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How To Read a Grant Application So You Can Write a First-Class Grant

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

A successful grant proposal starts with the grant application. As in reading the application carefully before you write one word.

How to read a grant application so you can write a first-class grant with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter #nonprofits #GrantWriting

I know, I know. A grant proposal can be a lengthy project with lots of elements and you want to get at them right away. Surely the funder is simply waiting to hear about your project and its worthiness. And you’ve got it down on paper before the deadline, right? It’s tempting to read the grant application quickly and then jump into writing ASAP.

But a bit of well-placed time at the front end will make your writing flow more easily.

And more importantly, when you take time to read a grant application thoroughly, you’ll get to know your funder and the funder’s priorities.

This is key. The funder, in the grant application scenario, is the reader.  And a cardinal rule in nonprofit copywriting is, “Write to your reader.”

So before you write one word of a grant proposal, read the grant application thoroughly.

In fact, I usually make a copy of the announcement and keep a highlighter nearby to make notes directly on the document. 

With your print or electronic copy in hand, use this quick checklist to help you read a grant application and pull out important information. You’ll use the information now to determine whether or not to proceed in writing a grant application – or later, once you’ve determined this is a good fit –  in the writing process as you prepare the proposal. (You can also use this workbook, "Is This Grant Opportunity Right for You?" as you read a grant announcement.)

How To Read A Grant Application

1. Check Eligibility Requirements

Funders are clear about who qualifies as an applicant. As you consider applying for a specific grant, be sure to read its “Eligibility Requirements” or “Qualified Applicants” section first to determine if you qualify. Criteria may include your location, your budget, how long you have been in operation, what kind of funding you seek (new project; ongoing project; general operating expenses), and more. Look through the list carefully and make sure as the applicant, you meet all the qualifications. If you don’t, then don’t waste any more time on the application. There’s nothing more deflating than to complete and submit a grant proposal for an agency in Massachusetts only to be told that the funder focuses on Connecticut applicants only.

2. Research the Funder

You’ve determined that you qualify to apply for the grant. But don’t start writing just yet. Study the funder, its history, and its goals so you can understand what kinds of causes it supports. You’re looking for a relationship between your mission and the funder’s priorities.

This may require a bit of detective work in order for you to get a grasp of a funder’s areas of interest and typical award amounts. Study the funder’s website. Search its name for news articles or press releases. Look up its past IRS 990 forms (the reporting form required for tax-exempt organizations, available for the public to view for free online) and find what kinds of agencies, projects, and grant amounts it has awarded in the past. 

Can you identify a shared goal for both the funder and your organization? Note that your mission and the funder’s mission need not align exactly. For instance, a funder may focus on food security while your organization works with at-risk youth. Yet both share an interest in ensuring that hungry children receive healthy food. 

3. Study the Announcement

If the funder looks like a good fit, then examine the grant opportunity itself. Start with the application summary.  Look for a way to connect the dots between what the funder wants to do with its money and the program or service for which you’re seeking support. 

As you research, you may be surprised at the amount of information given in some grant applications versus others. Generally, grants offered by governmental agencies have lengthy announcements and well-defined goals. Private foundations, particularly the small- to midsize, publish shorter applications.

Highlight the purpose of the grant funds, what the funder expects to accomplish, and who the proposed program should serve. Make note of specific phrases, language or concepts that resonate with your cause. (You can use those in your application to underscore the connection to the funder’s priorities.) Remember: you’re looking for a shared goal between you and the grant funds to be awarded.

At this point, you may have a good idea whether or not going after the money is worth your time and effort. But before you start writing, go one more step and ask this: do you have the capacity to accomplish what is described in the application? The funder will want to see that you have infrastructure in place to carry out the project, including the staff, operational resources, time, collaborative partners, and (if you’re requesting partial funding) finances. 

If you see a green light with all of the above, then you will …

4. Map the Timeline

Read the grant application with a calendar at your elbow. What is the due date and do you have adequate time to prepare a strong application? Writing a grant proposal is not a slap-dash affair. Even a Letter of Inquiry, though short, requires nearly as much planning time as a full proposal. Consider time you will need to devote to research, attend informational webinars offered by the funder, and do the legwork needed for obtaining letters of reference, memos of understanding, and updating your agency budget. Most funders (particularly government agencies) have strict deadlines. If the proposal is due at 4 PM on Friday and you hit “Submit” at 4:05, your application will likely be eliminated. Even funders with rolling applications indicate when one application cycle closes and the next opens.

Take note of another set of dates: the funding period. That is, if you receive the grant, when will the funds be released and when does the funder designate that you use them? Be sure the timing works for your agency and your project.

5. Clarify the Format

Let’s say the dates line up well. Take time to review the grant application and make note of some technical details so you’re sure you can submit the proposal in the required format.

  • Submission Procedure. These days, it’s common for funders to specify online submission through a designated portal. Make sure you have the ability to create an account for your application and that you do so well in advance of the due date. More than a few grant portals have crashed at the eleventh hour, which can eliminate last minute submissions.
  • Submission Format. Does the funder ask for a narrative, formatted as a double-spaced document in Times New Roman font size 12 with successively numbered pages, saved as a Word document or as a PDF, to be loaded into the portal or sent in an email? Or does the application consist of a series of short answer questions with a character count that you will paste into designated fields in the online portal? Make careful note of how you are to prepare the document and ensure you have the necessary software.
  • Required Attachments. As you review the documents you need, confirm you have them in hand or can obtain them quickly – and can deliver them online in the format requested by the funder.  (Here is a list of grant attachments you may need.) I recall one application in which my client needed a completed fire department clearance. Fortunately, we’d padded our application timeline with a few extra days which gave time for the fire safety officials to complete the necessary paperwork.

Keep the Grant Application Nearby As You Write

Good job! You’ve confirmed your applicant’s eligibility, researched the funder to find your shared priorities, studied the announcement to ensure that you’re a good fit, confirmed the timeline to make sure you have time to prepare a first-class application, and reviewed the required format to ensure you have the tech and the attachments you need. 

You’re ready to write. Keep the grant application nearby and refer to it. Now get going and write a well-prepared proposal!

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