Monthly Archives: May 2014

Grant Writing 101: General Tips

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!

Leave. They’re going to be ok.


Working in nonprofits, sometimes our relationship to the organization takes on a familial dynamic. It’s like our loudmouth cousin whose personal drama always finds a way to eclipse otherwise jovial holiday gatherings. It’s like our toddler who depends solely on us for care, which often comes at enormous cost to our own well-being. This post is about recognizing that unlike our families – whom we must love through thick and thin, despite their flaws, or simply tolerate a few times a year – we get to choose we where we work.

I know that working in nonprofits, emotions can be raw as we blur the lines between our public and private lives – sometimes willingly, sometimes not. I know from personal experience the joy that can come from being a part of something I believe in. I am not here to critique those of us who invest our innermost selves in our work. Today, I am talking about the times when our giant aerosol can of love is no longer shellacking our work with happiness. For whatever reason, the job has become untenable, and we recognize that it is time to move on. Maybe the decision is at the forefront of our thoughts, maybe it is just rolling around like an empty Diet Coke can in the back seat of a car. But it’s there, asking to be dealt with.

What stops us when we know we should leave?  Most times, the answer is loyalty – to the organization, to coworkers, and especially to the clients. Far from criticizing this loyalty, I am writing today to acknowledge its existence and say, simply: Go. They’re going to be ok.

For the sake of discussion, let’s call this phenomenon “obligatory staying:” staying when we know we should leave; staying at the cost of our careers or our sanity. Stereotypically, obligatory staying is associated with high-ranking, founding executive directors who view themselves as the “face” of an organization and worry it will collapse like a Jenga tower when they extract themselves from the precarious structure. But I have found obligatory staying has shape not unlike Medicare: in addition to affecting those at the very top, lower-ranking front line employees also stick like sprinkles to the organizational donut with the cloying icing of loyalty. Mid-level folks, especially those with highly professionalized administrative jobs, pass through the middle much more easily and freely, perhaps due to marketability, experience, or emotional divestment.

I speak from experience as a former low-ranking, front liner. My first full-time job in a nonprofit was the perfect storm of 1) 22-year-old naiveté, 2) organizational nascence, and 3) general starry-eyed nonprofit romanticism. A recent college graduate, I strictly adhered to the the Great Job Lie Rule. Put simply, upon graduation everyone enters a social contract to promote the idea that they are Doing Well and So Pleased with Their Life Choices, despite the fact that post-graduation jobs are universally terrible. So, mentally, I was committed to this being the Greatest Job on Earth even though sometimes I went in the supply room, closed the door, and whispered loudly: “I quit!” So there was that.

Second, I was not working for just any nonprofit, naturally, but a rip-the-price-tag-off-the-office-chair-and-create-a-fax-cover-sheet-on-day-one startup. My “passion” for this organization gelled to an obsidian-like hardness that lasted the better part of 6 years. My psyche was more or less impenetrable to the exploitation and general pathos that I encountered on a daily basis. We just need to transition into a period of stability and growth, I told myself, as I talked about the organization with evangelical zeal that would make Billy Graham look like an agnostic.

It may have been the second tidal wave of staff turnover. It may have been watching my friends buy new couches or – eventually – new houses while I carefully squirreled away a pittance towards “the future,” which was a terrifying prospect as I barreled toward 30. It may have been starting a Master’s program at night and catching a glimpse of Reba McEntire-style “Life out There.” Suffice to say, the work I was doing, and the organization that I was doing it in, lost its shine. I stopped convincing those around me – and myself – that things were ok, that the job was the Best Ever. Yet, I stayed. It was like the 7th month in what really should have been a 6 month relationship. I knew I needed to break it off, but I didn’t know how.

What I felt was no longer passion but a deep-seated feeling of obligation that I can only liken to a sanguineous, familial tie. I felt needed. I held a bolus of information in my brain that I could neither digest nor regurgitate to someone else. I knew how to “care for” the organization in a way no one else could. I knew how to run the high-stakes enrollment for the popular summer camp so that it was fair and diplomatic. I knew that a City Councilwoman would call every year at the last minute and expect for her daughter to be admitted. I knew to comply, even if we had a waiting list. I knew that my coworker Brenda got bent out of shape every 3 months about Something Small that represented Something Big and only a long lunch over Pad Thai would bring her back to normal. Sure, individually, the minutiae I did every day held very little consequence for the big picture, but I was like a big wad of chewing gum that rolled around the organization picking up all the small pieces and holding them together. It wasn’t egotism; it was the catch-22 of knowing I was both essential and unimportant to the organization.

Eventually, I left. It was like the steamroller scene from Austin Powers. I think I gave 5 months’ notice, from the time my first acceptance letter to graduate school arrived. I made exhaustive chronological lists of instructions. I met with people and bored them to tears with the details of what I was handing off. And at the end of the day, the organization did change upon my departure. Things fell through the cracks, but eventually someone stuck a piece of tape on the end of a pencil and wiggled it around until they finally picked it up again. The organization was fine. I missed people. I emailed them. I met them for coffee. Some relationships fell by the wayside, others transitioned into friendships. I got maybe one or two frantic phone calls, but not many. After a while, I felt thankful for the time that I worked there, proud of the things I accomplished, and above all glad that the organization ran without me now.

There is nothing wrong with getting emotionally involved in our work. There is nothing wrong with strong feelings of loyalty toward our clients, coworkers, or the organization. But we should be careful where we file away these emotions in our brains. They should not go next to “Mom” and “Dad” and “Grandpa Earl.” They should go in “work” and “career” and “self-fulfillment.” Because unlike Mom and Dad and Grandpa Earl who we are obligated to see from time to time, we do choose which job we love. Sometimes the most loyal thing we can do is come up with an exit strategy and move on. Because we have a responsibility to be loyal to ourselves, too, and again, they’re going to be ok.