Tips for Effective Grant Writing

It’s the nonprofit world’s version of El Dorado — a mythical land where grant money hangs from the trees, just waiting to be picked. Truth be told, there are glittering piles of money out there.

Foundations paid out a record $54 billion in 2013, up from 2012’s $52 billion. Yet many nonprofits approach grant funding with a distinctively glum attitude — “Grant writing is too hard” …  “It takes too much time” … “We can’t afford a grant writer!”

Yes, tapping into all that government and foundation money is hard work. It challenges your organization to get its ducks in a row. There are figures to compile, data to present and deadlines to hit. But then again, $54 billion is a lot of money.

Are You Grant-Ready?

Producing winning grant proposals requires planning, attention to detail, clear writing — and even clearer thinking. Before you ever set pen to paper, you’ll need to think through some critical questions:

1. Have we planned a strong program/project?

2. Can we prepare a competitive proposal?

3. Have we identified an appropriate funder?

4. Do we have the resources we need to prepare the grant proposal?

With this in mind, consider these key steps in developing a strong grant proposal:

  • Critically evaluate your project approach or idea. And then evaluate it again. Is there a clear and compelling need? Is there evidence that your approach will work (e.g., supporting research and examples of others who have successfully used the approach)?
  • Illustrate the need. Use statistical evidence, case examples and stories to illustrate the importance of the situation. Quantify the outcomes you anticipate and identify who will lead and implement the project. Also show that the costs are reasonable and you can justify every expense. And share how your organization has the capacity to oversee the project if it’s funded — including handling the oversight, documentation and reporting requirements.
  • Look for a good fit. Look for grant opportunities where your needs and the funding organization’s interests and area of focus closely mesh. Of course, it’s hard to beat having a relationship — or finding someone who has a relationship — with the decision makers at the granting agency. But at the very least, contact someone at the funding institution directly and find out more about what makes it tick before submitting the proposal.
  • Get the help you need. Either in-house or outsourced, you need someone who can dedicate themselves to this process (see article on page 3 for more on hiring a grant writer).

Grant Writing Gotchas

Nothing will stop a grant reviewer in his tracks faster than glaring inconsistencies. If you’re lucky, funders will give you a second chance and ask you to resolve errors. But more often, they’ll just reject the funding request outright. Watch out for:

  • Contradictory Data — Be sure you’ve got the data right and are using it consistently throughout the proposal (e.g., statistics in one section don’t contradict data in another).
  • Mismatched Amounts — Dollar figures must be consistent throughout. As you make the inevitable last-minute budget adjustments, be sure to carry those numbers forward into the executive summary, narrative and any attachments.
  • Program Inconsistencies — With too many cooks in the kitchen, inconsistencies can easily show up in the final document. Watch out for things such as multiple titles being used to describe the same staff position, promised outcomes that vary between sections or methodology that is described one way in one paragraph and another way in a different paragraph.
  • Neglecting the Executive Summary — Don’t scrimp on the executive summary, which is often the first section that gets read. Distill the essence of the problem/solution and how your organization is uniquely positioned to make a difference with help from the funder. Your logic should be precise and your position concise.
  • Information Creep — Ensure that information stays in its relevant spot. For example, you don’t want information about outcomes and methodology to wander into a section about problems and how the program will address them.
  •  Inconsistent Style — Use either first person or third person and stick with it throughout. Consistent use of an active voice makes for a compelling narrative.
  • Lack of Brevity — Nothing loses a reviewer quicker than a wandering, long-winded narrative. Your challenge is to balance providing enough information to satisfy the funder’s requirements with striving for the brevity your request needs to ensure it gets read in its entirety.
  • Missed Deadlines — Follow submission deadlines scrupulously. And provide advance notice if your proposal will be tardy for some reason.

Go Team!

Ultimately, winning grant proposals come out of a strong organizational commitment to the process. It’s a commitment that should include solid planning, well-researched funding prospects and a well-written case for support.