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How to Become a Successful Grant Writer
by Kathleen Ewing

Return to Business & Technical Writing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

With the economy slumping and private donations running on fumes, the need for grant funds and grant writers has never been greater. Yet many writers exclude grant writing from their tool chest for the simple reason that it intimidates them. It sounds so formal, so technical and so difficult.

The good news is there really is a formula for success. The bad news is there really is a formula for success. Like solving a mathematical equation, you cannot deviate from this formula. Grant writing is not a work of creative nonfiction. Artistic license doesn't enter into the picture.

The first step is to find a client in need of your services. Start small. Don't take on a half-million dollar project unless you have the opportunity to work alongside an experienced grant writer.

The two best methods for finding a client:

1. Check with your local United Way. They can provide you with a list of the non-profit organizations they serve in your community. At any given time, several of these groups will have shopping lists of projects, facilities or equipment for which they need donor funding.

2. Join the Chamber of Commerce and attend the mixers. Chances are excellent that someone at these events will represent a non-profit that requires the services of a grant writer or will know the representative of at least one non-profit that does.

Next you must match the project with a funder. As with organ transplants, the better the match with the donor, the more likely the match will be successful. Do not attempt to alter the project to suit the requirements of the funding source, however. By doing so you reduce your chances of success and risk alienating both your client and the granting organization.

Grant writing is the art of finding who has your client's money in their pocket. Fortunately, you don't have to be a trained detective. Most funding organizations will tell you right up front whose money they have in their pockets. The best place to start your search is foundationcenter.org. For a fee, you can subscribe to their directory of grantmaking foundations.

Depending upon how much of a fee you pay, you will be able to access information for 10,000 to 100,000 of the top foundation and corporate grantmakers. The directory is updated daily. You can also find a hard copy of the directory at most libraries. Some entries in the hard copy will be outdated and will require further research to assure that you have the latest information available.

Study each of the charitable organizations and corporate grantmakers to discover what types of proposals they typically fund. Find the ones whose mission statement, funding history and guidelines most closely match your project.

Do they fund in your state or region of the country? If not, cross them off your list. There will be plenty of funders that do. What is the deadline for each funding cycle? If the cycle has expired for this quarter, but the next quarter fits your timeline, add them to your group of prospects. If they list a website, make sure you visit the site. The more you know about a grantmaker, the greater your chances of framing your proposal to suit their parameters.

Note the name, address, phone and fax number and e-mail address of the contact person. This is not optional, even if you are the bashful type. Call that contact person. That's why the organization has provided their name -- to save both you and the granting foundation the waste of time and resources involved in submitting an inappropriate, misdirected or poorly designed proposal. Give the contact person a brief description of your project. Ask him or her if it sounds like something their organization would fund.

If this person agrees that their grant-makers would be willing to review the project, ask how to prepare and submit your proposal to their specifications. Speak to the contact person for each prospective grantor you have identified for your proposal. Never assume similar foundations or corporations will accept the same style of proposal or the same format.

Whatever the funder's submission preferences, make sure to provide precisely what that grantor wants; nothing more, nothing less. Some grantmakers will ask for an informal preliminary letter outlining the project, while others will insist upon a full-blown formal proposal. Some will require the use of their own proposal forms. A few are so finicky they designate preliminary reviewers who will actually measure your margins with a ruler to make sure the manuscript conforms, and will reject the entire proposal package unread if it doesn't. Don't give a grantor a silly reason to reject your proposal -- such as font, formatting or method of delivery.

If the foundation does not have its own form for submission, the basic format is simple.

The Ask

This should be the opening paragraph of your proposal. It should look something like this: "Daisy Mae Center, a 501(c)3 company in Grand Tanque, NM, provides daycare to children one to five years of age with moderate to severe developmental delays. We are seeking $15,000 for Safe Kids brand name playground equipment for the thirty special needs children we serve. The equipment includes..."

Remember, the purpose of a proposal is to secure funding for a worthy project, not to show off your writing talent or to try to impress anyone with your vocabulary. The Ask should be brief, direct and uncomplicated. It should answer the who, what and where that a funder must know at the beginning.

The Why

This is where you go into more detail about the need. If you can make the funder care about your project on a personal level, you are much more likely to be successful. If possible, describe a couple of instances that demonstrate the need for your client's project. But stick to the truth. And always explain any terminology, jargon or abbreviations that are not common knowledge. Example: "In 2006, Lindy, a four-year-old girl with benign hypotonia (a chronic lack of muscle tone), was critically injured when she fell from... As a result of her injuries, Lindy has undergone five years of..."

The How

This portion of the request delves into the nuts and bolts of your project. Here you describe the playground pieces, their functions and their special applications for your client's requirements. Perhaps you can provide a few photos of the equipment, and of the empty playground or the out-dated equipment your project plans to replace. You can even include a website link to the manufacturer of the products. Explain what company will do the installation and who will train your client's staff to use the equipment properly. Include a timeline for these events because most funding organizations will check in with a grantee at various stages to assure themselves the project is on time and making appropriate progress.

The Budget

You will need to account for every dollar of the grant request, plus any other contributions to the cause. If a person or company has agreed to donate time or supplies to the project, this should be included as "in kind" donation. If another individual or organization has donated cash to the project, that goes into the budget. If the client has a person who is being paid to supervise the project, that must be added as well.

The Metrics

The grantor will ask you what measurements you will use to determine the success of your project. Perhaps your client expects a third of the staff to be trained on the functionality of the new equipment every four weeks for the three months following the installation. You will need to put that on your timeline and have your client report to the grantor when it is accomplished.

A final success metric might be that all the equipment is in place and inspected, all staff are trained and all thirty children at the center have been introduced to each piece of equipment by a specific date.

The Future

You will need to explain how Daisy Mae Center is going to pay for repair, maintenance and eventual replacement of this equipment. This might be through a combination of budgeting, local fundraising or private donations. Grantors want to see a concrete plan for sustaining a project after they have invested in it.

The Contact

Provide the grantor with full contact information for the person they will go to for questions, details and progress reports during the lifespan of the grant. Unless you are being paid to manage the grant in addition to writing it, this should not be your name. Once the grant has been made, your portion of the process is finished. It is up to your client to provide whatever follow-up and assurances the grantor has requested.

Funders have drop-dead deadlines. Make sure you take into account time-zone differences. This is one deadline you don't want to miss or try to fudge by even ten seconds. Being late is an automatic disqualification. No excuses. No exceptions. If you have to drive two hours to hand-deliver your proposal before the deadline, do so. Otherwise, all the time you have spent working with your client, researching and contacting grantmakers and developing the proposal will be wasted.

Some funding foundations accept simultaneous submissions. In fact, many grantors will request a list of other organizations you plan to ask for support. If they are unable or do not want to fund your entire proposal, they might be willing to partner with another grantor to split the cost. Do not send this list unless the grantmaker specifically requests it.

On the other hand, some funders do not wish to know if you are contacting another granting organization. So, when making a simultaneous submission, you must be meticulous in removing all traces of information for funding source number one before you send the proposal to funding sources number two, three or four.

When you learn a granting foundation or corporation has accepted your proposal, write a letter of thanks for your client to send to the funder. This is a common courtesy that is often overlooked.

If your grant is accepted by more than one grantmaker, take a moment to celebrate a great accomplishment. Then you must inform the second organization that this has occurred. When you contact them, you should have already prepared a request to apply the additional funds to an upgrade for the project, to purchase additional items or to acquire unrelated items which are on your client's wish list. Once a grant has been made, grantors seldom ask for a return of their funds, especially if you can show that the money will be put to good use along the same lines as the initial request.

The good news is anyone can write a grant. The bad news is -- you guessed it -- anyone can write a grant. You're going to have a lot of competition. As any first-round grant reader can assure you, if you stick with the formula and provide the funders what they want precisely the way they want it, you will leave a third of that competition behind you right out of the starting gate.

Find Out More...

The Art of Writing Grant Proposals - Penny Ehrenkranz

Writing-World.com's Links to Grant & Funding Sources

Copyright © 2012 Kathleen Ewing
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Kathleen Ewing is a successful grant writer and award-winning freelance writer based in Central Arizona. Some of her articles have appeared in American Falconry, Hobby Farms and TrailBlazer magazines. Visit her profile online at http://www.linkedin.com/pub/kathleen-ewing/11/579/825


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