Top 13 Grant Writing Tips for Your Nonprofit

Blog Post by CharityHowTo Expert Diane H. Leonard, GPC

Are you just getting started in grant writing and trying to be competitive with the applications you submit? Whether you are relatively new to the field of grant seeking or you’re looking to increase your success and craft more competitive grant applications, we have some useful tips related to the best practices of grant seeking. Following these tips will fine-tune your approach to grant applications and ultimately increase your grant seeking success.

1. Follow the 5 Rs of grant seeking

Grant writers rarely know exactly who will review the grant proposals they’ve spent so many hours toiling over. It’s safe to assume that they have some subject matter expertise and that they have received some grantmaking training, but their level of education and experience in grantmaking remains a mystery. 

With so much uncertainty and room for assumptions to be made, how can grant professionals consistently leave a positive impression on their grant application reviewers? 

One of the best ways is to know the five Rs of grant seeking: readiness, research, relationships, writing, and reporting. As you familiarize yourself with the grant you’re interested in, thoroughly research the grant and the grantmaker, build grantmaker relationships, perfect your writing, and report the results of the funding. Follow these principles and you’ll not only have a much improved chance of obtaining the initial funding; you’ll also likely continue to be funded in the future.

2. Know the qualities of excellent proposals

No matter your program focus, there are numerous key qualities that describe excellent proposals. While these qualities are subjective in nature, they are qualities that you should strive for in all of your funding proposals.

  • Clarity: The goals and objectives for the project should be measurable, and the evaluation plan for the project is clear and outcome-based.
  • Concise: The answer should directly answer the question and contain relevant information.
  • Compelling: The proposal needs to be written in a way that leaves the reader/reviewer wanting to take action on your idea.

3. Be grant-ready before you start applying 

Grant readiness is another phrase for competitiveness in the grant-seeking process. It means that you have looked at the formal framework, such as your IRS, grants.gov, and state-specific registrations. It also means you’ve looked into individual grantmakers and assessed whether or not you are a strong applicant for their process.

Failing to assess your grant readiness before you begin applying will decrease your overall competitiveness, thereby increasing the number of rejection letters you will receive.

4. Do your homework on each grantmaker

Your initial research about a grantmaker should be centered around the keywords for their funding priorities, their application process, and their application deadline. You also need to understand more about their recent grantmaking history as part of your homework and learning.

You should also be looking at where the grants are being awarded geographically and how those locations relate to their overall stated geographic priority. Find out what their average and median grant award size is and see how those amounts compare to what you were planning to request through your application.

Be sure to learn as many details as possible so that you ask the right questions when reaching out to a grantmaker to start building a relationship.

5. Have a grant calendar

A grant calendar is a critical mechanism for grant writers/grant professionals to use in keeping track of all the application deadlines they will tackle during one fiscal year. 

The specific tool you use to document and manage deadlines is not what will help your plan succeed, though. The success of your plan will result as you use the calendar to lay out deadlines for the fiscal year, make a plan to draft timelines for each application, and include relationship development and maintenance efforts for those grantmakers that your organization intends to request funds from.

While many grant writers may have some form of a grant calendar developed, there are two areas that tend to need improvement. First, the calendar should be framed as a rolling 12 months instead of always being framed as just the organization’s fiscal year. Second, the grant calendar should not be kept on one individual’s workstation or desktop. A grant calendar is meant to be easily accessible and visible to the grant team, even if they don’t visit the calendar as often as the grant professional leading their efforts.

6. Remember that grants are driven by relationships

Relationship building is as important in grant seeking as it is in all other elements of fundraising. When reaching out to grantmakers, you should always be prepared with these three talking points:

  • A short introduction of who you are, what organization you are with (not getting into your whole mission and all your programs), and information about where you intend to base or implement your work (especially if the grantmaker is not located in the same place as you geographically).
  • A 30-second elevator pitch of why you think that your organization is a strong potential funding partner based on your research of their funding and recent grant history.
  • Up to three thoughtful questions that were not answered through your research of their materials but could help you customize your proposal to be more competitive in their process.

7. Express next-level gratitude outside of IRS-required reports 

After you get the grant funding, the hard work of implementing the project/program as described begins. Once you have signed and returned the grant agreement or acknowledgment that you’ve received your funds, you need to follow through on ideas for expressing your thanks for the money. 

Look for unique and thoughtful ways to show genuine gratitude to your grantmakers through things like open houses, site visit invitations, handwritten thank-you notes from participants, and other customized ideas.

8. Always include SMART objectives in your project description

You should always use a SMART objective to monitor your progress. A SMART objective is:

  • Specific: Provide the “who” and “what” of your program activities. The greater the specificity, the greater the measurability.
  • Measurable: Quantify the amount of change expected. It is impossible to determine whether objectives have been met unless they can be measured.
  • Achievable: Your program goals must be attainable within a given time frame, and it must be clear to reviewers how you plan to achieve them. 
  • Relevant/Realistic: Accurately address the scope of the problem and the programmatic steps that you will implement to solve the problem.
  • Timely: Provide a time frame indicating when the objective will be measured or a deadline for the objective to be met by.

9. Evaluate your impact thoroughly

One of the most common points of stress in the grant application narrative is the evaluation section. Not all grantmakers provide clear expectations or describe what a meaningful evaluation looks like to them. If they don’t explain what they expect to happen with their funding, we’ve outlined some questions that will guide you through an evaluation.

The evaluation section of your proposal should address the following:

  • Who is responsible for measuring the outcome?
  • What tool(s) is used to measure the outcome?
  • When is the outcome measured?
  • Why is the outcome measured in the manner presented?

You should not overlook or discount the tools that you already use as an organization or the way that you self-collect and analyze that data. A strong evaluation section of a grant application does not necessarily mean new evaluation tools and external evaluators.

10. Make sure your budget tells your story

Your budget tells the story of your application. Looking at your one-page budget document can help a grantmaker quickly understand if they are the only supporter of a project or program versus one of many. It can also help them understand if your program/project is heavily dependent on staffing to be successful or if it is more focused on supplies and equipment.

The budget story, while often formally created by your finance department, needs to be consistent with the information you share throughout your narrative. Check that the details of the budget and your budget justifications align with the program description and details you are sharing in your application narrative.

11. Don’t self-edit your proposal

While what you have written may read well to you, you are too close to the work to see where you’ve made assumptions about the reviewer’s knowledge. You’re also too close to the work to act as an effective copy editor.

Our eyes and brain see and read what should be in the text, rather than what might be missing. To maximize your grant-seeking success, you need to identify and engage a strong copy editor within your organization as part of your grant team. You need feedback on your grammar as well as on your writing style and supporting details.

12. Create a mock review process for your applications

A mock review process is an additional review step for your organization’s applications. It focuses on how the written work aligns with the guidelines and review criteria of the grantmaker. This is indeed an extra step but it is one that can dramatically increase the competitiveness of a well-written proposal.

While copy editing (as discussed in the previous tip) is critical to a reviewer’s understanding of the material and their ease of reading, the mock review process ensures that what the reviewer is reading is answering the grantmaker’s questions thoroughly and in a way that will result in the highest score. Ask a trusted colleague who is not intimately familiar with the proposed program to review your application to see if it is clear, concise, and compelling.

In a grant-seeking environment of tough competition, it is imperative to provide a proposal that is clear, energetic, and exciting to the reader to the point that they want to provide financial support for your program.

13. Be aware of grant writing best practices

Grant writing has a different set of guidelines than alternative forms of writing. Writing a grant proposal involves creating a consistent story across all grant application elements. In order to make your grant most competitive, write concisely and be compelling. Use language that reflects the tone of the grantmaker’s materials and avoids industry jargon and acronyms. When possible, explain and synthesize complicated data so that anyone can understand it, and when allowed, implement infographics and custom charts to break it down.

Get Started on Your Grant Proposal

Following these ten tips will put you well on your way to a successful grant seeking strategy and grant writing approach. But be sure that they are implemented together, not individually, to ensure that you meet all grant seeking best practices.

Looking to learn more about how to implement each of these tips in your grant seeking process? You can learn more from  Diane’s CharityHowTo trainings here.

About The Author

Diane H. Leonard, GPC, President of DH Leonard Consulting & Grant Writing Services, is an experienced and respected grant professional who has provided grant development counsel to nonprofit organizations of varying size and scope for more than a decade. In addition, Diane is an in-demand speaker and trainer on the topics of grant readiness, grant writing and grants management and regularly provides her expertise to audiences ranging from national conferences to boards of directors for small, nonprofit organizations.

Check out all of Diane’s CharityHowTo trainings here.

For Further Reading

PS: For other idea’s on how to succeed in the grant seeking world, check out this article by our friend at:

Grant Station – Expectations Versus Reality in Applying for Grants