I hate writing. The idea of staring at a blank screen with a looming deadline in front of me gives me anxiety. Yet, writing is a huge part of all of my jobs. Somehow, I still manage to push through and end up with a decent product. When it comes to grant writing, the feeling for me is magnified. It is easy to be intimidated by the task of convincing a funder to believe in my words. So how do I manage to get from white space to finished product?
A lot of tears, empty chocolate wrappers and hours of intense staring at my computer screen. No really there’s a better way! I’ve mastered a process where I don’t have to think hard: it’s a seamless, foolproof way to begin and finish a grant application without pulling my hair out. The only way to avoid wasting your time is to make sure you have an organized flow that you follow consistently to make the process so easy you don’t have to think about it.
Today I’d like to share that system with you so you can remove any barriers that would keep you from kickstarting your grant writing process. This is the ULTIMATE guide where I will detail everything I do to complete a grant proposal. You don’t want to miss this! If you need step-by-step help and the guides and templates I use, purchase by grant writing toolbox here:
Pull from Your List of Potentials
First, I keep a running list of funders that I’m assessing, reviewing and watching to see when would be a good time to approach them. This list is kept in a Google sheet that provides information like the name of the funder, funder location, type of grants, size of grants, website, grant deadline and grant description. It’s an easy way for me to glance quickly and see if it’s appropriate for me to start writing the grant.
About my pipeline
Your grant writing should be a continuous process and should be done within a larger strategy. I keep track of my overall funding goals, and have a Trello Board that tracks my funding goals for the year. I have a separate Trello board that tracks my grant writing pipeline. I organize this in lists - the first list is prospective grants that I haven't applied for, the next list is those I’m in the midst of applying for, the next list is those that have been submitted, and the final list is those that have been submitted. I use stickers and labels to mark if a grant has been accepted or rejected. This way I can visually see at once where I am across all of my prospective grants and whether or not I should add more grants or slow up on writing.
Research the Funder
Next I determine if the grant is a good fit. This is a combination of activities to get a better understanding of the funder but also the funding request. I read any available information on the grant--most times this will either be on their website, the funding request and their 990 tax form. I pay close attention to what the funder does NOT fund so that I can remove myself from the process as soon as possible if it won’t be a good fit. Don’t try to make your program fit into the funder’s qualifications. If it's not a good fit, it’s just not a good fit.
As I’m reviewing the grant requirements, I look at the previous programs that were funded. Do they typically fund organizations that are a similar size or type as your organization? How much do they typically fund? What amount do they fund first-time grantees? The 990 form will provide information about the type of grants previously funded and sometimes will include details about the application process. As a bonus, the organization may have a social media account. I check out the content on those pages to see what the organization talks about. Check out my youtube video on the key things you should know about a funder.
Reach Out and Touch
If I have no relationship with the funder, I figure out if there is any connection I have with the program officer or with anyone affiliated with the organization. I find their contact information and reach out with a simple email or phone call asking if they’d like to talk more about my organization and which programs may or may not be a good fit. If I’m having a good week, I may be able to score a time to talk at length or even an in person meeting. However, this is only likely if someone makes the connection for me or I have a preexisting relationship with the person.
As you can see, a lot of time has passed, and I still haven’t mentioned writing yet. Grant writing is just as much about the preparation and research as it is the writing. Make sure you do your due diligence so you don’t waste your time, and can actually get an return on the investment of your time and talents.
Make the Decision
Next, I make a decision to move forward with writing. To make this decision, I ask myself, is it a project or operating grant? Are there any funding restrictions on the grant? Do we have the capacity to complete the grant activities? Do we need the grant to cover the entire program or a portion of the program? If you need help figuring out how to decide, check out my previous post that helps you make decisions on pursuing a grant.
Part of your decision is also determining the purpose of the grant funding. Sometimes you may be applying for an operational grant which will be used across the entire organization. Sometimes you’ll seek a project grant which will only fund one of the aspects of your work. You have to decide how it will be applied and which project(s) will be the benefactor of the funding. This impacts the focus of your proposal, your budget and the narrative. If you are not a person who primarily works with your programs, this is when you’ll begin reaching out to the staff you need to gather information from for the grant proposal.
Develop a Work Plan
At this point I read through the funding request multiple times before I start writing. This is where I start planning the work. In most instances, I’m relying on other people for pieces of the proposal. I begin to chart out the key sections and documents needed, persons responsible, and deadlines (see my sample work plan here).
This is where I go through the funding request with painstaking detail and I organize the preparation of the proposal into major sections. These sections are driven by how the proposal is organized. If the funder has a set of questions, then the sections are the questions listed in the application. If it’s a regular proposal I will pull out the major sections to delineate the work. For example I may have the following sections:
Staff and Organizational Qualifications
Program Objectives & Activities
Staff bios and resumes
Letters of support
For each of the headings, someone is responsible (usually me) for drafting the narrative. If I need information from others to complete my task, I will add that person to the responsibility column in my work plan and assign them a deadline to get the information back to me. In terms of documentation, I keep a list of any forms that need to be filled out and any other requested attachments like the list above. Having all this mapped out before you begin minimizes the chances you’ll forget or omit something from your application.
During this time, I also review the submission process and write notes on my work plan about the process. Does the funder only want blue ink? I write that down! Does the funder need the information emailed only? I write that down so I don’t forget. If I need to purchase items for the submission (e.g. binders and dividers), I put in the order at that point so I don’t have to think about it later.
Establish a Deadline
I set a deadline a week before the actual deadline to have a draft completed. I build in time for giving the application time to rest, and for a proofreader to go behind me. Once I finish one draft it’s very important that I put it down and go do something else. Coming back with fresh eyes helps catch items that may have been overlooked before. Build in time for someone to proofread your document and to obtain approvals from anyone who needs to review and sanction and/or sign the proposal. Try to have a proofreader who is not connected to the project so they can put themselves in the shoes of a grant reviewer who doesn’t know much about your program either. Ask them to check for terms or words that are not clear, rambling sentences, and basic grammatical errors. My grant writing toolbox includes a proofreading checklist that you must have before you submit any written document - purchase it HERE.
Time to Write!
Once I have all of my structure in place, I start writing. I have a running document of text that is organized by the typical sections of a grant proposal that is often repeated in grant proposals. Some people call it a “swipe file”. I copy and paste from my swipe file and then adjust the language to fit the contents of the grant. This doesn’t mean I use boilerplate language and just copy and paste the same thing into multiple proposals. For goodness sake, please don’t do that! The reality is that some information will not change and there’s only so many ways you can jazz up or switch up the language for new proposals. Your organization’s incorporation date, organizational information, and program details won't change. Don’t be afraid to reuse content, but make sure you’re not doing this irresponsibly and without real thought of how your language applies to the current grant you’re writing.
When I write, I start with the with the most complex sections first because they take the most time. These sections are typically the need statement and the section describing the program. The budget should be developed alongside the program narrative and will take several tries to get it right.
After I’ve written my draft, I look through my finished grant checklist to make sure I hit all of the requirements and I have all the required information. It’s a last minute check I can use to make sure I’m not forgetting anything. Again, my grant writer’s toolbox includes the exact checklist I use which you can purchase HERE.
Submit the Grant
Once I submit the proposal, i update my pipeline to reflect that the grant has been submitted and I wait. I set a deadline in my calendar when I expect to hear a grant decision. After hearing back on the decision, I identify 3 ways I can do follow-up with the funder to keep them updated. If the grant was secured, I think about ways I can provide project updates. If we don’t win, I still think of 3 ways to engage them. Examples may be a thank you follow-up letter, a request to talk through the application or an invitation to a meeting or event I’m holding.
I’m not going to lie and say I follow this process to a “T” every single time. Some things I may skip or some steps may not be necessary. As you become more seasoned, a lot of this will just come to you. However, there is so much value in having a consistent process so you don’t have to waste TIME overthinking a process and run the risk of missing something. Follow this process and I guarantee that you’ll sweat less, worry less, and win more.
How is your process the same or different? Let me know!
If you’d like step by step instructions, you can purchase my grant writing toolbox, which includes readymade work plans, guides and templates that you can use to write a grant TODAY.