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Tips for Writing Winning Grant Proposals

As grant funding becomes more competitive, your grant request proposals need to become more competitive, as well. Here are four tips for writing winning proposals.

Non-profit organizations today are faced with a two-prong problem. The first is an increase in service demand. With our current economic crisis, as unemployment and foreclosure rates are up, the need for social services also goes up – there are more people in need of more or greater services, more is being asked or expected of non-profit organizations. The second problem is a decrease in charitable giving. Corporations, foundations and individuals alike are granting fewer funds this year than in the past, and state and federal organizations have been cutting budgets, including contracting with social service organizations. Organizations are being asked to do more with less.

With the decrease in traditional funding, many non-profits are increasing their efforts to find funding through foundations and grants – increasing the competitiveness of grants. Coupled with less funding for granting, the increased demand for grant funds has made the grant writing process even more competitive than in the past as organizations are stepping up their efforts.

In our work with non-profits, we have achieved more than $11 million in grant and proposal funding. We have learned a great deal through our experience in grant writing and reviewing.

Primarily it is important to remember that Grant Reviewers are people! Grant Reviewers read a lot of grants – I mean a lot! Keeping this in mind when constructing your grant response, especially in the case of paper (vs. electronic) submittals can give your organization an edge. Your organization’s response needs not only to comply with all technical aspects and be a good match for the funding requirements, but it must also stand out. In order to give your grant response the best odds of achieving funds we have created a short list of guidelines. While many of these may seem simple, it is amazing how many times we have seen organizations ignore these simple tools.

1. Make your response Physically Attractive. A physically attractive response is more pleasing to the eye and the brain, making it easier and more enjoyable for the Grant Reviewer to read. When the grant response is final, it should include, within the parameters of the individual grant response guidelines, plenty of white space, two or three (not a rainbow!) colors of font – setting apart titles and quotes, and colored pictures, charts or quotes, either incorporated in the text or in a two-column format, where the pictures, etc. are a side bar. And when possible, paragraph breaks should fall at the end of a page, not mid-way through the paragraph.

2. Appeal to the Human Side of Humans. The Grant Reviewer is not just a person themselves, but they represent an organization of essential “do-gooders”, people who want to help others and who want to give money to organizations that will make a difference. Lead with the human interest piece; let the granters know who your organization reaches out to and the difference it can make in. Your organization was founded to do something, let them know what that something is, not just in technical terms and through your mission and vision statement, but through the emotions you and those you help feel. As a grant writer, we call this the “sexy factor” – it is the heart-wrenching quotes and statistics, it is the National Geographic like pictures that catch people’s vulnerabilities and triumphs, it is the stories that make you want to cry or scream or jump for joy. Your organization is no doubt a good one and no doubt does great things, but there are hundreds of thousands of non-profit organizations all doing good things. Your organization must stand out, and one of the ways to do that in grant writing is to present the human side of your work.

3. Use their Words. Solicitations for grants or calls for proposals will be very specific in the words they use. The wording reflects not only what the granter is interested in, but the political climate of the organization and their beliefs – give their words back to them. When outlining your response, title your sections to match theirs – word for word. When you are responding to a question, either repeat the question exactly as a section header or turn their question into a leading statement, again using their words. As mentioned above, grant reviewers are reading a lot of responses, make it easy for them to find the information they are looking for and the requirements of the response. If they have to hunt down the information they are looking for within your response, they won’t bother, no matter how good of an organization you are or how much you do for people. When reading the grant solicitation, look for key terms and buzz words, even if your organization uses different terminology in your day to day practices, for the purpose of the grant response – convert your terminology to theirs.

4. Double Check Requirements, Appendices, Spell Check and Be Consistent – the Final Touches. These are the final touches. Again, while this seems like a no brainer, there are always a couple of proposals or grant responses that get disqualified on a technicality – the submitting organization failed to submit a copy of their 501(c)(3) form or missed replying to a required response or statement. These are the last minute items that get misplaced or skipped as the due date or due minute in many cases draws near and you are coordinating last minute copies with the last UPS pick-up. Once the grant response is completed and all sections written, take a minute to double check all sections and appendices. One trick to making sure nothing is missed, is to start the grant response by creating a template form, a separate sheet for each section and include in the template the requirements of the section. As you piece together the grant response, you basically fill in the missing pieces; this can often help ensure your organizations responds to all of the requirements. And lastly of course, use your computer’s spell check, but have someone else double check, as there are many words the computer will miss.

As the number of organizations converting the application process to either electronic or concept paper before full proposals increases, some of the above elements may be harder to incorporate – like the white space on an electronic submittal. However, these can be invaluable tools in a highly competitive race for grant funding. The bottom line however, is that if isn’t fun for you to read the response, it certainly isn’t going to be fun for someone who is reading a lot of responses similar to yours – so make yours stand out.

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