Our Director Jo Garner sits down with Mike Davis, host of Humans of Purpose, to chat about how Strategic Grants came to be and all things grants best practice. Have a listen to the full episode, or read the transcript below.

Want to see how your for-purpose organisation stacks up when it comes to grants best practice? Download our free Grants Best Practice Tracker and be sure to get in touch if you need support in increasing your score!

Grants best practice podcast transcript

Mike: Welcome back to Humans of Purpose. I’m your host Mike Davis. And each week I bring you conversations with local purpose driven leaders. Leaders creating social impact through their work in inspiring positive social change across a wide variety of sectors. Sit back, tune in, and enjoy the next 40 minutes guaranteed to inspire you with our signature blend of wisdom, experience and better. Learn more at humansofpurpose.com

That is a critical success factor for any organisation, you know. If they aren’t learning and measuring the results of the work that they’re doing, then how do they know it’s the right thing to do moving forward? How do they know what additional resources as an organisation they’re going to need moving forward to best grow that really high need service that they know is producing significant outcomes for their beneficiaries and is achieving their mission?” 

Jo Garner

Mike: This week I’m pleased to welcome Jo Garner to the podcast. Jo is the founder and director of Strategic Grants. 

Strategic Grants helps build not-for-profit’s capacity through their GEMS grants database, grant writing, grants training, grants workshops, program design and monitoring and evaluation frameworks, and strategic planning for grant success. 

It was a pleasure spending some time with Jo prior to the recent Connecting Up conference to learn from her insights into what makes successful grant-making and receiving processes and approaches in the process. 

There’s a lot to learn in this one from Jo about how not-for-profits can stand apart in their grant-making approach, how grant-makers can make it easier for recipients to be successful and use their time more effectively and how all of this contributes to a better funded and run for-purpose ecosystem. 

We highly recommend you check out the Strategic Grants free Best Practice Tracker via the website www.strategicgrants.com.au and get in touch with the team there if you have any questions or would like to know more. Hope you enjoy my conversation with Jo as much as I did. 

What a pleasure to have you down in the Melbourne office at the Commons, welcome Jo. 

Jo: Thanks so much Mike. Great to be here.  

Mike: We’ve had a chat a few times, but your name in the sector is well known and certainly to me and various organisations I’ve worked at have a lot of grant challenges, so it’s a great opportunity to hear from you and some key insights in that space. 

A good traditional Humans of Purpose intro never starts without you telling us a bit about your journey into the grant space and how you manage to build your empire from there. 

Jo: Ah empire, thank you! OK, well look to be honest, I’m a self-confessed, accidental businesswoman, as I guess most people who start up in business are. 

I was on maternity leave after having had my first child and then quite quickly after that (unplanned!) my second child and I was just considering what I was going to do with myself, and I got some phone calls from some organisations that I knew through my networks. 

My previous full-time job that I was on mat leave from was at the Mater Foundation in Brisbane. And whilst the doors were always open for me to go back there, these opportunities presented themselves from, it was then then Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation in Brisbane and Queensland Baptist Care, in the same week, these calls came up to say, did you want to write grant applications? We know you’ve got the babies at home, blah blah blah. 

And so I said, OK, this seems like a great opportunity, and from there word spread that I was doing this. I was quite active out in the local networking community through the Fundraising Institute of Australia etc. so I knew a lot of people in a lot of organisations. 

And yeah, before you knew it, I had to find myself some subcontractors and I guess what I was also discovering as people were sending me applications to write, I was identifying when I looked at what their project brief was and then I do my research against the relevant funding opportunity and what they’ve given to in the past and what their giving philosophy was, that there wasn’t always a great strategic fit between the idea the organisation had and what the funding opportunity being presented was. 

So, I then went on to develop more supportive services around that strategic piece, you know, the program planning and building the list of funding opportunities that’s gone on to become GEMS in recent years. 

So, I set the company up in 2009 and now we have, let me remember, 21 employees across Australia and New Zealand. 

Mike: It’s incredible and what a growth trajectory. And I suppose I wonder going back to those days when you had those inbounds, could you sort of start to see a big gap in the market? 

Jo: Absolutely, yeah. Look, to be honest with you, there still is. We are inundated with grant writing requests. 

I think that grant writing is something that often falls under the position description of somebody who has many other hats to wear within for-purpose organisations. It’s often part of a philanthropy role that includes individual major gifts in smaller organisations. There might be one or two fundraisers that are responsible for everything. And you know, if you’ve got a direct mail campaign that has to go live and there’s so many other people that are involved in that, you can’t miss any of those internal deadlines, or if you’ve got an event, whatever it is, the grant applications will often fall by the wayside. 

So, it’s a typically under resourced area within an organisation. So yeah, there just always has been and I think always will be. I have seen no downturn in demand. In fact, we’ve seen a huge growth in demand for our services, particularly over the last few years. 

Mike: And would you say that from your experience, a lot of your clients and people coming to you are having a similar level of revenue coming from grants every year, or are they sort of varied revenue compositions, and it could be a smaller part or a bigger part of what they do? 

Jo: So, I guess it depends on the size of the organisation and what their revenue diversification spread looks like. So, those typically that are a government funded service, largely where fundraising might only account for a very small percentage of their overall income, obviously, grants are going to play a much smaller role in that, but still important, and that’s evident through, you know universities and whatnot who will receive millions of dollars in big, big philanthropic grants. 

But then there are others that grants play a really significant role in their overall revenue, and in fact, you know one of our clients, Youth Insearch, who I’m going to be delivering a presentation with in June, has grown from grants, both government and philanthropic, has enabled an amazing growth trajectory for that organisation. And they’ve gone from having one part-time grant writer plus us come in to support them, to having now a full fundraising and development team and have grown their service delivery immensely because of it. 

Mike: So you’re not only helping to get successful outcomes, but you’re building capacity as well. 

Jo: Oh, absolutely, and that’s actually our mission, Mike. It’s to build the capacity of for-purpose organisations to enable them to move on and do it themselves, so there’s no better scenario for us than when we come in and work with an organisation for whatever length of time is required to build that capacity, so whether it be three months, six months, three years, four years and then be able to help them, sometimes recruit the right people for the role, help mentor those people as required and then step out and then they’ll just maintain some service whether it be through their GEM Portal subscription, maybe the ad hoc advisory writing in really busy times, but that’s the perfect scenario for us. 

Mike: So happy to step away, just do a bit of hand-holding and I’m guessing at the start it was probably less of that, but as you’ve grown a bit, more of recognising that important function of delivering capability. 

Jo: Yeah, absolutely, and a big part of the reason for that is because the relationship between any funding body needs to be between the funding body and the for-purpose organisation. A third party as per a consultant should not be the steward of that relationship. 

We can certainly share our insights and our knowledge and more often than not, we have a relationship with the funders that they might be approaching, so we can certainly set up introductions and you know, mentor with regards to how the conversation should go. 

But it’s very important that the relationship is started and stewarded completely by the organisation that receives the grants. 

Mike: Yeah, that’s really well said. An interesting perspective as well, because I imagine some of these brokers would sometimes try and be the holder of that relationship, and whereas you sort of see yourselves as more of that like critical bridge or intermediary function? 

Jo: That’s exactly what we use. We bridge the divide between grant-seekers and grant-makers, Mike, absolutely and look to be honest with you, because we do have such strong relationships with funders, they share with us that they don’t appreciate it when you know a third party comes to them on behalf of an organisation, they want to be speaking to the organisation. 

Mike: Makes total sense, doesn’t it? 

Jo: It does, entirely, yeah. 

Mike: In your experience what makes a good grant-maker or grant-making partner? What are some of the key attributes you look for? 

Jo: OK, and it’s interesting because I’ve also done some sessions with grant-makers to discuss this very point! I think it’s really important that there’s complete openness and transparency. I think that we need to remove all ambiguities of what it is that they want to achieve with their grant-making so it comes down to a very clear and concise messaging from them about what it is that they want to invest in and what is the outcome and impact that they want to achieve through that investment. 

Now if we can help them be as clear with that messaging as possible, and we do that work with funders as well to help them get to that point, then it’s going to be a much more successful grant-making strategy. So, the success rate for grant-makers is just as important for the success as the success rate for grant-seekers. You know, what’s the good of having a grant-making program if you’re only funding 2 per cent of applications received?  

So the idea is to have a process by which only eligible, only suitable, well-matched organisations are going to be submitting applications, and that the help is provided either through the funder’s website or through feedback that they might provide through phone calls ahead of funding rounds or whatnot is so clear that the grant-seeker then has the ability to assess genuinely, honestly, whether they should proceed with an application or not, and it is the hardest decision for a grant-seeker to make to not go ahead with the grant application. But it’s a really important one. 

Mike: Taking feedback and active listening, and sort of forming that close relationship with funders, that sounds to be important. 

Jo: Yeah, and you know what? It never ceases to amaze me that some funders will tell us stories when we’re having our coffees or whatnot that they have had a really open dialogue with a recipient, a past recipient and said look, no, that project really isn’t exactly what we’re looking for in this funding round, so best to wait for subsequent rounds and they still send in an application. You know? 

Mike: Wow. 

Jo: Yeah, completely disregarded, but it’s been a very direct conversation as well. And in my mind, that’s just disrespectful. 

Mike: Yes, absolutely. And this leads me to my next question, which is sort of thinking a bit about, you know, some of the big mistakes that grant-seekers can make. What are some of the big no-no’s that you’ve seen? I mean, from my perspective, a classic one is we need money, what are all the grants out there, let’s identify them and try and make up a program to fit any of these. So maybe if you can build on that a little bit. 

Jo: Well, I think you’ve nailed it, Mike, that is just our one big rule is that you do not make up programs to fit the funding that’s available. 

So, what we need to do in fact is, first of all, assess the grant readiness of the organisation. So, our go-to is working with them to get them into a grant-ready position that starts with having the all essential strategic plan that captures, you know, what are the objectives to achieve our mission. From there, their operational plans, and so that’s all the programs and things that they’re going to be delivering and alongside that, of course, is their operational budget. 

So, from those documents then we can draw out what the individual projects and programs are that require funding and that needs to be prioritised. So, what are the things that we have to have money for now, and what are the things that we’re going to need money for in six months and twelve months and one year and two years, etc. 

And we must have that forward vision because funding results take months, in some cases, six months. 

So, it’s no good when an organisation rings us and says our funding contract with this funder is running out at the end of June. Well, we’re now nearly midway through May. That’s not going to happen. We’re not going to get an instant fix for that. It takes time and planning. 

So, a lack of planning is definitely one of the big weaknesses that we see from organisations. 

And within that I guess, you know, developing a project plan helps the organisation to identify both whether the project is grant ready and whether there is a genuine need for it. 

So, one of the questions we would ask on our program plan is what is the need for this project? And that needs to be substantiated. 

Mike: Because they’re always going ask that anyway, aren’t they? 

Jo: Absolutely. 

Mike: You’ve got to be sort of like steel manning their proposition. 

Jo: Totally, and they need to have their own organisational data. So, we have this evidence because of the demand that we’re turning people away and that should all be available in both quantitative and qualitative format. So, it’s that data capture piece that’s so important that a lot of organisations don’t have in place. 

And then to that end, it moves into then how we’re going to report on the success of the project. So, do we have monitoring and evaluation frameworks in place? 

So, the two biggest areas of weakness that we see on application forms, and certainly it’s reported to us from our funder friends that they’re the two key most poorly answered questions, is that demonstrable evidence around the evaluation process. How are we going to monitor and evaluate the success of the project? But more importantly, what have we learned? Because the project outcomes don’t always end up the way we anticipated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s about what we learned. 

Mike: Yeah, I think I’ve even heard that some funders are quite happy to hear that things didn’t work out… 

Jo: Oh 100 per cent. 

Mike: And here is why, here are the learnings and they will sort of listen to that and say this is a person we want to work with, or this is a group we want to work with because we can see the innovation and continuous improvement that comes from direct feedback 

Jo: 100 per cent. And that’s action learning right there. That is a critical success factor for any organisation if they aren’t learning and measuring the results of the work they are doing, then how do they know it’s the right thing to do moving forward? How do they know what additional resources as an organisation they are going to need moving forward to best grow that really high-needs services that they know is producing significant outcomes for their beneficiaries and achieving their mission? 

So, I think that the biggest weakness in the for-purpose sector is not having adequate monitoring and evaluation frameworks. 

Mike: Yeah, you’re speaking my language. 

Jo: And that kind of comes to a problem then with governance and leadership and not understanding the intrinsic need for investment in that basic core infrastructure. 

Mike: Yeah, it’s also a bit of a problem because who funds that? And I think government contracts even themselves when you’ve got multiyear commitments don’t leave a lot for M&E—measurement and evaluation—and you know, a lot of philanthropic grants now having a slightly bigger apportionment for that, but sort of makes me think a little bit about what you said and what needs to be considered before you’re going for a grant.  

I’ve worked for organisations where there’s no strategic plan and there’s also no impact model or measurement evaluation framework and they’d send you off to sort of submitting for a grant, and I just think it would be so plainly obvious how ill-considered and the lack of alignment in what you’re doing compared to what you’re asking for. I wonder whether that’s very obvious to funders too or if that’s just me. 

Jo: Yes, it definitely is.  As assessors of funding applications ourselves, I can tell you it’s very, very obvious when people are grasping at straws. It’s very clear when something being presented to you in writing hasn’t been well thought out because the responses aren’t clear and succinct, and they leave you asking a million questions and the key to an excellent grant application is one that leaves no unanswered question in the reviewers’ mind, right? So that’s how you know you’ve got the gold star of grant writing. 

Mike: And what is the value of partnerships in terms of applying for grants? I’ve sort of seen in my space a lot more funders wanting to fund the collaborations, collaborative impact models and the like. How have you seen that sort of playing out in your space? 

Jo: Yeah, definitely. So, they hate replication. Absolutely can’t stand it. And you’ve got to remember that funders are seeing hundreds, if not thousands of funding applications every year, so they know what’s happening in the sector. They know if you’ve got an exact replica of another organisation doing similar work and they expect you to know. And so, working collaboratively in partnership is definitely something that both government and philanthropy want to see where it’s relevant and where it adds value to the service being proposed for delivery. 

With any partnership application, it’s generally best, and certainly, government requires this, to have a lead organisation who will be the administering body of the funds. So there needs to be very strong agreement between all of the partners in those applications about how all that’s going to work and the brokerage of the other services that form part of that partnership model of delivery. 

Mike: Yeah, fantastic, and that must require a far more resource-intensive approach or just you know, more conversations, more collaboration, and it’d be quite different to writing a grant in isolation. 

Jo: Oh, it is. It’s hard. Yeah, it’s a little bit like herding cats at times! But anyway, as long as at the beginning of the process, and certainly when we’re working with consortia on a on a big application or a big tender, there are a lot of team meetings and project management is tight. And there are very strict timeframes and deadlines in place internally amongst, you know, the partners in that of when they need to have very specific pieces of information to us by… and we can be the best of nags, in cracking the whip to make sure that all of that information comes in in time to get a really robust proposal together. 

Mike: Yeah, well that’s absolutely required and essential, and it’s good of you to do that on behalf of the rest of us. 

You kind of touched on this earlier, but I wonder if you could just outline what are the things that make a really good grant-maker. So, you talked about transparency, but as in what are the things that good grant-makers do well that enable them to have a higher hit rate for grant-making? Some of the more the practices or approaches. 

Jo: I think clear communication is number one. So whether it be via their website, or if they’re able to give feedback or have pre-round funding briefing sessions is becoming increasingly popular. I think providing lists of FAQs and commonly seen errors in their application processes is brilliant. Having a list of examples of types of responses that are strong and weak in their mind, what is it that they’re looking for in a particular response, are easy to apply, so non-repetitive questions, questions without ambiguity. 

Again, if they can put in those examples of the type of information they’re looking for that’s really good. And there are all sorts of things that we would certainly advise them to include when we’re working with them to improve those success rates. 

So, it’s really about educating and training the grant-seekers in exactly what it is they want and exactly what they need to do to get the funding. 

Mike: Yeah, so it’s sort of connecting up the dots pieces in a way. That makes a lot of sense. 

Just in terms of your team and your growth, it’s been quite dramatic in growth, 21 people as you said. What have you learned sort of about surviving and thriving with pandemics, floods, every biblical event imaginable. What are the learnings there for you about growth and team management? What makes a happy team?  

Jo: OK where do I start? Well, first of all, we are a virtual team so everybody works from a remote location, a home-based office. So, in a way, we’ve been lucky that we didn’t have that adaptation to make with COVID because we already existed. So over the years one of the things I really strive to do is make sure that the team feels that same camaraderie and collegiality that you get from working all together, meeting around the water cooler, meeting in the kitchen for coffees, you know all that sort of thing. And so we forever have had a designated time each week, that is a compulsory weekly team meeting that you aren’t to have other things scheduled around that. It’s our time to catch up. And there’s always, you know, social and general catch up with in that conversation as well. 

I guess it comes down to, though, the people. I mean, they’re just all exceptionally beautiful human beings. 

Mike: So, recruiting well. 

Jo: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a values alignment Mike and I think that that’s really important. Whilst we’re a business, we are not about working with organisations where we don’t think that they will be successful. 

So, we screen who we work with based on if we don’t think they’re ready, we will tell them, and then we’ll direct them to other agencies that we think they need to speak to help them get some critical success factors in place. 

Mike: Yeah, that’s so good. 

Jo: Yeah, and the whole team knows that philosophy. We have really good infrastructure in terms of an excellent staff handbook, policies and processes. In the last 12 months, we’ve had four new key team members come on board and all have made very positive comments about our systems and processes and how easy and streamlined. We have an excellent onboarding orientation program. It’s not just me talking to them, in fact. 

Mike: It’s not like an iPhone video or just sort of spouting out the values and mission? 

Jo: No, well all the others know far more about it than I do anyway! They’re all the smart ones, so they will have significant time with each other through that onboarding process. And then we sort of have a buddy system where they’ll sort of shadow one particular person for a week at a time depending on what area of the business that they’ve come into. And I guess one of our key strengths too, is that we’ve got multiple people that sit across multiple skill areas. And we very much work on the premise of we’re a strengths-based team. So, if you know somebody’s strength isn’t putting the polish on the writing, but they are so good at getting, you know, the data and the literature evidence base, doing the literature reviews and all of that stuff then they’ll just, you know, that’s their responsibility. They’ll go and do it all and then dump it and one of the wordsmiths will put it into beautiful language. 

So, we’ve got a pretty neat system. It’s taken time. There’s been a lot of mistakes, there’s been a lot of learnings. And I guess as the ‘head honcho’, for me, it’s about really being open to acknowledging that I am definitely not an expert in all things. Hence, I will recruit people who are. 

Mike: Yeah, well, I think that’s a great preset there for all good teams. The leader doesn’t have to be everything to everyone. It’s about bringing the best people around you and using them to lift the boat above all tides. 

Jo: Exactly, I think we’ve done that well. 

Mike: That’s fantastic. And so in terms of yourself, I mean how you manage yourself and keep your energy and vitality up being the head honcho? Do you have particular things that you do for wellbeing, your regular practices? 

Jo: Yeah, look, and this is really instilled upon all the team—I don’t want people working weekends. I don’t want them working over 40 hours a week. I want everybody to have a healthy work life balance, including myself. If we’re burnt out and stressed out, we’re not going to do a good job. They’re not going to stay. 

So, for me, I personally love Pilates. I love walking every day. I got up—Melbourne, have put the weather on for me! 

Mike: Were you there this morning at the five-degree mark?! 

Jo: It was lovely out there. It was sunny and the sun was coming up. 

Mike: This is the Brisbanite with a glass half full perspective. 

Jo: I get to wear coats down here. I don’t get to do that in Brisbane, but anyway I wish I did. But I do wish I had remembered my beanie this morning. My ears nearly froze off but it was stunning.  

So, I love my morning walks. I love my Pilates. I practice yoga, and I read a lot. I’m very social and so I have a really active social life and I’m very, very grateful to have an amazing network of friends and family who are exceptionally lovely and very loving and supportive. So yeah, I think it’s just balancing all of that with the work. 

Mike: Very well said. Speaking of the work or, just the joy, you’ll be at the Connecting Up conference this week. Which is incredibly exciting. This will of course come out after the Connecting Up conference, but I thought it might be a good opportunity to flag—you’ve got a session on the I think on the Friday around fundraising. So maybe this is a good point to sort of flag some of the insights that you think might come out of your presentation. 

Jo: Absolutely, great. Yeah, it’s so exciting. This is our first conference in what two and a half, three years? So yeah, can’t wait. Anyway, the focus of what I will be talking about is something that we have developed actually over the last two to three years. And that’s called the Best Practice Tracker. What it is, is a list of key success factors that are critical to a successful grant-seeking strategy. 

So, what those key elements are, are making sure that you’ve got really strong internal project planning and project development, including that monitoring and evaluation framework; that you have then a wish list of all the funding needs your organisation for the immediate twelve months and then beyond that and key messages that consistently sing from the same song sheet via whatever communication channel you’re using; that you’ve got a grants prospect identification tool —and obviously we would recommend GEMS—and beyond that, though, knowing how to match the right funding opportunity with a specific project and that outcomes alignment; having the good writer internally or externally, or having somebody at least internally, who can pull that robust program plan together and then outsourcing the writing; and then reporting and engagement. So how are we really targeting the evaluation report back to the funder? Are we delivering those accountability reports on time? It still alarms me how many funders have to chase those reports, it’s awful. And then the relationship and stewardship piece. And again, we’ve got many organisations who received multiyear grants and have received funding from philanthropic partners, government departments for many, many, many years. So, we really are in a very good position to know what works and what doesn’t.  

So, we’ve got these six key success factors. And for those of you who will attend the session, or attended the session, then they’ll have a list of all the dot points. We give that away because we want organisations to be successful. And of course, if they need help when they complete their score then they can call us. 

Mike: That’s terrific. And so, for those who are listening who weren’t able to attend the session, I’m sure we’ve got a huge pool of listeners, many of whom would be community organisations that need help with grants, how can they connect with you, learn more about your work and what sort of offers have you got that you can provide? 

Jo: Great, thank you. So first of all, if they just go to our website, so strategicgrants.com.au and for any New Zealand listeners, www.strategicgrants.co.nz 

We have such a wealth of blogs, some podcasts—and this will be there too—which actually will go through things like that Best Practice Tracker and certain elements of it. So absolutely check out the website. 

There is a form that people can fill out there, our phone numbers are on there. Otherwise, they just send an e-mail to [email protected] or [email protected] for New Zealand. 

Offers at the moment—we’ve actually got an offer until the end of May, so people would have to get in quickly. whereby if you purchase a customised grants calendar built from the GEM Portal, you then get your 12-month subscription for 15 months. So there’s an annual subscription fee to GEM Portal and rather than it just going for 12 months it would go for 15 months. 

Mike: Wow, so a couple of extra three months, sweeten the deal. 

Jo: Absolutely, so that just about takes them to the end of 2023. By the time they get their calendar built, which is really, really good value actually. 

Mike: And the GEMS Portal is one of the big value add propositions of Strategic Grants. 

Jo: It is. So, what it does is via back-end taxonomy that specifies the legal status of organisations, both funders and fund-seekers, and the type of work that they’re doing to very specific detail. So, you know if it’s aged care it goes down to is at-home care, is it residential care, is it capital and infrastructure. You know the type of funding that’s provided, and you can be very specific about that, and the geographic location right down to LGAs. And it, therefore, builds a list of just the relevant grant opportunities based on all of those different criteria. Then you can add additional criteria matches. 

So, if you don’t want to see Council grants, or if you don’t want to see grants under a certain amount if you’re a larger organisation. And through the GEM Portal subscription, it’s always kept up to date because our research team are in the background beavering away. So, six of the 21 or six or seven of the 21 team members are our research team and they’re all post-grad/undergrad students who are all experts at researching, all again with a passion for the sector. My daughter is one and our head of IT, he’s got two of his adult children also working amongst us. 

Mike: Fantastic—family business! 

Jo: Yeah, absolutely. So, they’re in and they conduct over 80 hours of research every week. 

Mike: Wow, that’s phenomenal. What a function to have in their back pocket. And just say anyone wanted to reach out to you personally, how can they do that? 

Jo: They can reach me on [email protected] 

Mike: Terrific. Well, Jo, it’s been lovely, thanks so much for dropping in. 

Jo: Thanks so much, Mike.