Preparation is vital in grant writing.
Fail to plan and you’ve virtually guaranteed that something important will fall through the cracks. In my time as a grant writer, consultant, and mentor I’ve seen otherwise competent and well-meaning professionals miss deadlines, not make enough copies, fail to submit all of the required documents, forgo providing necessary data because a colleague missed a deadline, and much more.
Early in my career, I made some of these missteps myself. But in the years since I’ve learned the value of putting in place systems that keep me from missing any of the important stuff when I’m working on a grant. Even when my life is otherwise completely chaotic.
I may not be wearing matching socks on any given day, but you can bet I have it all together when it comes to the grants I’m working on. With just a tiny bit of preparation you can, too. Here are my top 3 ways to make sure you never miss a grant deadline (or any of the small details that go into the grant either):
Method #1: Create a strategy and a timeline
First thing’s first. I always create a strategy for the organization I’m working with for each fiscal year. I use a good old-fashioned spreadsheet to do this, but you could easily do the same thing with something fancier like project management software, AirTable, or build it in your existing grant management software if you’re lucky enough to have that.
My strategy sheets are the culmination of tons of research I do to identify which grant prospects will work best for the organization’s purposes and needs in any given year. I take all the information I’ve gained from my research and I lay it out in the spreadsheet in order of when I will apply to each one. Then I go back in and include lots of necessary details for each funder: what we’re applying for, deadlines, reporting requirements, contact information, average award amounts, and any notes I have on what they want to fund, etc.
Laying it out like this gives me an overview of the grants I will be pursuing over the course of the entire year. It gives me all the details at a glance and makes it really easy to create a timeline.
My timelines lay out all the important dates and deadlines for the year, including LOI and proposal deadlines, reporting deadlines, meetings, and any dates by which I need to have certain documents or data ready to hit important benchmarks.
You can use this timeline as a standalone tool to help you stay on track, or you can pair it up with my second method to really make sure you never miss anything.
Method #2: Use a Grant Calendar
Today’s grant pros are so lucky because we are surrounded by technology. Much of it is free and if you know how to use it, it can act just like a personal assistant, making sure you never forget anything again, let alone a grant deadline.
I personally like Google Calendar. It’s free with a Gmail or Google account and I enter every single appointment, important date, and deadline into it. You can also set up reminders and everything can be hooked up to your phone (yes, even if you have an iPhone) so that you get reminders and calendar notifications sent straight to your mobile device.
My recommendation is to set up a Google Calendar just for grants work, share it with anyone in your organization who needs to share data or be kept in the loop, and then input all of the year’s deadlines and important dates from the strategy/timeline you created. You can even include notes, video conferencing, links, and other cool features in Google Calendar entries.
(I feel like I should mention here that I don’t work for Google and I don’t get any kickbacks or compensation from them. I just use their suite of products everyday and I’m a true believer in how much easier they can make your life and work.)
Method #3: Utilize project management tools to keep everyone on track and on deadline
In addition to the strategy, timeline, and calendar, you may want to consider using some actual project management tools. If you have a large team of people working on a grant or the project/program itself is large or complicated, these tools can be especially helpful in getting everyone on the same page and providing a platform for rapid communication, feedback, and easy sharing of data and documents.
I personally like Asana. It’s a digital, cloud-based tool for managing projects. Although it wasn’t built with grants in mind, the framework is open and flexible enough that you could easily use it to manage grants (or anything, really). If you’ve never checked out Asana, you should. There’s a free version and you can also apply for nonprofit pricing if you like it and want access to more features. (Again, I don’t get compensated by Asana for saying this. I just love it and I think you might, too.)
For those who prefer to go low-tech, there are a plethora of tried and true paper or spreadsheet-based project management systems that have been used with grants and other types of nonprofit project management for years. Many of the most commonly used project management tools include Rolling Action Items Lists (RAIL), Gantt charts, Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) Tools, Strategy maps, and more.
Again, if you’re a relatively small organization, don’t have complex programming, and/or don’t need to coordinate a large team then you may only need your strategy/timeline and a good calendar. But if you do have more intricate needs or lots of moving parts, you should consider using some sort of real-deal project management solution to make absolutely sure that all the important stuff gets done on time.
The combination of these three methods has reliably kept me on track for years and years. It’s been a very long time since I’ve missed a deadline or failed to gather all information, data, and documents in time for submission. If deadlines are a constant struggle for you or your organization, these tools can help you, too.
Before we part ways, I want to give you two more things to make this even easier.
The first is a template I use to create my strategies and timeline. The second is a bundle of project management tool templates. You can get either or both of them, for free, by clicking the buttons below. Enjoy!