’t even have a $100,000-a- year budget and have a staff of two,” says Hollendonner.

All attendees to the session receive grant guidelines, application forms, and the ever-important budget forms. Typically the sessions attract about 20 people from a variety of organizations with a wide range of grant-writing experience, ranging from the novice to the seasoned professional. At the start of each session Hollendonner polls the room and tailors the presentation to the level of experience she finds. “It is not unusual to have nonprofit executive directors and board members seated next to volunteers,” she says, adding that the sessions are free-flowing and everyone is encouraged to ask questions at any time in order to ensure that each person attending gets as much information as he or she needs.

This is followed by a review of some of the many resources available to nonprofits in the area, such as the Foundation Center, a national organization with a gigantic database of foundations. There is a branch located in the state library in Trenton. “It’s a great resource where people can learn a lot about where they can go for funding,” says Hollendonner. “The thing is that not a lot of people know about it.” Other largely unknown resources are the many websites that offer discounts to nonprofits for technology information and computer software.

A formal question and answer session is held just before the session wraps up, after which a number of people inevitably stay behind to have a one-on-one consultation or to network with the other nonprofit attendees in the room. Hollendonner says that this is a particularly valuable part of the session. “Sometimes people are not aware of what some of their colleagues are doing and this allows them to connect with each other,” she says. “At our last grant information session there was a woman who had worked at Princeton University before giving birth to her child. She came to the session simply because she just wanted to volunteer. A number of people stayed afterward and spoke with her.”

There are three different categories of funding under the Greater Mercer Grants program.

The first is what Hollendonner calls the tried-and-true community foundation role. “If you want us to support up to $15,000 for a grant for a safety project, meals-on-wheels, or youth development, we will do that under this category.”

The second category — with grants of up to $20,000 — is aimed at community organizing in low-income neighborhoods. “The focus is really on community building,” says Hollendonner. “This allows groups of residents to organize and apply for a grant. Many people come in talk about how they remember growing up in neighborhoods in which kids couldn’t get away with anything because neighbors were watching and would not hesitate to call parents if they did anything they weren’t supposed to do. We have lost that and that this category is trying to rectify this.”

The third category does the same thing, though on a wider level, within entire municipalities or across municipalities, with grants of up to $50,000.

With 60 percent of grant applications denied funding last year, it is important for nonprofit organizations to present the best application they possibly can. Hollendonner offers these tips to help tip the scales favorably:

Make sure you meet basic criteria. Pay attention to directions. The Greater Mercer Grants require that organizations fit into local geographic boundaries. “An example would be that someone who wants to do a project at the Jersey shore will not receive funding,” says Hollendonner.

Include all important details. While the competition pool for grant proposals varies from season-to-season and year-to-year, it pays to make sure the quality of the application package is up to snuff. Submit the application on time, include all the required information, and write clearly. “It doesn’t have to be written in beautiful prose, but we need to fully understand what it is you are asking support for,” says Hollendonner.

Use common sense. Before submitting your grant proposal, ask yourself whether the program you want to do is logical. What is the potential of your organization? Do you have the staff in place to do the job? How many people will your project serve and for how long? Is the budget reasonable? How will you assess success or failure, and what will you do with the results?

“If someone tells you that your program was awful, what will you do with that information?” asks Hollendonner. “Organizations need to think of all these things in advance in order to increase the likelihood of receiving funding.”

Look around. “Sometimes in this area we will have a new organization that doesn’t realize that there is already an organization doing what they want to do right next door,” says Hollendonner. “If a need is being met, we usually don’t need more.”

On the other hand, Hollendonner says that it is possible to do what other organizations are doing if you are going to do it better. “If you have a summer camp that offers a program Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for two hours, and another camp that starts when parents have to go to work and continues until mom or dad get back, it is easy to see which one you are going to put your money into.”

Don’t ever give up. Even if you fail, you still succeed. If not this year, then maybe the next. One of the hot phrases for the new millennium is “social capital,” and, according to Hollendonner, the lack of it affects individuals and organizations in similar ways.

“It has been documented that the number of connections people make these days is declining,” she says. “When you connect with others you are in touch with shared resources and can be more successful at taking advantage of opportunities. Connections can make a difference.”

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