“Overall, I believe that coaching provided for more clear, direct and interesting applications for the foundation—ones that told the story of each grantseeker and their plans in the best light. In doing so, it helped the grant award decision become more about who can make the best use of the grant and less about who simply might have the best writer.” – Charley Scarborough

a bullseye with "why" in the middle

Credit: Simon Sinek, Inc.

The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health awarded $2.4 million in grants to five Texas organizations to support collaborative approaches to well-being in rural communities. The first initiative to reflect our new strategic direction, we’re investing in regions where there is demonstrated need and a commitment to strengthening resilience and mental health: Bastrop, Brooks, Morris, Nacogdoches, and Victoria counties.

To ensure grantee selection based on readiness and need rather than grantwriting expertise, the foundation offered technical assistance (TA) for all grantseekers selected through an initial request for letters of interest. We spoke with Charley Scarborough, who provided these services on behalf of the foundation, as well as with foundation program officers Tammy Heinz and Rick Ybarra, to hear how this process went. As it turns out, what Charley ultimately provided went far beyond technical assistance, and the investment paid off in ways we didn’t anticipate:

Hogg Foundation: What led to the decision to provide TA for this new funding opportunity?

Tammy Heinz: Given our intention to focus on rural communities with a population of less than 250,000, we knew there might be issues around grant writing capacity, and it was important to us that we set up a level playing field. We weren’t necessarily looking for proposals written by experienced grantseekers. We wanted to help communities see our vision and support them in telling their story so we could make an informed decision.

Rick Ybarra: Offering a third party’s expertise during the proposal development process alleviated concerns on our end and allowed us to preserve an unbiased, equitable approach. Knowing the depth and breadth of Charley’s experience, we were certain that applicants would benefit from his insights.

Hogg Foundation: What, from your perspective, was most valuable about this process, both for the grantseekers and the foundation?

Charley Scarborough: I really enjoyed working with the grantseekers. They are terrific and dedicated professionals, advocating for their communities and their organizations’ missions. What most of the grantseekers craved wasn’t TA, but more what I’ve dubbed “grant coaching.”

TA is really about lending support for the technical aspects of writing a grant. It’s things like editing, budget review, website assistance—ensuring the technical aspects of the application are met. Grant coaching approaches the process from a higher level, focused on how the organization tells their story—the “why” of their mission.  This helps put context around their application, more fully demonstrating what impact the grant will have in their efforts – supporting the “what” and the “how” of their program.

This idea of the “why” behind the work isn’t new. It’s the reason the nonprofit sector exists at all. But, it’s easy to lose sight of the “why” if we’re not careful—if we’re not intentional about keeping it at the forefront of our storytelling—especially when it comes to proposal development. Simon Sinek demonstrated this concept in one of the most watched TED Talks of all time.

That doesn’t mean that the process for the budget, the logic models for programs and other details was skipped over; just that we developed together a narrative that tied back to those details, gave proof to their claims, and things like connecting to real-life stories to put a face on the philanthropy they were seeking. At times, we even got into adjustments of program design where it made sense, both to fit the grant guidelines and where I could challenge their assumptions.They seemed to appreciate a coach who could adapt to meet them where they were in the process. Grant coaching isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

We were also able to, mid-process, identify and adjust application questions which needed re-wording to tease out the deeper insights the staff wanted—and gain more clarity for applicants.

Hogg Foundation: That’s a good distinction—grant coaching versus TA. It’s a reminder that we (funders) don’t always know exactly what the landscape calls for until we’re in the middle of a project. It’s that “learning while doing” thing. So, when should funders consider employing grant coaching?

Scarborough: I’d advocate especially for employing grant coaching support when a funder wants to encourage smaller, less experienced applicant organizations. Grant coaching is also helpful when rolling out a new set of guidelines, processes, questions or objectives for grantseekers and/or the funders, like the foundation did for this new initiative.

Hogg Foundation: Tammy and Rick, did this assistance achieve what you expected? Were there any surprises?

Heinz: Absolutely! There was definitely a capacity-building benefit angle we had in mind when we decided to offer this assistance. All the proposals we received were vastly improved when compared to the original letters of interest. The storytelling about the challenges and opportunities if funded were compelling, and that made the award decision process all the more difficult!

As program officers, we’re responsible for articulating the foundation’s funding strategy in a way that resonates with those who can make the best use of it. Although we try our best to be clear about what we’re asking of grantseekers, we realized, thanks to Charley’s bird’s eye view across all of the applicants, where clarity was needed in order to get at what we really wanted to know. Charley’s role as an intermediary helped us understand how our RFP was interpreted.

Ybarra: We heard directly from communities who received funding about how valuable the coaching was:

“I would certainly say that this was a very positive and helpful experience. Just getting another set of eyes on things is always useful, and to take that a step further, I would say that having someone outside of our organization give their own feedback not only on our answers, but on how to interpret what the Hogg Foundation is looking for was extraordinarily useful!” – Dan Kleiner, Bastrop County Cares

We also heard positive things from communities that we did not fund. Although disappointed, many said this opportunity served as a catalyst to bring their community together to begin discussions about resilience, mental health and well-being. That was inspirational and validating:

“Thanks so much for the guidance throughout the proposal development process. In all of my experience working with granting agencies and program officers, I have not received such detailed feedback as you provided. Most assuredly, this process elevated the quality of the proposals that were received.” – Eric Meyer, Baylor Scott & White Health

Hogg Foundation: What, from your experience, gets in the way of providing grant coaching? What do funders risk by not offering it?

Scarborough: I suspect some funders might not prioritize grant coaching because they may not know their grantseeker’s situations well enough, or their team may not be in the mode of innovating for better outcomes as the Hogg Foundation has in this case.

I’d be concerned that some may inadvertently hire a less experienced grantwriter to provide coaching, but what the funder would end up with is TA, which is more limited in scope. Coaching from an experienced partner who has managed a grant seeking team, worked with multiple funders, managed aspirational projects, and understands the sector, can help raise the standard for the entire process and all players. That person should be someone the funder is confident in and open with, but who also has the ability to put grantseekers at ease.

Funders who feel they consistently get grant applications that fall short of telling the grantseekers real story, often award grants to the same organizations because they provide the best applications, spend too much time answering applicants’ questions, or frequently fall asleep when reading applications (ha!), owe it to themselves and their communities to explore grant coaching. Engaging someone external can encourage a fresh perspective.

Hogg Foundation: What advice can you give to grantseekers when engaging with a grant coach?

Scarborough: Some of what you’d expect with any such application process: read instructions carefully and follow them, be on time and prepared, send drafts for review well in advance of discussions, etc. In addition, it helps to check your ego at the door. A good grant coach will be compassionate, yet will be direct with their feedback. You can’t take the feedback personally or get defensive. They’re on your side, so see them as a partner to your success. Being open to new ideas while imagining yourself in the reader’s chair goes a long way to drafting a quality application.

Hogg Foundation: What seemed to be the biggest ah-ha for the grantseekers during this process?

Scarborough: The grantseekers were consistently and almost unanimously grateful for the support while expressing a new admiration for the professionalism and innovation of the Hogg Foundation for providing such a resource. They seemed surprised, delighted and grateful to get coaching, beyond technical assistance.

Hogg Foundation: Overall, what’s the takeaway—for funders or grantseekers, or both?

Scarborough: A small investment in grant coaching can bring big benefits to both grantseekers and funders, by bringing a new and independent perspective to the process and the product of a grant cycle.

Ybarra: After this first experience, I believe we will look at this strategy closely and make use of it again.

Heinz: Yes! Particularly when trying to reach under-resourced or historically marginalized communities.


To learn more about the Collaborative Approaches to Well-being in Rural Communities initiative, check out these additional blog posts: