Grants are becoming increasingly more challenging to write and competitive to receive, so nonprofit organizations should always be asking themselves, “How can I make my grant applications stand out in a crowded field?” The following 10 tips will help you plan and write applications that get positive attention from funders.
Tip 1: Be Prepared
I recommend that you develop an “arsenal” of projects (or at least sketch out several), so that when a funding opportunity is available, you already have a formed concept that needs funding. You don’t want to approach the grantwriting process from the other way around — where you are scrambling to meet the needs of the funding opportunity, and not the needs of the people you are serving.
Because most funders do not give you a lot of time to develop your applications, this preparation will help you spend time creating the most impactful application possible.
Tip 2: Write With the Reviewer in Mind
It is important to understand that grant reviewers — the people who score and rank your proposals — are people, too! They may be volunteers or paid staff at the agency or foundation. Regardless of whether they are paid staff or volunteers, it is important to write your application with the reviewer in mind and make their job of understanding and scoring your application as easy as possible.
Assume that the reviewer knows nothing about your community or organization, the needs you address, what you do or how you do it. Almost exclusively, the reviewer only uses the documents submitted in your application to evaluate your proposal. Therefore, if you want them to know something, you have to clearly write it out and explain it. Also, reduce and/or eliminate jargon in your writing. It is easy to fall into the habit of using terminology and acronyms that make sense in your world. But most grant reviewers do not live in your world, so explain unique terms and concepts and spell out all acronyms the first time they are used.
Tip 3: Follow the Directions
Most of the time, funders have application forms to complete and/or a list of instructions you are expected to follow. These instructions usually include questions to answer and attachments to include in your submission. These are sometimes called Application Guidelines, Grant Instructions, Requests for Proposals (RFPs), Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) or a myriad of different names. Regardless of the term used to describe the application instructions, follow them to the letter. Answer questions in the order they are listed, use the funder’s headings and terminology, and complete the forms they provide (if applicable). Funders assume (correctly, in my opinion) that if you can’t follow directions when asking for funds, you probably won’t follow directions in completing reports or other follow-up items they may need from you after you are awarded the grant.
Tip 4: Don’t Underestimate the Time it Takes to Craft a Strong Proposal
After you identify a grant you want to apply for, make a list of all the documents that need to be submitted, tasks that need to be completed, persons responsible for each task and due dates for completing each task. One way to submit the strongest application possible is to get input and edits from others. You want to schedule time to get these reviews of your drafts. To ensure your application is clear, have someone completely unrelated to your organization read it and provide feedback.
Tip 5: Highlight Your Strengths, Not Your Needs
How do you create an application that shows you are worthy of funding? A funder (or any donor, really) wants to hear about what you change, your impact on the community and your solutions to community challenges, not about what your organization needs. Having a laundry list of needs (“I need a staff person.” “We need a building.” “My organization needs equipment.”) is not a compelling argument to a funder who is looking to financially support community change efforts.
All nonprofits can provide a list of what they need. You want to be solution-based, demonstrating your ability to affect change — not a needy nonprofit organization that will go out of business if it doesn’t receive funding. If you currently write from a deficit-based perspective, make the shift to position yourself as a strong and viable organization that is competitive for a funder’s investment.
Tip 6: Involve Those You Serve in the Design of Your Programs
One stakeholder group that is often overlooked, but critical to create impactful programs, is the population you serve. Getting their input can teach you: (1) what they are struggling with, (2) why they are having these struggles and (3) what can be done to help them achieve positive outcomes.
While the grantwriter may or may not do this research, the program staff should. Without this information, your organization may develop a program that does something, but not the thing the target population needs to help them overcome obstacles.
Tip 7: Partners — You Can’t be the Lone Ranger
It is critical to partner with other organizations and agencies working on the root cause of the problems you are addressing. Funders want to see that you are collaborating and sharing resources. They usually want specifics about what each partner brings to the table.
Tip 8: Demonstrate That You have Designed the Most Cost-Effective Solution Possible
In your budget narrative, communicate to the funder the ways that you have leveraged other funds to support your project, used cost-saving measures and maximized all available resources to show you are making the best out of the funder’s investment.
Tip 9: Increase Your Skills by Reading Successful Grants
Reading successful grant proposals has helped me hone my grantwriting skills. To help you do the same, I have provided links to successful grant applications on our website. I encourage you to read through these proposals to find ways to tell your organization’s story, study what makes proposals strong and discover your own grantwriting voice.
It doesn’t matter if the topics in the sample applications are relevant to your organization. You’re just looking for the key elements that make the applications strong, so you can apply them to your own grant writing.
Tip 10: Be Persistent
I firmly believe that grantwriting is a skill that can be developed, but it does take time and effort. If you are not successful, reach out to the funder and ask for feedback about how your application could have been stronger, and use your investment of time and energy put into in the first application to enhance a second (or third!) effort.
If your nonprofit is looking to find new funder opportunities, build strong grant programs, write powerful proposals and win awards to fund your mission, from now until Aug. 15, you can sign up for a one-year GrantStation Membership subscription for $169.
For more information, watch this virtual tour of GrantStation.
Alice L Ruhnke, founder and chief operating officer of The Grant Advantage, has a passion for all things grant writing! Over the past decade, she has worked with hundreds of nonprofit organizations to help them increase their organizational capacity and secure funding.
She has raised over $28 million writing grants and has been in charge of awarding and monitoring federal funds to nonprofit organizations throughout West Virginia.
If Alice is not at her computer writing, she can usually be found facilitating trainings, workshops, and webinars. Alice is also the author of the manual "Mapping the Course: A Practical Approach to Grant Writing."