The Real ROI of Grant Writing, TEDx Talk, Grant Writing Simplified with Teresa Huff, Episode 135

The Real ROI of Grant Writing [Episode 135]

"There's a person on the other side of everything we do, whether a grant application, email, or phone call. Grantmakers are people, not ATM machines, so let’s treat them like people."

As a grant writer for about two decades and winning over $7M for my clients, I’ve learned that grant writing isn’t magic, but there is a formula to increase your chances of winning grant. Today I’m sharing my secret sauce with you in my TEDx Talk! You can read the abbreviated version below or watch the full presentation (complete with pictures!) on YouTube.

Where NOT to Start with Grant Writing

Imagine you’re at work when your boss walks by and says, “Hey, I need a favor. I’m supposed to help at the youth shelter fundraiser on Saturday and I can’t make it. Can you step in for me?”

As a team player and fan of the youth program, you say, “You bet! Happy to.”

Relieved, he says, “Thanks, you’re the best!” On the way out, he adds, “Oh, by the way, it’s a marathon. Just get some good running shoes and you’ll be fine.”

Wait – what? A marathon?

I don’t know about you, but I’m sure not ready for a marathon on Saturday.

…Yet I hear the equivalent of this all the time in the nonprofit world.

People hear someone wants to start a nonprofit and say, “Oh, you should just get a grant for that!”

Or, “You need a new building? I’ve heard there’s grant funding out there.”

Grants aren’t that simple. You don’t “just” get a grant. Like training for a marathon, grants require preparation, strategy, and hard work. Successful grant writing takes consistent effort, uncovering misconceptions, and willingness to approach strategy through a new lens. We must look at grants as part of a much bigger process.

Start with ROI

In business, we know investors are looking for a Return on Investment, or ROI. We put money in and calculate, “How much profit will I get back?”

In the nonprofit world, ROI is more about creating a Return On Impact. You won’t get your investment of time, money, or resources back when you donate to a nonprofit. In the same way, grantmakers are looking forward. They want to know, “How much impact can we make through this work? How much of a ripple effect can we create by partnering together?”

Even better, by giving forward and investing in others, we do get a return back – by way of meaning, relationships, and fulfillment. That’s why it’s so important for us to band together to help nonprofits build this kind of ROI. A Return on Impact.

ROI Framework

How do we go about showing Return on Impact? We do this through what I call the ROI Framework: Relevant, Optimize, and Interact. That’s how we get the results that lead to impact.

Rather than simply writing more grants, let’s move upstream to look at the bigger picture and see how each grant opportunity fits in as part of the whole puzzle. When we put grants into their proper context, that’s when we can effectively build the nonprofit’s ROI.

The Real ROI of Grant Writing, Relevant, Optimize, Interact


Relevance is twofold in the context of building our ROI Framework:

  1. Establish the relevance of our work to society.
  2. Ensure our work’s relevance to the grantmaker’s mission.

First, we need contextual research to ensure the community need for this project:

  • What statistics and data support this mission?
  • Why is this work so critical?

Then we should consider the relevance to the grantmaker:

  • Whose funding priorities best align with the nonprofit’s mission?
  • What community gaps does the nonprofit fill?
  • How can they partner to meet those needs?

When thinking through this Relevance, we should consider the logical proof of ROI. For example, we might say, “For every dollar invested in this program, there’s a five dollar return on your investment. That’s a five dollar impact in the community to help pay it forward.” In other words, can you somehow quantify what they are saving by investing in prevention? Or demonstrate the impact of the education, services, or intervention you provide?


The next piece of the ROI Framework is Optimization. In other words, the nonprofit should run successfully without grants before we add them to the mix.
Is the organization running like a business, or are things scattered? The nonprofit should have:

  • Solid infrastructure and leadership
  • Efficient systems
  • Organization

Optimization is critical. A business investor won’t finance something confusing. When selling a product or service, the general rule of thumb is, “The confused mind won’t buy,” In the same way with nonprofits, a confused mind won’t donate or award a grant. Let’s strive to eliminate confusion.


Finally, Interactions are key. We need to cultivate authentic, meaningful relationships in the people we serve, communities, volunteers, board members, staff, complementary organizations, and other service providers.

There’s a person on the other side of everything we do, whether a grant application, email, or phone call. Grantmakers are people, not ATM machines, and we must treat them as such. Adam Witty, CEO of Forbes Books, said, “Business moves at the speed of trust.” We should be building trust through all our interactions and relationships well before the day of the race.

ROI for Results

Relevance, Optimize, Interact. Nonprofits may have two of the three and make some progress, but something’s still missing. We need all three to build ROI. That’s the secret sauce. It’s not easy by any means; nonprofit work is a long-term commitment. Like marathon training, it takes time, but it’s worth it when you get the pieces together.

Accidental Creative author Todd Henry makes a bold statement, “In the end, we’re more defined by the questions we avoid than the questions we ask.” That’s painful! I don’t want to be defined that way. I’d rather ask better questions. I’m going to challenge all of us: How can we ask better questions of our nonprofits? Things like:

  • How can I support you this week?
  • What’s your big vision for this work?
  • What keeps you up at night?
  • What keeps you coming back day after day?
  • Who can I introduce to you that would be a meaningful connection?

Instead of saying, “Just get a grant for that,” how can we ask meaningful questions? Then stop and listen to what they say, because that will give us valuable clues as to how we can truly help nonprofits build their ROI: the Relevance, Optimization and Interactions that will lead to a much bigger Return On Impact. By doing that, we can truly help nonprofits impact the world.

Challenge Question:

What can you do to increase your nonprofit’s ROI?

Free Audit: How Grant-Ready Is Your Nonprofit?

If you need support in your journey to excellence as a grant writer, I’d like to invite you to join me on the Fast Track to Grant Writer. Go to teresahuff.com/vip and start learning today.

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Grant Writer? Take the Quiz:

If you’re ready to explore a career in grant writing, take my free quiz, “Do you have what it takes to be a grant writer?” People are always surprised at how many skills they already have. The distance isn’t as far as they thought. Let’s figure out how you can use your skills to help change your world.

If you’re ready to step up your nonprofit game, join me on the Fast Track to Grant Writer. The world needs you.

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