10 steps for writing a kickass grant proposal


palpatine 2Once a while, when I walk down the street, people would stop me and say, “Vu, how do you manage to be so smart, stylish, and so unconventionally sexy? What is your secret?” And I would say, “Aw, shucks, I dunno, I guess it’s just a combination of luck and shea butter lotion.”

OK, fine, no one has ever asked that. People do, however, frequently ask me for advice on grantwriting.

Now, writing 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 poorly taught. 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, 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 and the fact that you just wasted three hours surfing the internet.

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, I basically just put it the deadline on my calendar and ignore it and go watch several episodes of my 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 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—no one asked for. OMG, did you get the letters of support?!!

Step 9B: Frantically scramble for letters of support. 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 colleages 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. 

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 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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  • Dude, get a proofreader (can do for donations to OUR nfp in grim northern UK). Aside from that, awesome as ever….

    • Bradford, are you saying my ramblings, done at 1am, need to be tightened? How dare you, sir! I would throw down the gauntlet, but I can’t afford one. Gauntlets are expensive.

  • A couple of extras:

    Sometimes a foundation or grantor has a really delicate on-line grant application submission website. You may hit “send”, and find that all your hard work has gone into the bit bucket, and you are now starting from the beginning again. Good on-line submission sites will have the ability to save your application at the end as a PDF, but there’s no guarantee of this. So, one of the first things you do is copy and paste the on-line document into something like Microsoft Word. And it is in Word that you craft your answers and proof your document. And you save them there, and paste them at the end, back into the on-line document. This way you have a copy of the questions, and your answers, ready to be pasted into another grant

    Many, many on-line grant submission websites have word or character count limits. You may have a particular turn of phrase that you love, that you feel is compelling, that you like to use over and over in your grant proposals – and find that you only have 50 words (or worse, 50 characters) for a particular blank. Now the repetitive questions don’t seem so bad – you can use that favorite sentence or phrase in the intro but leave out a key datum; when you get to the nearly-the-same-question later, you can skip your favorite phrase but hit them up with the wallop of that statistic that drives home the need.

    Alternatively, you do a search and replace on “and”, and substitute “&”, giving you a few more characters.

    I tell you, when I was writing grants for Faith in Action – Supporting Senior Independence, and there was a character count limit, Yeah, I’d abbreviate it to FIA thereafter, but just writing it out the first time used up so many characters! You don’t know how I wished I worked for a nonprofit with a much shorter name.

    • Carol Clarke

      These are great suggestions, thank you cpetersky.

  • Gunner Scott

    From grant readers everywhere, thank you!

  • Cynthia Wallesz

    Hilarious! I’m forwarding Step 8 to my husband now -it’s part of the process after all! Thank you!

  • verucaamish

    As a program person married to a development person, program people – please make sure you are clear about what you are doing so that the development person is clear about what they are submitting. Please don’t ask the development person to come up with something for you to look at. Only YOU can assess whether you have the capacity to do it based on the budget. Only YOU can think about who you work with and whether this would fit in your overall program planning.

    • verucaamish

      I read this brilliant comment and was going to weigh in about how brilliant it is and then realized it was written by my husband. Still signed in as him, but I’m the devo to his pro. -vahuz

  • Laura Swanson

    This is EXACTLY how I write a grant! Thanks for reading my mind.

  • Elda

    One camouflage-your-slackerness tip. If it’s an online application, open it up as soon as you know about it and fill out the basics (org, address, phone etc.) and save the directions even if you don’t have time to work on the whole thing right away. On some grant panels I’ve served on, you can tell when someone started to work on the application and it is always better to look like you took some time to prepare a well-thought out grant. Even if you actually finish and submit it 30 seconds before the deadline, it looks like, “Hey, I’ve been working on this for WEEKS because it’s SO important to me that I do a good job.”

  • lindenchariot

    Point on with Step #8. I enjoy being under deadline because it excuses behavior that is otherwise unacceptable in a professional environment, like kicking the printer and muttering profanities. People will get all quiet and say don’t bother her, she’s writing a grant!

  • blawton

    Never ever attempt to fit a round peg into a square hole.