Competitive public grants
The majority of public trail funding usually comes from a combination of the following competitive public grant opportunities:
These grants are awarded annually and limited funds available. Requests consistently outpace funds available, and as such only a few projects receive funds. Sometimes, a grant request must be submitted and improved over several years before it’s awarded funding. Though the process may be frustrating, it can be well worth the effort in the end.
Read the grant instructions very carefully and be prepared to follow through with necessary grant reporting. The person submitting the request and managing the grant should be able to write concisely and persuasively, and possess excellent organization skills and a keen attention to detail. All the facts and financial information must be accurate and deadlines must be met. Think of the grant as a contract: In the proposal, you submit what you can accomplish on the trail within a certain budget and timeline. You then need to follow through as promised in order to receive the funds awarded.
Many public grants are reimbursement grants meaning the funds are not expended until the terms of the grant are met. The public agency will need to take the lead in grant administration. This means they will need to work with partners to provide funds up front for construction, then receive reimbursement when the grant is paid.
Most public competitive grants require their funds to be leveraged with local or private-sector resources. Many grants will provide 75-80% of funding for a specific portion of the trail, requiring the grant applicant be able to show that they have the means and strategy to raise the remaining amount through other donors.
Besides cash contributions, some grants might allow you to count professional in-kind services, donated land value or pledges. Public funds through local cities, county conservation boards or other public grants, plus private sector contributions, might all be considered as match. Each grant is different, so read the requirements carefully.
Photo by Nathan Houck
Private funds encompass all donations that are not public grants, including in-kind or cash donations. They can come from individual community members, local businesses, groups and organizations wanting to offer support, as well as organizations and individuals outside the community.
Private support relies on your donors’ generosity, your own leadership, confidence in the project and the relationships you create with people who love the trail concept as much as you do.
On average, at least 80% of private support for trails projects comes from 20% of donors. It’s important for someone to focus on reaching out to individuals or organizations who have the capacity to give $10,000 or more to your project. This includes:
Foundations and businesses whose priorities for giving fit your project. They are likely to do their giving through grant applications. The tips for successful private grant requests are similar to those for public grants.
Individuals or families are more likely to respond to personal conversations about the project and their opportunity to give at a leadership level. Those who have established donor-advised funds (likely at a community foundation) or charitable giving funds (likely through their financial management firm) may find it easiest to respond quickly with a major gift.
Create a way for donors to pledge major support through one of your partners so that those giving at higher levels can spread their support over 1-3 years. This helps donors deduct their gifts at times that are most convenient for them, often allowing them to give much more generously than they would through a one-time gift. The partner should be prepared to send pledge payment reminders as needed.
Bargain sale of corridor. If you purchase land for your trail at less than its appraised value, remember that the difference is a major charitable gift. Acknowledge it promptly and count this bargain sale of land on grant requests as a matching land value gift. Remember to recognize the seller as if they had given cash in this amount to your project. Understand how the bargain sale gift aligns with the grant requirements. It can likely be counted as a matching contribution, but transferring the land among partner agencies prior to grant funding could create complications in the grant if not pre- authorized by the granting agency.
In-kind support. Count and give credit to partners or vendors who contribute in non-cash ways to your project. This might include discounts on professional services, donated professional labor and time spent helping on the project that would otherwise be billable.
The rest of your private support. Seeking support from “everyone else” with less giving capacity is also important. This is where fundraising events, marketing and volunteer recruitment come together. Your campaign creates energy and community ownership of your trail long-term.
Make it easy to give
Create an online presence for the project, combining a project website with social media. This way, each partner agency, donor or volunteer can refer people to one place for information about the project, upcoming activities and ways to provide support.
Choose one entity to receive all the gifts for the trail. This entity must be able to record all the gift and donor data, account for the funds and acknowledge all gifts promptly in alignment with IRS guidelines.
Invite leadership that sparks smaller gifts. Think creatively about how your leadership team and major donors can inspire others in your community to give. Major donors can provide matching challenge grants that maximize smaller contributions.
Ask directly for support by mail, e-mail or social media. “Getting the word out” is not enough. Invitations turn into donations when you ask clearly for someone’s support and make it easy for them to give.
Events can be great fun and bring energy to the fundraising. Budget and track how much time and money an event requires, and measure its financial return as one important indicators of whether you want to repeat that event in the future.
Identify grant prospects
Delegate fundraising roles
Secure matching funds
Cultivate private support
Create ways to give