Writing grant proposals is an excellent skill (and, in many cases, a coveted skill) for anyone in the nonprofit arena.
A grant professional is often seen as a modern-day scribe sorcerer who can wave a magic wand (i.e., strike a keyboard) and make money appear. Some folks in the nonprofit world may put grant proposal writers on this magical pedestal as if they are born with a skill unattainable by others.
However (even though I’d love to believe I have fairy-like powers), that is just a myth.
Anyone can learn how to write grant proposals and become an excellent grant professional if they keep their attention on learning the task at hand and follow some important tips along the way.
8 Essential Tips for Grant Professionals
1. Read the FOA or RFP
One of the best tips for becoming a better grant professional is to read the grant announcement in its entirety. These announcements are sometimes referred to as Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOA) or Request for Proposals (RFPs).
This might not seem like fairy dust science, but it’s one of the things I often see overlooked. Many grant professionals want to dive directly into the middle of the grant and start writing the narrative. Then the day before the grant is due, I’ll ask them some of the following questions:
- Do you have the required letters of support?
- Did you register with the Systems Award Management (every organization that gets a grant or contract with the federal government is required to register)?
- Why aren’t your margins one inch, and why is your font 14-point?
Not that you need to do all of these for every grant, but sometimes directions about these vital details are buried in the fine print.
Reading the FOA or RFP will also give you a slew of other information, such as the funding source’s priorities and the grant scoring criteria.
Why don’t more people read these grant announcements? Well, some of these FOAs or RFPs may read more like a car manual (and be nearly as thick). Another reason is that you may not have enough time to write the grant and just want to get it done. But getting it done and getting it done right are two different things when it comes to writing grants.
2. Use Statistics and Data in Your Needs Statement
As a grant reviewer for nearly a decade, I have noticed many grant proposals include flowery, emotional language in their needs section. To demonstrate the gap their nonprofit aims to bridge, many novice grant proposal writers make the mistake of writing prosaic emotive sections without including statistics.
This is a huge problem because emotional stories and flowery language are hard to score. They’re ambiguous. It’s easier to score when statistics and sources are included that support the need.
Suppose you are writing a grant proposal for a food delivery program for senior citizens in the greater New York area. In this case, you should include data on the senior citizens’ income and the cost of living. These statistics can be scored more easily than a hypothetical story about how senior citizens have difficulty affording food. You can share stories and testimonials, but it is essential to also include some real numbers (and real stories) and include citations.
3. Develop SMART Objectives
Nearly every single grant application will ask for objectives. To score this section well, a reviewer will examine if these are SMART objectives.
No, the objectives do not need a Ph.D. This is an acronym detailed below.
I often see objectives that aren’t actually objectives, such as, “We will provide food for people in need.” You can see how that would be hard to measure and understand the impact funding could have.
An example of a SMART objective is: “By the end of one year, the Wise Food Project will serve 100 senior citizens living in poverty in the greater New York area with 109,500 meals.”
- Specific: This is specific due to the number of meals, the number of senior citizens, the target population (senior citizens living in poverty in New York), the location (New York City), and the duration (one year).
- Measurable: This objective is measurable due to the number of meals and people served within a specific timeframe. You can track if you reach your goal (i.e., the number of people and meals).
- Achievable: Are you able to reach this objective? This goes back to the need. Are at least 100 senior citizens living in poverty in New York, and do you have enough in the budget?
- Relevant: By achieving this objective, will you help reduce the needs stated in your needs section?
- Time-bound: Do you have an end date?
4. Work Out Your Budget Before You Write the Project Narrative
One of the biggest mistakes I regularly see is writing the budget last.
There are two main reasons why I think this is the case. The first reason is that the budget is usually the last thing requested in an FOA or RFP, and people like to work linearly.
The second reason for this faux pas is that many grant professionals fear the budget—they may feel more confident in their writing abilities than in figuring out numbers. However, once you become more comfortable with grants, you will notice the budget is an integral part of the storytelling!
Your budget should be done before you start drafting the entire narrative.
First, ensure there is a need for your program, then draft a goal and objectives. Once you have those completed, figure out how much money you need to fulfill your objectives.
Maybe you won’t have enough money in the budget to feed 100 senior citizens three meals a day for 365 days. Rewriting your project narrative at the very end can ruin your chances of submitting the grant on time and cause many needless hours of work.
5. Create a Grant Proposal Writing Team
Grant professionals often feel like they work in silos. Sometimes that wizardry feels too unapproachable by others, so they let you stew in your cubicle alone.
The truth is, behind every successful grant professional is a grant proposal writing team:
- Executive Director: They need to approve your objective and budget before you write the grant proposal. I have seen too many grant professionals get an idea and write an entire grant that is later overthrown by the executive director (and often at the last minute). After all, they must approve any program they’ll ultimately have to oversee. Plus, having buy-in from the executive director will help ensure the other people on the grant team will give you their items on time 😊.
- Accountant/Bookkeeper: Yep, you need the numbers folks on your team, too. They have information about human resources, pay increases, prices of items, and so much more. For example, if you need to hire a project director for the grant, they will know the pay rate, benefits, and so much more.
- Grant Coordinator: It helps to have someone else who can reach out to partners for letters of support, research background data, and keep track of items.
- Subject Expert: Sometimes, you will need an expert to write about something technical or project-specific.
- Grant Professional: That’s you!
6. Ask for Feedback When Grants are Rejected
The thing that might throw the grant professional into the realm of the elves is learning that writing the grant is not necessarily the most difficult part of the process. The hardest part is having to keep writing more grants after receiving a rejection.
After all, PsychCentral stated that rejection is one of the deepest fears people have.
Getting grant rejections can even derail the mighty Gandalf and lead him to wallow in self-pity and throw the wand in the fire (i.e., computer against the wall).
When (not if) one of your grants isn’t awarded, it is vital to reach out to the funding source and ask for feedback.
Not all funding sources will provide feedback, but some (especially federal grants) will provide this valuable insight.
This constructive criticism will help you fine-tune your grant proposal writing skills and become a better grant professional. I have used feedback to update and resubmit grant proposals —and some have been awarded! I’ve also seen many others use this same approach successfully. But unfortunately, I’ve seen more people take rejection as a hard wall and never ask for feedback or submit a grant proposal to that funding source again.
7. Become a Grant Reviewer
There are a ton of opportunities to become a federal grant reviewer. Analyzing other grant applications and understanding how the scoring system works will drastically improve your grant writing.
You can apply to federal agencies to become a peer reviewer. Bonus: you receive a stipend if you are selected!
8. Write Grants
Ha! You didn’t see that one coming, did you? Yep, to become a better grant professional, you need to write grants and then write more grants and then more grants. That is the most powerful spell.
Did I mention you should write grants?
Do you want to know if you have what it takes to be a scribe-sorcerer grant professional?
See how many you answer yes to:
- Does writing grants feel a little more manageable after reading the grant professional hacks above?
- Do you like to tell stories through writing?
- Are you good at writing answers to questions?
- Do you like puzzles (yes, a grant is sort of like a word puzzle)?
- Will you commit to growing through constructive feedback?
- Do you want to help nonprofit organizations bridge gaps in your community and worldwide?
- Do you think it would be just a little bit cool if maybe you did have just a speck of magic in your fingertips 😉?
This blog is an original work of the attributed author and is shared with permission via Foundant Technologies' website for informative purposes only as part of our educational content in the philanthropic sector. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect Foundant's stance on this topic. If you have questions or comments, please reach out to our team.