5 Tips for Writing Successful Grant Proposals

People who are applying for grants often ask me for advice on how to write successful grant proposals.  I think grant writers should be called grantwrights just like playwrights because good grant proposals are wrought just as much as they are written. The process for writing grant proposals is messy and cumbersome and confusing. That each proposal must be specifically tailored to the foundation or other institutional grant-maker is an added challenge. As more and more funders eschew accepting proposals in favor of an “invitation-only” approach there is a significant chance that even great grant proposals will never be read by the right funders. But, indeed, prevailing against great odds has been a common and shared trait of the accomplished.

Another common trait is a constant desire to improve. As you might imagine, I believe the best thing you can do to improve your grant-writing efforts is to submit your most recently written proposal to the Unfunded List. Our expert evaluators will review it and we will send your our helpful and candid thoughts including edits, advice on potential opportunities, and suggestions for strengthening your proposals. You can even view examples of proposals that have made our list by viewing the official Unfunded List.

Based on our experience reviewing hundreds of proposals we have come up with five tips for writing successful grant proposals:

1. Consider not doing it.

Sorry to go negative right out of the gate but this is often the best advice I can give people. I should note that I am not saying give up. I am saying that grant funding, funding from foundations or governments or whatever institutional funder you are targeting, might not be the best approach for you. As I mentioned above it is very competitive and and it is also quite time consuming. You should make sure you have a competitive advantage (access to foundation board members, a strong network, you have already been invited to submit a proposal, etc.) before pursuing this seriously.

There are many ways to bring in funds other than grants. In fact, the vast majority of money that flows into nonprofits is not from grants at all. The number one source of revenue, by far, is earned income (fees for services or selling products) which makes up about 75% of all the money that comes into the sector (think Universities charging tuition, or Hospitals charging fees for medical services). Most of the remaining 25% is philanthropy but the majority of philanthropy is also not grants. Most philanthropic gifts come from individuals. In fact, it isn’t even close: Individuals give about three times more than the Government who give about three times more than Foundations who give about three times more than Corporations.

 For more info on giving totals by entity check out this fun infographic from Giving USA.

2. If you’re going to do it, make sure to do your research. That means Foundation Center.

Prospecting, doing the research on your potential grantmakers before applying, is essential. There are a number of resources available to you to help decide if grant funding is right for you. One way is to send us a proposal and we will be candid about your chances while suggesting alternative sources of funding.

For more detailed information and resources related to the foundation sector there is no greater source of information than the Foundation Center. Founded in 1957, they have a number of resources to help you find and identify sources of grant funding. I recently met with their staff and they were kind enough to send me along descriptions of their offerings. What follows is how they describe their programs:

GrantSpace, an award-winning website used by two million people, helps nonprofits connect to the resources they need to fundraise effectively and operate sustainably. GrantSpace offers essential capacity-building support at no cost—saving community-based organizations time and money so that more of their budgets can be allocated to serving constituents and less on travel and training expenses.

Foundation Directory Online (FDO) is a database containing information on more than 140,000 grantmakers and more than 11.5 million grants. FDO is the largest and most reliable grantmaking database in the world, and is an incredible prospecting tool for finding funding. FDO is a subscription based resource, but you can access it for free at our regional learning centers or at any one of our more than 400 Funding Information Network partners. You can find your nearest FIN here.

They also have a free online prospecting resource called QuickStart, an easy-to-use tool for looking up key information on all U.S. foundations.

IssueLab: Through Foundation Center’s IssueLab we effectively gather, index, and share the collective intelligence of the social sector. We provide free access to nearly 25,000 research reports produced by more than 6,000 foundations and nonprofits, with a vast repository of resources for your funding areas.

Philanthropy News Digest (PND): a daily news service of the Foundation Center, is a compendium, in digest form, of philanthropy-related articles and features culled from print and electronic media outlets nationwide. One million people rely on PND for social sector news every year.

GrantCraft.org: GrantCraft combines the practical wisdom of funders worldwide with the expertise of Foundation Center to improve the practice of philanthropy. Since 2001, GrantCraft has delivered the knowledge funders need to be strategic and effective in their work, addressing questions funders face across various strategies and issue areas.

Foundation Maps: Foundation Center’s premier data visualization tool, and the easiest way to see who is funding what and where around the world. You can explore who else is funding in your areas of interest, including subject, geography, population served, type of support.

3. Put someone in charge of writing grants, ideally, this is all they do. 

Once you have done your research and decided that you are definitely going to pursue writing grant proposals you should put someone in charge of the whole process. This means maintaining a grants calendar, meeting deadlines, keeping track of language, rounds of revision, attachments, spreadsheets, budget documents, and a host of other tasks (see my comment about proposals being wrought). if the person on your team responsible for writing grants is also responsible for other (often more pressing) things that will be a huge blow to your proposal efforts. Remember the field is extremely competitive and you will be competing against professional grantwrights – some with entire teams to support them. If you don’t have the resources to hire someone full time you should consider hiring a grants proposal consultant or finding a dedicated volunteer with some experience. We would be happy to introduce you to some talented professionals on our evaluation committee if you send us a proposal.

4. Save time, have a boilerplate document. 

Once you are following a grants calendar and meeting those deadlines and maybe even getting some grants (and therefore having new reporting deadlines to meet) you will find that a lot of the work involves updating your basic language to reflect changes in the organization, your outputs and successes, and also to meet the often overly restrictive character limits required by some foundations.

You will find that while every foundation has unique requirements for their online forms that many are asking the same basic question. For starters, you are almost always given a chance to describe your organization. You are also almost always asked to describe the problem and to describe your solution. Sometimes, your answers will need to be 50 characters or 100 characters or 1200 characters. It is impossible to predict every iteration you will have to do but it will be helpful (and good practice for you) to try to answer some of the obvious questions in every possible answer length and keep all of those answers in order by character length in a shared document.

5. Relationships matter. No matter what they might say. 

It is kind of a cliché to say that relationships matter but it’s worth repeating. Especially since many foundations can seem quite unapproachable and will make a lot of effort to steer you away. It is important to remember that someone is getting grants from these foundations and you are trying to become that someone. That someone is almost always someone with a close relationship to the folks making the decisions. You need to find out who those people are and convince them you are a valuable actor and useful person that they should know.

Once you have a strong relationship with a foundation sometimes you get to skip the proposal process altogether. The first step to getting there is to make sure you are indeed a valuable actor and useful person. After that, it gets a little trickier. I’d say that the most common ways to connect with foundation deciders are either (a) through your personal and professional network (b) by attending conferences or other events in the relevant field and standing out of the crowd or (c) on Twitter or LinkedIn. I could also add (d) which is to be a famous celebrity (but obviously not everyone can do that).

We hope you have found these tips helpful. If not we’d love to hear your suggestions or criticisms. Good luck with your grant proposals.

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