Know Thyself: 25 Questions To Ask Before Writing Your First Grant

Imagine that you have just been hired on contract to write a grant for a local faith-based organization. Or that you have been brought on staff as a new part-time grant writer at a nonprofit. Or that you volunteered to prepare a grant application on behalf of a community group you’ve supported for years.

Whether you are new to a nonprofit or a longtime advocate, writing your first grant is going to teach you a lot about the organization.

You are going to get an inside look at the guts and gears that make the nonprofit work well…or not work well, as is sometimes the case. You’ll also get a rare mile-high view — a glimpse of how one program or project links to another, a sense of where the organization is situated in the community it serves, etc. This approach can only be described as holistic: you see the interconnected parts in reference to the whole, and vice versa.

Over time, I have compiled a list of questions I like to ask new clients before I start writing. There are three reasons I like to get this information beforehand:

  1. Efficiency: Asking the basic questions as they come to you, or when they are required by the grant, can waste effort and slow down the process — especially if your contacts inside the organization can’t get back to you right away.

  2. Quality: Some of what you learn won’t even make it into the final proposal, but asking these questions will give you that holistic awareness of the organization’s mission, programs, and impact. Your proposal is more likely to achieve the breadth and depth it requires. Also, asking good opening questions sets you up to ask great follow-up questions.

  3. Passion: After asking these questions, you won’t be writing for a stranger. Hopefully you will be invested in the nonprofit’s mission. Even when I am hired to write a one-off grant for a new client, I slip into using “us” and “our” language rather than “you” and “your”. I take it as a good sign.

It’s unlikely you’ll be able get through all 25 of these questions in a single conversation. That’s for the best. (You might even be able to find the answers to several of these questions on your own—from the organization’s website, for example.) The point isn’t to interrogate some poor executive director. The point is to make sure you know the answers to as many of these questions as possible by the end of a couple comfortable yet purposeful conversations.

The progression of the following questions is mostly intuitive. Your conversations will take their own natural turns. Just be respectful enough of everyone’s time that you don’t stray too far off-topic.

  1. What are the organization’s mission and vision statements?

  2. When was the organization founded? Why was it founded and by whom?

  3. Whom does our organization serve?

  4. Where does our organization serve?

  5. What need (or needs) is our organization trying to address?

  6. How does our organization play a leadership role in the community?

  7. Which organizations in the community are doing similar work? What sets us apart?

  8. Who are our most important community partners, and how do we collaborate?

  9. What are the primary programs and activities of our organization? How do they align with our mission and vision? How do they address the needs we have identified?

  10. Can you point me in the direction of the relevant research and statistics that demonstrate the need for our programs/projects and the effectiveness of our approach?

  11. What are our organization’s current funding priorities?

  12. Has our organization written grants in the past? Were they successful? Why or why not? Are the old applications still accessible as resources?

  13. How do we track grant submissions, grant awards, grant reports, etc.?

  14. How do we measure the effectiveness of our programs and projects? How does evaluation inform program design, implementation, modification, etc.?

  15. What is our organization’s tax status?

  16. What are our most significant forms of revenue?

  17. What is our organization’s annual budget? How is that budget allocated?

  18. How many people are on staff? What is the full-time equivalent (FTE)?

  19. How important are volunteers to our organization?

  20. How active is our board of directors?

  21. How do we make diversity a priority?

  22. What are the most important assets of our organization — in particular, the kinds of assets that don’t show up on a Profit & Loss Sheet?

  23. What are our goals for the future? Do we have a strategic plan and/or a fundraising plan? If so, can I see them?

  24. Why are you passionate about this organization?

  25. When can we get started?