Basic Grant Tracking for the Small Nonprofit

A typical nonprofit may submit a dozen, or 50, or 100 proposals a year and have maybe 30% of them funded. As a grantwriter, how do you keep track of them? In the course of that year, you or someone in your organization may talk to foundation or government agency staff countless times. How do you remember what was said?

Keeping on top of this information is vital to the success of your grants effort, but it receives little attention. While there are several decent fundraising software programs, their focus is generally on individual donors. I’m not aware of any that do a good job tracking foundation or government grants.

Local governments and large nonprofits have grants management offices[1] that may (or may not) track this sort of information. But in most cases the grantwriter or development department will want to keep their own records. Your needs are different and you want to have quick access to these records.

When I was a development director I developed a simple, paper-based system which I cheap and easy to set up and easy to maintain. It has four components:

A 3-ring binder with:

1) Pages for each foundation or funder,  and

2) Yearly grant pages.

Also a filing cabinet drawer with:

3) A manila file folder for each funder

4) A colored folder for each funded major grant.

Buy a 2” or larger 3-ring binder, a set of alphabetical tabs, and some 3-hole punched, lined paper.

1) Pages for each funder. For every foundation or funder you have contact with, or want to, set up a page. In the upper right hand corner write its name and the name, phone number and e-mail address of your major contact person. If you know that someone in your organization knows a foundation trustee, note that at the top. (When I originally set up this form it had foundation address, trustees names, staff, assets, deadlines, etc. However I found that this was redundant of information in the State funding guide, so I didn’t use it.)

Now, whenever you, or someone in your organization, has contact with someone in the foundation, make a note of it. Don’t limit this to formal contacts. Here’s an example:

W.F. Martin Trust

Dennis Hill 222-2222

Note: Our board member Julia Shaw Knows Martin Trustee Doug MacIntyre.

1/22/2004: Called for clarification of guidelines. Talked to Dennis (see notes in Martin Folder). He told me if we submit by 2/15 we could make the April trustee meeting.

2/3/04: Went with our Executive Director (ED) and Program Director (PD) to meet with Dennis and discuss proposal (see notes in proposal folder).

2/12/04: Delivered final proposal to Martin.

2/13/04: Call from Martin staff about our 501(c)(3) status. OOPS, someone put in old letter. Faxed permanent letter.

2/18/04: Julia Gamble saw Doug MacIntyre at Mac Club, talked to him about our pending proposal. He told her to also talk to Peggy Dole (another Meyer Trustee). She’ll set up a lunch with Ocilia. Good old Julia!

2/25/04: E-mail from Dennis asking about budget item. E-mailed response (printed out, put in project folder).

3/6/04: Dennis calls to set up site visit. He’ll come 3/12 at 2pm. He’ll e-mail a list of questions to be ready for.

3/9/04. Call from Julia. Peggy was very interested in project, but asked about old rumor about our agency. Julia reassured her. (WHEW!)

3/12/04: Met with Dennis, E.D. Program Director. Toured site. Answered questions, will e-mail him about 2 more questions (see notes in project file). After visit, ED, PD & I went out for a drink to calm our nerves.

3/13/04: Emailed Dennis additional information he requested.

3/20/04: Saw Dennis at concert. He says things look good for our grant, but it may be slightly smaller.

4/7/04: Dennis calls. We got Funded! YEA! — but for $50,000 less than we asked (boo). Can we send a revised budget?

4/10/04: Met with Program Manager and Fiscal Officer. Revised and sent new budget.

4/15/04: Received grant award letter to sign and return (got ED signature, returned it) and first check! Started a grant file for project and moved relevant notes.

4/16/04: Sent thank you letters to Martin CEO, Dennis, Julia.

You can see the advantage of this format. You can keep track of all contacts, formal or informal. You can refer to your files, keep track of relationships, etc. There may be years with only 1 or 2 notes about a foundation, but you’ll have them. When you come to the end of a page, start a new one and number it.

2) A page in your 3-ring binder for each year. This records basic information for tracking all grants applied for that year. At the beginning of a new year, start a new page. It doesn’t have to be detailed, just a running log like this:

Date applied Funder Project Request Result Date
1/12/04 Thurston Swing Set $7,000 $4,000 3/12/04
1/12/04 Clark “    “ 5,000 5,000 3/1/04
2/12/04 Martin Program



(3 yrs)

$200,000 4/7/04
2/18/04 Cowles Van 20,000 No 3/22/04
2/29/04 Cheney Library 20,000 15,000 5/6/04
3/18/04 Medina Capacity 200,000 (2 yr)
3/20/20 Templin SE Program 5,000

3/20/20 Smith SE Program 10,000 5,000 5/25/04
3/20/20 Hart SE Program 10,000 10,000 4/30/04
3/25/04 Union Pacific SE Program 10,000

This allows you to keep track at a glance of all the grants you’ve submitted and the results. This simple form serves several functions:

  • As a reminder to yourself. Say it’s September and you haven’t heard back about some proposals you filed in march. You know Medina always takes at least 9 months to reach a decision, so you’re not worried about them (besides, you’ve been in contact with their staff because it’s a significant request.) Templin surprises you, they’re usually quick, so you make a discreet call to the family member who handles this small trust. Turns out you got turned down but not notified. Too bad, but it isn’t unusual for a small unstaffed foundation to not notify unfunded organizations. Union Pacific was a new try for you and you don’t know them. You call corporate headquarters and talk to a receptionist in the company foundation. You got bumped to their winter round, should hear in December.
  • As a way of tracking job performance. If your Executive Director or Board wants to know what you’re doing, you can quickly show them the number of grants submitted, number funded, dollars raised. Of course you’ll want to expand on this with details.
  • As a historical record. You can quickly look through the past years and look for trends. The Cowles Foundation funded you for four years straight, then this year they denied — You’ll want to know why. Smith only wants to be approached every other year, so you won’t go to them next year. Are your total annual grants funded up or down? How about request amounts? If you have several years you can graph it.

If you’re a new grantwriter or Development Director for an agency, check to see if any such records exist (Trust me, they probably don’t). One of your first tasks will be to recreate these records as best you can. Look in old file folders, accounting records, annual reports, newsletters, board minutes. Go back as many years as you can. It will be easier to track grants which were funded than ones which were denied. Do the best you can and add to it later as you discover new information.

Why is this so important? First, it prevents relationship damaging mistakes. There are few things more embarrassing than submitting a request to a funder introducing your agency and asking for startup for a new program, only to find that they’ve supported you for over 10 years and funded the startup of a very similar program three years ago. Second, it allows you  to look for trends (see historical record above). How much has your agency raised from grants in the past? Which foundations have funded you, for what and for how much. You’ll need all this for planning your grants budget and strategy for the year.

3) A file folder for each funder: This is where you keep correspondence unrelated to specific grants, newspaper articles about the funder or their trustees, guidelines, annual reports, etc. For major foundations you might also have a file folder on your desktop with Adobe Acrobat annual reports, guidelines, etc.

4) A folder for every funded major grant: I like to use red ones with tabs for 3-hole punched paper and pockets front and back. This folder contains all paperwork pertaining to the grant, as well as a floppy disc of the proposal and all other electronic material.[2] You put in a copy of the final proposal, a schedule of reports due, copies of reports, etc. You transfer notes from the working folder you had when writing the proposal. Keep this in your active files. If the foundation grants officer calls, or your Executive Director has a question, you can immediately respond. If (as often happens) information on a grant get spread among foundation and project files, its difficult to keep a coherent picture of an active grant. After the grant is completed and final reports submitted, move the file to an inactive drawer. You might keep parallel files on your computer desktop, with all the electronic information related to each grant.

This system works well for private funders, foundations and corporations. If you’re responsible for writing government grants, the system needs modified and expanded. You’ll want to coordinate with the grants manager and/or program director. You probably (hopefully) won’t be involved in contract compliance or grants management. Since governments operate through Requests for Proposals (RFP’s), you’ll want to keep those (electronically if possible — many are posted as downloadable Adobe Acrobat files these days). You should keep a complete paper copy of the proposal, including budget forms, compliances, attachments, etc., etc. In many cases you’ll have collected statistics, reports and documents related to the proposal. Keep them, in either paper or electronic format because you’ll want to be able to document any claims you made. Government work requires a paper trail. And it will often make your job easier to have you8r own copy, rather than having to ask for a copy of a 3 year old proposal from the new grants manager who’s only been on the job two months.

For all its simplicity, this paper system can serve most nonprofits for years. And when you move on from this job, you will have left a legacy for the organization. Your successor might even erect a small shrine to you.

[1] By the way, this isn’t about grants management, which involves compliance with (usually government) grant contract terms and is another complex field in itself. For a quick overview see “Essentials of Grants Management” by Harvey Flood in TGCI Magazine, .

[2] More times than I can count, I’ve worked with an agency that has had previous successful grants I could have copied sections from, but they haven’t kept the file or don’t know what computer it was on. This simple hint can save you or your organization hours of redundant computer entry — or even time spent recreating an organizational description.