TechSoup Grant Series Week Five: Write the Winning Grant Proposal

This week in our TechSoup Grant Series: One Hour a Week to Success, we are ready to focus on writing a successful grant proposal. If you use your organization’s strategic plan as a foundation and have a fully developed grant project, this stage of the process should progress smoothly.

Funders usually provide documentation (a grant application, a Request for Proposal (RFP), and/or grant stipulations) with all the necessary details and requirements regarding their funding opportunities. Read these materials very carefully, especially the qualifications and the evaluation criteria. You don’t want to be almost finished writing a proposal when you realize that you don’t qualify, that you’ve missed a deadline, that you needed to partner with the local health department, or that you must provide unplanned services. Highlight all of the questions you must answer and make a list of the resources and materials you will need.

Application documents can be quite varied. Most grant proposals are usually 15 pages or less, some are only a few pages, while others, such as government grants may require lengthy responses and result in proposals that are hundreds of pages long. However, there are some common elements that are often required by most funders: 

  • Cover Letter, Title Sheet, Table of Contents
  • Abstract/Summary
  • Organizational Overview
  • Statement of Needs/Justification
  • Project Description
  • Timeline/Activities/Methods
  • Budget
  • Evaluation Process
  • Appendix
Tips for Writing the Narrative

Grant writing is similar to sales or marketing work, in that you are attempting to convince the funder to sponsor and support your idea and project. You should also tell the story about the people in your community, the need that they have and how your project, supported by the funder's grant, can make a positive and even life changing impact in these people's lives.

Creative storytelling techniques can be useful in demonstrating need, helping the funder to understand your community as real people with real problems. Your well planned grant project with objectives and activities are the resolution to the conflict in your story.

Have at least one person proofread your application. This could be someone from outside your organization, who is not as familiar with the operations, such as a family member or friend. Ask them to read it once, quickly, and see if they are able to understand the gist of the grant project and what it is you are requesting. We sometimes use terminology that is specific to our work or technology terms that are unfamiliar to the layperson. Don't make a grant reviewer’s job any more difficult. They will read stacks of applications, and if they aren't sure what something means, your proposal will lack necessary details and impact. If you know of someone with experience in writing grants, ask them for feedback as well. Ensuring that your proposal is very clear and easy to comprehend will increase your chances of success.

Emphasize collaboration and partnerships throughout your proposal. You can often have a wider impact when more organizations are involved and greater chances of successful implementation. Even if partners are not required for the grant, funders will admire that you are planning for sustainability and ensuring future community support. Collaborating with other organizations is also a beneficial way to share equipment, expertise, and resources. Look for groups in your community with similar goals to yours, such as nonprofits, all types of libraries, schools, colleges, government agencies, museums, religious groups and community organizations. For example, if you want to assist your community with unemployment issues, you might find valuable partners that provide job training, computer classes, offer child care, GED preparation, or other social services that can help create a program with many ways to benefit and support job seekers. Letters of commitment (memoranda of understanding, or MOU’s), spell out the ways groups will work together and are an important way to document a partnership and designate responsibilities.

Contacting the Funder

Don’t be apprehensive about contacting the funder if you have questions that aren’t answered in the RFP or application materials. Most charitable organizations have been created out of a desire to be part of the solution to societal problems. The reason they extend grants is to help fulfill their own missions. Funders want to give money away to meet their goals, it is their job, and they are there to help. Of course, be certain you've done your research first and that you're not asking a question already answered in their documentation. You don’t want to bother a funder and become a nuisance, but if you call with a realistic inquiry, it should be welcomed. An added benefit is that the funder will be familiar with your proposal before it has been submitted. This is a good way to start building a communicative partnership with the funder. Building trust and identifying mutual goals is essential to successful grant work. You may even want to set up a time to meet in person with local funders to start building good relationships.

As with any type of writing, it is important to keep your audience in mind—the individuals who will be reading, reviewing, and making a decision about your proposal. More than one person will probably be evaluating your proposal. It may be a committee that reviews your proposal, with each individual reviewer scoring your proposal on established criteria. Some funders even distribute the individual sections of the proposal to different reviewers. For example, one reviewer may be focused on judging the specific project you are proposing, while a different reviewer will examine the evaluation process you have specified. Some funders use external proposal reviewers on a contract basis or as volunteers.

Many grants are very competitive, which means that reviewers have a lot of proposals to read and a lot of hard decisions to make. You may assume that it will be clear which proposals stand out and should be funded, but sometimes decisions are very arbitrary. It isn’t as easy to “give money away” as one may think and often there are heated debates and compromises made, such as giving less funding to one organization so that another grant can be funded as well. This is another reason it can be helpful to build relationships with funders and get feedback early on as to what they are looking for and how you can best present your case.

Check and Double-Check!

When you are ready to submit your application, turn to your checklist and go through it carefully, item by item. Make sure you have followed all the directions and guidelines, and have included everything the funder requested. Usually funders have many more worthy applications than they can possibly fund. They don’t have the time to deal with applications that don’t comply with the instructions. Also, they don’t want to give money to an organization that cannot follow directions. Be sure to allow the time to acquire all needed signatures. Particularly in larger organizations, acquiring signatures can take some time. The last thing you want to find out is that a necessary signatory is on vacation the week your proposal is due. You may have to have signatures from your board of directors or from your city fiscal office.

Remember It’s About the People

Your proposal should tell the story of the people that will be helped. It is never about the “stuff” you will get (money, technology, buildings, etc.) but about the people. Funders want to help people, not buy things. In library and nonprofit work, we are passionate about our work, we change people’s lives every day through our programs and services. Make it clear to the funder how your organization will impact your community members.

Homework:

Start writing a short grant proposal.  If you did your project planning and your research from previous weeks, hopefully you found a small grant that supports your mission. Check the library grants blog for some examples, and also check with your local foundations, clubs, and corporate giving programs. Complete the application and send it in!

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