Advancing Nonprofit Capacity

Decision-Making Matrix: Is That Grant Proposal Worth Your Time?

Tis the season to be jolly, and we have gifts for you in this installment of our LINKY Party!

The grants profession is often complex, and my grant writer friends and I offer you a special present for the season: five useful tools that will help you develop more compelling and competitive grant proposals. If this gift seems like a boring pair of socks to you, remain patient, my Dear Reader: we designed these tools to help you with some of the most challenging aspects of grant writing.

  1. Jane Hexter offers the “how to decide how much to charge” tool.
  2. Mark Whitacre gives us a grant alignment process.
  3. Jo Miller has a fantastic social media template.
  4. Diane Leonard offers us grant readiness tools.

I bear the gift of a Decision-Making Matrix. My team and I developed the Matrix to help nonprofits assess their readiness to pursue a specific grant opportunity. Deciding whether to invest the time in proposal preparation is an important—and costly—decision that requires careful examination. Think about how long it takes to write a quality proposal, to pull together the people and teams you need to get implementation information, the attachments you have to gather and package for submission, the stress of deadlines. How do you know if preparing a proposal is worth your organization’s time and money? How do you know if your program is ready to approach the Kresge Foundation with a six or seven figure ask? How do you know if your organization is ready to seek funding for a new program?

The Matrix helps you answer these questions by quantifying your organization’s capacity, credibility, evidence, and sustainability—the four most important factors in any grant review. Consider the following questions.

  • Is your project a priority for your organization? Furthermore, how do you know? Is the project outlined in a strategic plan or other formal planning document? Clue: the answer should be yes.
  • Does your organization have the capacity to implement the project? It’s fine to dream, but do you realistically have the staff, facilities, volunteers, cash, IT, etc. necessary to make the project succeed?
  • Is your project based on national best practices? Or is it at least modified from a best practice or evidence-based practice?
  • Is your project innovative? OK, it’s difficult to be completely innovative. But does the program use any new implementation methods? If so, why? Are the new methods replicable? Have they been tested for efficacy? If the answer is “no,” that’s OK. You don’t have to be innovative, but you do have to be authentic. If you claim a project is innovative, you must be able to back up your claim with evidence of a real innovation.
  • How is your project different from others in the area? Do you know your competitors? Could you collaborate with them? Have you identified gaps in service? You must be able to discuss why your project is not a duplication of services.
  • Does your project have the potential for replication? If you can answer “yes,” it is wonderful for your organization because it gives you the credibility to say, “Organizations like our should do it this way because our method is effective.” It means you must know best practices or evidence-based practices, how to test implementation methods, and how to measure outcomes. But it’s not enough to say you’ll replicate. Have a formal plan for replication.
  • Have you discussed the proposal with relevant staff members? If you have not, you might want to hold your horses. Speaking with the people who implement the project on a daily basis will give you the information you need to paint the best picture possible for your reviewers. It’s also where you’ll get the human interest angle, which is so critical to telling a compelling story.

The answer to most of these questions should be “yes.” If you do answer “no” to some of these areas, it does not necessarily mean you should not continue to pursue an opportunity. It just means you may have to pursue it in an adjusted manner or at a different time.

You use the Matrix to score your organization in 11 categories, and then calculate a final score. Some organizations would never pursue a proposal that scored less than 80 points (out of 110), while other nonprofits are more risk-tolerant and pursue with a score of 50-60 (just a 50% score on this Matrix).

It takes time to complete the Decision-Making Matrix, and it is likely to bring up challenging questions about many facets of nonprofit management (financial analysis, human resources management, professional development, IT infrastructure, etc.). You, as a grant writer or program staff member, may not be able to do much about those organizational issues. But wouldn’t you rather know that your organization doesn’t have the IT capacity necessary to implement a new outreach project BEFORE you spend 15-20 hours writing a proposal that is never likely to be competitive? I’m positive you’ll find something more productive—and possibly revenue-generating—to do with that time.

Wishing everyone a joyful holiday season,



Heather Stombaugh, MBA, GPC

Principal Consultant



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  1. December 9, 2014    


    Your gift is truly amazing! Thank you for sharing your insights. I’ll use your matrix in my work. What a bonus!

  2. Kendra Kendra
    December 10, 2014    

    Thank you Heather, as a novice writer these questions bring clarity to the grant readiness process.

  3. December 12, 2014    

    You know I’m such a fan of this tool! It’s a great way for organizations to really talk through each grant application as they decide if it is a good opportunity for them to pursue or not. Thanks for sharing this as part of our #linkyparty!

  4. Debbie Wright Debbie Wright
    October 13, 2016    

    I just found this tool. But I don’t know what the 11 areas are – I could only find 7?

    • Julie Jardine Julie Jardine
      October 25, 2016    


      Thanks for reading! I think you may just need to minimize the pdf to see all 11 areas. If that doesn’t work, let us know and we’ll find another way for you to see the 11 areas.

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