Grant Writing Tips
The following information provides general insights on how to write effective and competitive grant proposals, including common pitfalls, hints for success, and working with a grant writer. This information, along with information about the CalRecycle grant scoring criteria is provided to assist you in writing effective and successful grant applications.
Things to Think About
- Different factors play a part in funders’ decisions, no matter how well-written your proposal is.
- There are basic elements, but no "model" proposal for patterning.
- Organizing and communicating are more important than form.
- Planning is key--a grant proposal is the written version of your planning process.
Some Criteria for Going After a Grant
- Project is consistent with your organization’s mission and business objectives.
- You have a better-than-average chance for funding (e.g., we have an "A-plus" track record, funder expresses interest in us, we are well positioned).
- Program is undersubscribed (i.e., competitive opportunity).
- Cost/benefit is favorable (i.e., amount of grant award justifies cost of pursuing it).
Common Pitfalls in Seeking Funding and Writing Grant Applications
- Chasing the money - Don’t write a grant to start a new project you don’t really need or want just to bring funding ($$) into your agency.
- Requesting money to offset a deficit - No one wants to fund your poor planning or agency shortfall.
- Going to Macy’s to buy groceries - Do your research first--make sure you’re going to the right funder for the right project. Match-up is important.
- Failing to understand it's a competitive process - Unless funding is a sure bet (e.g., based on formula/entitlement), always assume demand is higher than supply.
- Downloading the wrong grant application - Similar-sounding grant applications could be issued simultaneously by the same funder. Or an out-of-date application might also still be on the Web site.
- Not reading the grant application thoroughly - Highlight the most important parts (like due dates and required documents). Mark anything you don’t understand or where you need to find answers.
- Not reading the grant application early enough - Don’t delay--leaving yourself too little time to make important contacts, gather important data, calculate costs accurately, find a grant writer...can be disastrous!
- Assuming the funder knows you/your agency - Even if you are the grant-award poster child, don’t assume proposal readers will mentally fill in the missing information. Don’t depend on prior knowledge or past relationships.
- Disregarding the funder’s questions - If it’s important to the funder, it’s important to you.
- Philosophizing - Don’t argue with the funder’s assumptions. If you don’t agree with what they’re interested in (or your ideas don’t match their requirements), you should probably find another funder.
- Being redundant - Saying it once is usually enough. Don’t add unnecessary “fill” or “fluff.”
- Reorganizing the proposal - Follow the format instructions and place items where the funder has requested them--this is not the time to get creative with your presentation.
- Being incomplete (including signatures) - This could cost you points in scoring, or it could mean being considered nonresponsive and therefore disqualified.
- Assuming it’s a one-person job - In most cases, no matter who writes the proposal or fills out the application, collaboration or consultation with others will be required.
- Losing the Q & A window - Start reviewing the grant application requirements and writing early enough to not let the time pass for asking questions and getting answers--and, don’t be afraid to ask!
- Using a former proposal without updating it - If you’re going to use it, at least shake off all the dust. Use current dates, current numbers, and current staff.
- Using a proposal previously submitted to another funder - This is fair game, just be sure to change the names to protect the innocent!
- Not doing the math correctly - Use a calculator or use Excel but make sure the numbers add up! Funders lose confidence when budgets or estimates aren’t accurate.
- Poorly estimating real costs - Although budget line item transfers may be possible after the grant award, think through ahead of time what labor, materials, and overhead costs are expected to be.
- Backing into the budget - Be realistic about what you need. Don’t create a budget that reflects the maximum allowed just because the money’s there. Also, don’t expect staff to make any cuts that may be needed.
- Requesting non-qualifying expenses - Don’t sneak it in and hope no one notices! (Hint: even if funded for it, auditors can catch these items after the grant award).
- Budget surprises - Don’t ask for items not described or mentioned in the narrative.
- “Going political” - Even with friends in high places, lobbying for points could backfire or blow up in your face.
- Starting your project before getting the grant - If the ink isn’t dry on the contract, don’t assume it’s a done deal.
Hints for Success
- Write clearly and concisely - Succinctness is more important than volume.
- Be thorough - What have you forgotten?
- Be specific - Are the deliverables clear? Can the funder easily understand what they are buying?
- Follow the format - Be a “responsive” applicant.
- Use/create local data when possible - Define “data” as information.
- Address anticipated challenges - Don’t try to minimize them; describe how you will overcome them.
- Identify others necessary to your success - Who are the stakeholders? How will you involve them?
- Use reader-friendly format - Grid display vs. narrative may say it best.
- Use good grammar - Use spell check!
- Bring something to the table - Funders view themselves as partners.
- Write the executive summary after writing the proposal - It’s easier to put together.
- Make sure letters of support/letters of authorization mean something - They should state exactly what collaborators will do and how their expertise will contribute to the project.
- Put yourself in the reader’s place - Would you know what the proposal was saying if you didn’t write it? Would you want to fund this proposal?
Working with a Grant Writer
When to use:
You don’t have in-house expertise.
No one has dedicated time.
Particular person has unique insight to what they require.
Issues to consider when selecting and using:
Number and type of proposals
- Experience with/as a funder
Ask for a sample proposal they’ve written
- Ask about success rate
- Ask if they’re also writing for other applicants (you may or may not care)
- Don’t make price the selection criterion
- Always check the writer’s work--read the application before submitting it!