A Guide to Grant Writing

Grant Writing

Joe Hooten

 

I am writing this to be a simple guide to grant writing. The grant writing process requires so much more than simple study and regurgitation. Successful grant writing involves the coordination of several activities, including planning, searching for data and resources, writing and packaging a proposal, submitting a proposal to a funder, and follow up. It requires diligence and perseverance to write a good proposal. The grant writing process can be very long and tedious, but can pay huge dividends for an organization.

There are as many types of grants and funders as there are agencies in the world. While different funders require different information at times, there are still the basics that almost every grant application or proposal has a part of it.

  1. Preparation:
  2. Define your project
  3. Identify the right funding sources
  4. Contact the funders
  5. Acquire proposal guidelines
  6. Know your submission deadlines
  7. Determine personnel needs
  8. Update your timeline
  9. Writing the proposal
  10. Narratives including:
    1. Statement of needs
    2. Approach
    3. Methods of evalution
    4. Project timeline
    5. Credentials of key personnel
  11. Budget
  12. Supporting materials
  13. Authorized signatures
  14. Specifications
  15. Submission checklist
  16. Follow up

Alicia Vandenbroek, in her article, Grant Writing without Blowing a Gasket suggests that the first step to successful grant writing is to begin with the end in mind. I call this defining your project. Clarifying the purpose you seek to achieve and coming up with a mission statement. You have to define the scope of the work to focus your funding search. And, you have to determine broad project goals and then specific objectives that define how you have met those goals. In the article, Developing Grant Writing Skills to Translate Practice Dreams Into Reality, the writers agree the first step is to clearly identify an important problem to be addressed by the grant. This includes identifying gaps in care or quality of service and trying to identify some evidence based approach to solving the problem. Typically, funders prefer to fund proven methods.

The next step, which is the first tip that Blanco and Lee suggest is to match up with funding agencies and resources. Usually I would view this as the second step after identifying the project. It is important that you approach funders that will be a good match for your project or program. It is a waste of your time and theirs to seek funding from agencies that do not have the same priorities that you do. There are many different programs and websites that can help match your program with funders. A couple of these are Grantstation or grants.gov. In addition, every banking institution has a wealth management department that helps investors manage funds and foundations. Contacting these institutions can provide a route to finding funding sources for your project. Every funder in the world has a niche that they prefer to fund. Whether it be children, hunger, addictions, education, the Arts, etc… Matching the project to the funder is key in trying to get funding.

Then, you have to contact the funders to find out the specific requirements for requesting funding. Identify the project officer who will address your questions. Some funders offer technical assistance, others do not. Ask for assistance including a review of proposal drafts. Make sure you know how proposals are evaluated and how decisions are made. If a scoring key is used to grade proposals, ask if you can have a copy of one. Ask about budgetary requirements and preferences. The contacts you make will prove to be invaluable.

Some general proposal guidelines I have experienced are: submission deadlines, eligibility requirements, proposal formatting guidelines, timetables, budgets, funding goals and priorities, award levels, evaluation processes and criteria, whom to contact, other submission requirements. Read the guidelines carefully, then read them again and reread them. Ask for clarification on everything that confuses you.

Know the submission deadlines. Plan to submit your proposal on time or preferably early. Be realistic about whether you have time to prepare a competitive proposal that meets the deadlines. Know the funder’s policies on late submissions, exceptions, and mail delays. Find out how the funder will notify you about the receipt and status of your proposal. Be sure to factor this information into your timeline.

To determine personnel needs, you have to identify them by both function and, if possible, name too. If you have to, contact project consultants, trainers, and other personnel to seek availability. If necessary, acquire permission to include them in the project, and negotiate compensation. Personnel compensation is an important part of budget information.

At this point, it is always good to update your timeline now that you have the basics covered. If you have done everything thus far, you have done a lot. You are ready to move forward and begin writing your proposal.

Writing the proposal is the next step. The standard proposal components I have been asked to submit have been: the narrative, budget, appendix of support material, and usually an authorized signature. Sometimes I have been asked to create summaries and always provide copies of our IRS 501c3 certification. It is extremely important to understand the funders’ application process. A mistake in the presentation of even the best proposal will result in it being left off the consideration table completely. Pay attention to the requirements for submitting a proposal. Many funders have electronic applications these days and the process must be done exactly right. So be careful.

Alicia Vandenbroek, in her article, suggests the importance of naming a proposal appropriately. She says that a proposal is only as good as it can be remembered. “A simple yet unique title will make your grant memorable and can speak volumes about the content of your grant before the reader even begins consideration”, Vandenbroek says. While a creative name is important it is still important too that it have something to do with the project or mission.

In the narrative, you are typically asked to provide a history of your organization, a description of the problem to be addressed, appropriate statistics or background research, and of course, the type of support you are looking for from your grant request. Writing the narrative can be the most tedious of the processes to go through. However, once you have a great narrative, many times it can be adapted to meet different proposals. Also included in the narrative, is the organization’s mission and vision. There are many great resources for establishing a mission statement if your organization doesn’t already have one. A mission statement should be simple, straight forward, catchy, and memorable. The organization’s vision can be multi-dimensional and can encompass all the various programs and goals that the organization has.

Your narrative needs to include a statement of the need, purpose, goals, measurable objectives, and a compelling reason why the project should be supported. Typically, narratives include answers to the following questions:

  1. What do we want?
  2. What concern will be addressed and why?
  3. Who will benefit and how?
  4. What are the objective to be accomplished and how?
  5. How will results be measured?
  6. How does your funding request involve the funder’s purpose, objectives, and priorities?
  7. Who are you and how are you qualified to address such a need in the community?

What is the approach that you are going to use to accomplish the goals and objectives that you have set out? As I have said, the approach that is measurable and evidence-based and tested is most likely to get funding. Provide a description of the intended scope of the work to be done with expected outcomes, an outline of various activities, and descriptions of personnel needs, if possible.

How are you going to measure your results? This is where your scoring rubric can come in handy. Some funders may require very technical measures of the results that you produce. You definitely want to ask about funder’s requirements and expectations.

Remember to include your project timeline. This gives a picture of when your project will start and end. A schedule of activities. Also, projected outcomes. This should be detailed enough to include staff selection and start dates.

The credentials of those who are working in the project can be an important part of securing funding. If you are hiring someone to do a specific task, a funder is going to look highly on someone with significant experience or education. Funders like to know that their money is supporting a cause that will succeed in its goals and objectives. This takes strong leadership.

Then there is the hook. The hook is the big draw that describes the project in such a way that the funder really relates to the problem and wants to help. This is also associated with selecting the right funder. Being able to directly relate your problem and solution to the funders goals and objective, relating your mission to theirs, is what is going to secure you funding.

The budget should be a pretty straight forward project. Budgets are cost projections, windows into how your organization and your project are funded and spending money. A well-planned budget will reflect a carefully thought out project. If your organization doesn’t already have a budget then you are probably in trouble. The organization’s budget should include projections of all expenses, salaries, office supplies, utilities, incidental expenses, taxes, regulatory fees, insurances, and so on. There should be no surprises when it comes to expenses in your budget. In addition, a good budget also accounts for all income coming into the organization. These include donations, other grants, in-kind gifts, fee-for-service, other fundraisers, and any other way your organization brings in money to support itself. However, in addition to the organization’s overall budget, many funders will want a project budget as well. This is exactly how you intend to spend the money that the funder will grant to you. This budget usually is accompanied by a narrative of its own, which explains each expense and what it encompasses. Some building projects, etc… will require that multiple bids for the service be obtained to show that the monies that you receive will be spent wisely. Funders usually assess these factors to assess budgets:

  1. Can the job be done with this amount of money?
  2. Are costs reasonable?
  3. Is the budget consistent with the proposed activities?
  4. Is there enough detail and explanation?

Many funders will provide specific forms that must be submitted with your budget proposal. Make sure your budget is flexible. Just in case your funder wants to negotiate costs.

Creating a timeline for project completion is also an important part of creating a good funding proposal. In today’s world of instant gratification, being able to show short term as well as long term results and projections is very important. Everyone, whether funder or donor, wants to know that their money is making a difference and they want to see results yesterday. Having a good timeline for your project that can tell funders exactly what to expect when is necessary for most good proposals.

It is always a good idea and many funders require that you provide support materials for your project goals and objectives. Supporting materials are often arranged as an appendix. They may endorse the project and the organization, provide certifications, add information about project personnel like resumes, certificates, degrees, etc… There may be exhibit tables and charts that support your project goals. Policies about supporting materials differ greatly among funders. Some funders don’t allow any additional materials, others will allow as much as you can provide. Be ready to invest time in collecting resources, producing a video, brochures, references, reports, etc… As I said earlier, evidence-based proposals are the norm these days. Funders are less likely to fund something “new and innovative” than they used to be. So, this means that it is necessary to attach appendices to proposals that show how your project works and why it will work for your organization. If you have a rubric, a method for scoring your results, definitely use one. You may have to come up with your own if you are trying something new. But, there are also many available in public domain that can be tailored to whatever your project and goals are.

Authorized signatures are always a part of funding proposals. This may be the signature of the board chair, the CEO, Executive Director, or the entire board. The lack of a signature has resulted in many proposals being rejected.

There are almost always specifications that need to be met with every application. Know these guidelines. It may be that only a certain number of pages be allowed, a certain format to follow, double-spaced type, a specific font. There may be a form that goes with a proposal, an application to fill out, or a cover letter to type. Be sure you know the process.

There is almost always a submission checklist that needs to be followed. The proposal must be neat, on time, and complete, with the requested number of copies and signatures. Address the proposal as instructed and include the required documentation, especially your 501c3 certification.

Submitting your proposal once it is completed is the easiest part of the whole process. However, make sure you do it right. Some funders ask for an original and copies that they can forward to their reviewers. I have been asked to submit as many as 8 copies plus the original. Some funders are much easier, they have an electric submission process and you only have to hit send. Whichever way your proposal is submitted, follow up, follow up, follow up. Let the funder know that you are invested in the process and really want the funding. Contact the funder for application status, outcome of your proposal, and evaluations. Whether your project is accepted or not, it is important to ask for your proposal’s strengths, weaknesses, pros and cons. This can help you make better proposals in the future.

Most funders these days require at least an annual report on the status of your project. When you submit your report, track the items that you said you would. Alicia Vandenbroek suggests that you keep your clients’ confidentiality in mind. Make sure you collect aggregate data rather than using individuals’ names. Be sure to include a thank you both when you first receive your funding and whenever you submit reports. They will follow up on you to make sure the funds they granted are used in the way that they have allocated. This may be in the form of a report filed by you, or a questionnaire sent by the funder to be filled out, or even a personal visit from the funder to check up on you. Whichever it may be, be ready. Keep accurate records and be prepared for them.

My experience in writing grants has been invaluable. I actually wrote my first grant request in high school. It was a grant from the school corporation requesting funds for building a xeriscape garden at our high school. The grant was awarded and my high school was able to plant a garden that is still there today, more than 17 years later. Since working at the Upper Room Recovery Community, I have written many more grant requests. I have attached five of these as samples of the work that I have done. Thus far, although they have been smaller grants, I have been able to net $11,000.00 for our organization that is going directly to the benefit of the guys that live in our facility. I also provided the foundational information for another $25,000.00 grant that one of our board members obtained.

Although I have submitted many grant requests while I have been here, I must admit that not all of them have been accepted and approved. I have had to deal with some rejection as well. Being held doubly accountable by both our director and our board, I have had to look into the shortcomings of my proposals and work to become a better grant writer. In two cases, the funding wasn’t granted because our organization and the funder were not compatible. So, I know firsthand how important it is to find a good match before investing the time into writing a proposal.

By the same token, writing successful proposals has helped me to become a better writer and has increased my confidence to write further grant requests. The grant writing process is actually a lot of fun, even though it can be tedious at times. I have learned not to do the same work over and over again. In writing the narrative, I have certain points that I intend to get across every time. Some of the research that I have done does not need to be repeated each time. Such as our organizational history, the nature of the problem that we are trying to address, and our key personnel and their backgrounds have stayed the same over the past two and a half years. What has changed is some of our outcomes, success rates, and testimonies. I have learned that client testimonies of the impact of our organization in their lives is an excellent addendum to grant proposals that allow them. I have helped several of our clients pen their testimony to bring out the importance of our organization’s impact into their lives.

One thing to make sure of with each request is to have board support. I have found potential funders that our board would rather not be associated with. Either for personal reasons or for organizational reasons, there are some funders that we have not applied to simply because they are not a fit. The importance of finding a good fit is not just on the side of the funder looking at the organization’s project, it is also important for the image of the organization. A substance abuse recovery ministry does not necessarily fit well receiving funds from the foundation of a beer company. Although the foundation would be willing to support the cause, having the name association is not a good thing for our organization.

In my experience, grant writing can be highly subjective to the reviewer. Some reviewers are very intimately aware of the problem associated with the projects that we are addressing. Making a proposal that has a strong hook into every reviewer is a powerful way to ensure that projects get funding. In the case of our organization, we address substance abuse. One in every three people on the planet know someone with a substance abuse problem. That means that one of your friends, relatives, colleagues, or neighbors has or knows someone else with a substance abuse problem. Being able to relate that to each reviewer to tie the importance of the funding home for them is extremely valuable. I am lucky to be seeking funding for a problem that relates to so many so close to home.

On the flip side of the issue though, not many foundations and grant makers have the mission to support substance abuse ministries. So, I have had to do a lot of research into various foundations, organizations, and even individuals to find matches for our organization to seek funding. This research can largely be done online. However, I have also had to network and make a lot of personal and business connections to find funders willing to give to a substance abuse ministry. While this process is time consuming, it is also highly worthwhile. Some of the people I have met in doing this work are quickly becoming good friends. Having these kinds of friendships is also extremely valuable to the grant seeking process. They can introduce you to the right people that can make your funding happen.

I am also finding that the grant seeking process can be very political. Having a good public image is very important for an individual and an organization. Our marketing materials have contributed to this cause greatly. We have brochures and videos that are available both in print, on DVD, and streaming on the web. While I was not alone in the creation of these materials and in some cases only had a little bit of input, I use these materials to bolster the image of our organization and provide evidence to funders that our organization is a worthwhile cause to support. In order to see some of these resources, I invite you to visit the website that I created for our organization at http://upperroomrecovery.org.

In conclusion, the grant writing process includes the coordination of several activities, including planning, searching for data and resources, writing and packaging a proposal, submitting a proposal to a funder, and follow up. It requires diligence and perseverance to write a good proposal. Although the process can be long, tedious, and difficult in some cases, it can also be very rewarding not only on the personal level, but also for the organization you are serving. Personally, every time you write a proposal, you get better and better at the process, making you more marketable in the future. Organizationally, receiving grant funds can make you more viable in the future and also, depending on the grant maker, increase your public image immeasurably making it possible to secure more individual donations and public support for your projects. In all actuality, I would rather have one thousand $500 individual supporters than one $500,000 grant. Individual support has far fewer strings attached to it, is much more reliable, and if you lose one or two supporters there is far less impact on the organization as a whole than losing one large grant. However, grant funds can make many projects possible that otherwise would not get financial support. So, there is a certainly a place for both kinds of funding in any organization.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Blanco, Maria A. Mary Y. Lee. (2012). Twelve tips for writing educational research grant proposals.MEDICAL TEACHER. 34: 450-453.

Hadidi, Niloufar; Ruth Lindquist. (2013). Developing Grant Writing Skills to Translate Practice Dreams Into Reality. AACN Advanced Critical Care Volume 24, Number 2, pp.177-185.

Proctor et al. (2012). Writing Implementation Research Grant Proposals: Ten Key Ingredients. Implementation Science, 7:96 http://www.implementationscience.com/content/7/1/96

Vandenbroek, Alicia. (2010). Grant Writing without Blowing a Gasket. LIBRARY MEDIA CONNECTION. 28-30.

 

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