Tips for Getting Your “Innovative” Project Funded

In her July Rooflines post on the idea of “disruptive innovation,” Miriam Axel-Lute addressed how innovation has been over promoted in the nonprofit and public sectors. She focused on the difference between “the world of venture capital” and the nonprofit and public worlds—the latter two have obligations beyond earnings, which makes other organizations in their sectors partners rather than competitors. This means that nonprofit and public-sector organizations do not need to fixate on innovation, but often should focus on long-term goals with incremental improvements. “So very often what we need is will and coordination to implement well-known solutions, not some radically new solution,” Axel-Lute writes.

Really, we need to strike a balance between innovation and proven, dependable strategies. We have tried to do that at the Ohio Housing Finance Agency’s (OHFA) Housing Investment Fund (HIF) since 2009. HIF is a competitive grant and loan program for strategies to address housing needs that do not entirely fit the parameters of OHFA’s core programs.

HIF-funded projects are intended to implement unique, innovative and replicable approaches to meet Ohio’s housing needs, further the achievement of OHFA’s Annual Plan, and help drive housing policy for long-term economic and social value. By targeting initiatives outside of traditional program boundaries, OHFA encouraged proposals that demonstrated a greater diversity of affordable housing opportunities and services and/or served areas with few affordable housing options. (Note: the fund has been suspended to allow OHFA to identify additional resources for the program.)

The 33 projects HIF funded with its $13.4 million in funding include capital improvements, an evaluation to assess Appalachian Ohio housing needs, an analysis of a renter equity program, installation of temporary modular ramps for disabled individuals, tenant-landlord mediation services for renters at imminent risk of eviction, lead and energy efficiency repairs, a mobile health clinic for Cleveland’s Housing First projects, a permanent supportive housing (PAH) employment program, and construction of a life skills training facility for persons with developmental disabilities.

Encouraging “unique, innovative, and replicable” projects can prove challenging. Although HIF incentivized new approaches, project sponsors must still produce results that make public investments worthwhile. The public sector is risk averse when it comes to potential financial losses.

From our experiences working with HIF, here are some key considerations for organizations applying for funding for an “innovative” project:


  • Actively participate in any opportunities to learn about the program to which you are applying. Take advantage of any meetings, invitations to comments, webinars, or other events to gain information on what the funder expects.

  • Be realistic while developing timelines, funding requests, and outcomes. It will take longer than expected to complete the project or program and it will cost more than you expect. Also, do not underestimate operating costs. Nothing is free, even if the sponsor is nonprofit. Funders will recognize that staff and other resources will be necessary to successfully implement the proposed program. Be wary if inclusion of operating and administration costs is frowned upon.

  • Demonstrate capacity internally or through a partner(s). This capacity can be in staff and systems, but also a track record. Can the sponsor demonstrate a track record of success at both the individual staff and organizational levels?

  • Be prepared to discuss similar programs or projects when submitting an application for funding. Funders often want to see success, even when you are innovating.

  • Leverage other funding, beyond in-kind resources, whenever possible. More funders, even if only supplying modest funds, suggest the potential program or project has potential.

  • Do not request the minimum, but also do not request the maximum. There is a “Goldilock” problem—it has to be just right. A minimum request will likely result in questions regarding the impact of the proposal. A request for the maximum may highlight an unrealistic approach by the applicant. Nonetheless, if the program or project will not succeed without the maximum possible award, seek that amount, but be prepared to defend the request. Many funders will be seeking to make as many efficient and effective awards as possible. Large awards stand in the way of that goal.

  • Have a plan for measuring results. What is success for your organization? How many persons will be served ? Have you leveraged other funding? Will these results resonate with the funder? How do these results fit with what the funder expects?

  • Understand the funder’s goals and objectives for the program. Make it easy for the funder to support your proposal. Is there a preference for a certain type of proposal? If so, that is more than a hint; it signals a requirement. Paying attention to guidelines indicates capacity and professionalism.

  • Recognize the mission of the organization providing the funding. Align proposals with the funder’s mission and the funding program. It may not be just the staff who must be convinced of the value of a project, but a board as well. Funders governed by a board will likely require board approval before awarding funds. This can be an opportunity to build support for your project by attending meetings and getting to know the board and its preferences.

  • Be ready to discuss any potentially controversial aspects of your project or program. What seems obvious to you may not be so obvious to the funder.

  • Be aware that some projects will fail no matter how well-intentioned and managed. Know when to walk away from the proposal or project.

Funding innovative or non-conventional projects provides an opportunity to explore new methods and means of solving critical housing issues. Even those projects that fail to fully achieve proposed outcomes provide opportunities to enhance housing policy. Sponsors and funders must remain mindful that the goal is to create stable housing for individuals, families, and neighborhoods, regardless of whether that housing results from an innovation or a tried and true approach.


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