Anyone that has spent any amount of time working in economic development or entrepreneurial ecosystem building in a rural place will know that one of the BIGGEST challenges in making innovative, purposeful things happen for your community is this:
Finding the money to make it happen.
As we’ve been expanding the delivery of the Mashup Lab Virtual Business Incubator (aka our Dream Business program) to rural regions throughout Canada and the US, we’ve seen this as something that is a constant struggle for the Community Champions that bring us to town to work with their budding entrepreneurs and growing small businesses.
These days, most people know me as the Founder and CEO of Mashup Lab.
What many folks don’t know is that, before launching Mashup Lab, I spent 15+ years sitting in the same chair as many of the Community Champions we work with (in fact, it was the challenges I saw working in that space for 15+ year that inspired me to launch Mashup Lab in the first place; more on that backstory here).
Over those 15+ years I experienced firsthand how difficult, time consuming and frustrating it could be to find even small amounts of money to get a pilot project off the ground. I was often left with the same questions many of you may be struggling with right now: Why do they need all this seemingly useless information and detail? What exactly are they looking for from me? How the heck are they ever going to decide who gets this grant?
The last position I held in the economic development space was as Executive Director for a regional economic development agency responsible for a rural region made up six municipalities representing approx. 50,000 people here in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Our core funding to cover the annual operating budget for the organization was $200,000; by the time I left I had figured out how to leverage that $200,000 budget into $1.5-million in funding to do some pretty cool economic development and ecosystem building projects in my community.
How did I do that you ask?
Two words: non-repayable contributions (aka “grants”).
So, needless to say, I got pretty good at playing the grant writing game by the time I stopped being an employee in the economic development world and started my own entrepreneurial journey with Mashup Lab.
What I noticed was that, even though the purpose of a grant program may have been different (i.e. workforce development, technical support for business and entrepreneurs, economic diversification, experiential tourism initiatives, regional marketing, etc., etc.), 90% of the information the funders were looking for was pretty much the same. So I quickly began to figure out the common elements that made for a successful grant application or project proposal.
I know how stretched you can get doing important economic development and entrepreneurial ecosystem building work, so this is my gift to you for all the amazing work you do.
Feel free to use it to put your best foot forward for the next project you want to make happen in your rural community. You’re Awesome!
So with that editable grant proposal template in hand, here are some of the most important tips I learnt over nearly two decades working in the rural economic development and entrepreneurial ecosystem world about how to write a winning grant proposal.
First and foremost: Get to know the people that care the most about the community you’re looking to serve.
Whether that is a geographic community OR a defined community of people, and regardless of the purpose of the initiative you’re trying to get off the ground, get to know the people (ideally right in your own backyard) that care the most about trying to solve the same problem you’re trying to solve.
While it may be tempting to go after the ‘marquee’ foundations and government departments with the deepest pockets, you’ll likely have more success approaching people and organizations that may not be as well funded, but care just as deeply about seeing the impact in your community as you do.
The big players get approached by dozens (perhaps even hundreds!!) of organizations with their hand out and they see thousands of applications; it is going to be MUCH harder to differentiate yourself and make your project stand out.
‘The riches are in the niches’. Turns out the same principle applies to entrepreneurship as well. Every community is different, but your local Community Foundation might be a great place to start; if you are in Canada, you can find a Community Foundation near you here. For my rural friends south of the board in the US, click here.
Go small, and get as local as you can get with your ask.
I’ve found that strategy to be 10-times more effective.
Besides, if you are a rural person, you likely know how to make a little bit of money go a really, really long way. It’s in our DNA.
Fund your “MVP” before you go for the big ask.
There is a concept we share with all the entrepreneurs that go through our Mashup Lab Virtual Business Incubator called Minimum Viable Product or “MVP”. If you’ve never heard of it, just google it and you’ll find lots of cool stuff. Essentially, it is just a fancy term for a test.
The strategy here is dead simple:
- Look for smaller pots of money to pilot whatever it is you want to do.
- Test the concept.
- Modify the project based on the feedback you get from your test.
- Test it again.
- Then use the results (aka proof) to make a bigger ask to roll the project out in a bigger way.
Now, I’ll often get this question here “But Andrew, what if the test is a failure?”.
Awesome! You’ve just saved your community, potentially, hundreds-of-thousands dollars in mis-placed project funding, and you didn’t waste precious grant funds on an initiative that wasn’t the right fit for your community and wouldn’t have delivered the desired results and impact you were hoping to have.
Congratulations! Your credibility with other potential funders just went through the roof.
And trust me, the funder of the “MVP” will appreciate your transparency around what really happened. The good, bad, and the ugly, and hearing what you learnt from the pilot that will help you make more informed decisions about where and how to have a bigger, broader, better impact with the next dozen projects you’re going to do in your rural community.
I know it can be tempting to go after multi-year funding for a project and try to cover the payroll for your core staff and operational overhead for a couple of years. But in my experience, this “MVP” strategy ends up paying dividends in the long run, giving you a better chance of securing more grants for bigger, more impactful projects going forward.
INTERESTING TIDBIT: The fact that Mashup Lab has delivered our Virtual Business Incubator in dozens of rural communities throughout Canada and the US and has a proven track-record of delivering results, often gives the Community Champions we partner with in other rural places the data and proof they need to skip over this “MVP” step and get right to having a wider, broader impact in their community. We’d love to Book a Discovery Call with you (no obligation, of course) if you think this is something that could give you a bit of a headstart when it comes to activating untapped entrepreneurial talent in your community and accelerate your economic development efforts.
Funders don’t want another mouth to feed forever.
The money won’t keep coming forever. At some point, you will run out of grants to apply for to keep your project going.
Have an answer for how you plan to sustain the work after the project funding runs out.
This is probably the biggest oversight I see organizations make when applying for grants, be it for an “MVP” or a longer-term project.
They get so focused on the cool project that they are asking a funder to pay for, that they forget to talk about how they intend to build sustainability into their model to fund the important work going forward. We see this ‘boom and bust’ activity in rural communities all the time, where an organization was able to secure funding for a year or two, the funding dries up, and then a really great initiative that may have been having a HUGE impact in the community dies on the vine.
This is where I think Community Champions have a HUGE opportunity to get creative and start to explore their own entrepreneurial and social enterprise models. Common Good Solutions (based here in Nova Scotia) and MaRS both have some pretty great articles and resources on this concept if you’re looking for a place to start thinking about what this social enterprise model might look like for your organization. If you’re looking for a spark of inspiration to get your creative juices flowing, check out this SEE Change article.
Looking for funding to bring the Mashup Lab Virtual Business Incubator to your rural community?
Here is that editable template that you can use to save time and help you build a stronger case for your grant proposal.
Keep doing the important work you do! You Rock!