10 steps for writing a kickass grant proposal


palpatine 2Writing grants to fund nonprofit work is an art as old as time. Archaeologists have found ancients drawings in caves depicting figures hunched over rocks, one hand chiseling, the other hand pulling at hair in obvious frustration at a primitive RFP. They deciphered the chisel marks on the rocks to say, “Making fire good, keep tigers away, help many families. Please see Appendix A for logic model.”

Still, as old a skill as grantwriting is in our field, it is still tricky. So today, I want to lay down our field’s standard process for writing an awesome proposal. This post is mainly for those who are learning the ropes of grantwriting. If you’re an advanced grantwriter, you can skip this post entirely and read something else, like about how people in our field misuse “literally.” If you’re a novice, just follow these steps below, which is a process that many of us in the sector follow, and you are guaranteed to write kickass, winning grant proposals. (Disclaimer: There is no guarantee that following these steps below will result in kickass, winning grant proposals).

Step 1: Find a grant to apply to. You may have an RFP (Request for Proposal) forwarded to your email inbox from your colleagues, because colleagues in our field are awesome. If you don’t have a grant and don’t know where to find one, research your local foundations or go to your local library and see if it has a grant finding staff who can help you search. Be extra nice to this staff. I highly suggest you bring them mini muffins.   

Step 2: Do your homework. If there is an RFP, it should have all the guidelines. Read it carefully to find out when the application is due, the ceiling for how much you can apply, and whether they require an LOI, described below, or just straight to the full application. Then go onto the Foundation’s website and look at who else they funded and how much they got. Oh, look, these organizations do such interesting work! Google them and look at their websites. Feel terrible about your own website. Get distracted by random viral videos. You just wasted three hours surfing the internet. You’re a terrible human being. 

Step 3: Prepare a plan. Meet with your team, determine if this is a match for your org, and if so, determine who is doing what by when. Some grants require an LOI, which stands for “Letter of Inquiry” or “Letter of Interest.” It’s kind of like a mini proposal, usually no more than one or two pages. This is a brilliant way for both funders to get an idea of which organizations may be good fits without having to read through long-ass full proposals, and for nonprofits to be able to explain their ideas without having to write a full proposal. You submit an LOI, and if the foundation likes your LOI, they will ask for a full proposal. If the foundation requires an LOI, just put it the deadline on your calendar and ignore it and go watch several episodes of your favorite TV shows. Come on, it’s two pages. How hard can it be. Skip to Step 5.

Step 4: Build relationship. If you think grantwriting is actually about writing, go ask the nearest person to drop kick you right now. 85% of 95% of grants is 90% relationship building. This step is very important, and the Fates will spit in your face if you skip it. Most program officers are surprisingly very friendly, so call them up and see if your idea aligns with the foundation’s priorities. If it doesn’t, you just saved yourself a ton of time; go back to step 1. If it does align, well, awesome! If you don’t know anyone of this foundation, see if anyone on your board does. If the foundation specifically requests you not to contact them, don’t contact them. Unless you know them really well; mini muffins here may not be a bad idea. 

Step 5: Procrastinate. The LOI or grant is not due for a few weeks. Work on some other stuff. Catch up on emails. Call a donor. Write a report. Take a walk. Go to the farmer’s market and try some of that naturally-fermented sauerkraut. It’s delicious and chock full of probiotics. Self-care, you know. If you haven’t done Step 4, make a mental note to do it one of these days.

Step 6: Freak out. One day before the LOI is due, or one week before the full proposal is due, start freaking out. OMG, you haven’t done anything for it! What’s wrong with you?! You don’t even remember what the grant is about! The grant specifically asked for letters of support! You haven’t even asked partner organizations for those letters! Arghhh!! Do steps 2 to 4. Berate yourself for once again getting into this situation and swear that you will be so much more organized for the next grant.

Step 7A: Write your LOI. Your LOI is only 2 pages, but it still needs to be awesome. If the foundation has a template, then just follow it. If it doesn’t, then you have to determine what to say. I usually go with some or all of these headings below (bold them, to make your LOI easy to read):

    • Summary (your entire LOI, summarized in one paragraph. Spell out in the first sentence how much you are requesting and for what)
    • Background and Needs (How did your program come about, what needs your program is addressing),
    • Program model (what are you going to do to address the needs),
    • Goals (what specific, measurable outcomes you are trying to achieve),
    • Evaluation (how you will measure these outcomes),
    • Budget (how much the project will cost in total, what other funders you have approached or have committed to the program),
    • Timeline and work to date (when are you expecting to start the project and what major milestones will happen when, and what you have done so far; if possible, do a simple Gantt chart),
    • Partnerships (highlight any awesome partners you are working with and their roles; optional if you don’t have any partners)
    • Organizational background (add general information about your organization, such as history and mission), and
    • Contact (your name, email, phone, website).

Yup, all that in one or two pages; you may have to write haikus for some of the sections. Once you submit your LOI, start praying. If your LOI is rejected, go get a beer to cheer yourself up. If it’s accepted, allow yourself to feel a sense of accomplishment. Then do Step 5, followed by 6, then 7B.

Step 7B: Write your full proposal. Consult with your team, then sit down and start working on your full proposal, which will likely be 5 to 12 pages long and cover the stuff mentioned in Step 7A, but just in a lot more details. Remember when you were in college and you had to write these dull papers that you dreaded? It’s not like that at all! Grantwriting is fun! And unlike your college papers, you can copy and paste, VERBATIM, stuff from previous grant proposals! Also, unlike your college papers, you don’t have to use flowery language; get to the point quickly. Just make sure you answer EVERY part of every question. Each question usually has like nine parts. Answer every single part. Where you can, especially in the needs assessment and proposed program model sections, add research data and citations. Citations from current research are magical and make your grant proposal look AWESOME!

Step 8:  Become grumpy and mean to everyone around you. Writing a full proposal is time and energy consuming, with the detailed budget and attachments. And the annoying questions that are basically identical and you’re like, “WTF, I just answered that!” As the deadline approaches, you may become more and more irritable, furrowing your eyebrows all the time and snapping at people. This is a normal part of the process. Channel it. As Emperor Palpatine says, “Good. Use your aggressive feelings. Let the hate flow through you…”

Step 9: Proofread and double check everything. If you have time, ask an experienced colleague to look through your work. Check to make sure you have done things EXACTLY as the foundation’s guidelines suggest. Did you answer every part of every question? Did you name your files as they instructed? Did you use the right font size, line spacing, margins? Resist the urge to include stuff—brochures, pictures of bright-eyed children, a lock of your hair—no one asked for. OMG, did you get the letters of support?!!

Step 9B: Frantically scramble for letters of support. If they are needed. Call up people who would write you a letter of support and desperately plea with them to sign a letter for you if you email it to them within the hour. Write draft letters of support for your colleagues to sign and email them off to get signed, scanned, and emailed back to you. Feel terrible about yourself. Frantically refresh your email every five minutes until the letters are in. Gosh, you are a horrible, no-good person! Why did your organization hire you?! 

Step 10: Submit the proposal. Do not wait until the last minute. One great org I know missed the deadline by literally 20 seconds and was rejected. If you are submitting online, give yourself at least thirty minutes; an hour is better. That way, if your computer freezes or something, you may be able to troubleshoot. If you are hand delivering, get a buddy so that one of you can drive around the block while the other runs up. Do this with at least an hour to spare. Then, go get a beer to celebrate how awesome you are.

Step 11 (optional): Apologize to everyone around you. You have been a jerk while working on this grant, and you probably haven’t flossed or showered for a week.

There you go, that’s how you write a grant. If you are lucky, you will move forward to the site visit, so read “How to charm your program officer and have the best site visit ever.” If you do get the grant, be sure to call/email your program officers to thank them profusely. If you don’t get it, call/email to get feedback and then take the rest of the day off to cry in a corner and watch five episodes of 30 Rock or Arrested Development to cheer yourself up, then start at Step 1. 

See also:

10 Steps for writing a kick-ass nonprofit organizational budget
10 steps for a kick-ass Emergency Succession Plan

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