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Grants that Make the Cut

Grantmakers are flooded with so many requests that there is no time to carefully review them all. So they often start by throwing out all the applications that don’t follow the correct instructions. It makes their job easier. (And there’s a bit of common sense to it, too; they want to work with competent applicants.)

But rather than gritting your teeth and cursing the unfairness of their picky standards, embrace them. Follow the guidelines to a “T” (being certain to make the “T” the correct font size, of course), and your proposal will make it through the hurdles, while the proposals of less conscientious grant writers will be eliminated.

Everything must be written exactly according to the sponsor guidelines. For example, don’t skip answering a question by stating, “see next page” or “see attached,” unless you’re directed to do so. Instead, answer the question where they want it answered. Adhere faithfully to space, format, and style guidelines. If they say “No smaller than 10-point font,” they mean it. If they want your proposal printed double-sided on recycled paper, do it.

What techniques can you use to ensure that you follow grantmaker instructions so your grant makes that first cut?

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Grants That Get Noticed

Ask a group of grantmakers why one proposal stands out from the rest. You will probably get many different answers.

Perhaps Foundation A prefers to put all its gifts to work in a limited geographical area. Foundation B might be attracted to programs that somehow link several pieces of its mission puzzle. Maybe requests that involve collaborations with similar agencies for common causes sail right to the top of Grantmaker C’s review pile.

Your research, if it is thorough, will alert you to these sponsor-specific differences.

In Grant Writing Made Simple, we provided some general tips (gleaned from grantmakers) for making your proposals noteworthy.

What other suggestions do you have?

Give Your Grant an Edge!

When the grant writing process is going well, it’s easy to sit at the computer and start spending the money before the proposal has been mailed. You know your nonprofit’s need, you know the grantmaker’s mission, and you know how well the two match.

What you don’t know is just how many other writers are sitting at their computers making plans to spend those same monies – your grant funds!

Yes, the competition for funding is fierce. The number of nonprofits increases each year, and each year foundations must turn down deserving proposals. If you read the statistics, your high hopes might suddenly be dashed. Relax.

You can find ways to stack the cards in your favor.

What’s your edge?

Start thinking about which characteristics give your organization and program an advantage over the competition. What do you do that’s more professional, better, different, smarter, more fun, cheaper, or more efficient? (Or maybe all of the above!) Then start thinking about what you can do to communicate your edge to a grantmaker.

What suggestions do you have?

Make A Great Impression with Your Grant

Because competition for limited grant funds is so fierce (especially in a recession economy) sloppiness can truly be a deal breaker.

A poorly written proposal starts you off on the wrong foot. It’s the equivalent of going on a date with spinach stuck in your teeth. Misspellings and other errors look sloppy and reduce the credibility of your organization. Remember, grantmakers are looking for a reason to eliminate proposals (even subliminally).

Here are a few tips to help you write a grant that makes a great first impression:

  • Print your document, then read it out loud several times to check for misspelled or mistyped words.
  • Make corrections, then use your computer’s spell-check function.
  • Put the document aside for 24 hours, then proofread it again.
  • Double- and triple-check the spelling of all names—of each and every organization, grantmaker, and individual mentioned.
  • Take the same care with job titles. Demonstrate that your organization is detail-oriented and takes the time to get it right.
  • Know (or look up) the rules of capitalization.
  • Show what you write to your Mom and see if she gets it. Or show it to any other non-involved person. Is your proposal clear, or is some phrase baffling?

What tips do you have for making a great impression with your grant?

Grants and Evaluation

The evaluation section of a proposal sets out clearly the organization’s roadmap for evaluating the success of a project or program. It answers the reader’s question, “What does success look like?” with specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely (SMART) guidelines for assessment. How will you collect data about indicators, outcomes, objectives completed, and goals achieved?

This is a very important part of the grant, because it allows the granting agency to see that you have thought clearly about how to have a real and measurable impact on some area of need that they agree is important.

Design the project evaluation before writing any proposals. If you aren’t in charge of the project, insist that the organization program staff work with you to create an evaluation process that is realistic and will satisfy grantmaker requirements. Ongoing evaluation should be “built into” (meaning it’s easy to do) the project as much as is possible and practical for the organization. In your application, show grantmakers that you consider evaluation to be part of everyone’s job.

What if you are trying to evaluate an arts program, where quantitative measurement might be difficult? How do you write about that kind of evaluation?

Grant Writing Style

Writing in the business world (and that includes nonprofits!) differs significantly from the academic writing learned in school.

Grantmakers are not interested in your personal opinion, nor do they want a dry recitation of statistics. They want to know what it is that you want them to do, or perhaps know, and why they should care.

During your grant writing project, you are communicating with very busy, working people who want you to do nothing more than get to the point and tell them what you want from them, and why it’s important for them to act now.

Whether you are writing a letter, email, text message, or grant proposal, it helps to take the point of view that YOU are insignificant (but your mom still loves you!). Professional communicators accomplish their goal when their writing is READER-centered, not writer-centered.

Don’t assume reader knows the subject as well as you – or knows it at all.

What tips do you have for communicating in this writing style?

Grants and Relationships

The whole point of writing a proposal is to create a relationship between a grantmaker. It has money and wants to give it to people who will use it wisely for a good cause. The grant writer represents an organization that needs money and wants to use it wisely for a good cause.

What’s the best way to encourage this bond? Like running a dating service, or at least hooking up two of your friends, you must convince at least one of them, and ultimately, both, that they have common interests, values, and goals, and that getting together would be great for both of them. Analyze the characteristics of both parties that make this a good match.

Let’s say your organization (or you, the grant writer) has done the research and believes a specific grantmaker is Mr. or Ms. Right. Your job is to create the communication piece (the proposal) that will get attention and make the grantmaker in turn feel that perhaps your particular organization is also its Mr. or Ms. Right.

Let’s be honest, most relationships start out by being about what WE want, not what the other party wants. You already know what YOU want. So stop to think, what do THEY want? Focus on learning all you can about that.

What are some good writing strategies for helping grantmakers feel a solid connection to the organization requesting funds?

Credibility Gets the Grant

Your proposal is competing with hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of other well-written proposals for excellent programs that suggest the perfect solution to the same problem. What will make your proposal stand out?

You can establish your organization’s credibility in multiple ways. To get started thinking about this, ask these questions about the organization:

  • What’s it’s track record and what has it learned from past activities, even from the less-than-successful efforts?
  • How well does the organization play with others (target group, community, grantmakers)?
  • What are the characteristics and qualifications of the staff, board, volunteers, and program personnel?

It’s not enough to LOOK good. Your organization needs to BE good at what it does. Your proposal offers a great opportunity for you to highlight the strengths of your organization. Yes, you can brag a little. It’s fine to express confidence. But, please, temper that with modesty! And only brag when you can back it up with evidence.

A Credibility Tip

If awarded a grant, carry out the program, being as faithful to your original proposal as possible. Avoid promising to do anything you know you can’t do! If you get the grant, you’re obligated. A good rule of thumb: under-promise, then over-deliver.

What if an organization asks you to write a grant, but once you’re into the process, you realize it doesn’t have the capacity to carry out the program as specified in the RFP or funding announcement? How would you handle that situation?

The Grant Writer as Detective

Grant-giving entities (known as grantmakers, funders, or sponsors) publish general grant application guidelines as well as Requests for Proposals (RFPs), which are usually more specific requests to fill an important need that they want to see addressed.

Think of writing a grant as similar to entering a contest. You need to take certain steps to prepare and send in your entry so it will be considered (and not thrown out because some detail wasn’t filled out correctly).

Guidelines and RFPs usually give you a step-by-step description of the desired content and the order of presentation for each section of a proposal. In addition, if you learn to read between the lines, you can discover what a grantmaker values and what problems it is interested in solving.

When writing, and later, assembling your grant, make sure you follow all the instructions and rules exactly, or your “contest entry” will be eliminated.

What can you/should you do if the instructions or RFP are unclear, or how else can you find out about what the audience (grantmaker) is looking for in your proposal? What “detective skills” can you use?