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The Six Steps of Effective Grant Writing

When I first began contracting as a grant writer, I had a client named Nick who was very concerned about his budget and his ability to fund my time.

Sympathetic to the situation of new organizations, I explained to him that we could work together so that he could become accustomed to the process of preparing proposals, until his budget expanded.

“No way!” he had exclaimed incredulously, “I don’t do my own taxes or perform my own dental work! Why would I think I could write my own grants!?”

To an extent, Nick was correct to assume that grant writing was a technical skill and that performing it with competency was challenging. However, there is much that an organization can do to sustain itself. While Nick may not do his own dental work, I certainly hope that he is brushing and flossing each day!

In the same spirit, there is much an organization can do to help maintain a healthy budget. Many organizations will still require professional assistance in the long term, but certain submissions may be easily prepared in-house in a few simple steps.

The term “grant writing” is almost a misnomer. Seeking funding via the grant process is actually an activity composed of six critical steps. Writing is usually the lengthiest step, but the others are just as important.

Step One: Take a Good Hard Look

Take an honest inventory of your organization’s grant-readiness. There are a few simple things to address that can make a world of difference where funding is concerned. A healthy board of directors, composed of a diverse and talented team with regular meetings, is a great asset.

Compliance with the federal and local laws is a necessity. Evaluate your financial status last year and whether you have demonstrated an ability to manage larger funding amounts. These are great observations to make as you begin.

Step Two: Set Reasonable, Mission-Oriented Goals

It’s important to know the difference between dreams for an organization and timely, accessible goals. An honest look at the landscape can help. While positivity is critical to your success, informed optimism will help you to set reasonable goals and avoid exhausting yourself.

Younger organizations should slowly scale up the funding they apply for in a deliberate way, seeking larger amounts as they demonstrate the capacity to handle smaller amounts. Knowing this, what might you be able to achieve this year?

The dream of the organization might be to offer services throughout the country, but a reasonable short-term goal could be to expand to the community next door. It can also be tempting to design these goals around funding opportunities as they come up.

To avoid this, try mapping out directions that you intend to grow before looking for grant deadlines. This document could take the form of a concept map, a time line, or a flow chart.

Even thriving organizations can struggle to follow their plan when a tempting funding opportunity comes along. However, adopting programming beyond the scope of your mission in order to bolster funding will almost always lead to frustration in the end.

Step Three: Prepare For the Process

A few documents are required by almost every funder. It is advisable to build a few things before you begin to avoid last minute scampering. Make sure to gather a list of board members (including their offices and backgrounds), your IRS determination letter, a budget for the organization, a project-specific budget, a statement about the organization’s history, and anything you can use to demonstrate the organization’s impact to-date.

If you have audits or 990s, these will be asked for frequently. These items will be critical to success in grant writing. If a funder asks for them and you are unable to supply them, your proposal will likely be immediately dismissed, no matter how incredible your concept may be.

Step Four: Research! Research!

Now that you have established your goals and gathered your documents, you are prepared to seek out funders. Services like, Grant Station, and the Foundation Center are useful tools for organizations seeking opportunities.

Remember your plan as you review upcoming deadlines. It can be tempting to take every opportunity that seems to fit, but funders are keenly able to detect when an organization is trying to finagle a square peg into a round hole. Develop a well-researched list of funding sources, including due dates, interests, and their application processes.

Step Five: Write Like You Mean It

This step can be daunting at first. Understandably, the first proposal you create will be the hardest, even if it is quite short. One simple tip that will help you to organize your thoughts is to outline the information the funder requests as a starting point.

Be prepared to compose a one-line project description, a summary, a statement of need, a statement of the organization’s abilities to achieve its goals, a budget, and lists of the proposed program’s activities, their objectives, and their outcomes. Make sure that no question is ignored or only partially answered.

Step Six: Submit!

This may seem obvious, but all submissions need to be submitted on time and with all required pieces in place. If the funder requests six copies, they mean it. If they ask for an electronic copy, they mean it. If they would like it printed on pink stationary with glittered ink, they still mean it. Some grants are due at midnight, while others are due at noon. Some require the submission to be postmarked by a certain date while others require submissions to have arrived by a certain date. Make note of all of these factors before you begin and plan accordingly.

Resist the urge to provide your submission in binders or folders or to include unrequested materials unless you are invited to supply other items. In general, this will not help your proposal. Try as hard as you can to submit things before they are due. Nothing is more stressful than submitting a proposal at 11:57PM!

So there it is! It’s not always easy, but it is typically straightforward. With a little work, most organizations should be able to supply smaller proposals or items like concept papers or letters of interest. Keep in mind that the process is as much about selling your project (what you are doing and why) as it is about selling your competency and your capacity to perform that project. With a little bit of attention and time, you may be able to engage funders with confidence.