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.
Writing a grant can be intimidating, which is why grant writers enjoy a measure of respect among their word smithing colleagues. These writers have developed this specific skill. And for those writers who have completed successful grant applications, “Winning a grant” is a notch in their belts – one shrouded in a bit of mystery and awe.
But you needn’t let those pressures deter you. Grant writing skills can be acquired. Like any other sizable project – writing a book, launching a website, maintaining a blog – writing a grant can be divided into small stages to tackle one at a time. Once you know the five stages to writing a grant, the process is much more manageable.
The grant writing process can be distilled to five writing stages. These stages assume you’ve identified a grant and you’re getting ready to write the proposal. (Finding grants is a process in itself.)
You can see from these stages that writing a grant is a process that typically takes place over a period of time, rather than a simple project that you start and complete in one afternoon.
Each of the five stages varies in length. For instance, you may read through the grant opportunity quickly in an hour or two (Stage 1) and then be ready to work on completing the application (Stage 2), which may take you several days. The time you spend on each stage of the grant varies for each application and each writer.
Your first stage as a grant writer is to examine the grant opportunity announcement, sometimes called the “grant application.” Each funder presents its opportunity in a different format and sets its own eligibility criteria for grant applicants (Grant announcement formats are explained here).
Plus, each funder has its own application process, which varies widely in degree of detail required. All those variations can make your head spin, but you’ll find that these different announcement versions have a lot in common.
No matter the format of the announcement, first determine if you qualify by reading the “Eligibility Requirements” or “Qualified Applicants” section. 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 your work in North America only to be told that the funder focuses on Central America only.
If you qualify, then look carefully at the funder’s priority areas. How does your agency or your particular project line up? A funder makes awards according to its particular interest, whether it’s for clean water, leukemia research, arts opportunities for special needs children, or civil rights advocacy. It may be tempting to focus your case on your project’s worthiness – and you should – but how does your project intersect with your funder to meet its priorities? The funder wants to ensure its funds are used to work in its designated priority areas in ways that have the greatest impact. (Workbook: Is This Grant Opportunity Right For You?)
Your job as grant writer is to connect the dots between the funder’s interests and your project, demonstrating that your work will help the funder meet its goals. Here’s a step by step guide to reading a grant application.
Once you read the announcement, decide that you qualify, and identify how your project aligns with the funder’s priorities, it’s time to get down to business and start writing. Nearly every grant application calls for certain elements: (1) executive summary, (2) organization information, (3) a need statement (or “problem statement”), (4) program objectives, (5) program description, (6) an evaluation plan, and (7) budget and attachments.
The first of those elements, the executive summary, stands alone as a quick and dirty view of the application, usually limited to one page. I always write the executive summary after I’ve completed the rest of the application. The last of those elements – budget and attachments – are additional documents that you tack on to the application.
That leaves five elements that comprise what is called the grant narrative. You’ll spend the bulk of your writing time in preparing the narrative and proofing it so it’s error free before you submit it.
You’ve finished the narrative and may think all your hard work is behind you. But don’t rest just yet. Be sure to allot some time and brain power to submit the application according to the directions. Many a strong grant application has been denied or simply not reviewed by the funder because the applicant did not follow the submission instructions.
This is one stage of the grant writing process that is more objective than the others because submission directions are explicit. The key point here? Follow application directions to the letter by adhering to due dates, funding dates, submission procedures, your application’s formatting, and required attachments.
“You’ve been awarded the grant!” Confetti, cheers, and celebration! Private funders typically announce grant awards in a formal letter. Government entities may require you to check a website for the announcement, where you will download your award letter to sign and return to the funder. The award letter outlines the funder’s expectations as you use the grant as well as a disbursement and reporting schedule.
Wait … expectations? Yes, funders assume you will carry out the work you’ve proposed. The key to making this stage one of excitement rather than trepidation rests in writing smart, realistic, attainable objectives in your grant narrative. If you overestimate or underestimate the objectives set out in your grant application, you set false expectations. A successful grant application is realistic in its projections, demonstrating that you are a reliable applicant that can accomplish the work you say you will do. (Here are tips for writing strong grant objectives.)
You’ve been awarded the grant, signed the acceptance letter, and have set about to achieve the project’s objectives, but your writing is not over. Funders require, at a minimum, a final report on outcomes. Some funders require an interim report part of the way through the grant period, too.
Writers tend to skimp preparation for this stage of writing a grant because they’re focused on preparing a strong application. But reporting is crucial – especially if you want the funder to consider you for a future award – so plan carefully for it.
Planning your interim and final reports begins during Stage 2, as you write your grant application and describe your evaluation plan. Reporting outcomes hinges on how you collect and evaluate data from your project. How you will measure your project’s results? How will you collect data? Your evaluation plan must to be ready to implement once you receive the grant award and begin your project. A clear, ready-to-go system will provide accurate data from Day 1 of the grant period. That data will provide the basis for your reports to the funder.
Writing a grant isn’t so intimidating when you break it down to these five stages and work through the stages one by one. The biggest key to success is quite simple: read the directions. And follow them.
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