How To Write Grant Proposals That Get Funded

Get your agency ready for the upcoming grant cycle. An essay about the behind scenes activities of the grant review process.

How To Write Grant Proposals That Get Funded

I Love Writing and Reviewing Grants

Grant writing is a technical skill requiring months if not years of training to grasp. I have written and reviewed grant proposals for nonprofit agencies, colleges and universities, public schools, school districts, charter schools, social service agencies, community development corporations (CDC), police departments, and local governments and municipalities. I love grant writing because it’s highly competitive and you get to raise money for the organization or charity you care about. A part of the learning process is learning to deal with successes, losses, and costly mistakes. While there are several factors grant writers can control to increase their chances of being successful, there are a few things beyond a grant writer’s control.

Let’s talk about what makes and breaks grant proposals.

What Makes Winning Grant Proposals

Writing a good grant proposal is like writing a good short story. The readers of a strong grant proposal should walk away impressed, informed, and above all, educated. Writing a good grant proposal is only half of the winning strategy. The other fifty percent of a successful grant proposal is ensuring your organization is a strong candidate prior to submission. Having a track record and evidence to support your claims is necessary prior to preparing an application.

It doesn’t matter how well writers think they can write, if they can’t clearly and concisely describe problems, sufficiently show the need, develop an approach which encompasses all the needs and problems, and provide proposal reviewers a reasonable and workable budget, they are not going to be funded. All these components are necessary to ensure proposals receive the highest score to meet funding score thresholds. Every point matters.

Things Writers Should Know:

  1. Proposal reviewers are rarely from the grant seekers area/state, so when preparing proposals, they should be written for people who know nothing about your agency, state, target area, or target population. Proposal reviewers are the first ones to review grant proposals fully, and we screen out good and bad proposals for the funders. If grant seekers don’t make it past first round reviewers, they won’t make it the next funding phase of the review which is conducted by the funding agency staff. Sometimes there is only one review phase, and reviewers like me are the only shot grant seekers get.
  2. Applications with limited or no data are not likely to get funded. Grant seekers not in their applications they couldn’t find any will not fly with reviewers. We are professionals, and we know of many sources available to gather data to substantiate need, regardless of where you live. Skimping on data gets your application severely down-scored.
  3. Reviewers most times are subject-matter experts (SMEs). We have worked in the field for the applications we review for years and even decades. Sticking junk science, inadequate data, or other questionable information gets in an application gets grant seekers nowhere with proposal reviewers. Grant proposals should be written with the expectation seasoned professionals will read and score them. For grant seekers who have been funded previously, understand we review those proposals as if they are brand new applicants. Reviewers are not privileged to current or past performance reporting, therefore, proposals should be written as if the reviewers are brand new. Program staff will review previously funded applicants after the initial review.
  4. We review applications using the same criteria grant seekers used to prepare their grant proposals. If writers don’t write it, we can’t say it’s there. We are not allowed to assume anything. Address all the criteria to avoid losing points.

About Proposal Preparation

Preparing strong grant proposals is half of the grant winning strategy. There are key components necessary to ensure reviewers have all the information they need to score an application.

  1. Describe The Problem Adequately. The worst thing a grant seeker can do is to focus on the agency’s lack and funding needs instead of focusing on the actual problem(s) for which your agency is seeking funding. Putting it plainly, reviewers do not care if your organization doesn’t have money to do X, Y, or Z. We care about the people or communities served, the problems the community or target population(s) are experiencing, and their needs. The agency is the middle-person, the fixer, or the conduit so to speak, not the focus of the proposal. Failing to adequately describe the specific problem(s) of the target population or area gets your application down scored drastically. Sometimes this section offers the most points.
  2. Provide Recent, Relevant Data. I can’t tell prospective grant seekers how many times I have down scored an applicant because they only use their own agency’s data. For instance, a rape crisis center application using only their agency data, and not including public data from police and sheriff departments, other rape crisis call centers, emergency rooms and other local, regional, and/or state data sources can be down scored because one source sometimes do not provide a full, accurate picture. Painting a picture with data is the most important way to convey problems and need. Also, I worked in the field so I know some agencies do shoddy data collection and tracking. I had to come in and clean up behind several organizations with data tracking and collection issues.
  3. Create A Sound, Logical Solution. If you note a problem in an application tied to the purpose of the funding announcement, grant seekers must include a plan or solution to solve the problem noted in their approaches and problem-solving strategies or risk losing points during the scoring process. For instance, please don’t tell reviewers there are several immigrant populations in the targeted area, but your approach only provides interpretation services for one of those populations. Don’t share with reviewers the targeted populations lack transportation to access agency services, then do not provide transportation access for beneficiaries. Address all solutions, even if partner agencies will address them. Reviewers will deduct points from your overall score for failing to provide solutions for all aspects of the problems noted.
  4. Provide a Reasonable, Feasible Budget. Making sure the budget includes only allowable costs, ensuring those costs are computed properly, providing/explaining in-kind commitments to the project or program, and including costs for each year of the program (if the funder notes applicant’s should) are key components of a good budget. Budgets should not include items not discussed in the application, and should contain a brief narrative for each line-item expense explaining how the expense is connected to address the approach. Refrain from including inflated and unnecessary expenses. Remember, we are subject-matter experts and we shop too. Our job as reviewers are to ensure grant seekers intend to be good stewards of public and charitable dollars. We down score applicants with sketchy and inadequate budgets. Some of us even calculate all line-items, so make sure the math is legit.
  5. Write Relevant Job and Staff Descriptions. Most grant funders want to know who will operate the program and handle funding, understanding key staff members will aid in the implementation and managing of the project or program. Make sure the proposal adequately describes all key staff qualifications and expertise, including volunteers. Exclude any irrelevant details unrelated to the purpose of the application to ensure there is enough space to describe all necessary staffers, especially those planning to be paid from the grant if awarded. Reviewers down score applicants who don’t provide sufficient evidence of key staff qualifications and expertise.
  6. Write in One Voice. When writing as a team, sometimes the flow of the proposal is all over the place. Some areas of the proposals are extremely detailed, while other areas skimp on key information leaving reviewers with more questions. If grant writers are working as a team, have a neutral person not affiliated with the proposal development process to read and score the application before submitting it to the funder. This activity will help to ensure the flow of the proposal is smooth, and if there are questions or gaps, writers can edit their sections accordingly. Reviewers can often tell when proposals are written by several people. Don’t allow a weak link to destroy your entire application.

What Sinks Proposals

There are a few things that you can avoid for more successful proposals. Those things include:

  1. Submitting proposals late
  2. Failing to include all required attachments including letters of support and memorandums
  3. Skipping portions of the criteria required for scoring
  4. Failing to include statistical data no older than 3-years old
  5. Failing to follow the order of the scoring criteria
  6. Not following formatting requirements, and
  7. Excessive graphs and photos (use your words wisely)

Things Beyond Your Control

Sometimes grant funders have limited funding and program funding gets cut in the middle of the grant cycle causing no awards to be made. Additionally, with some federal grants and federal programs, legislation requires grants be spread out nationally/geographically, so a low scoring application may be funded because it came from an area that had no high scoring applications worthy of being funded. Likewise, a high-scoring application may not be funded because it went to fund the low-scoring application in a different geographical region. It’s an unfair way the government tries to be fair to us nationally.

In Closing

Successful grant proposals take lots of time to prepare. Those of us who write grants for a living are usually passionate about writing for charity and the public sector. There is something exciting about securing funding for worthy causes and projects. We spend lots of time locating funding sources, matching agency needs with grant funder priorities, developing plans and budgets, and putting together what we believe are winning grant proposals. Grant writing isn’t a task for people who hate writing and reading. It’s a different type of storytelling with a reward of a check at the end when we do it well. Even though the funding isn’t ours personally, we take those wins personally. The losses hurt just as much.

When writing grant proposals, remember reviewers can’t consider things like misspellings and grammar, so don’t stress if you find after a grant’s submission you’ve made a few boo-boos. We aren’t allowed to even take them into considerations. Reviewers are allowed to deduct points due to improper formatting when scoring grant proposals, so please make sure when writing grants proposals, they are written to the funders specifications. Follow those directions.

Let me reiterate, follow all the directions. One last thing, there are very few grants for businesses. Those grants are mostly for small business research and development and tech innovation, so please don’t believe what anyone tells you about finding grants for your business. Let me save you money, trouble, and disappointment. There are none.

Grant writing is extremely competitive. If grant seekers are going to be in it, they should be in it to win it! Understanding what happens after you hit the submit button I believe helps grant seekers win. Do you have questions about grant writing? Ask below. Sharing is caring. Let’s make communities better everywhere.

Good luck, and happy writing.

©2019 Marley K. All rights reserved.