How to Write a Grant: 11 Basic Steps

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In an earlier post on the 10 best places to find your next grant, I reassured readers that grantseeking requires no esoteric knowledge, no membership in some kind of secret society. With a little coaching, you have what it takes to secure funding for your school, nonprofit, or faith-based organization.

I stand by this statement.

But sometimes I forget that many people, even folks who spend day after day working for nonprofits of one kind or another, aren’t familiar with the grant cycle. I was reminded of this recently when a friend who helps run an animal rescue organization asked me to give her a mile-high view of the grantseeking process.

Inspired by that conversation, I want to describe the grant cycle here too. This, in general terms, is how to write a grant. Where grant writing can get exciting, even fun, is in the particulars—in that space where you get to convey your passion and vision and plan in ways that make a grantmaker take notice. But it’s helpful to have an idea of what lies ahead. With that in mind, here are the 11 basic steps you can expect to take on your journey toward grant funding.

How to Write a Grant: 11 Basic Steps

Step 1. Determine that you are ready to write grants

I’m working on a dedicated post that will explain this first step in more detail. For now, just know that not every organization is ready to write, win, and manage a grant. Here are just a few basic questions to ask yourself at this stage: Are you registered as a nonprofit? If not, do you have natural ties with a nonprofit organization that can serve as a fiscal agent? Do you have a clearly articulated mission? Is your organization fiscally sound? Can you wait the weeks or months it often takes to receive a grant, if you are awarded the grant at all? If you do get the grant, does your agency have the staff, expertise, and other resources to manage it well?

Step 2. Decide what type of funding you're looking for

There are different types of grant funding, with varying levels of “restrictions” put on the award. The most common categories of grants are general operating grants, program and project grants, capacity building grants, capital grants, endowment grants, and matching grants. General operating support grants provide maximum flexibility, but they they are also relatively rare. The most common type of grant is the program or project grant. They are more restrictive, since grant funds can only be used to create, support, or grow the programs or projects described in your application. For a brief description of each of these categories, check out my recent blog post on the 6 most common types of grants.

Step 3. Find a grantmaker who is a good match

The third step is to identify a grantmaker whose funding priorities, geographic focus, type of funding, and timeline are aligned your own. One of the most important revelations I had as a novice grant writer was when I realized that funders have their own missions too. Grantmakers of all kinds—private, corporate, government—have been mandated (by their founders, donors, trustees, or lawmakers) to give to certain causes, to certain recipients, and/or in particular places. Find a grantmaker with whom you can develop a mutually beneficial relationship.Note: Don’t know where to begin looking? Start with the post I mentioned earlier: 10 Places to Find Your Next Grant.

Step 4. Determine the method of first contact

Most funders will tell you how to get in touch with them. It could be a letter of inquiry, phone call, email, or a face-to-face meeting. Sometimes your initial contact with a funder will be when you submit a full application. If you have to call, email, or meet in person, make a good first impression. Be prepared to succinctly describe your organization, the community you serve, and the program or project for which you are seeking support. Be prepared to listen too, with a spirit of curiosity and even generosity. Learn about the funder’s history, mission, and current priorities. Then ask about the process for submitting a grant.

Letters of inquiry are an increasingly common way for grantmakers and grantseekers to introduce themselves to each other. Check out this short series I did on how to write irresistible letters of inquiry.

Step 5. Complete the grant application

It’s unfair how big, and how general, I’ve made this one “step”—which is actually a series of smaller steps. Remember that this is just an overview of the process. Another complicating factor is that grant applications come in all shapes and sizes. Over the next several months, I’m going to put everything I know about good grant writing onto this site. For now, just remember that many applications will, at a minimum, require you to do the following:

  • Write a narrative describing (a) the needs or opportunities your community is facing, (b) how your organization plans to address those needs or take advantage of those opportunities, (c) your capacity to do this work well, and (d) how you plan to evaluate success

  • Create a budget for the program or project you described in the narrative

  • Submit letters of support (if not formal memoranda of understanding) from project partners

  • Provide supporting documents, which may include proof of nonprofit status, recent financial statements, basic information about your board of directors, résumés or CVs, signature forms, and more

Step 6. Revise the application

Revise and refine the application as much as possible, then get at least one pair of fresh eyes to look at it too. Compare your application to the scoring rubric, if one has been provided. Where can your application be improved in order to compete for the maximum number of points? Is there anything you can do to make the narrative or budget easier on the eyes for a grant reviewer who may be reading his twelfth application of the day? Double-check that you followed all formatting requirements, including page limits, character counts, spacing, font size, etc.

Step 7. Submit

For this step, I find it helpful to create an application checklist, if one has not been provided. Then I make sure I have included all the pieces in the final grant package, and that they are compiled in the correct order. (Here again, follow directions. Grantmakers differ on how they prefer to receive the application: electronically, email, or “snail mail”; one copy or three; stapled or not.) I also recommend submitting the application at least a day early. Trust me, you never know when you will run into technical issues, or even discover in a panic that you’ve forgotten something important.

My final recommendation can be summed up in three words: “Treat. Yo. Self.” You worked hard for this moment. When you have finally clicked SUBMIT, sent your email, or finished at the post office, find a way to celebrate. I’m serious. You’ve earned it.

Step 8. Wait, proactively

You won’t learn the results of your application right away. In fact, you can expect to wait anywhere from one to four months. That said, your grant efforts don’t have to remain idle during this time. I suggest using this interval to your advantage in two ways:

First, get together with your colleagues and analyze the grant process so far. What worked well? What didn’t? What can be systematized? Quite apart from whatever the final decision turns out to be (the product), what effect did the process have on your organization? Did it clarify your mission? Did it reveal something about the people you serve? Did it improve internal communication? Did it result in fresh language that can be used to describe the important work your organization is doing? How can future grants serve as catalysts for new ideas, new partnerships, and increased “ownership” from staff, volunteers, and community members?

Second, write more grants!

Step 9. If your funding request is denied, use it as a learning opportunity

If you submit more than two or three grants, you will almost certainly experience the disappointment of having a funding request denied. No one, not even the best professional grant writers, bats a thousand—or anywhere close to it. For one thing, there are just too many things you can’t control: The quantity and quality of the other applications. The reviewers assigned to yours. A grantmaker’s need to balance multiple priorities, some of which may be in flux. For another, there is always room for improvement. I’ve written more than $33 million in funded grants during my career so far, and I’m certain that I have yet to submit a perfect grant.

This isn’t meant to discourage you. In fact, a denial letter should spur growth. Some grantmakers are willing to explain why your application didn’t make the cut. If they are available, request scores or reviewers’ comments. Learn as much as you can from the experience, and then forge ahead.

Repeat Steps 1-8, as desired!

Step 10. If your funding request is approved, manage the grant well

Congratulations on getting the grant!This is reason to celebrate (again!), but the grant process continues. Your job now is to administer the grant well. Good grants administration entails tracking expenditures, making sure you are complying with the grantmaker’s rules and regulation, and following the best practices of fiscal management. It also means implementing your funded project with fidelity to the original grant application. If setbacks or unforeseen obstacles arise, get in touch with the grantmaker; they want to hear from you in situations like this. Even though money is involved, I find it helpful to approach the whole grants process not as a transaction, but as an unfolding partnership.

Step 11. Complete required reports

Chances are good that the grantmaker will ask you to describe the results of your program in the form of a final report. (Some funders ask for interim reports too.) Even if a grantmaker doesn’t explicitly ask for a report, I recommend writing one anyway. It is a way of honoring their contribution and strengthening your relationship. If the funder doesn’t give you a format, I suggest you at least include the following elements:

  • Financial statements depicting how project funds were spent

  • Results of your project evaluation (see below)

  • Your sustainability plan, if you intend to continue the project beyond the life of the grant

At the end of a project, conduct a thorough evaluation. When describing the project’s impact in your report, compare your findings to the goals and objectives outlined in your application. What was successful, what wasn’t, and why? How will the results of your evaluation inform the ongoing work of your organization? If appropriate, how do you plan to disseminate the lessons learned to your community, other project stakeholders, and other organizations doing similar work?

Questions: If you are new to the grant writing process, does seeing it laid out like this make you feel more empowered or more intimidated? Or perhaps both? Which stage of the grant cycle do you most want me to write about more in future posts?