I taught myself how to write grants. At the time, grant writing was a big secret. It seemed like a skill that would be useful so, like many other things that no one seemed willing to teach me, I figured it out. I’d love to tell you that my case was an anomaly but grant writing still seems to be one of those things that our field seems to require people to learn for themselves. I think that’s silly so here goes:
The most important thing to know about grant writing is this: read and follow the directions. If you learn nothing else from this piece, this one simple rule will serve you well. I can’t tell you the number of people I know, myself included, who have had to drop everything and run somewhere at the last minute to get a signature, a document or a letter of support that they (we) could have had three weeks earlier if they (we) had only read the directions.
Directions are included in what’s commonly referred to as an RFP, which stands for Requests for Proposals. Many grant officers will tell you that we all use the term wrong and in fact, we write proposals and they issue grants. They’re right, but since they have not been successful in changing the lexicon as of yet, we all still call it grant writing.
There are a variety of types of grants available including government, corporate, and foundation. Government grants are almost exclusively field specific. I recommended if you are writing a government grant for the first time, you team up with someone who has done it before, especially if you are also new to the field. For our purposes, we’re going to focus on foundation grants. Corporate grants often follow a similar process.
Grants are awarded for a variety of things- general operating, specific projects, capital and endowment.
General Operating is the least available and the most needed. General operating support is defined as anything you need that supports the operations of your organization. It may also be called unrestricted funding. If you need to match another grant; if you need to pay the utility bill; if you need toilet paper, general operating dollars can be used for all that and more. Plus, it has the added benefit of not having to be tracked. Unrestricted money goes into your general fund, and poof you can spend it on whatever the budget allows. Most of us love general operating grants. If it’s an option, take it.
Project specific grants are most widely available, and are defined as money awarded to support a specific program, project or purchase. These dollars have to be tracked to insure you spent them on what you promised to. This funding may also be called restricted funding.
Capital grants are for a large expense: a new building, roof, van, etc. They are almost as ubiquitous as project grants, sometimes more so since they are usually one time gifts. Capital gifts are also considered restricted funding and must be tracked accordingly.
Endowment grants are the most difficult to find and the hardest to get. They are essentially the transfer of funds into your endowment account, which cannot be spent but does generate dividends in perpetuity.
Grant writing starts long before you sit down to read the directions and write your proposal. It starts with the funding priorities of the granting institution. If their priorities are not aligned with the work your agency does, don’t bother. If their priorities are aligned with your mission, call the program officer and confirm that what you are thinking is something they’d be interested in funding. If it’s not – and they’ll tell you if it’s not – don’t bother. Life is too short, and you have too much work to do to waste time writing proposals that are never going to be funded.
Assuming you have gotten a go ahead from the program officer and are ready to roll, most grants start with an executive summary. Just because they want to read it first doesn’t mean you’ll want to write it first. Do this last. Your grant will evolve as your draft it and if you write the summary first you’ll have to keep changing it. Do yourself a favor and hold this piece until the end. When you do finally write it, hit the highlights of the body of the grant. Do not add anything that isn’t elsewhere.
The first part of the actual grant is usually History or Agency Information. This is where you tell the story of your organization’s origin, its mission and your aspirations. Describes your agency’s qualifications, target population, history, programs, and successes. If you are the only program providing your service in the area, say it.
Next is usually the Problem or Needs Statement. This is not referring to what your agency needs. In fact, unless it is a capacity building grant, no one cares what your agency needs. Your donors do not give to your agency. Your donors give to impact your mission through your agency. They care about the needs in your community. Tell them about that. (This is actually a good thing to remember about all donors.) Discuss the problem your project will address and for which you are applying for funding. Make sure you tie the program back to the mission of your organization, and include statistics, if possible.
Objectives are asking what you will do to impact this issue. Objectives are specific, measurable and time limited and include who, what (reduce, increase, decrease, maintain), how many and when. For example: If the problem is that teens have nowhere to be and nothing to do in the hours after school this greatly increases their chances of becoming statistics themselves. The objectives might be to reduce the number of teens who commit or become victims of a crime by 20% in the hours directly after school from September 2017 to June 2018.
The Activities are what you will do to meet the objectives. It should include information on clients and staff, be clear, justifiable and reasonable. Explain why you think this activity will accomplish your objective, and provide evidence. For example, “to provide 3 sessions of 6 weeks each of self-esteem building programming for girls ages 12-14. Self-esteem building sessions for teen girls have been proven (cite research) to be impactful on their ability to avoid destructive behaviors and make informed decisions.”
The Evaluation is your agency’s plan for judging if the program you are offering is achieving its intended impact. This section maybe be called Evaluation, Impact or Outcomes. Outcomes are different than outputs. Outcomes describe impact. Outputs are numbers. The section is where you describe your plan for judging the project’s success. It is objectives met plus activities implemented resulting in change. You may be using pre/post tests, reverse surveys, evaluations and/or an independently verified assessment. Whatever you are using, describe it and explain why it is your measurement tool of choice.
Future funding is the section that is the most difficult for new grant writers because it’s the squishiest. Many of us would like this section to go away. I totally get why this section is important for funders. I just wish we had the sustainability to answer it well. If we did, we probably wouldn’t need to be seeking new money, but since we are… the answer is usually some version of: we will continue to seek funding, possibly introduce a social enterprise, offer one signature event that raises 10% or more of our annual budget, build our coffers and steward donors in an effort to continue to provide the life altering programming that we do until we meet our mission and change our corner of the world. Like I said, squishy.
That usually takes care of the narrative portion of the proposal. Before I move on to the budget portion, I want to offer a plea on behalf of all of the readers of these grants many of whom will not work in your field. They will be Board members or volunteers. Make it easy for them to recommend you for funding. Don’t guilt, don’t use jargon they don’t know and don’t exaggerate. Paint an engaging picture, follow the directions and engage them in your quest for world change!
On to the Budget: other than general operating, most grants require both an agency budget and a project budget. The agency budget should be (have already been) Board approved. The project budget will be the expenses and income related to the project for which you are requesting funding. It should roll up under the agency budget.
Do not seek funding from more than one source for the full cost of the project. (What would you do if you got both?) It is perfectly reasonable to seek funding for part of the project from multiple sources. If you are, include the other sources of potential funding in the project budget with a note on what is pending and what is awarded. If you have the opportunity to include a budget narrative do so and explain anything that isn’t immediately obvious.
When possible, I encourage you to include a cover letter with your proposal. Address it to the program officer with whom you spoke or whomever is listed in the instructions. Make sure you spell their name correctly. Explain why you are applying and for how much. Explain how your program ties to their funding priorities. If you are the only program providing your service in the area, say it again. Thank them for their consideration. Have your CEO and/or Board President sign the letter.
Before your mail or upload your grant: Have someone read it and then have someone else read it. Check your math. Check your proposal against the RFP. Check your signatures. Submit the right amount of copies and originals – check those copies. Make a hard copy for the file and an electronic copy for the future.
If your proposal got funded, you will receive a letter or a phone call informing you of your award. I encourage you to write thank you note and continue to keep in touch with the funding institution. I also encourage you to reach out via phone and also in writing if you need a budget modification or if something comes up that is unexpected, both good and bad.
If you didn’t get funded, I encourage you to call the program officer and ask why. They’ll tell you. Try very hard to be gracious when they do.
The first grant I ever wrote was denied. Now I know you know that I taught myself how to write grants so it easily could have been denied because the grant was poorly written. I’m happy to tell you that was not the case! The program officer told me it was well written. (Hooray!) It was denied because my agency didn’t need the money. (No, I have never had that happen since.) I was serving as a program coordinator of a small agency with the board serving as the executive director. The agency ran a bingo hall which brought in tons of money. Perhaps the Board didn’t know how grants work when they told me to write this grant and signed off on its submission? It’s a good lesson.
How did you learn how to write grants? Was your first grant funded? Any advice to share? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.