Buckle up, folks. This is going to be a longer blog post than I normally write.
But it’s going to be absolutely packed with my best tips, strategies, and hacks for finding, writing, and editing grant proposals that get funded. If you’ve ever wanted a start-to-finish rundown of the grants process, this is it.
Plus I’ve got a little somethin’ somethin’ for you at the end of the post. (Scroll down to get it now if you don't have time to read the whole post)
If you don’t have time to read it all now, or you want to refer back to it later, I suggest you bookmark this one so you don’t lose it. Ready?
Grant writing is half art, half science.
Let’s start with the half that’s “art”. Not the kind you hang on the wall or listen to in a concert hall, but the kind you sort of have to feel out. The kind where you have to be led by intuition a little bit.
Because here’s the thing that most of us who have written more than a handful of grants know:
You can write the best proposal in the world and there will be times it does not get funded.
Maybe the reviewer was having a bad day that day. Maybe they were tired and your proposal was at the bottom of a huge stack and so they didn’t give it the time and attention it deserved. Maybe (and not many foundations will admit this, but it does happen) the winners were all but pre-selected and you were dead in the water before you began. That last one’s a real bummer and thankfully it’s usually not the case.
But the point is that there are lots of scenarios in which you can do your best work and still not get the grant.
That’s where the art of it comes in.
After you’ve researched enough grant opportunities, spoken with enough foundation reps and program managers, and read enough RFPs you start to get a sense for what will work best and what won’t. It’s not something that’s spelled out in the eligibility requirements or in the grant questions. Nope. It’s more like a sixth sense you develop over time. Which is why I call it an art.
Developing that sense just takes time. And you will get it down. I believe in you.
But in the meantime, I want to focus on teaching you the science behind great grant writing so you have the best chance possible at getting more awards and honing your writing skills.
First and foremost, work on your writing skills. Without a good foundation and grasp of the written word, the rest of it doesn’t matter. Your best bet is to really nail the fundamentals and work on cultivating a storytelling approach that can wow funders (but do know when and where to write more academically, also).
Once you have a good foundation, move on to the following steps to help you craft a strategy and then actually get the grant awards.
Depending on what types of grants you’re looking for, there are lots of ways to go about finding them. Start a list to collect grant opportunities. During this phase you want to write down every possibility – you will edit it down later. Below are some good grant-hunting methods:
FINDING GRANTS TIP #1: Invest in or locate the right sources
There are great databases out there that most of us pros use. If your organization can afford a membership, I highly recommend getting one. I personally like Foundation Directory Online (FDO) and GrantStation. You can get a discounted membership to FDO and GrantStation on TechSoup. But before you sign up, check with your local library or community college. They often have a membership they will let you use for free.
FINDING GRANTS TIP #2: Bookmark websites
If you don’t utilize your browser’s bookmark capability, it’s time you started. Typically in the URL bar at the top of your screen there’s a little star or bookmark icon. When you come to a site you love or want to come back to, make sure you click that icon and your browser will indeed save it.
(While we’re talking about it, why don’t you go ahead and bookmark the CNPS Site or sign up for blog post updates so you don’t miss a good one!)
The reason I’m advocating this is sometimes you stumble upon a grant opportunity in a place you wouldn't normally look. Or you come across a great resource for helping you find other opportunities. Don’t rely on memory – bookmark that bad boy.
And definitely go out of your way to Google and look for new funding sources regularly. Plugging general search terms into Google such as ‘youth orchestra grants’ or ‘community arts center summer camp grants’ may yield you some good results. From there, expand your search to local community organizations (such as community foundations, Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, etc.) and even to corporations that have a local presence or workforce (since many of them have charitable foundations that also make grants). Banks also typically make grants. So search for these resources, take note of funding priorities and deadlines, and bookmark the sites so you can come back later!
FINDING GRANTS TIP #3: Subscribe to newsletters
Let other companies and individuals do some of the heavy lifting for you. There are others out there collecting grant leads and giving them to their readers for free. Take advantage! You can sign up for FDO’s newsletter (scroll to the bottom of their page), a plethora of other similar sites, and of course you can sign up for mine here so you get targeted arts grants (if you email me and tell me where your org is located, I’ll even dig some up just for you!).
FINDING GRANTS TIP #4: Create an RSS Feed & Check it Regularly
This one is often overlooked, but it can be the fastest and easiest way for you to check several sources regularly for news, updates, or grants. All you need to do is utilize an RSS service (I use this free RSS Feed Reader), subscribe to whatever website feeds you want to check out regularly (so you would definitely want to subscribe to potential grantmakers or blogs that regularly post grant opportunities) and then just remember to check it.
I keep the tab to the RSS feed reader open on my phone’s browser and I skim it every night to look for opportunities or news I should be aware of.
Not sure what to subscribe to? You can subscribe to almost any website that has a blog or posts articles. Just type in the main web address into the RSS feed’s search bar and it will walk you through the rest.
At this phase, you have a list of grant opportunities that might work for the program or programs you need to fund. Now it’s time to do a little research to ensure they really are a good match and to determine where each one falls on the priority list and in your overall strategy. Expect to eliminate some of them from your list altogether during this phase. To determine which stay on your list and which have to go, run them through a rigorous research process like this one:
RESEARCHING GRANTS TIP #1: Check their RFP (eligibility, guidelines, type of funding)
Most grants will tell you exactly what they want and what they will and won’t fund. You’ll either find this in their Request for Proposals (RFP) or if they have a revolving deadline, it’s often just spelled out on their website. This should be the very first thing you look at to determine whether or not this opportunity is a good fit for your program.
Also be sure to check the eligibility requirements (typically these are spelled out in the RFP, on their website, or both) as well as what their funding priorities are. The eligibility requirements will tell you if you have a shot at this grant. Making sure their funding priorities are lined up well with your actual program tells you whether or not you have a good shot at this grant.
RESEARCHING GRANTS TIP #2: Guidestar
Start making it a habit to look up every grantmaker on GuideStar. Specifically, you want to look at their 990 forms to see who and what they’ve funded and in what amount. Ideally, you want to see that they are funding organizations and programs similar to yours. If the grantmaker isn’t located in your region, be sure to check if they have funded nonprofits in your state or area in the past. If they haven’t, it may not totally disqualify them, but it is less likely that they will make an exception for you.
RESEARCHING GRANTS TIP #3: Go Back a Few Years
When you look at 990s, don’t just look at the most recent. I always pull up at least the last 3 990s listed on GuideStar to get a more complete view of who, what, where, and why they fund.
RESEARCHING GRANTS TIP #4: Ask Around
When you look at the list of the organizations they’ve funded before, see if you recognize any of the orgs on the list. If you do or if you know any staff or board members from these nonprofits, reach out and pick their brain about the proposal they wrote, the feedback they may have gotten, and what kind of partnership they’ve built with the grantmaker. This helps you see how likely you are to get funded and whether or not it will be a good fit if you do.
RESEARCHING GRANTS TIP #5: Call Them
Don’t be shy. Do your best to track down the best contact person (usually a program officer or point person who’s listed on the RFP or website). Call them up, ask questions about the proposal, give them a short synopsis of your program and make sure it’s a good fit in their eyes. Here’s the thing: you need to get on their radar and build a relationship. So even if you don’t actually have a question at this point, make one up. Introduce yourself and your program anyway. It’s important.
WRITING THE PROPOSAL
At this stage you should have a thoroughly vetted list, which you’ve put in some semblance of order based on due dates and priority levels. You should also have started the very first phase of building relationships with at least a handful of the prospects on your list. Now it’s time to start writing your first proposal.
PROPOSAL WRITING TIP #1: Mark all important dates on your calendar
This sounds like such a no-brainer but time and time again I see people miss important dates and timelines, all because they didn’t have a simple system for tracking it. You need to make a list of Letter of Intent (LOI), proposal, meeting, and reporting deadlines and dates and then actually put these in your calendar along with any reminders or notifications you may need.
PROPOSAL WRITING TIP #2: Set milestones and benchmarks for yourself if it’s a larger grant. Put them on your calendar.
Every proposal is different, but it’s vital that you give yourself plenty of time to write the proposal, well ahead of the deadline. Decide which portions or sections you want to have completed by what dates and put it in your calendar.
PROPOSAL WRITING TIP #3: Block out time each day or week to write & edit.
In order to meet the deadlines you set in the previous tip you need to block out the necessary time in your schedule to actually get it done. Remember: what gets scheduled gets done. If you don’t plan to make it happen, expect your plan to go off the rails.
EDITING THE PROPOSAL
So you have your first grant proposal draft! You should be proud. Take a moment to celebrate that small win before you dive into the process of editing and revising. Never turn in your first draft if you can help it. Instead, start working your way through the following list:
PROPOSAL EDITING TIP #1: Call the grantmaker – Questions, Clarity, & Relationship-Building
Ideally, this should be your second call to the grantmaker. This one should be about asking questions that directly relate to questions in the grant application, how best to structure your answers, and get the most clarity possible about what they want from you. But it’s also about further cementing you and your organization in their minds. It’s all about relationship-building and making sure you are a recognizable entity and not a total stranger when it comes time to review your proposal.
PROPOSAL EDITING TIP #2: Get a 2nd set of eyes
So you’ve talked with the grantmaker, gotten really clear on what they want, and you’ve written until your eyes crossed. Now is the time to hand off your proposal to someone else. At this point, you will start to miss errors and problems with wording because you’ve been staring at it for so long. Get a colleague with a fresh set of eyes to give it a good look with the help of a red pen. Incorporate their edits where it makes sense and you will have finished your second draft. Hooray!
PROPOSAL EDITING TIP #3: Check your word or character counts
Once you’ve written your first draft, talked with the grantmaker, had someone else suggest edits, and then made those revisions (your 2nd draft), then it’s time to go through and double-check that your answers are within the required word or character limits defined on the proposal. This will spur much re-wording (and much frustration). Grit your teeth, reword everything as concisely and clearly as you can until it fits in the word/character counts and then you will have the beginnings of your third draft in your hands!
PROPOSAL EDITING TIP #4: Make sure you actually answer their questions.
Now that you are within the character and/or word counts, take a day or two to get away from the grant proposal. Cleanse your mental pallett. But then go back and re-read it. This time through you’re checking to make sure that in the revision process you haven’t gotten too far away from answering their questions. I know, I know. This sounds like something you don’t need to worry about. After all, you’ve read these questions a thousand times by now, right?
But I’ve seen lots of proposals where the writer outlined a lengthy, in-depth answer but unfortunately, it never answered the actual question. Read the questions and your answers again. Have you really told them what they want to know? Revise as needed.
PROPOSAL EDITING TIP #5: Make sure you have good, supporting data.
Part of answering the questions asked is ensuring you are answering with supporting data and sources, where appropriate and necessary. For example, if you see a proposal question like “Please describe the need your program addresses”, for the love of cheese and crackers don’t answer with “lots of people tell us like they art. They love our gallery so we want to make sure we keep offering great art to the public!”. That’s not a good answer.
How do you know what specific art they want and how is the actual need for it demonstrated and met? Have you surveyed the community? Have you surveyed patrons coming to your facility? Have you identified actual barriers to accessing programs like yours through assessments and other communications methods? Have you implemented strategies that truly remove or reduce these barriers and then followed up to make sure the people you are serving agree that barriers have been reduced and their needs have been met? Because if you haven’t done these things and you can’t include your findings in your answer, then your answer is not as solid as it needs to be.
PROPOSAL EDITING TIP #6: Check spelling & grammar
Hopefully you have been double-checking your spelling, grammar, syntax etc. all along and your reviewer has caught a few things along the way, as well. But now that you’re nearing the home stretch it’s time to make sure you focus on eliminating any obvious errors. Read through your proposal again, but this time don’t get pulled in by the narrative. You’re just looking for typos and wording problems.
PROPOSAL EDITING TIP #7: Get a 3rd set of eyes
One more set of eyes should go over the proposal before you finish off your first draft. Ideally, this should not be the same person as the one who edited your earlier draft. After their suggested edits have been incorporated (if appropriate), make sure anyone in a supervisory role takes a last look (or maybe they are your 3rd set of eyes), that all your word and character counts are still good, and what you should have now is your final draft.
SUBMITTING THE PROPOSAL
PROPOSAL SUBMISSION TIP #1: Give yourself plenty of time
Procrastination is almost never a good thing, but it’s especially deadly in the grants world. You don’t want to pull an all-nighter to write an important grant proposal and you definitely don’t want to wait until the last minute to hit ‘Submit’. Honestly, you shouldn’t even wait until the last day.
Here’s the thing: life happens. You could get sick. You could forget to submit something and need to contact the grantmaker to see if it can be added to your submission (not a great scenario, but it could happen), or there could be technical problems on their website if it’s an online application. Either way, you want to have plenty of time to sort out any issues with getting it submitted on time. For proposals that must be mailed: please, please, please, give yourself at least a few days (but it would be better to have a week+) worth of leeway. You’ll thank yourself someday when there’s a post office glitch.
If it’s an online submission I like to submit at least 2-3 days ahead of time.
PROPOSAL SUBMISSION TIP #2: If you encounter tech issues, don’t wait – call them right away
If you do run into a tech issue when you try to submit your online proposal, don’t procrastinate on sorting it out. Call the grantmaker or the point person they have designated for this grant right away. Let them know the difficulties you’re having so they can assist with you getting the proposal turned in and also hopefully fix the online application portal so no one else has the same problem.
PROPOSAL SUBMISSION TIP #3: Mark the announcement date on your calendar
Most grantmakers will give you a date or date range in which they plan to announce which organizations have been chosen to receive grant awards. If it isn’t listed anywhere, call them and ask (another opportunity to actually speak with them is always good, anyway)! Then mark it on your calendar.
IF YOU DON’T GET THE GRANT
If you don’t get the grant, first let me say I’m sorry. It sucks to put in all that effort and time on writing, revisions, and building a relationship with a grantmaker only to be denied the award. BUT, as mentioned earlier, there are going to be times when you write the best proposal ever and don’t get the grant. When that happens, there are two things you should absolutely do:
- Reach out to the grantmaker for feedback on what you could have done better
- Send a note to the grantmaker, and make a call also, to thank them for their time and help throughout the application process. Express your interest in applying again next time and finding other ways to partner. In other words, don’t forget to keep building that relationship so that next time you apply, you are still top-of-mind and they have a positive relationship with you and your nonprofit.
MANAGING YOUR AWARD
If you did get the grant, congratulations! Do a happy dance, make your colleagues and board aware of it, and announce it on social media. Take a short moment to enjoy your victory, because now the real work begins.
GRANT MANAGEMENT TIP #1: Mark report deadlines on your calendar
Most grantmakers want reports on some sort of set schedule with information on how you’ve used grant funds and what sorts of results you are getting. Make sure to mark these reporting deadlines on your calendar so you don’t miss them.
GRANT MANAGEMENT TIP #2: Set in motion your grants recognition plan
Hopefully you had a solid grants recognition policy in place before you got this latest grant award. If not, it’s time to craft one. Some simple ways to recognize grant makers include: phone calls, handwritten notes, announcements on your website/blog, press releases, listing in relevant marketing materials, listing in programs and annual reports, and verbal announcements at relevant events. Make sure you contact the grantmaker to ask for a logo file and check with them on how they do and do not want it used. Also send the grantmaker copies of any press, print materials, or photos that show them being recognized.
GRANT MANAGEMENT TIP #3: Invite the funder for a site visit
Not all grantmakers are local, but you should invite them regardless. If you have tickets to an event or performance you can offer, you should do that as well. If they cannot attend, that’s ok, but they will still appreciate you making the effort to include them and recognize the ways in which their grant has allowed you to do the great work that you do.
GRANT MANAGEMENT TIP #4: Make sure you have data collection methods in place
This should have been addressed before the grant proposal was ever written, but now is the time to make sure all program staff really understand how vital it is for them to use the data collection tools you have set up. Make sure everyone is on the same page about collecting data, photos, input, etc. and on what schedule so that you always have what you need for your grant reports, publicity, marketing, etc.
GRANT MANAGEMENT TIP #5: Make sure your accounting is set up correctly
This is another one that should have been set up waaaay before the proposal was ever written. But even if that’s not the case you need to get this set before you make any expenditures out of the grant funds. Your accounting system should be set up so that you can keep grant funds separate from your everyday operating funds. You need to be able to demonstrate clearly to the grantmaker (and the IRS) the funds that came in from any one grant and exactly what was spent with those funds only.
GRANT MANAGEMENT TIP #6: Make sure you have good file storage in place
You need a place to securely store hard copies of grant files, reports, data, and financial information. You also need a secure place to store digital copies of all these things. Every piece of information you have about grants should exist in duplicate: at least one hardcopy and at least one digital copy. For your hard copies, you want a file cabinet that is able to be locked. For digital copies, I recommend DropBox or Google Drive (I like Google Drive the best).
GRANT MANAGEMENT TIP #7: Check in regularly with the funder
This goes back to our previous points about relationship-building. Now that you have the grant award, you should not disappear off the radar of your funder. They are not an ATM, to be ignored until you need money. Keep building that relationship. Call sometimes. Send thank-you notes or updates on the program they funded. Send holiday cards or even birthday cards to your program officer (if you know their birthday). Ask questions about reports. Send them your annual report, newsletters, photos from your events, etc. Trust me when I tell you that these little things will build goodwill between you and will pay dividends later.
TOOLS & HACKS TO MAKE IT ALL EASIER
I’ve thrown a lot at you in this blog post. If you made it this far, congratulations. But now I want to take just a few more minutes to give you some tools of the trade that should make your life a bit easier as you work your way through all the steps I outlined above.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE #1: Grammarly
Grammarly is an online program (and app) that a lot of professional writers use. Their free version will help you detect typos, grammar and syntax errors, and suggest better ways to word things. If you go for the pro version (still affordable and very much worth it) you can even tell it what kind of writing you are doing (business, academic, persuasive, etc.) and it will make recommendations based on what you told it. It’s like your own digital editor!
TOOLS OF THE TRADE #2: Master Grants Planner
If you are going to apply for more than 1-2 grants a year then you really need a good way to store and manage all the information that goes along with it. There are several grant management software programs out there which can help with that, but many are prohibitively expensive to all but the largest nonprofit organizations. You can try Fluxx GrantSeeker, which is free, but limited in scope.
Otherwise, I have a Master Grants Planner that you can use for free. Yes, it’s a spreadsheet (I normally recommend actual software programs), but it’s a spreadsheet on steroids. I have created tons of tabs to help you manage different things like funder logins, program funding goals, prospect research & strategy, awards, report deadlines, program budgets and more. You can get your copy here.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE #3: GSuite
I am fanatical in my love of GSuite. I don’t get paid for recommending it, I’m not an affiliate, and I get no kick-backs. I’m just a big fan of Google’s all-encompassing business tool.
With GSuite you get custom emails (with your org’s actual domain) for everyone on staff. You can use their suite of office software to replace expensive programs like Microsoft Office, and with no need for updates. GSuite offers awesome tools that function even better than Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc., that auto-save your work so you literally can’t lose it, and you can even collaborate and edit documents in real-time with other team members right inside of the document.
You can manage your team with tools like Hangouts and Groups, save notes for later in Keep, and organize all your digital files in the Cloud with Drive (eliminating the need for an actual server that lives in your facility and probably needs lots of maintenance).
I’ve listed only some of the function of GSuite so definitely check it out. If you apply for GSuite Nonprofit, you can use all these tools for FREE.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE #4: Foundation Directory Online
I mentioned this tool earlier. Foundation Directory Online (FDO) is a digital database of foundations. You do need a paid subscription to use it or you can see if a local library, college, or school has a membership you can use. They also sometimes have discounts available on TechSoup.
FDO has a really comprehensive listing of foundations, including many foundations that do not have standalone websites (so you can’t find them at all by Googling). Best of all, FDO gives you a dashboard view of each Foundation that shows what they fund, how much they’ve funded, links to recent 990s, and goes over the grant application process all on one easy-to-view page.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE #5: GrantStation
GrantStation is the other tool, also mentioned previously, that I recommend for searching for grant opportunities. Unlike FDO, this database is not comprised just of foundations so you can find lots of good opportunities here that you won’t find on FDO. GrantStation also has discounts available on TechSoup, so check there first for the best pricing.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE #6: English & Writing Books
Your ability write clearly and persuasively is the most important tool in your grants “toolbox”. Whether you’re a writing pro or need to brush up on some skills, it’s never a bad idea to have some great books around as a reference. I recommend these:
Gary Provost’s 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing: Proven Professional Techniques for Writing with Style & Power
Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style
Roget’s Thesaurus of Words for Writers
Graff & Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Persuasive Writing
TOOLS OF THE TRADE #7: Wave or QuickBooks
I mentioned earlier that you need an accounting system that is capable of separating out accounts, expenditures, etc. for grants management. Sorry, guys, but spreadsheets and stuffing old receipts in an envelope aren’t going to cut it. If you have the budget, go for QuickBooks. (They have both a desktop version and a Cloud version. As of the time of this writing, the Desktop version is heads and tails better).
If you don’t have the budget, use Wave. Wave has a free version with a paid (but affordable) add-on for payroll services, plus apps. Wave can invoice, accept payments, handle accounting and reports, and even automate some accounting tasks for you. In fact, I use it myself and despite the fact that I have used QuickBooks in the past and liked it, I have no intention of moving away from Wave as I’ve found it to be so user-friendly and robust. If you DO want to go with QuickBooks, get it on TechSoup.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE #8: Zapier
I’ve recommended Zapier elsewhere in my blog and to my clients. I use it myself and have come to rely on it. Essentially, Zapier helps you automate lots of manual tasks so that you no longer need to do them, saving you time and sometimes money. It works by hooking up multiple programs that you already use with each other and it tells them how you want them to interact.
Since there are so many things that go into writing and managing grants, Zapier is a natural fit to help you get it all done without taking too much of your already limited time. In particular, it would be useful to help you collect, manage, and report on data from your programs. For example, if you use Google Forms to survey patrons or program participants, you can use Zapier to take all the results from your form, put all that data into a spreadsheet, and create a report in the format you need for your grants reports.
You can utilize the free version, or you can pay for more functionality. There is a nonprofit version you can find here, which offers you a 15% discount.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE #9: Asana
Asana is project management software and I really don’t know how I would function without it. It allows you to create boards or lists for each project you’re working on (in this case, grants) and you can invite team members to individual projects so that they can collaborate. You can have entire discussions on this platform, attach files so they are all in one place, create timelines, deadlines, tasks, updates, and assign duties to anyone on the team. Imagine having central places for each grant where you can work with your fellow staff to collect data, discuss grant proposals and edits, create reports, and keep everything organized!
There is a free version and I recommend starting with that. If you have more than 15 team members who need to be included you will need to start moving up to the paid versions, which are still affordable and definitely worth every penny. There’s also an app for your phone.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE #10: Grant Professional Associations (GPA)
The last tool I want to recommend to you is to join a professional association. You will never regret the decision to invest in your own development and growth as a grant writer and as a professional in this industry. I personally am a member of, and recommend the Grant Professionals Association. With chapters in every major metro area of the United States as well as global chapters, they provide tons of great information, resources, training, opportunities to network, job opportunities, publications, and peers who can commiserate or help you with roadblocks. Please consider joining.
Phew! This was a doozy of a post. Thank you for reading all of it and I hope you found it helpful. Before I close out, I promised you something special and I want to make sure you get it. The following is a list of resources and FREE tools I have personally created that I think can help you better achieve your grants goals.
Nonprofit MasterMind Cheat Sheet
You may have seen some of those before if you’ve followed me for long.
But I do have something brand new for everyone, too: A Grants Recognition Policy Swipe File! Click the button below to get your copy.