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Grant Writing Tips

Grant Writing Tips

Writing a grant application for the first time?

Here are tips we recommend after observing nonprofits, charitable organizations, businesses, and governmental agencies use our grant management software. This guide will assist you whether you write the application yourself or hire a grant writer.


The Widespread Influence of Grants

Grants are a powerful driver of economic activity.

Federal Grants

Every American benefits from federal grants, if only indirectly.

Consider the funding our government allocates to grantmaking. According the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the federal government distributed $607 billion dollars in grants to state and local governments in 2011. (The most recent data.) That year funds were distributed to more than 200 intergovernmental agencies. Grant programs were administered by 30 federal departments and independent agencies.

These funds are earmarked for specific purposes. All have stringent eligibility and reporting requirements. Some are wholly experimental; their purpose is to find new methodologies or marketplaces.  Others aim to jump start economic growth, address natural disasters, or underwrite necessary research the marketplace won’t fund.

Private Endowments, Foundations, and Corporate Grants

Similarly, grant funding from private, non-profit, and corporate sources exert influence throughout the economy.

Some stats:

  • There are over 1,400 family, corporate, and professionally staffed foundations, of all sizes, nationwide, according to Foundation Source
  • There are 140,000+ grant funders listed in the Foundation Center’s database
  • Most major U.S. corporations have charitable foundations and associated grant programs (Here are some of these grant websites.)

Tips for First Time Grant Applicants

Avoid Fraudulent Grant Websites

This common misconception about grants is regularly exploited:

The idea that a large amount of grant funding is available directly to individuals or businesses.

These types of grants do exist. (See below.) However, there are significantly fewer grants than some websites suggest. These sites make wild claims about available funds. They don’t administer grants. They make money by collecting and selling your personal information.

Be wary of websites that:

  • Advertise heavily
  • Claim to have funding for specific combinations of people and uses (e.g., “Grants for men 18-49 who run auto shops”)
  • Require you sign up to use the website (Refrain especially from using your social media account)
  • Charge a membership fee to access “premium” information

Instead, do you own research. All legitimate grant sources have information available on their websites.

Consider Your Resources

Second, it is important to remember that writing a grant application requires time, effort, and skill. Grants are highly competitive; there are few awards relative to the number of applicants in a typical program. (Here’s what you do after you win a grant.)

Given this competitive environment, undertake grant writing only after careful review of eligibility requirements. Depending on the industry the eligibility documents are referred to as the Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) or simply “eligibility requirements”.

Additionally, consider the following:

  • Do you have the time and human resources to implement the grant funding, if you won?
  • Do you have the capacity for the commitment, if you won?
  • Do you have the fiscal infrastructure to meet financial reporting requirements?
  • Is it worth your time to apply?

Before You Start Grant Writing

Research the Funder/Donor

It is essential to learn more about the funding organization/donor. Research gives you a competitive edge. It also prevents time wasted on a grant application of which you are ineligible.

As described above, grants have requirements based on origination. One example: Most foundations do not accept unsolicited grant proposals. Research helps you navigate requirements and expectations.

As you research, consider the following:

  • What is the purpose of the grant funding? Look for the requirements first. Often, these are stated up front in the grant’s description. More information is usually presented in a separate document or section of the website. Read all of the requirements carefully.
  • Who is eligible to apply for the grant (do you qualify?)For example, federal grants are distributed to state and local organizations, not directly to individuals. The same holds for the majority of foundation and corporate grants. There are exceptions. See the example below.
  • Will your project satisfy the grant’s purpose? Grant funding exists for specific purposes. Make sure you/your organization is eligible and can meet requirements.
  • What are project milestones or other reporting requirements? Grant funding is not repaid. However, grantors expect reporting on projects and outcomes. Requirements vary. Look for these in the eligibility requirement documentation.

Here’s how to research:

  • Search according to keyword, geography, or grant use. Start with grants.gov.
  • Review every grant website in depth
  • Participate in webinars, technical assistance calls, and other outreach programming, such as volunteering
  • Ask your network of friends, coworkers, and others
  • Review annual reports and other disclosures 

These actions will give you a sense of if your project/organization is a good funding fit.

TIP: Don’t immediately discount yourself from the competition. Learn more about the donor so you can position your project strategically, in a way that also meets their needs.

The Grant Application

Grant Writers – Pros and Cons

Should you hire a grant writer?

On the plus side, experienced grant writers are a real asset. They lighten the administrative workload and frame your work in the best light. Both efforts maximize your chances of success.

On the other hand, specialized writers are expensive. If they are an outsider to your organization/project, they may not know the best way to capture your story.

In-House Writers

Existing team members are an option. The advantage with in-house talent is access to subject matter experts (SMEs). However, SME’s with stellar writing skills are a rarity.

Set up an internal review process if you are writing the grant application yourself. Specifically: have someone review your application critically. Be sure to answer all sections completely, checking for mistakes and omissions. Hire an editor.

Common Grant Application Sections

Every grant application is unique. Sections commonly required include:

  • Statement of Goals/Objectives
  • Demonstration of Need
  • Project Proposal
  • Forecast of Grant’s Impact
  • Existing Resources/Capabilities
  • Project Budget/Timeline

Complete each section exactly as requested. It is important to follow directions to the letter. These parameters are set to give equal weight to all applicants. This includes page formatting or media formatting requests.

Producing the “Wow” Factor

That said, within the set requirements you should think like a reviewer to make your grant application stand out.

Some ways to stand out when writing a grant proposal:

  • Set the scene and tell a story of life currently, and life after implementing the grant funds
  • Stick to the facts; do not overstate, pad, or goldplate your story
  • Include case studies or other relevant examples beyond basic requirements, so long as they fit into the scope of the application (reviewers frown on extra attachments)
  • Remind reviewers of unique previous experience or existing resources that benefit the proposal — grantmakers want grantees to succeed
  • Provide hard data, such as statistics or preliminary data, when possible
  • Spellcheck! Double check all calculations, due dates, and support materials.

All grant writing should be clear, logical, and persuasive.

Grant Application Submission

Most submissions are final. Be sure you are 100% ready before you click “submit”.

Don’t wait until the last minute to submit your grant application. Deadlines often cause the heaviest demand on a foundation/donor’s system. Don’t risk losing your work.

After you submit your written grant application, prepare to wait. Many grants reviews take several weeks. Most grantmaking organizations notify everyone with results.

A Grant Application Example: Keep Virginia Beautiful

Yes, legitimate grants do exist for individuals. (See section above to avoid questionable, or even fraudulent, grant funding sources.)

I won a $1,000 “30 in 30” grant from Keep Virginia Beautiful. My experience is instructive.

Keep Virginia Beautiful (KVB) is a nonprofit funded by several large corporations. KVB’s focus is litter prevention. One grant is specifically targeted to reduce cigarette litter, for example. All five grant categories are related to the environment.

(Corporations rarely give funds directly to individuals; most grant funds are distributed to one or more nonprofit organizations like KVB.)

How I Discovered This Grant

I didn’t search for this grant opportunity. I was made aware of it through a professional connection. This underscores the value of making others aware of your ongoing projects. Professional networks, such as LinkedIn, are especially useful.

How I Researched This Grant

Luckily, my colleague sent a link directly to the KVB website. They have a dedicated page for each available grant. The “30 in 30” page explains who is eligible, how to apply, and who judges the grant applications and selects the grantees. I could see that I was eligible to apply.

How I Applied

KVB lists the application process on their website when annual applications are open.

I applied for the grant under the “neighborhood beautification” category.

My application included:

  • a written description of my project (transform an empty lot into a food forest)
  • photos showing the land in current condition (see one “before” shot here)
  • a budget outlining how funds would be used
  • a timeline explaining how volunteers would help implement the project

All of these materials were submitted directly through the website.

What Was Required

After the grant award I submitted a progress report to Keep Virginia Beautiful. They have a standard form that all grantees submit. I also notified my local newspaper about the project. This resulted in favorable press for my project as well as KVB.

Lessons Learned

  • Be sure you qualify by reading the terms carefully
  • Submit all the materials as requested
  • Double-check that all materials are error-free and represent you accurately
  • Follow through on all reporting requirements
  • Express thanks to to the funding organization (not required, but certainly an appreciated gesture)

Acknowledgements and Additional Resources

This post inspired by the following grant writing resources:

Photo: RawPixel

Katie is OpenWater's Content Director. Her interests include entrepreneurship, permaculture, and blockchain. She enjoys spicy food and salty words.

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