Grant Writing First Steps: How to Prepare for Writing Your Winning Grant Proposal

Preparing to Write a Grant


Even if you are convinced that you have the points of the guidelines or request for proposals (RFP) down pat, do not under any circumstances start writing until you have once again reviewed them.

Learn as much about your audience -- foundation trustees, staff, volunteers, or even your peers -- as is humanly possible. There are great advantages to be gained by reading between the lines of RFPs or guidelines. This will help you to determine exactly what the funding organization needs, not necessarily what it thinks it needs, and the organization will end up loving you for it.

Focus on the interests of the grant provider, not yours. Do not feel compelled to tell the funding organization what you think without listening to its presentation first, and you will be well on the way to grant proposal success.
Knowing Your Audiences: Government, Foundation, Corporation, or Individual

The very first rule of any kind of writing is to know and understand your audience. This includes what the audience actually might know about the subject of your project, how much its members may be interested in the subject matter of your project, and exactly what they will want to learn from your proposal document.

Although we have government, foundation, corporation, and individual granters, there are really only two different kinds of grant readers, or the people who check, study, and approve your request: One reads foundation proposals, and the other reads responses to government RFPs.

Foundation proposals: Staff and the occasional trustee are the ones who actually read foundation grant proposals. Before you submit proposals to any foundation, you should study not only the guidelines but also the annual reports and any Web information as extensively as you can to learn about the people involved and their specific interests.

You also can actually visit your local foundation to meet the staff to discuss your proposal. This is extremely helpful, as staff members often will advise you on possible ways to revise it before it is presented to their trustees. Otherwise, project officers may even come to your office, or alternatively request you visit theirs, so they can obtain information to support their recommendations with relation to possible funding.

The program officers are the critical people to impress within the grant-seeking process. Do not ignore their suggestions or requests. Respond promptly. Whatever you do, do not regard them as those on the "other side"; they have no reason to not be helpful to all involved. They know their boards and committees better than anyone else, so take notice!

Government grants: The project or proposal readers of government grants are the actual decision-makers, or, if you prefer, the judges for each project.

These are the most important people in the process. They operate by awarding points for each section, then totaling the accumulated points. That score is then averaged by comparing it to the other readers' scores to arrive at a final score.

That score must total a recognized number for the project to be funded.

Proposal readers always are experts in their fields who have been recruited by the department in question and represent a cross section of expertise and interests. Quite often, they also are peers of those who have submitted proposals.
Audience Timelines

The readers, your audience, usually have only a week to peruse 10 or more proposals: to read, score, and return them to the funding agency for the final calculations.

Each project has between three and five judges. The reviewers use score sheets to guide them, usually in the form of review criteria identical to that contained in the RFP. Also, sheets are provided in which the judges can add their comments.

One plus is that even though judges are not actually required to justify their scores, they often do so, and you can use these comments later to strengthen a failed weak proposal.

Your First Grant

Grant-writing is not a pushover or a simple process that involves jotting down words and figures that you make up as you go along.

Grant-writing is the same as any other type of fundraising in that it involves the development of funders, wide ranging research, financial insight, and extremely good writing skills.

Before commencing the actual writing process, note these three very important factors about the grant process:

1. Grants normally are made only to nonprofit and tax-exempt organizations, with a few exceptions for grants made to individuals for scholarly or artistic pursuits and to for-profit companies in very special cases.

2. As soon as an organization accepts the grant, it must agree to carry out the project it described in the proposal in the manner described. The grant proposal has become a form of contract between the receiving organization and the funder.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online How to Write a Grant Proposal course?
3. Without exception, when a grant proposal is being prepared, you must follow the funder's directions in every regard, no matter what.

The Steps You Take

Gather the information from your client, the grant-seeker. You might try to get the client to write a draft of what the proposal should be.
There is no such thing as too much research, ever. The more you, the grant writer, know about each funder and its trustees, giving patterns, and interests, the greater your chances of winning a grant.

Start the prospect list. Has your client received any past support for the project? If so, those funders are again prospects for more support. Take a look at your client's current and previous funders to see if any may be suitable prospects for this current grant project.

See if you can get a copy of the donor lists of similar organizations to your client. Sometimes you would be surprised how easy this could be, simply by visiting the other organizations' Web sites.

Add the major donors to your list of prospective donors; do not be shy!

Check, cross-check, and refine the list. You need to be ready to spend time, preferably on the Web, checking the names on your list and researching such important factors as whether they accept unsolicited proposals, make grants in your geographic area, etc.

You should also check the guidelines of each funder against the grants made in the past and use this as a basis in deciding whether to keep particular funders on the list. If you are not quite sure whether to retain a funder on your list, give that prospective funder a call to discuss your project.

Narrow your list to five or so funding prospects. You put these names on another list, giving the full name of the funder and a full list of its trustees. You then send a copy of this document to everyone on the board of your client organization. Let us face it: It is becoming an increasingly small world these days, and you never know who might know whom, and who may be able to use that contact to gain a more positive reaction to the proposal.

Words for the Wise

Words for the wise, as opposed to words to the wise, relate to those extra words, phrases, techniques, and ideas cropping up that you realize will assist you in being a winning grant writer and obtaining that much-needed grant for your client.

The Least You Need to Know

We are going to look now at some specific truths and factors that we suggest you keep reminding yourself of.

They have not been plucked from the air but derived from years of experience in the industry of grant-writing: experience of what to do and what not to do. Some are very basic and may appear obvious, while others are more sophisticated; but they all have a lot to say by way of giving information and helpful advice.

Money for grants to charities declines in hard economic times.

A grant writer's best friends, as with any writer, are passion, knowledge, and persistence.

Becoming convincing with numbers is equally as significant as being convincing with words, sometimes even more so.

Charitable gift funds operated by financial institutions are definitely not foundations to which you submit grant proposals; they are not designed for that purpose.

Grants from venture philanthropists could well bring with them not only direct involvement and long-term commitment by the funder but technical support.

Every level of government has grant opportunities, but be prepared to dig patiently to find them.

Grant-writing produces substantial sums of money for community projects, whether they be sports teams, social centers, church groups, charities, or other nonprofits.

Requests for proposals (RFPs) are requests to participate in a government program, while a grant allows you to actually propose a program.

Government grants come with a range of requirements, including reporting requirements, that you might not be expecting.

Detailed research will help you by eliminating funders who have not shown, and will not show, interest in your kind of project, thereby saving you both time and effort.

Articulate your grant-seeker's link with the interests of a funder without mimicking back to the funder his or her own language.

There are many more tips and pieces of advice out there. No doubt with time, you will add some of your own tips and advice to the above list!

You Could Cash in on a Possible Benefactor's Challenges

One of the most successful techniques for grant writers is to look for a benefactor or grant maker that has a possible public relations problem.

As a matter of fact, a number of smart corporations take their own proactive approach in this regard and actually focus their grant-making efforts on areas that are potentially controversial or possible ongoing public image problems. For instance, a number of oil companies actually focus their grant-making on environmental causes.

Does this surprise you? It should not because, when you think about it, it is basic common sense and it is up to you, as an aspiring grant writer, to pick up on this possibility and run with it to your and your prospective client's advantage.
Utilize a Corporate Presence

Corporations are nothing if not practical when it comes to most of their grant-making, and all but the largest corporate foundations fund only in their own geographic areas; that is, the area where they operate.

You generally will find that corporations that fund nationally also operate nationally, which means they still follow the rule of thumb of operating within their own geographic area. That area is simply nationwide.

So the idea for you is to determine what corporations have either a presence in your area or that of your client and see if you can tailor the desired grant proposal to fit in with that particular company's, or companies', objectives and mission.
The Great Wisdom of Sowing Before You Reap

How many times were you told by your parents, or others in authority while you were growing up, to either "look before you leap" or "sow before you reap"? Probably hundreds.

It is good basic advice to not charge ahead, to prepare the way, to give something before you ask for something, and to give people a chance to know you before you ask for a favor. Alternatively, let people know your abilities before you ask for their financial help.

Therefore, proceeding along these lines, before you or your client proceeds to submit grant proposals, give your prospective granter a good opportunity to know the good work that is being done and is planned to be done in the future. Educating at least one staff member of a foundation about the grantee organization before a grant proposal is submitted increases the chances of success many times over.

One way to start spreading the word is to utilize the medium of newsletters to build knowledge. Keep the newsletters short, though; more than a page or two just will not be read. Probably the most efficient way to go today is to send hypertext markup language (HTML) electronic letters if possible. And please note that the most successful and widely read newsletters contain more than just information on your charity or association. Particular Hints for the Individual Grant-seeker

Somewhat expectedly, individual grant-seekers experience more hurdles when seeking grants. They do not enjoy nonprofit status, for a start, and find it somewhat difficult to match themselves up with available grants.

Additionally, not many funders are prepared to take the risk of making grants to individuals. The news gets worse: Grants to individuals usually are considered by the government to be taxable income! Some exceptions are made, but you need to be aware of the tax liabilities and plan your approach accordingly.

Research is still very much the first step for individuals seeking grants, and you may be surprised to discover after reading the above words that there are still some 6,000-plus funders who are prepared to grant to individuals.

The good news is that there are several places online for individuals who seek grants: places where they can discover the right grant opportunities for them.

The Foundation Center has a directory of grants to individuals, which covers a wide variety of grants and scholarships. Membership is currently only $19.95 per month.

So what are you waiting for? Go online!

Finally, with regard to grant proposals for individuals, they will be largely the same as those for organizations, with cover letters, executive summaries, project descriptions, and budgets. The support materials you will be asked to include will differ widely from the norm, though, often requiring items such as professional resumes, statements of purpose, etc.