How to become a grants wizard

Kathie Olsen presents the art of getting funding for nonprofits.

Kathie Olsen led the grant-writing workshop offered by the Martha's Vineyard Nonprofit Collaborative. Gabrielle Mannino

Updated 3/4, 3:20 pm

Kathie Olsen of Kathie Olsen Consults is indeed a grants wizard, and on Monday, Feb. 11, the Oak Bluffs library was full to capacity with eager students from nonprofits all over the Island, including those from the arts, community services, health and education, and the environment. The event was offered by the Martha’s Vineyard Nonprofit Collaborative who’s mission is to strengthen Vineyard nonprofits with capacity building workshops and other services and resources. 

Everyone came thirsty to learn about the basic grants process. For instance, Jen Maxner, representing the Vineyard House, told me, “I’ve showed up here knowing nothing. My background is all in science. I hope to get my toes wet in understanding what need grant writing fills for the Vineyard House. I’m wondering if it is a way I could help keep the Vineyard House open.” Paula Lyons of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse said, “I came because I’ve written a few grants, and I especially need to know what kind of money is out there for the arts. I know some of it, but I need to know a lot more.”

By the end, it appeared everyone came away pleased. The day was so full it is impossible to relate it all, but Olsen articulated the high points:

  • Gain awareness about, and actually begin, the grant writing process
  • Learn about how foundations assess grant applications and how best to make our case to them
  • Begin to understand where a grant program fits into our organization’s work and budget
  • Gain awareness about the grant research process, including what is available in our Nonprofit Resource Center, a free joint program of the Martha’s Vineyard Nonprofit Collaborative and the Oak Bluffs library.
  • Learn how to use GrantWatch, a primary feature of the Center which offers a database of available grants


Some of the highlights included everyone first filling out the “Clarifying Your Project Checklist” worksheet and then presenting their pitches and “asks” for the money to one another in small groups for feedback. Lisa Belcastro from the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), was a brave soul practicing her pitch to the entire group about NAMI’s Think:Kids program.To give you a sense of the supportive atmosphere, Belcastro told me afterward, “I was so unprepared to present, but it was great. I needed the practice because I really want to pursue the grant. Just to stand up and do it off the cuff like that, and have such a warm reception in the room and everyone was so receptive, was helpful.”

Over the course of the day, Olsen touched on all 15 points in her “How to Begin” handout. Some of the ones she stressed were to be sure the work aligns with your mission, is needed, and that your organization and community will support it. Make sure you are applying to someone who cares about what you’re doing. Be clear and concise, and definitely avoid jargon in your proposal, but let your passion show through. Have the data to back up your case. When applying, be absolutely certain to follow all the rules and requirements. There’s nothing worse than getting turned down simply because you failed to include certain information or complete a particular task the right way. And if you can collaborate with other organizations, by all means do so, as there’s strength in numbers.

Olsen also talked us through all of the grant components including a letter of intent, which you send even before applying. She spent time on talking about the importance of the agency budget that shows both the profit and loss of the current and past year, along with revenue and its sources.

There were also speakers who imparted important information. During her presentation, Anne Williamson, board chair of the Permanent Endowment for Martha’s Vineyard, spoke in depth about their grant process, saying, “I encourage you to apply no matter what. We will give you feedback and say, ‘You look great, but if you do two more things you will be stronger the next time.’ So it’s a learning experience no matter what.” Peter Temple, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Nonprofit Collaborative had some helpful advice: “Always make sure to get to ‘What’s the point’ in your proposal — what’s the very end result of your program or project.”

Karen Altieri, director of development for MVY Radio, said, “I wanted to come today to seek out all resources in helping me doing the research in finding the correct grants to write. There are some really good databases here in the Oak Bluffs library that I’m looking forward to hearing about.” And that she did. Nina Ferry, reference librarian, head of Adult and Technology Services, spoke generally about all their resources, and particularly about GrantWatch (, which everyone then had the opportunity to try at at the end of the workshop.

Olsen, a full-time Vineyard resident, is a nonprofit leader and educator. She says about her dedication to the field, “I do this work because nonprofits are a crucial safety net for people in need, a primary source of support for our artists, and a basic provider of otherwise underfunded education. Nobody goes into nonprofit work to make money; you do this work because you care about it and want to do good. If my knowledge can help make that work easier, than I’m grateful to have a chance to share it.”

Kathie Olsen can be reached at Kathie Olsen Consults, 541-621-9916, and Nina Ferry can be reached at or 508-693-9433, ext. 406, for research assistance at the Oak Bluffs library.