The Five Fundamentals of Successful Grantwriting

I work with many clients who are just launching out into nonprofits, NGOs, or entrepreneurship. Most of them have never written a grant or even done funder research to know what kinds of grants may (or may not) be a good use of their time or energy. Furthermore, when they come upon a grant opportunity, they feel overwhelmed and aren't sure where to start.

The truth is that we have all felt overwhelmed, even seasoned grantwritiers like me. That first grant can be especially scary - like reading a Stephen King novel on a dark and rainy night kind of scary. However, once you know a little about what to expect and what is expected of you, it all becomes so much easier (and less anxiety-inducing). Here are five simple pointers for writing your first grant regardless of weather you are the CEO of a social enterprise, a grad student seeking funding for research, or simply a person trying to make the world a better place.

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1. Follow the Directions

Almost every grant opportunity will come with a "set of directions" that specifically detail exactly what a funders wants you to write about in your narrative. These directions have many names - Request for Proposal (RFP), Request for Qualifications (RFQ), Letter of Interest (LOI), Letter of Inquiry (LOI), Concept Paper, and so many more. What each of these titles have in common is that they are basically all a set of directions that outline the information that the funder needs to know about the organization or program for which you are seeking funding. 

The single most important thing to remember when writing a grant is to thoroughly and clearly answer each and every question/item outlined in the funder's request, even if it seems a tad repetitive. Be thorough and find new ways of saying the same thing so that your reader knows you answered the question, but they aren't bored to tears while reading it.

Visit my Grantwriting Products page to download a free example of a RFP and its associated proposal. For those of you looking for a template to use, these tools are a great place to start.

2. Know Your Audience

No matter what kind of grant you are writing, with all luck, someone on the other end will be reading AND evaluating it. With this in mind, it its important to know a little about the audience that will be reading it so that you can write a proposal that will appeal to them.

When it comes to government grants, grant readers will often be a panel of around five of your own colleagues. How do I know this? I've been on a few of them. Basically, if you are writing a grant to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to provide job training to newly resettled refugees, the people reading and evaluating your grant will be other people who have worked with refugees to provide similar services. Your best bet is to write at a level of clarity and depth for someone who is a program manager. If the grant is for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the reviewer panel may well be comprised of agricultural specialists, academics, and farmers. This wide range of reader backgrounds, by they way, is big part of why USDA grants are so tricky to write successfully.

If you are focusing on foundation or corporate grants, knowing your audience can be a bit easier. I suggest a little research to find out about the program/grant managers, what they specialize in, and any information about their backgrounds. It will greatly increase your ability to step back from your narrative and make sure that you are writing for them in a way that is engaging and respects their experience.

Writing to a family foundation is basically means that you want to avoid being overly technical. Make it approachable and appeal to both the "head and heart." Recognize that a people with a wide range of ages and experiences will be reading or glossing over the proposal, so keep the narrative short, yet memorable.

3. Avoid Jargon

When your life is steeped in a given subject, be it neuroscience or helping at-risk youth, you will be surrounded by jargon. These words and phrases are meaningful within your sector, but they can be totally baffling to anyone not specialized in your field. When writing a grant, never assume that your reader will know or be familiar with the jargon common in your field. Be sure to write out any acronyms out in full the first time you use them (like I did above with the U.S. Department of Agriculture), and avoid using more than one acronym in the same sentence. Otherwise, you will confuse your reader, and a confused grant reader will not give your proposal high marks.

4. Handwriting Counts

Just like in grade school, the way your proposal looks - how easy the font is to read and the simplicity with which a reader can find key information - will affect how your grant is rated. Serif fonts like Times New Roman, Palatino, Georgia, Courier, Bookman, and Garamond are regarded as the easiest to read fonts. Avoid using fancy or artistic fonts as it will detract from your proposal and fatigue your reader. Also avoid typeface that is smaller than 12 point font (11 if you are in a terrible pinch for space). Smaller font is difficult to read, especially for older readers, and will contribute to reader fatigue.

As well, organize your proposal under meaningful heading and subheadings. You aren't writing a novel, and the the more "road signs" you leave for your reader, the easier it will be for them. Readers will often have to refer back to a rubric of criteria as they rate your proposal, so make it easy to flip back and forth between sections without getting lost in the narrative.

Unless you are Charles Dickens, NEVER USE SEMICOLONS. Seriously. Most people just don't like them or understand how to use them properly. If you use them, your point may easily get lost. Stick to shorter, less complex sentence structures whenever and wherever possible.

5. Quadruple Check Everything

Grant readers won't necessarily remember all of the prefect moments in your proposal, but they will DEFINITELY remember the flubs. Grammatical mistakes and typos - like "form" instead of "from"- tell a funder that you lack attention to detail or don't care about the proposal. It's not a good message to send.

Basically, you are allowed one mistake per proposal (max three in a huge government grant) before a reader will begin to think less of your proposal and organization. So, make sure to check everything three times, and then have an external editor or detail oriented reader do one last check for you. More often than not, it will save the day.

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Keep in mind that grantwriting is hard, and you will likely receive a lot more rejection letters in the beginning than checks in mail. Just remember that with foundations, corporations, and individual funders, a "no" is still an opportunity to forge a relationship. Reach out to them and find our why the proposal was rejected. Was it a technicality? Was the competition particularly fierce this round? Or did they just not think your proposed program or organization was a good fit? The answers to these questions will inform your next steps and help you know whether to start preparing a new submission for the next round of funding, or if you should instead channel your efforts toward other opportunities.

Happy writing! And if you need it, we're here to help.