I am always surprised how intimidated people are by grant writing, which nonprofit culture has elevated to an unjustifiably lofty status. But I am astonished by the amount of money that organizations shell out for grant writers, most of whom I place one notch above snake oil salespeople. To me, the difference between grant fearers and those who call themselves “grant writers” is that the latter said during an a-ha moment: “Oh, geez. I can do this.”
As I hope this series shows, grant writing is not an insurmountable task that must be outsourced for an arm and a leg. Yes, it is a craft that takes knowledge and finesse to perfect, it’s not – as my grandfather would say – brain science. It doesn’t require a Ph.D. or expensive trainings or some arbitrary certification. It just requires patience, practice, and paying attention. If I were perkier, I might call those the 3 Ps. But I’m not.
Here are 5 failsafe steps for writing a good grant:
Step 1: Follow instructions.
Steps 2-5: See Step 1.
Most of the mistakes in grant applications are not the quality of writing but failure to follow instructions. This series addresses some of the challenges and questions people encounter during the process of writing a grant. How do you manage the relationship with the funder? How do you create a budget? How do I know if I should apply for a grant?
Today, I kick things off with a few general tips that I have amassed through my own trials and errors as well as conversations with seasoned grant writers, nonprofit staff, and foundations’ program officers. Feel free to leave your own tips as well.
Research the grant. How much money do they dole out? What kinds of organizations or programs have they funded in the past? What guidelines will you need to follow if you receive the money? And so on. Tailor your application accordingly. Don’t lie. Don’t stretch the truth. Just know what buttons the granting agency has and push them. Grants are not one-size-fits-all.
That said, if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit. A good strategy for the O.J. defense, and a good strategy for grants. Don’t make the mistake of what people call “chasing money:” finding a grant and tweaking or adding programs to fit its guidelines. Barring exceptional circumstances, grants should fund existing programs; not the other way around. I understand the temptation to add dance lessons to your after school program so you are eligible for a $50,000 grant from Dancing with the Stars Foundation. Don’t do it! Money chasing overburdens staff, derails carefully laid strategic plans, and erodes your mission. Take a pass and either keep researching grants or focus your time and energy on another type of fundraising (more about that another day).
When you do apply, do not under any circumstances provide more [redacted] than they require. This is probably the most common and most egregious error that grant applicants make. It is also the easiest to correct. Look, grantors have thought long and hard about their time and energy constraints. They want to compare the same information across all applications and simply do not have the bandwidth to read 40 annual reports or 60 full audits. So, even if you have the most moving client testimonials, and the last person who read them needed a tear duct transplant because it made them cry so much, leave it out. If you are in a photo finish with another organization, they will ask you for additional materials.
Stick to page lengths. Again, the grantor has carefully considered how much information you can cram into 2 pages. They want you to whittle down your pitch so it is pithy and concise. However. I should also say that a grant application should not be grossly under the page limit either. Do your due diligence. Give the people what they want.
You need a Red Team. At two important stages, people other than the grant writer need to look at the grant application in its entirety:
- Revising. While revisers may note a misplaced comma or subject/verb disagreement, their primary focus is content and structure. Does it flow? Does it respond to the prompts? Does it adequately capture the essence of your organization despite the completely unreasonable page limits? You should leave enough time for a total rewrite, if necessary. Ideally, find an external reviser who simulates the naïveté of your eventual audience. Find someone who is smart, perceptive, and free to criticize, but unfamiliar with the organization’s taken-for-granted, internal jargon. Spouses are great for this. Sorry, honey.
- Proofreading. Now someone – preferably 2-3 someones – should look at grammar, punctuation, formatting, and so on. Grant applications should be completely free of typos and other errors. Yes, completely. As in 100%.
If you have a question, ask. Granting agencies are run by regular humans, not by the Queen’s Guard. Of course, make sure the answer isn’t as clear as day in the application materials or their website. (More on this later.)
Spread the word. Tell your board and staff that you are applying for this grant. Funders enjoy feeling like their grants are “big deals.” If board members run into the program officer at a meeting, they should put in a good word for you.
Last but not least, the granting agency wants to give out money. That is their whole job. They are looking for reasons to give you money, not reasons not to give you money. (Apologies to my 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Graham, for the double negative.) Stop giving them reasons not to give you money.
Next up: relationships in grant writing!