How to Write an Effective Grant Proposal
By Rachel Bennett on August 24, 2021
Grants are complicated.
There is no point in trying to pretend they’re not. From the moment you decide to apply for grant funding, you have fewer resources at your disposal and your day-to-day operations become even more complex than they already are.
This is especially true for local governments, tribal nations, and nonprofit organizations where team members often perform multiple roles in the organization.
In a world with unlimited resources and time, you would try to hire a grant writer to help shoulder some of the burden. Even if you already have a grant writer on your team, you will still have to gather information and materials for them and serve as a subject matter expert. There is no way around it. Your organization needs funding to achieve the outcomes your community needs, so writing the grant application or gathering the necessary materials for it will have to be your responsibility.
You may feel overwhelmed at the idea of writing your own grant application or keeping up with the volume of applications you have to manage. That’s understandable. The reality is that while grant writing and the application review process can be time-consuming, and the review process can seem mysterious, most grants are awarded based on a review of material that you have ample time to prepare. You even get access to the criteria those materials will be evaluated by in advance.
This means you have some control over the process, and if you are prepared to be prepared, you will increase your chances of getting funding.
This guide aims to help you do just that: get prepared.
Finding a Fit
One of the most important things you will do during the grant writing process is finding funding that aligns with your organization’s goals. Ensuring that your organization and the funder are working toward similar aims will not only increase your odds of being awarded, but it will also pay dividends down the road during the project itself.
To maximize your chance of success, make sure your proposal shows that you will be addressing a problem, improving a situation, or creating an initiative the funding agency values.
If you’re trying too hard to make your project appeal to the funder when there isn’t a good fit, you run the risk of not winning the grant. Further, even if you do win the award, you then run the risk of not achieving the outcomes that are important to your community. Your project can easily begin to veer away from your mission if you’re trying to make your proposal fit a funding stream that doesn’t align with your organization’s project goals.
An effective way to avoid this pitfall is to do your own evaluation of the funder to make sure your project is a good fit before you start assembling anything else to respond to their call for proposals. At this point in the process, you should be focused on understanding the ins-and-outs of your own proposed project, and how your organization’s goals align with the funder’s goals. To make these connections clearer to you, try the following:
- Read the proposal closely and carefully to determine the funder’s goals.
- Make a list of what you believe these goals are.
- Write down why you believe this to be true.
- Document where you got this information from.
- List the ways you believe your project contributes to those goals.
Making a table can be helpful for this step to list information you may want to detail more thoroughly. An example table is included below.
|Funder’s Goal||Source||Your Project’s Contribution|
Once you’re confident that your project will fit in with the funding agency’s objectives and goals for the funds, you can start preparing to assemble the information you will need for your application.
Preparing to Be Prepared
If you do your homework ahead of time, your organization will increase its odds of winning awards that will help you initiate a successful project and achieve your outcomes. Now that you have found a grant that seems like your project would be a good fit for, and you have evaluated how well your project aligns with the funder’s goals, you can begin to gather your materials for what will eventually become your response.
Make a list of the proposal evaluation criteria
You will almost always find the criteria that proposals will be evaluated by explicitly stated in a call for proposals, and often, the steps in the evaluation process itself. As you are preparing to write your proposal, make sure you stay mindful of these criteria.
Once again, a list is helpful here. Write down each of the criteria for evaluation, and below it make some notes about how your proposed project fulfills these criteria.
As you make notes, try to imagine yourself as a reviewer, and evaluate how well you would rate your proposal according to each category of evaluation. Show the evaluation criteria to others on your team and get their input on how you can best effectively address them.
Calls for proposals are often filled with language that can be unclear, and the description of the grant program itself may be full of program-specific terms. If you are not already a member of the program some of their terms may be confusing. Sometimes, funders will even include a glossary of terms and their definitions to combat misunderstandings while others will not make the same inclusion. You may read the call for proposals and still be left with questions that are unanswered, or things you want to seek clarification for.
Luckily, calls for proposals typically include contact information for the person you should direct your questions to.
Always use the preferred form of contact listed in the call for proposals when you reach out.
Asking good, detailed questions that you’ve prepared will also demonstrate to the funder that you take your work, and applying for their funding, seriously. It will demonstrate that your organization is proactive when it comes to getting accurate information and taking action to close gaps. These are the kinds of recipients that grant makers want to work with.
Make a To-Do list
Once you have clarified how your organization’s goals support the funder’s goals, understood how your proposal could measure up during evaluation, where you need to make improvements, and sought clarification where it is needed, you are ready to start making a schedule of tasks to be completed.
Notice that you are still not writing the proposal.
If you were to begin writing now, you might get a lot of drafting done, but the pieces could be disconnected from one another. You may be including information that someone else may be better suited to find for you. Without a plan, you will waste valuable time and effort.
When it comes to grant writing, the formatting of the content can often be just as important as the content itself.
Calls for proposals have extremely specific requirements for the form your proposal should be in, sometimes even requiring a specific font to be used. You need to know the ins-and-outs of all these requirements before you start writing.
Go through the call for proposals again, and this time, specifically concentrate on the application instructions. What content does the funder require, and what format should the application content be in? Sometimes grant programs will provide you with an application guide to help you submit the required information and other times the application requirements will be listed in the call for proposals itself.
Use this information to make a checklist of:
- Specific writing tasks that will need to be completed.
- What information will be required to complete each task.
- Who on your team is best equipped to get you that information.
- Which things must be done before you can complete other tasks.
After you have this information, you can put everything in the proper order, assign each task to the appropriate team member, and assign due dates.
This will help you benchmark your progress against the timeline you have created and submit your proposal on time. Ideally, before the due date.
Make sure to make yourself a checklist of the order the proposal should be in. You can refer to it as you compile written material, your budget information, and anything else required for your application.
Keep all of your information documented, and store it in a centralized, easy to access location. If you start a habit of documenting everything now, it will pay dividends during the award.
To ensure you will know where everything you need will be when you need it, it always helps to start centralizing your information as early as possible.
Writing it Down
Yes, believe it or not, it is finally time for you to start writing. Be as specific as possible without getting caught up in choosing just the right wording. The right wording will come last during editing and revising. If you focus on things like grammar and word choice over getting all your important content on the page now, you may find yourself wasting valuable time here as well.
When writing a grant proposal, you should:
- Start early
- Follow instructions
- Keep your audience in mind as you write
- Answer all the funder’s questions
- Be specific and detailed in your response
- Double check that you are following instructions
- Be realistic when you are designing the project timeline
- Make connections between your project and the funder’s goals
- Ensure the budget is realistic and appropriate
- Triple check that you have followed instructions
Additionally, most grant applications will require the following at a minimum:
Plan of Work/Methodology:
You will need a clear and detailed description of the methods and procedures your team will use to complete the proposed project. Breaking your project down into phases is often helpful.
Schedule of Work:
Break these tasks down by week, in some cases grouping tasks over a period of 2–3 weeks if appropriate. Be as specific as possible with the schedule. Try to anticipate the various steps your team might need to take to complete the project.
Your budget should include a table that breaks down the items needed, the cost per item, and the total cost for the project. All costs should be added together and match the total money requested to complete the project. A table is a visual that should never stand alone, so a written paragraph (or two) that explains the budget and the need for distinct items is a key component.
Use this section to convince your audience of your credibility by highlighting each team member's relevant skills and experiences if you are given the opportunity to do so. This section is a short, narrative biography of each team member, and your organization - not a resume. Resumes are often asked in addition to, or in lieu of, a narrative, however. Highlight your team's qualifications for doing the project.
Your grant application will no doubt want more information than the examples above. Make sure you are following the instructions for each required section, and fully answering the questions.
Some parts of grant applications are refreshingly simple, like filling in the blanks on forms. Make sure you are mindful of other parts that could get lost in the shuffle:
Letters of support
If your application requires letters of support, ensure that you have decided who you will be asking early on and ensure you will have them back in time.
Be mindful of and proactive about any information you may need from potential partners.
If you need verification of available funds, make sure you get this as soon as possible. Often, funders will provide you with instructions on how to accomplish this.
Believe it or not, you have arrived at the fun part of applying for funding: collecting all your materials and making sure they are polished.
Make sure you are checking the call for proposals, any application instructions, any addendum issued, and your own checklist as you put it all together. You don’t want to do the incredibly challenging work of writing a grant proposal just to be disqualified for forgetting a section that you had done the work to complete.
Read your application aloud section by section.
Yes, this will feel embarrassing while you do it, but you will catch so many more typos, missing words, or phrases that seem out of place by reading aloud rather than just reading silently (for what is most likely the one-hundredth time). At this point, you are most likely too close to the content to see what it still needs anymore. This is actually very normal.
Have other members of your team do the same because other people will catch things that you did not see. Ensure your proposal is free of typos, misspellings, grammatically correct, and in the correct order and file format.
Most importantly, submit the application by the deadline. Before the deadline is preferrable, if possible.
You can win this opportunity and accelerate your mission.