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Learn about writing grants, plus the activities that accompany the actual grant-writing, and increase your overall rate of proposal-writing success.


  • Do you really want to apply for a grant?

  • What are grants?

  • Why should you apply for grants?

  • When should you apply for grants?

  • How should you apply for grants?

Do you really want to apply for a grant?

Grants are wonderful, most of us think -- and much of the time they really are. People give you money to do just what you want to do, maybe what you've always longed to do. How many times does that happen in life?

But most of the time, grants aren't easy to get. First, you have to find the right grant source. Secondly, you have to write the grant proposal. Both take time and energy, often intense labor; and your labors are not always rewarded, because grants are competitive. This isn't surprising; many others want grants for the same reasons you do.

Now, the good news: grant-writing is learnable. You can learn how to do it, and to do it well. Two main sets of skills are involved. One is writing the grant itself – and there are many excellent resources that will lead you through the process, step-by-step, with plenty of details, some of which are included in the Resources for this section.

The other skill area involves activities that accompany the actual grant-writing. Many of these deal with preparation. Some others parallel the writing itself. All of them fall under the heading of "general approach"; and while this heading is loose, its contents are vital.

With the right approach, you can:

  • See how your grant-writing plans fit with your organizational goals
  • Get in the right frame of mind before writing
  • Appreciate the role of social and political factors (over and above proposal content) in the grant review process
  • Increase your overall rate of proposal-writing success

What are grants?

For our purposes, grants mean dollar awards to your group or organization to carry out a community project you have proposed. In real life, grant awards are sometimes given in resources other than cash (e.g., travel expenses, time off the job). And occasionally, especially for research, grants are made to individuals as well as groups.

But our emphasis here will be on cash awards to groups for community projects.

Why should you apply for grants?

In a sentence: grants enable you to do work you might never do otherwise. Community projects take time. Unless you are wealthy, you cannot pay staff salaries -- or your own salary -- from your own pocket. And few of us are able to buy expensive equipment, or cover a year's worth of office expenses, without outside help. So in many situations, grants are desirable; in some, they are essential.

Many situations, but not all:

  • There are times when you can do excellent community work with very little money, or no money at all. Organizing a meeting, holding a social event, getting local policies changed -- these and similar community actions are either cost-free, or come with very modest price tags.
  • There are also times when money can become an actual drawback. Someone has to figure out how to spend it, make the payments, keep the records, and be accountable for it. Also, when you have money, your own members may compete for it; the all-volunteer, let's-everyone-pitch-in spirit of the project may be impeded.

And although grants are an excellent way to generate money, they are not the only one. They might belong in your financial planning, but your financial plan should also include other sources of income. A grant might be your guest of honor; but don't you want others to come to your party?

When should you apply for grants?

  • When you want to start a new project, or expand an existing project, and financial costs are involved
  • When these costs cannot be covered in your current budget
  • When you know of a granting agency that makes awards to pay for the types of costs you envision
  • When you know that you meet the eligibility standards for such awards
  • When you are able to commit the needed time and energy to the grant-writing process

What about writing a grant proposal because the money is available?

These situations happen all the time. Here's an example:

  • Suppose your group provides after-school programs for kids. You are looking for more after-school money. A local foundation funds community groups like yours, but its main interest is the elderly. To increase your award chances, you could design a program where senior citizens become involved in your after-school programs. Should you do it?
  • In general: "No", if it means twisting your program priorities; and "certainly not", if you're not interested in senior citizens. "Maybe," if the intergenerational program meets your organization's needs, and if it's really a good idea you just never thought of. In other words, you want to find a balance between staying true to your mission, yet not neglecting opportunities that come your way.

It's not always an easy choice, so consider carefully whether the benefits of extra funding from this grant will outweigh any drawbacks from requirements attached to the funding.

How should you apply for grants?

Be clear about your reasons for applying

Before you begin, take a step back, and look at the larger picture. Why are you thinking about applying for a grant?

Ask yourself these questions, and check your answers:

  • What are my true long-term program goals here?
  • Can I do the same work as well, or almost as well, without grant money?
  • What will I actually use the dollars for?
  • Am I planning to apply simply because grant funds are potentially available?
  • Is a grant the only way (or the best way) to do what I want to do?
  • Are there other (and perhaps better) ways of getting the money I need?
  • Am I clear on my realistic chances of success?
  • Am I prepared to put in the work to produce a top-quality grant proposal?

If you are part of a group, a group discussion and decision should be involved here. Your group's careful and honest answers to these questions will help shape your next steps, which might or might not involve grant-writing.

Know the types of support available

We have already listed some other options to consider for your financial plan, and you can probably brainstorm several additional ideas on your own. So before you pursue a grant, make sure you know the other options available to you.

Focus on the type of support you want

After consideration, perhaps your thinking about funding will change, or you'll decide to support your work some other way. But perhaps you'll decide that you want to write a grant proposal after all. Good! Now you can move more confidently into the next preparation stage.

Search the field

There are three main sources for grant funding:

  • The government - often federal, sometimes state, and occasionally local
  • Private businesses and corporations
  • Foundations, which distribute many millions of dollars per year to community groups and organizations similar to yours

Proposal-writing details are somewhat different from source to source. Government grants in particular tend to require more paperwork and more filling out of pre-established application forms. There are also special techniques and procedures for securing government grants (and also government contracts), the details of which can be found with the application materials.

Our emphasis will be on foundation grants, for two reasons. First, because foundations are where grassroots groups interested in grants are often most likely to turn. And second, because the principles of grant-writing for foundations generally apply to other grant sources as well.

But there are many thousands of foundations. How can you find the ones most suitable for you? It usually takes research. But there are many good resources to make your search easier.

Here's a list to help you get started:

  • One standard print source is the Foundation Directory, available in most hometown libraries. This gives good capsule descriptions of the grant-writing activities of the great majority of U.S. foundations, arranged by state, with cross-references by type.
  • Your reference librarian may also point you to smaller directories for your state, and/or to more specialized directories for your particular field. But if your reference librarian comes up short, ask some knowledgeable colleagues about where to start looking; then follow their leads. (Many major metropolitan areas also have regional foundation libraries open to the public; check to see if there is one in your area.)
  • The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a biweekly newspaper, is the best single source for staying up to date on foundation activities nationally, especially for activities of larger foundations. Each issue lists grants made by many larger foundations, and upcoming application deadlines; the Chronicle also includes general articles on grant -writing and fund-raising which provide excellent background.
  • And of course, the Internet has made the search process much easier in recent years. Most foundations now have all of the details and application materials for their grants available from their websites. It's a good idea to start with some of the fundamental resources such as the Foundation Directory to help point you in the right direction, and then you can expand and enhance your search online.

Narrow the field

Your research might turn up dozens of foundations that could potentially support your cause. That's good - but you are probably not going to apply to all of them. It's time to narrow the field further through some additional research.

  • Check the fields in which grants are offered. Are you sure the foundation makes grants in your particular area?
  • Check the purpose of grants offered. You may want start-up, or "seed" money. But some foundations emphasize other types of grants, such as those for ongoing support.
  • Check the size of grants offered. You may be looking for $25,000, but the maximum award size of a promising foundation might be $10,000. (It's possible, though, to apply to more than one foundation at a time.)
  • Check the locations where grants are offered. Are you sure the foundation covers your geographic area? Some have geographic preferences, as well as restrictions; and other things being equal, you are often better off applying to a foundation close to home.

Through this checking and rechecking, you can narrow the field to a smaller number of leading candidates. It's a gradual process -- much like looking for work, or applying to school. But being methodical here will pay off; and now you are ready to do some further investigation of your leading prospects.

Investigate your leading prospects

Before you even consider applying to a foundation or granting agency, learn as much as you can about it. If you were applying for a job you really wanted, wouldn't you want to find out as much as you could about your potential employer? Here, you are making a different type of application, but the same reasoning applies.

How can you find out? The simplest way is to call the foundation itself, and ask for information. Almost all foundations which accept public applications will send you basic application guidelines. If the foundation has a separate application form, that will be included as well. Many foundations will also include an Annual Report and/or Grants List, which will tell you more about the foundation's goals and organization, whom it has made recent grants to, and in what amounts.

Doing your homework can save you a lot of time and trouble in the long run. Your group's issue may be neighborhood safety, and you may have had the Safe Homes Foundation in mind as your number one prospect; but on making an inquiry you find out that Safe Homes funds only projects related to endangered species. It's better to learn such things sooner than later, so that time isn't wasted on both sides.

In researching a foundation, start with its website. Most foundations post information about what they fund, how best to contact them, grant guidelines, and how to apply – often including application forms if they use them – on their websites. Many expect, and some specifically ask for, electronic application. Like many other things, applying for a grant has changed with the growth of the web

Know the guidelines (they can vary)

Each foundation and granting agency does business in a slightly different way. This is perfectly justifiable - it's their money. So the guidelines often vary.

Some foundations will ask for a short one- or two-page letter describing your proposal, and nothing else to begin with. (The foundation will read these letters, screen out inappropriate inquiries, and request more information if it wants to know more.) Others prefer to get the whole application up front. Some first want to know your credentials; others are primarily interested in your ideas. Some want detailed budgets; for others, money talk comes later.

The guidelines will tell you what the rules are 99% of the time.

Follow the guidelines

Now that you know what the guidelines are, follow them.

If the foundation asks for an initial two-page letter, don't send 20. If they want proof of your tax-exempt status, be sure to include it. If their application deadline is June 1, don't wait till summer. If your case is an exception, this should be described in your application, most commonly in your cover letter. But don't handicap yourself at the start; why shoot yourself in the foot before you've started walking down the road?

Guidelines can sometimes be stretched, and very occasionally broken. But if you choose not to follow the foundation's guidelines, you should have very compelling reasons for doing so, and make sure they are well explained.

Ask questions, if needed (but think before asking)

Even though foundation guidelines are usually clear, you may still have a question. Some point may not be covered by the guidelines, or you may not be sure about a point. In those cases, it's perfectly okay to call and ask. Most foundations will have someone on staff to respond to calls like yours. And most foundations expect to receive such calls.

Think before calling, though. A call (or other contact) generally means you will need to identify yourself. Since first impressions count, you want to present yourself in the best possible light. So be sure you don't ask questions that are covered and italicized in the guidelines, Page One.

However, if you have a good reason do so, there are advantages to making a personal contact. First, the foundation staff person may also volunteer some information not explicitly in the guidelines, which can help you. Also, in the course of conversation, you can ask other questions or check on other guidelines to make sure you are on the right track. This leads us right into the next point:

Consider a meeting with the funding source

Sometimes, it's also possible to set up a meeting with a foundation staff person to explore your idea before a proposal is written or delivered. Suppose that your issue is adult education, and that the Lifelong Learning Foundation seems to be right up your alley. But you're not sure whether your particular approach is something that Lifelong Learning would seriously consider. So you call and ask if you might visit to discuss it.

Here, especially, foundations vary. Some discourage such meetings; they simply don't have enough time available. Others are more open to them. If you see value in a pre-application meeting, and if the guidelines don't tell you otherwise, consider making the request. If you do get a meeting, you can get your questions answered, which will either help you improve your application, or prevent you from wasting your time. You will also have made a personal contact, and perhaps gotten some tips along the way.

If you can't get a face-to-face meeting, you may at least be able to get guidance over the telephone. And even if you can't get that, you've lost little by trying.

Have others make contacts for you

One variation of the above idea: You don't have to initiate a personal contact yourself; perhaps someone else could do it for you. This is especially true if you are a new player on the grant-writing scene; or if you know few people in the foundation world; or if you don't have much of a track record, or if you are promoting an untested idea.

Perhaps you have a friend (especially a well-connected friend) or know another well-connected person who knows a program officer at a local foundation. It's perfectly acceptable for your contacts to call up their foundation contacts and say, "These people I know are going to be calling you about their idea to do X. I think it's an interesting idea, and they are good people. I think you should meet them."

Build community support

Most organizations that make grants will want to know that your ideas have community support. This is because a usual part of the funder's mission is to serve the community. So if you can build community support before you start, that can be a big point in your favor.

How to build it? Sometimes the support will be there already, and you'll know it. Sometimes the whole community will be behind you from the get-go, waiting for you (or someone else) to step in. Other times, you'll need to ask for support, and be forthright about asking. At other times still, especially when you have a new or unfamiliar idea, community support may need to be actively cultivated.

A good way to build support for new ideas is to circulate the outlines of your ideas, as a rough draft, or "concept paper," and ask for feedback.

This serves four distinct purposes:

  • It validates (or, occasionally fails to validate) community interest in the idea
  • It gets some others actively interested
  • It makes it easier to get formal letters of support in a full-scale application, if they are needed
  • It provides useful corrective feedback about your idea itself - others may think of points you hadn't thought about before

Form a working group

Most of the time, you'll want to gather the input of others in planning your grant application. Even if they aren't experts, those others may have attractive content ideas, good strategic thoughts, and often bits of specialized knowledge which one person alone will rarely have. And even if they lack any of these things, a group can give you the support you need to get the job done.

So form a working group, to talk about what should go into the application and how it should be presented. This will usually be a short-term group; it needn't meet more than a few times, unless it's a very large application. The group might not do the actual writing – "writing by committee" is not usually preferred. But the group's original input will be important; group members can divide up the information-gathering, legwork, and possibly drafting; and the group comments on the first (and later) draft can be valuable too.

Get expert advice

When you do have a proposal draft, perhaps you know of an expert (or experts) in the field who might be willing to review your draft and give advice. "Expert" here could mean either an expert in your grant content area, whatever that may be; or it could mean someone particularly knowledgeable about how foundations work, perhaps even about your chosen foundation in particular.

Sometimes expertise may lie within your group or organization itself; if so, call upon it. But otherwise, it's often a good idea to look for expertise from the outside. This is especially true if you are relatively new to grant-writing. Why not get an expert opinion before you send in the final application?

Use a successful model

Artists use models; it makes their job easier. And if you were building something, from a bird house to a summer cabin, you'd almost always want to have a successful model nearby, (or at least a diagram), so that you could see how it was done and refer to it as needed.

The same applies to writing a grant. If you can get hold of a winning application, particularly one that was funded by your chosen foundation, you are ahead of the game.

How can you do it? It might be easier than you think. If you have a list of grants previously made by that foundation, you can call up one of the awardees, and politely ask to see a proposal copy. (They've gotten their award; you won't be competing with them -- so what can they lose?) The next best alternative is to find a winning example on a related topic that was selected by your foundation. If you can't do that, plenty of sources have at least partial examples of successful grant applications.

What did they say, and how did they say it? How was the application organized and packaged? How much detail and documentation, and what kind, went into each section? These are some points you can learn from examples. A model is not meant to be followed too closely, and certainly not copied word for word. But it can certainly be one useful reference point when you're not sure how to proceed.

Learn from rejection

Most grant applications are not funded; yours may not be either. That's the cold reality of the grant-making world.

If you go ahead with your proposal, you certainly want to be optimistic and to give it your very best shot. But even though you have done all your homework and covered all the bases, even though you may truly have a terrific proposal in all possible respects, you may not get that hoped-for phone call or award letter. The reasons may have little to do with your proposal at all; the foundation may have only a very limited amount of money to give; another application may have come closer to a foundation priority; political considerations may have intervened; you may have asked for too much money; or the foundation reviewers may simply have made a mistake.

But you can learn from rejection. If your application is rejected, you certainly have the right to find out why. If that is not made clear in your rejection letter, it is perfectly reasonable and generally desirable to call the foundation and get more feedback.

This is true as long as you take the proper tone, which is not "Why didn't you fund my brilliant proposal?" but rather, "What could we have done to make our proposal better?" The latter approach is not only more professional, but also more in your interest. Why? Because no one likes to feel criticized or put on the defensive. Because you probably want to keep the door open to later applications, which means you want a good working relationship. And because the foundation, when properly approached, will in fact be more willing to give you helpful advice which you might use in subsequent applications, whether to that foundation or not.

If your application was a good one, the foundation might even encourage you to make revisions and apply again. Even if it doesn't, you can gain from a rejection experience. "If it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger." Well, not always. But in this case, maybe so.

Of course, you may not be rejected at all. That wonderful phone call or letter may really come. If so, congratulations! Now it's time to make great things happen!

Bill Berkowitz

Online Resources

The Grantsmanship Center conducts grantsmanship trainings, as well as earned income strategies for nonprofits.

Foundation Directory Online is an online funding research tool, developed by the Foundation Center, a national nonprofit service organization founded over 50 years ago to help open U.S. foundations to public view. The website does require you to purchase a subscription plan to access its services, but it offers five different plans to cater to organizations of all sizes and financial levels.

The Office of Partnerships and Grant Services offers guidance on creating partnerships for grant purposes

Non Profit Fundraising Web Resources is intended as a starting point for those who are interested in learning more about foundations, fundraising, proposal writing, philanthropy and philanthropists, corporate philanthropy, international philanthropy, government funding, nonprofit organizations, nonprofit organization administration, planned giving, prospect research, and volunteerism, and want to look at resources available on the web.

Print Resources

The Chronicle of Philanthropy, 1255 23rd Street, NW, Washington, DC 20037, (800) 347-6969 for subscriptions. For the prospective grant-writer, this is probably the most useful single periodical in the field. Also check out its listings and advertisements for references to additional grant sources.

The Foundation Center, 79 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10003, (800) 424-9836. A national clearinghouse for information on foundations.

The Foundation Directory, published about every two years by the Foundation Center, describes the grant-making activities of most major American foundations, and is available in most libraries.

The Grantsmanship Center, P.O. Box 17220, Los Angeles, CA 90017, (800) 421-9512. This center offers nationwide training programs and an excellent set of reprints.

The Grantsmanship Center Magazine, a very useful quarterly newsletter, presently free by requesting it on your organizational letterhead.