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Grant proposal writing

“Resources available for writing grant proposals”

“Writing a successful grant proposal”
First published December 4, 1998

“Writing with heart improves odds of getting grant”
First published October 17, 1997

“Grant proposals: Writing is just part of the process”
First published October 16, 1992


The Foundation Center Learning Lab

Philanthropy News Digest

“A Proposal Writing Short Course”

The Grantsmanship Center


Resources available for writing grant proposals

By Stephen Wilbers

The secret to writing successful grant proposals these days is being connected – not to insiders at funding agencies, but to people in your own organization and to resources on the Web.


To begin the long process of getting that grant, you need more than a good idea. You need to know what’s possible and realistic. Who among your colleagues is committed to implementing your program? What institutional resources are available to you? Why is your organization better suited than others to implement your program idea?


Once you have identified a genuine need and determined that it is within your organization’s mission to address that need, you are ready to take the next step: going online to search for prospective funding sources.


It has never been easier to search for information on the Net. Searching “grant proposal writing” on Google, for example, turns up 15,700,000 websites – perhaps a few more than you have time to browse. With that in mind, I recommend you start with a few particularly helpful sites:


The University of Wisconsin’s Grants Information Center. This site provides a list of resources and links. Though it needs updating (some of the links are broken), it’s a good place to start for both general and research grants. The emphasis here is on instruction – online tutorials, primers, handbooks, and sample proposals – rather than funding sources.


The Grantsmanship Center. This resource, which claims to be “the world’s leader in grant information and grantsmanship training,” provides information on training programs, public forums on topics such as faith-based funding and federal grant reform, and grant sources, including federal, state, community, and international sources.


National Science Foundation. A major source of funding for research and education in the sciences and engineering, the NSF maintains a site that provides information on funding opportunities (including an overview of programs and an e-bulletin listing target dates and deadlines), a step-by-step guide on how to obtain funding, and a list of NSF Awards.


Its “A Guide to Proposal Writing” – which describes a “good proposal” as “always readable, well organized, grammatically correct, and understandable” – offers helpful advice to grantseekers in all fields, including the following list of “little things that can make a difference”:


– Use a spell checker before submitting the proposal.


– Proofread carefully.


– Be sure to follow the directions given in the program announcement.  In particular, follow any specific requirements such as page limitations.


– In general avoid abbreviations. For example, use laboratory, not lab, and mathematics, not math.


– The first time you use an acronym, write out what it stands for and put the acronym in parentheses. For example, American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges (AMATYC). After that you can use the acronym.


– Make sure all your references are correct.


The Foundation Center. This site provides information about funding opportunities for nonprofit organizations, a schedule a upcoming proposal writing training programs in various cities around the country, access to an online librarian, a link to the online Philanthropy News Digest, and a description of the FC’s Guide to Proposal Writing, now available in a third edition for $34.95.


In addition, the center’s online “A Proposal Writing Short Course” offers an overview of the components of a proposal (executive summary, statement of need, project description, budget, organization information, and conclusion). Of these, special care should be taken with the executive summary, “the most important section of the entire document.”



First published December 4, 1998

Writing a successful grant proposal

By Stephen Wilbers

Writing a successful grant proposal requires knowledge, commitment, determination, patience, teamwork, writing skills, creativity, and luck. Other than that, it’s a breeze.

Here are some tips – gleaned from several granting agencies – on how to get that grant:

Follow the required format.
If the granting agency does not require a particular format, consider using the six-part approach recommended by The Foundation Center: executive summary, statement of need, project description, budget, organization information, and conclusion.

Take special care in writing the executive summary.
As the National Science Foundation points out, “The project summary (abstract) is the first thing that reviewers and NSF staff read. It should be written clearly and concisely. In the space allotted, it should outline the problem, the objectives and the expected outcomes, project activities, and the audience to be addressed.”

Keep the focus on the need for the proposed project.
Don’t make the mistake of devoting too much attention to the qualifications of your organization. As The Center for Nonprofit Management observes, “A proposal will often sink or swim based on the need for the project and the project methodology, not on the accomplishments of the overall organization.”

State objectives in measurable terms.
According to The Foundation Center, “Grantseekers often confuse objectives with goals, which are conceptual and more abstract. . . . Objectives are the measurable outcomes of the program.”

Ask someone who is not familiar with your project to assess your proposal.
The U.S. Department of Education offers this advice: “Get a sharp (toothed) reader . . . someone unfamiliar with your field, your project. . . . Have them read [the] final draft without taking notes. Then ask them to tell you – from memory – what the project will do, how it will do it, why it is significant, and how it is different. Rewrite [the] proposal if these answers aren’t clear and correct.”



First published October 17, 1997

Writing with heart improves odds of getting grant

By Stephen Wilbers

A friend of mine worked for years as a prosecuting attorney before becoming a defense attorney. Knowing both sides of the system gave him valuable insights into how to argue a case.

Another friend, Beth Waterhouse, spent several years reading grant proposals for WCCO, Williams Steel and Hardware Company, and the Unitarian Social Concerns Grants Panel before becoming executive director of the Minnesota Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening rural communities in greater Minnesota. Now she writes 30 to 40 grant proposals generating nearly half a million dollars annually.

“What did you learn from reading grant proposals that has helped you in writing grant proposals?” I asked her recently.

“Write with heart,” she said without hesitation. “It’s the heart and the energy that must come through.

“You have to remember your audience: They could very well be reading stacks of 40 proposals, especially if they’re reading for funders with set deadlines. Reading that many proposals at a time can wear you down.

“When I was a reader, my energy was attracted to energetic writing. When I felt energy and heart in the writing, I knew the commitment was genuine.”

Also, she said, “Begin with your strengths. For example, if you are working with a human services program that has changed the lives of a small number of people, open with a few poignant testimonials. On the other hand, if your strength is that your program reaches large numbers of people, lead off with those numbers. As in all persuasive writing, open with your best argument.”

Here, from a variety of sources, are some additional tips:

Be sure to submit your proposal to the right agency or foundation. Examine a prospective funder’s guidelines, eligibility requirements, and evaluation criteria. Compare your project to those previously financed.

Cover the four major components of all grant proposals: proposed solution to the problem (including a statement of costs), description of the problem, anticipated outcomes, and proposed evaluation of the project.

Indicate why you are the person or institution best qualified to solve the problem. Emphasize what makes your proposal unique.

Support your proposal with concrete and specific documentation.

Anticipate the reviewers’ questions in articulating your rationale.

Concentrate on what you think is the weakest part of your proposal. Often this is the budget.

Be consistent in style and format throughout your proposal. Your proposal should read as though it were written by a single person.

Before submitting your proposal, ask colleagues and experienced grant-proposal writers to read and comment on it.

Beth Waterhouse added one more piece of advice:

“Get to know your program really well before you try to write about it. If your program involves helping farmers in the field, then get out in the field and experience what they’re doing. Do whatever it takes to really understand what is going on.”



First published October 16, 1992

Grant proposals: Writing is just part of the process

By Stephen Wilbers

The only thing you need to do to get a grant is write a good proposal. Right?


In fact, the word “writing” in the phrase “writing a grant proposal” is misleading. Words like “planning,” “orchestrating,” and “implementing” more accurately describe what it takes to secure a grant. Whether you are applying to the federal government, a private foundation, or a corporation, writing the proposal is only one step in a lengthy process. For convenience, let’s divide the process into four stages.

Stage 1: Evaluating your idea and your ability to implement it

The first thing you need to do is assess the value of your idea. Is it needed? Does it solve an important problem? Is it timely, unique, and innovative? Can you or your organization realistically follow through on what you are proposing?

As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan. 14, 1987), foundations generally base their decision to finance a project on five criteria: the quality of the people involved, the significance of the problem, the importance of the solution to the problem or the idea being proposed, the stature of the sponsoring institution, and the reasonableness of the price.

How does your idea measure up to these criteria?

Stage 2: Finding a likely funding source

Many grant proposals are denied simply because they are submitted to the wrong agency. Read carefully a prospective funder’s guidelines, eligibility requirements, and evaluation criteria. Inquire by phone or brief letter to see if a granting agency has any interest in your project. Request a list of previously financed projects. You might even want to ask for guidance and advice on how to develop your proposal. (Many professional grant-proposal writers will tell you that involving the agency’s staff at this stage can create interest in your project.)

Stage 3: Gathering internal and external support

This is the stage in your planning when you get people involved, both inside and outside your organization. Make sure you have the personnel needed to carry out your project. Find out if they are committed to your idea. Depending on the nature of your project, you might want to assemble a board of advisers or solicit letters of support from well-known authorities.

Stage 4: Drafting, revising, and submitting your proposal

Structure your proposal according to the guidelines provided by the granting agency. If no form or guidelines are provided, follow this standard 10-part format: title, summary or abstract, introduction, description of the problem, proposed solution and anticipated outcomes, methods or rationale, personnel and facilities, project evaluation, budget, and appendix.

Now (finally!) you’re ready to begin writing. Here are some tips:

Emphasize why you or your organization is the best qualified to solve the problem.

Support your proposal with concrete and specific documentation, but don’t overdo it.

Present your strongest arguments and most compelling documentation first.

Anticipate the reviewers’ questions in articulating your rationale.

Concentrate on what you think is the weakest part of your proposal. Often this is the budget.

Be consistent in style and format throughout your proposal.

Make sure your proposal is complete, free of errors, and attractively presented. Visual aids such as charts, graphs, and tables are generally appreciated by readers.

Before submitting your proposal, ask colleagues and experienced grant-proposal writers to read and critique it.

Well, it’s quite a process, isn’t it? I don’t mean to discourage you from giving it a try, but consider this: “Writing” the proposal is the easy part. If you get your grant, the hard work will have just begun.




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