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September 13, 2012

How to Write a Grant Proposal

ETA: After reading a bunch of "How To Write A Grant Proposal" articles online, I realized that the grantwriting landscape for other sectors must be different. So please note that this post is written from the point of view of a grant writer and grants panelist in the nonprofit arts sector specifically. All such grants I've encountered so far have very specific application forms and sets of questions, which is why I didn't include a format for the grant narrative here.

I wrote this post at Hyphen magazine in 2005 after I'd sat on a couple of grantmakers' review panels and seen the horrific mistakes so many people make when they write grant proposals. Then Hyphen switched platforms and the formatting got all screwed up so you can't really read the post anymore. And in the past few years I've wanted to send people to this post because I think there's some good info in here. So I'm reposting (most of) it here, with proper formatting. I'm also adding some new info, so it's not exactly the same post. Oh well.


  1. RESEARCH FUNDERS: DATABASES. Find a database of funders/grantmakers and research the ones who make grants in your geographical area and in your field. If you're a complete beginner, go to the Foundation Center's website. They have lots of resources and tips and hold grantwriting seminars all over the U.S. Webinars, too. They also have a database you can use online for a fee (or in one of their locations for free.) Once you've made up a list of funders you need to whittle this list down. Look at specifics, including: what kinds of programs do they fund really; how many grants do they make each year (i.e. do they hand out enough grants to include new orgs?), how large are their grants (i.e.: is it worth your while to write this grant for the amount of money they're giving?), which specific organizations have they funded recently? (i.e.: do they fund organizations like yours?), what is their schedule? (i.e.: if they don't have a deadline, when is the best time for you to submit your grant?), etc. If a funder's guidelines fit you perfectly, but they only give out three grants a year to three orgs which are 10 times your size, then this is not a realistic prospect. Look for the ones who give out lots of grants of different sizes to orgs of different sizes. Look for the ones who specifically are looking for new orgs to fund.
  2. RESEARCH FUNDERS: FUNDERS' WEBSITES: Once you have a more realistic list, go look up each funder's website and read all the information there. Often, their website will give you a lot more to go on, including: their mission, their intentions with specific grant programs, more about whom they've funded in the past, etc. They'll also usually have their actual grant application available for download on their website, which you need to read thoroughly.
  3. FIND OUT WHAT THE FUNDER'S REAL CRITERIA ARE. I cannot emphasize this enough. A lot of grant application questions are worded vaguely. Do not break your brain figuring out what information they want from you. Find it out from them directly (see #4). If your programs do not fit in with their criteria, don't write the proposal. Do not convince yourself that you should try it anyway. There are always more applicants than money and the funders will be deciding among the applicants who clearly fit their criteria. The ones who clearly don't fit their criteria will be the first into the circular file. Which leads us to:
  4. CALL AND TALK TO A PROGRAM OFFICER IN DETAIL. That's what the program officers are there for. They would vastly prefer wasting ten minutes of their day running through your programs with you on the phone and finding out right then that you don't fit in with their criteria, to having to spend a few hours processing and reading your grant application and making the whole panel read it only to discover the same thing. Save yourself and everyone time and work and talk to the program officer first. In detail. On the phone. Don't wimp out and email them. This is an opportunity to get the funders on your side. CALL them.
  5. FIND OUT WHO IS ON THE REVIEW PANEL. Are they the foundation's board members? Are they your peers (people who run similar organizations)? If your program is employing orphaned street kids in Atlantis, and the panel is made up of wealthy New York professionals, then you might have to explain to them the background and implications of your cause, and argue saving street kids over, say, saving whales. But if the panel is people who also work with third world street kids, you don't need to argue the relative value of saving street kids. You will, however, need to make a really good argument for how well your particular program works. Make the argument your audience needs to hear.
  6. GIVE THEM THE INFORMATION THEY WANT. If they want to know how your employing the orphans program fits in with their mission of saving the environment, tell them that employing the orphans who are cutting down trees for fuel will save those trees. Don't tell them that saving the orphans will cut down crime and poverty in Atlantis and bolster the self esteem of a whole generation. They may appreciate this, but they won't fund it. Answer their specific questions thoroughly and convincingly first. Then, if you have space, give them the other strong elements of your argument. But only if you've answered their questions first.
  7. DON'T BULLSHIT. Even the most naive funder will be able to tell bullshit from the real thing after reading a hundred proposals. Applicants who fit their criteria exactly will tell them so in specific language. Applicants who don't tell them so in specific language, clearly don't fit their criteria exactly. If you don't match one of their essential criteria be honest about it and tell them why you don't. They might be willing to overlook it. But if you try to cover with obfuscating language, you will be wasting their time and they won't give you the benefit of the doubt.
  8. BE SPECIFIC. Don't just tell them that you "save the environment by saving the orphans". Tell them exactly how you save the orphans ("We employ them in one of our twenty partner businesses and organizations as paid interns and then train them up to be full staff members") and exactly how this saves the environment ("The main threat to the rainforest in Atlantis is clear cutting by orphans. 90% of the children we work with were formerly engaged in illegal tree cutting. All of them learn a new, sustainable skill which takes them away from environmentally unfriendly practices for life.") Break down the elements of your program for them. Walk them through it, so they get a real, vivid idea of how your program works. The more they understand, the more they will like you.
  9. BE CLEAR. This means employing good writing techniques. Give them an overview, break it down, and then give details. Make sure your argument is clear and all the details are there to support the argument. Don't throw in extraneous shit. Stay on track and on target. Make your sentences short. Don't use lingo or big words. Funders aren't stupid, but they do have a lot of grant proposals to read. The easier yours is to read and understand, the more they will like you. And the reverse is also true. Oh yeah, and get the damn thing proofread before you send it off.
  10. GIVE THEM HARD DATA ON HOW YOUR PROGRAM/S IMPACT YOUR CONSTITUENTS. The best designed program ain't shit if it doesn't have its intended impact. If your grant doesn't show that your program is working then no one will give you money. Anecdotes are great, but evaluations are better. If you're not collecting data, start doing it now! Start evaluating your programs, and then be sure to put in a few sentences about your impact into the grant, whether they ask for it or not. "We train young people in environmentally sustainable job skills" sounds pretty good, but "We train young people in environmentally sustainable job skills. 89% of them are still in environmentally sustainable jobs 10 years later. The rain forest around our target area has recovered by 12% in the last 15 years" sounds very fundable.
  11. TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY THEY OFFER. If they offer a workshop on how to write grants for them, go. If they let you send them supplementary materials, get some supplementary materials together. Your goals here are two: 1) to get as clear a picture of their process as possible and 2) to give them as clear a picture of your program as possible. Don't be brief, be complete.
  12. ASK WHY YOU'RE REJECTED. If you get rejected, call them and ask them why. Ask them for notes from the grant review (if these are available to you). Get as much detail as you can from them. Be friendly and get them on your side. There is always next year, and the year after that, and the grantseeker who does his/her homework is the one they like and remember.

CAVEATS: This is about writing organizational grants. Also, keep in mind that every grant panel is different and every funder has a different process. Some of these things just aren't going to apply always. Good luck!


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