A United Way chapter receives a $42,000 federal grant from the Department of Agriculture for a farmers market geared toward getting nutritional food to the elderly. A city amphitheater gets a $60,000 tax-based grant to provide shade for audience members. A university receives an $80,000 grant from NASA to design a satellite frame. These are all examples of types of programs funded through grants. In its website, the National EMSC Data Analysis Resource Center [NEDRAC] states, “Grant seeking is big business; about one hundred fifty billion is spent on grants each year in the United States alone, and more than nine thousand public and private granting programs can be identified. Businessdictionary.com defines a grant as:
Bounty, contribution, gift, or subsidy (in cash or kind) bestowed by a government or other organization (called the grantor) for specified purposes to an eligible recipient (called the grantee). Grants are usually conditional upon certain qualifications as to the use, maintenance of specified standards, or a proportional contribution by the grantee or other grantor(s).
According to Nikki Lovell, a grant center administrator for United Way of Northern Utah, many people think “just having a good idea will get you a grant” when in actuality, getting a grant requires a great deal more time and effort. In his book “A Concise Guide to Getting Grants for Nonprofit Organizations”, Mark Guyner suggests that to get a grant three things are needed: a good plan, a good funder, and a good proposal. This article will dissect these three ideas into 10 steps for writing a successful grant proposal.
Most grants start with an initial idea or need. The first step in the grant writing process is to identify and crystallize the need of the organization. To write a successful grant application, you must do the appropriate groundwork to support the written application. This is a time to identify what need may exist, who would be benefited, can your program accomplish this project, and does your project have the buy-in of your organization. These ideas are reviewed and defined in the first three steps for grant writing; strategic planning, need statement, and researching the need statement.
Step One: Identifying the Need – Strategic Planning
Before asking an entity for funding, you must be able to communicate its purpose in a clear, concise and logical message. In “Grant Seeking in an Electronic Age”, authors Victoria Mikelonis, Signe Betsinger, and Constance Kampt recommend the use of a strategic plan to convey this message. They define a strategic plan as “a long-term (usually three- to five-year) blueprint for non-profit organizations. This strategic plan contains the organization’s:
- mission statement
- goals and objectives
- a description of the target population
- descriptions of the roles and responsibilities of governing boards
If an organization is able to provide the basics of its purpose, it will then be able to move into the idea or need for which it wants to receive funding. At this point, you have to define the need clearly and also demonstrate how this need relates to the mission and purpose of the organization. In their book “Successful Grant Writing: Strategies for Health and Human
Services Professionals”, Laura Gitlin and Kevin Lyons note, “One of the most challenging aspects of grantsmanship is identifying an idea that has the potential for funding” . However, the time spent identifying and defining the idea will create more ability to convince potential funders of the value of the proposal.
Step Two: Need Statement
Mikelonis, Betsinger, and Kampt define a need statement as “a succinct and persuasive presentation of facts and evidence that describe a problem and support the need for a project”. They then list the three major elements of a need statement:
- Description of the problem
- What the organization plans to do to solve the problem
- Statement of instrumental purpose or the organization wants the sponsor to do after reading the proposal
Defining a need statement assists in clarifying the need and assisting in research as the grant progresses. Usually, the need statement becomes the grant summary. To create an effective need statement, Gitlin and Lyons recommend eight resources to “formulate a fundable or competitive idea: professional experience, professional literature, interaction with colleagues and funded investigators, societal health and population trends, legislative initiatives, public documents, agency program goals and specific priorities, and community organizations, key informants of a target population.
The need statement can offer the organization an opportunity to take a preliminary deep look at the feasibility of getting the grant, to review the fiscal capability of the organization to handle the funds, and “to go to the mirror, your Board, and your team and ask if and how will you not only submit a quality proposal but what will and how will you gauge the quality of your work?”. By constructing an honest need statement, the organization can take a true look at the effects and challenges receiving the grant can offer. Once the components for a need statement are gathered, they need to be presented in a way that is “timely, urgent, compelling, and unique” suggest Mikelonis. This is a time to be concise and yet essential elements must be included. Guyner says, “It is a brief review of your grant request. The summary must be good, because it may be the only part that is read! If the funder doesn’t like what is written here he may not go any farther” Some grants request a summary or need statement for approval before an organization can apply with a full grant proposal.
Step Three: Researching the Need Statement
Researching the need statement is different from the search for a grant funder. In researching the need statement, the organization uses resources to find similar grant requests and see how their need statement measures up against competition. While this is definitely a time to note potential sponsors, the goal is “to provide more relevant evidence and stronger arguments to justify your problem and proposed solutions to potential sponsors”. In addition to finding comparable need statements, statistical data can be found on the Internet. “Proposal writers often have to identify relevant statistical data and factual information to provide adequate justification for the importance and scope of their problem”, says Mikelonis. By searching and finding this information on the Internet, the need statement can be bolstered by empirical evidence. A good understanding of search engine optimization (SEO) will help, but basically the need statement should contain keywords that will help identify similar need statements and summaries that may be listed on Internet. By finding similar projects through keywords, the organization can find potential donors who have a history of donating. An additional way to search is to conduct searches on the intended recipient of your idea or need.
Step Four: Funding
There are thousands of potential donors and funders. Lovell has access to over 200,000 potential donors. Her center is an example of the many centers and resources that assist in matching grants with appropriate sponsors. There are three primary types of organizations that create grants: foundations, corporations, and government.
Guymon lists the grant organization types as follows:
- Foundations – a foundation is a nonprofit organization that exists to serve the public good by making grants.
- Corporation – a corporation may have established a foundation to award grants. Also, the corporation itself as a separate organization may award grants.
- Government – the government gives more grant money than any other source. Available federal grants cover all kinds of physical needs: physical, educational, economic, etc.
- Foundations. Four categories of foundations include independent, operating, community, and corporate. Mikelonis defines independent foundations as “funded by individuals or families who invest large sums of money in an endowment fund … they must give away 5 percent of their endowment annually.” Mikelonis defines operating foundations as “large, well-established foundations that fund specific programs, do not solicit proposals, but instead fund the research or programs they want conducted” . Community foundations are “set up by local municipalities to fund local charitable work and corporate foundations are “set up as a philanthropic arm of many large corporations . . . funded annually from a fixed percentage of a company’s profits”
- Corporations. Because corporate funding is usually based on company earnings, “when profits are high, more funding may be available.” Corporate foundations may also benefit the communities around them more than entities in other areas as a way of being more supportive to the local area. Corporations may also offer product as an in-kind donation.
- Government. “Government funding sources often give away the largest sums of money. If your project is large and your target population coincides with a target population for whom Congress has allocated funds, you will want to consider approaching government sponsors”
If prepared properly, the need statement can assist in determining the appropriate source of funding. Each funding type has specific databases and resources for available monies and their associated sponsors. While libraries remain a strong beginning step in the process, the Internet continues to be a growing force for information and the gateway into the most current grant opportunities and requirements. The importance of understanding the different sponsors and their respective motivations is crucial as the organization seeking funding begins to prepare to write the proposal.
Step Five: Letter of Intent
In many cases, the large foundations and government agencies do not want you to write a proposal immediately and send it to them. Writing a proposal takes considerable time and effort and may not be the most efficient way to proceed. Instead, many foundations want you to write a two- or three-page letter of intent.
When the time comes to write a letter of intent or summary, an effective need statement will pay off. The elements required in writing the need statement are similar to the elements that make a good letter of intent. To find the letter of intent requirements of a potential sponsor, an organization can either review websites and resources or contact the sponsor directly. Making a personal contact can avert problems, help establish the appropriateness match of the grant to the sponsor, and create connection. Should the sponsor express immediate interest, a well-thought need statement will demonstrate the research and sincere interest of the inquiring organization. The format of the letter of intent is usually in a formal business style and should be signed by the executive officer of the grant requesting organization.
Step Six: Proposal Narrative
Most grant sponsors will have a specific format for grant proposals. The type of sponsor will usually dictate the tone of the grant writing. According to Mikelonis, most proposals will consist of the following sections:
- Cover Letter – short introductory letter signed by requesting organization executive officer
- Cover Page – a standard sheet that includes: name of project, key people who will be involved in the project, duration of the project, amount of money being requested, short abstract, name and address of organization
- Project Description/Need Statement – expanded description of the problem
- Solution: Goal, Objectives, and Tasks – detailed specifics of the solution and execution
- Evaluation and Sustainability – assessment of the success of the project
- Dissemination – the plan for distributing the information following completion
- Budget – specifics regarding how the money will be used
- Appendices – supporting documents
Step Seven: Project Description/Need Statement.
Following the creation of a cover letter and cover page, the organization begins to get into the nuts and bolts of the proposal narrative. The type of grant will determine the tone of the writing style. According to Lovell, “Government grants are very technical and complex. There is little room for creativity.” What is required is a strong sense of logic as to how the requesting organization’s solution will work.
Benedetto Leopori and Andrea Rocci conducted research in the area of logic and reasonableness in grant proposal writing in regards to research grants. They point out that a grant “proposal involves both a directive (asking the agency for funding) and a commissive speech act: the applicant promises to carry out a certain research activity, provided that he/she receives funding. The researchers note several key components of a successful proposal including strategic maneuvering, topical potential, and adaption to the audience. Overall, the proposal must be able to tell the story of how the organization is going to solve the stated problem. The proposal stands a better chance of winning approval if the plan is logical and provable. Flowery, extraneous words can jeopardize the success of the grant where logic, details and proven results can seal the deal. Lovell adds, “Most grants are not really new. Most funding organizations want to fund something they know will have results so they will be looking for references to similar successful programs.”
Mikelonis recommends a “hook” statement at the beginning of the project description that can capture the attention of the reader while expressing the essence of the proposed project. This part may include statistics or short stories about people potentially directly affected by the proposed solution. Again, this will depend on the type of sponsor being courted. While the “hook” may work for a corporate or local grant, if too schmaltzy, the “hook” may instantly signal a government grant reviewer of a novice proposal writer and potentially affect credibility. Government grants require a more rational, straight forward introduction. “Proposal writing is not a time to be fancy or experimental in language use and composition. A proposal requires a scientific, technical approach to writing in which the details of a project are clearly described”, says Gitlin and Lyons. Above all else, the proposal writing must reinforce the cause and effect of the proposal idea.
Step Eight: Monitoring and Reporting Plans
Step eight involves demonstrating to the potential sponsor your ability to follow through with your proposal and report results. According to Mikelonis, “monitoring is a method for ongoing review and measurement of a project to gauge its progress relative to its objectives and to plan continual improvements to both activities and project management”. She continues, “Evaluation takes a broad view of the project’s activities over time and looks not only at what the project did but how effective or successful it was in serving the target population and achieving its overall goal”.
In order to fully communicate the cause-and-effect implications of your proposal, realistic assessment measures must be created and detailed. This will demonstrate to the sponsor how you will know if the project was a success or failure. The more the data relies on empirical, scientific modes of measure, the more credibility the project will gain and potential for funding. The majority of grants will require this information in a form of annual report or final report upon completion of the project.
Step Nine: Dissemination and Sustainability
At this stage of the proposal, you must decide if the information and data gleaned from your project merits being shared by a wider audience and what your plan would be for making this happen. This may be a concern or a bonus to the sponsor if their name would be proportionally attached to the completed research or project. A plan should be created on how the results of the project will be used following completion and what obligations may then exist for the sponsor. The aspect of dissemination could also act as a selling point if the sponsor entity would benefit from beneficial exposure.
Another beneficial selling point of a proposal is the potential longevity of a project after completion. “Sponsors are more likely to fund projects that will continue to benefit the target audience after the initial funding ceases. As a result, sponsors want to know what your plans are for maintaining or sustaining the project” says Mikelonis. A balance of persuasive writing with outlines of similar project results can help create credibility and demonstrate the maximum use of a potential grant.
Step 10: The Budget
A budget can make or break a grant request. Lovell warns, “The budget must be correct. If you can’t balance a budget on the proposal, they [the sponsor] will question whether you can handle their money. The budget sheet is one of the most significant pieces of the grant proposal and can ultimately decide if the grant is approved. The proposing organization should carefully review all aspects of the budget. Gitlin and Lyons advise, “The sign-off by a designated official from your institution on a grant proposal is a legal indicator that the institution has reviewed and approved the budget and that it accurately reflects salary figures and real costs .”For this reason it is advisable and critical that your organization’s financial officer assist in the preparation of the element of the proposal.
Bonus tip: Networking
Several sources advocate the use of networking to get to know potential sponsors and to assist in the preparation of a grant proposal. Leopori and Rocci recommend using colleagues to first test out a grant proposal. They say, “Proposal writing is in most cases not individual work, but rather a social process where other members of the team and colleagues are asked to contribute and to comment on successive drafts. Colleagues are deemed to play the role of referees or members of evaluation panels of the funding agency and thus their answers are considered as proxies of a dialogue with the funding agency.”
And while this is an important piece, these researchers also note another benefit of using colleagues: “This is related to the fact that in most agencies researchers themselves are involved in the evaluation process, especially in the academic-oriented research councils” . By creating networks and being willing to contact potential sponsors in appropriate ways, credibility and familiarity can build and increase the potential of gaining a grant. Lovell recommends being nice to everyone and to also “create relationships with the people you will be working with through reviews, thank you notes, and reports.”
Grant writing is a skill that demands a strong sense of technical attention and solid logical rhetoric. More than just an idea, grant writing must take an idea and deconstruct, evaluate and reassemble the idea in a persuasive manner backed up by research. In an increasingly competitive area, good grant writing is critical to getting results. By paying attention to detail, doing the research and creating connections, grant writing will yield success.
Interview with a Pro
A Sidebar Conversation with
a Professional Grant Writer
by Chad L. Mosher
Nikki Lovell knows how to get money. As the grant writing administrator for United Way of Northern Utah and the Zada Haws Community Grant Center and Cooperating Collection, Lovell heads “the most authoritative source of information on private philanthropy in Northern Utah.” According to the United Way website, “The Center helps grantseekers, grantmakers, researchers, policymakers, the media, and the general public better understand the field of philanthropy. Instruction on funding research, help with proposal writing, tools for locating prospective funders, news and research on philanthropy are all available at the Center.”
Lovell offers her top 10 tips for effective grant writing:
1. See the big picture first and put the details in later. A proposal should be visionary and also clearly demonstrate cause and effect. Write for what you want to see happen.
2. Creative writing is not good for grant writing. Writing should be systematic and more scientific than creative. The grant proposal should point to similar proven research with noteworthy outcomes, especially for government grants.
3. Good grant writing will get you more grants. Cultivating a good reputation, getting to know grant managers, and creating a history are a “must have” to getting federal grants.
4. Relationships equal grants. As foundations based on “old money” age and their executors move to other cities, they tend to take the money with them. Creating relationships will create the potential to keep grant money consistent on a long-term basis.
5. Be exact. Especially in regards to government grants, the worksheets will tell you exactly what information to provide – provide it. As a long-term government grant reviewer, Lovell is saddened by the points grants lose because of simple omissions and assumptions.
6. Gain experience, be a reader. Lovell says the best way to gain experience is to become a grant reader for the government. Government grants are reviewed by a minimum of three readers who evaluate the grant separately and then compare scores. This consistent review opportunity teaches the nuances of grant writing and demonstrates what passes and what doesn’t.
7. Edit, edit, edit, and add correctly. Proofread the grant proposal and have others proofread as well. If grant writers can’t spell, they can’t administer a grant. This goes double for the budget. Use an accountant to create the budget.
8. If at first you don’t succeed. Government reviewers have to write comments for every point taken away in a grant proposal review. These reviews are public record and available for the submitter to review. Get the review, correct what is wrong, and resubmit.
9. Be thick skinned. Rejection is part of grant writing. Lovell says you will only get about 10 percent of the grants you submit.
10. Grant writing is fun. Everybody loves you because you get them money. Lovell has retired from professional grant writing but continues as a volunteer and says it is even more fun.
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