If you’ve been thinking about switching career paths from a more traditional job into the world of nonprofit organizations, or if you want to do more freelancing and are interested in working with nonprofits, then consider grant proposal writing as an avenue to take toward your goals.
Grants are one of the key fundraising pathways available to nonprofits and are also a frequent source of anxiety due to their difficulty and competitiveness. This means nonprofits are always looking for able grant writers.
There are several ways to write grant proposals for a nonprofit organization:
- Join a nonprofit as a grant writer, or in a larger role that includes grant writing.
- Freelance as a grant writer for one or more nonprofits.
- Launch your own nonprofit and write grant proposals yourself.
No matter which of these paths you may be interested in, the work of successfully writing grants is generally the same.
Here is our list of 7 effective grant writing tips for nonprofits.
1. Find (or Become) the Right Person for the Job
There are two parts to nonprofit grant writing: the nonprofit angle, and the grant writing angle.
a) Fitting into the Nonprofit World
Many people are attracted to the idea of working with a nonprofit organization because they want their work to “matter” to society and the world.
However, some who take the plunge find themselves experiencing a bit of culture shock. The corporate world is much more straightforward: deliver value to the stakeholders of the company. The nonprofit world, in contrast, can sometimes be slower-moving, with limited resources, and driven by deep-seated passions which can sometimes lead to interpersonal conflicts. Compensation is often lower, too.
Before committing your career to nonprofit grant writing, we suggest you volunteer some of your spare time at one or more organizations so that you can get a taste for what it’s like. Also, be sure to check out these five key skills you need for a nonprofit career.
b) Building Competency at Grant Writing
Writing grant proposals requires an entire suite of specialized skills. A grant writer needs to have a strong capacity for:
- Research to identify viable grants and relevant data.
- Analysis to synthesize the elements of a successful application.
- Social outreach to cultivate relationships with prospective funders.
- Writing and organization to draft and arrange a compliant proposal.
- Storytelling to make the grant proposal compelling.
This isn’t a job for just anybody. If you’re interested in developing your own grant writing skills, it pays to learn about the core elements of grant writing. If you’re new to grant writing, consider taking a grant writing course to orient yourself with the workflow and some of the day-to-day challenges.
2. Be Strategic with Each Grant Proposal
Grant writing is essentially a strategic endeavor. There are many important details to learn, and many different choices you can make along the way. It’s fair to say that the process can be overwhelming at first. The key is to keep everything in perspective with a clear strategic plan.
Learning about the myths about nonprofit grant writing is a good place to start thinking about your strategic approach to writing a grant proposal, in addition to the following guidelines:
- Create a generous schedule for the production of the proposal, with clear phases. Don’t plan on running up against the application deadline, either. Submit your application well ahead of it.
- Don’t count on receiving grant funding in the short-term. It can take months, even a year, to go from beginning to write your proposal to actually receiving funds. Grant writing is a long game, and you need to plan in advance.
- Be realistic in your project proposal. Most grants are relatively small, and while a realistic project scope may not be able to accomplish as much as your organization wants, it’s better than losing out to someone else because your proposal was too ambitious or impractical.
- Research the application criteria for the grant, and network with the funders. (More on this later.)
3. Understand the Scope of the Funding
Most grants do not provide unrestricted funding that a nonprofit can spend however it likes. Such funding is widely known as “operational support” and can be hard to come by, despite the importance of operating funds for the long-term sustainability of nonprofits. Operational support is out there, but it’s uncommon.
Instead, most grants can only be used for specific projects or programs. Compliance with these restrictions is very important. Always make sure that you know exactly what you are applying for so that your nonprofit can understand where the grant will fit into the overall fundraising strategy.
Don’t be discouraged by the limited scope of most grants. It’s very rare to win a single grant that completely solves a nonprofit’s funding problems for years. Every grant you win has a role to play in your nonprofit’s capabilities.
Don’t Neglect Other Sources of Funds
Grants are not the only way to fund a nonprofit organization. In fact, they are only a small piece of the pie. When investigating good ways to fund your nonprofit, it helps to look at fundraising pathways for freelancers, because many of the same pathways that apply to freelancers apply to nonprofits too.
4. Take Your Time
Good grant proposals are not written in a day or even a week. They can take a couple of months to do properly. Each grant proposal is a project in itself.
a) Negotiation with the Nonprofit (For Freelancers)
If you’re a freelancer planning to write grant proposals for a nonprofit, it’s important to protect your interests right from the beginning.
During contract negotiations, you should establish a written agreement on:
- Your obligations and deliverables, including benchmarks and a timeline.
- Your compensation, including any bonuses, surcharges, and fees.
- Your discretion to subcontract work as needed (such as an editor to edit the final draft).
Additionally, make sure you are comfortable with the nonprofit. If they are unreliable at communication or have a suspiciously short deadline, these are warning signs.
b) Research the Prospective Funder and Their Industry
Build context for the grant by learning about the funder’s organization (in the case of private foundations), or the agency handling the grant (in the case of federal government grants). You should also learn about any associated industries that the funder works with.
By building this context, including a better knowledge of successful grant recipients, you can improve your understanding of what a successful application is going to look like. You will also have a base of good information to help you build a relationship with the funder.
c) Reach Out to Prospective Funders
This is possibly the single most overlooked step in the entire grant application process. Reach out to your prospective funders. Build a dialogue. Introduce yourself or your nonprofit organization to them, and explain that you are considering applying for their grant. Ask them about this, and see if they have any feedback or advice for you.
- Tip: Prior to reaching out, see if anyone in your nonprofit has any connections to the funder’s organization. This isn’t uncommon, especially when applying for grants locally! Such a person might be a more effective point of contact than you, at least initially.
d) Check All Facts and Figures
Throughout your research, always:
- Double-check your facts and figures.
- Make sure your statistics come from reputable sources.
- Verify that any analysis you perform is correct.
) Pace Yourself
Pace yourself during the grant writing process. We don’t mean “take it easy.” Taking your time with a grant application is not about being lazy, and it’s not about running up the clock on billable hours. It’s about recognizing how much work there is to do and giving yourself enough time to do it.
This article about a day in the life of a professional freelance grant writer can give you a better sense of what a remarkably long-term process it is to write a single grant.
5. Answer Specific Queries Specifically
Once you’re actively writing a grant proposal, the most important thing you can do is pay close attention to what the application is asking of you. Each individual prompt on an application is there for a good reason.
Always answer specific questions or instructions specifically. If you have any questions about something on the application, call the organization, and discuss it! Grant proposals are not like a test in school: You are absolutely allowed to ask the teacher. In fact, many organizations appreciate this, as it shows diligence, humility, and respect.
a) Apply Your Analytical Skills
Spend some time analyzing the application criteria and asking yourself what exactly the funder is looking for. This analysis is well worth it because it will yield unspoken insights into what the funder hopes to see, what information is important to them, and what their review process is like. With these insights, you can better anticipate what a successful application looks like, and tailor your proposal accordingly. For example:
- A request for highly specific data or projections may indicate the use of a quantified scoring rubric. What variables might the funder be scoring, and why? If you were in their place, what would such a rubric look like and how would one earn a high score?
- An emphasis on your project’s structure and timeline may indicate a particularly strong interest in the operational side of things. How can you take advantage of this interest, and what kinds of operational concerns might the funder have that you can preemptively address?
- Any instruction not to do something in your application may indicate a common point of failure for grant applicants. Can you use this premise to infer other points of failure? And what does that say about how to prepare a successful application?
Once again, reach out to the funder and ask questions if you need to, but remember to be tactful. A question-heavy approach is often best. The goal isn’t for you to be right in your assumptions; it’s for them to give you good information.
6. Build a Narrative
Grant funders typically receive many applications that are just “okay”: The application is filled out correctly, and the project proposal is in line with the foundation’s intentions for the grant, but it’s nothing special. With so many viable applicants, what comes next? How do you stand out?
One thing you can do is build a personal relationship like we discussed earlier. The other big thing you can do is tell a story.
a) An Exciting Journey
Humans love stories. We instinctively perceive them in the stories around us, and we find it very satisfying to conceptualize our problems as having a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Building a story narrative is the best way for you to humanize your proposal: to put human faces on your nonprofit and on the people whom your project will help. It’s a way for you to present your proposed project as a journey, one that’s emotionally satisfying and has a satisfying conclusion.
b) Know Your Audience
From the very beginning of the grant writing process, you should be asking yourself the question that journalists ask themselves: “What’s the story here?”
This is not easy to answer, because other applicants will have compelling project proposals too. The key to successful storytelling, then, is not to make an argument about how special your project is. It’s to understand your audience: What do the funders truly care about? What’s most important to them? What will make them enthusiastic about funding your project in particular?
Find out what excites them, and you’ll have your story
7. Review, Edit, and Proofread
After your proposal is complete, it’s time for the final editing and review. Most grants are highly competitive, and even the ones that aren’t, still have standards.
a) Content Review
After the final draft is complete, take a few days away from it to reset your mind, then come back for a final content review. Read the entire grant from beginning to end, verifying that everything is in order. This is your last chance to make substantive revisions. Plan at least one week into your schedule so that, in the event, you do need to make revisions, you won’t be in danger of running up against the application deadline.
Once you are satisfied with the content, it’s time for the copyediting phase. This is when the grant proposal is edited for grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence clarity, basic continuity, and so forth.
Don’t edit your own work! Humans have natural blind spots when it comes to their own writing. Don’t hand the job off to just anybody, either. Editing may seem easy but is in fact a highly-skilled profession. You’ve spent vast time and resources to get your application this far. Don’t skimp now! If you don’t have an in-house editor, contract this important work to a qualified editor with experience editing grant proposals.
c) Proofreading & Final Review
Once copyediting is complete, review the entire grant again, this time to make sure no new errors were introduced during editing. (With large projects, this does happen.) After making the final changes, send it back to the editor for proofreading. Proofreading is the last step in the editing process, designed to catch any stray errors.
After proofreading is complete, proceed with the final review. At this point, no changes should be made. If changes do need to be made, then you will need another proofreading and review cycle. Always make sure that the truly final review results in no changes.
We hope these tips help you out. Good luck, and remember: It’s normal to fail. Keep on writing proposals.