Start with a needs assessment
If you're new to grantwriting, the process can seem intimidating. How do you condense your organization's work into a few short paragraphs? What additional materials should you include? Grant committees often have strict guidelines, and even veteran grantwriters can struggle to craft new, cohesive messages for every proposal.
Let's start at the beginning.
Identify your focus
Make a list of everything your program needs. Are you gearing up to launch a new project? Are you raising capital for a five-year research study? Consider if you need money, time, additional staff or community involvement. Break down staff salaries into hourly rates and think holistically — including intangible needs (such as moral support) alongside budgetary and other concerns.
Keep in mind that needs assessment requires looking both inside and outside your organization. To illustrate the difference between categories of need, let's look at the example of a local crisis center. To keep the doors open the center must raise funds not only for programs and direct community involvement, but for staff salaries, supplies and other practical matters. When writing their grant proposal, how can they balance all of these needs in a fair way?
When applying for grants, tie any administrative or other needs to your larger social mission.
For example, instead of saying you need X amount of funding for an unspecified "event," take time to articulate exactly what you mean: "X amount of funding for a monthly pop-up clinic at the crisis center will help make sure Y number of children receive their vaccinations on time." Or: "A dedicated salary for a bookkeeper will help process donations faster and make it possible to serve more participants." Similarly, a need of "more staff" might translate into "a new part-time employee to run the children's room at the crisis center."
By contrast, community needs are focused on the lives of the participants served. Reflect on your target demographic. What's the primary audience for the crisis center? Will participants depend on the center's resources to pay their bills or will you need to amass a large group of volunteers to provide one-on-one support to those who walk in off the street?
Let your research here guide you — both when identifying a primary need and as you develop possible solutions.
Do your research
Send printed or online surveys to stakeholders. Canvas door-to-door. Build case studies or host community get-togethers to solicit feedback from participants. Consider what's been tried in the past. Researching the issues you hope to address will give your programs an edge when drafting proposals.
Demonstrate a track record of funding
Nonprofit funding is competitive and there's some truth to the adage "money follows money." Winning a grant gives you a metaphorical stamp of approval that may pique the interest of other committees in the future. A track record of successful funding, even in small amounts, helps prove that your organization will responsibly handle any new investments.
What kind of impact are you having on your community? Have you reduced childhood hunger or opened a library truck in a vulnerable neighborhood? Take time to study and document your results with metrics that prove your success. Gather data. Analyze. Have you decreased childhood hunger by a certain percentage? Have you increased literacy in the community through your library truck?
Invest in the details
Grant applications often resemble business plans — they must specify who'll do what, when things will happen, how many people will be involved and what resources might need be needed. Construct your narrative with the facts, rather than vague or random answers.
Budget your time appropriately
Don't start your application the day before it's due. Give yourself as much time as possible to write and revise your statements. Have someone outside your organization review your materials to make sure you're communicating your mission as clearly as possible. Pay attention to deadlines and turn in all reports on time. Timeliness shows that you take your work seriously and know how to effectively budget resources.
Follow the rules
As basic as it seems, it's critical that you follow the application guidelines to the letter. Some committees immediately disqualify applications that don't meet their exact specifications. Don't make a formatting error the reason your application gets moved to the "no" pile. If you need clarification on any points, question the organization well ahead of time. You don't want to be the person frantically emailing questions the night before the deadline.
Ready for more? Let's move on to letters of inquiry and polishing the materials in your proposal. Here's help learning the formula.
Purdue Online Writing Lab: Introduction to grant writing by Dennis Koyama and Stacy Nall (2015)
Grant Training Center: 10 errors that will disqualify your grant by Mathilda Harris (2015)
Nonprofit Information: The dos and don'ts of grant writing by Megan Hill (2013)
Indiana University: The dos and don'ts of successful grant-writing
GrantSpace: What should be included in a letter of inquiry?
National Institutes of Health: Grants & Funding: Develop your budget (2016)
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Developing and writing grant proposals
The Balance: How to prepare a grant proposal budget for a nonprofit by Heidi J. Kramer (2016)
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Grant proposals (or give me the money!)