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Grant writing tips

Know your audience

Understanding what private funders are looking for will help you write a more fundable proposal. Find out:

  • their areas of interests;
  • what types of organizations they fund;
  • what type of populations they fund (youth, elderly, etc.);
  • their giving capacity (i.e., many $5K grants vs. one to two $100K grants) and how often (one year vs. multiple years); and
  • who reviews the grant proposals (scientists, volunteers from community, etc.).

Relevance

Private funders want proposals to address the project’s merit in relation to their goals and broader impacts (value to society). Your proposal must convey:

  • The need. Clearly describe the need your project will meet (in the community or healthcare, or disease relevance, etc.)
  • Differentiation. Tell how your project or research is different from others.
  • How you will make a difference. State how this grant will make a difference, how it fits into the “big picture”

Follow the guidelines

About 50 to 70 percent of proposals are rejected because they were incomplete. Be sure to:

  • Observe word and page limits and formatting requirements.
  • If the grant guidelines ask a series of questions, answer them in the order in which they were asked. Reviewers will find it easier to confirm your proposal effectively addressed the guidelines.

Verbal Accessibility

Put the take-home news up front; don’t make a mystery of your research goals. Emphasize clarity and use language that would be accessible to any intelligent adult.

  • Eliminate jargon. Every industry has its own jargon. Eliminate all internally used acronyms, terminology and buzz words. Tell your story simply.
  • Objective reviewer. After you finish writing a grant proposal, send it to a friend or colleague who doesn’t know anything about your project or is in your field. If that person can understand it and become inspired, you will know it’s good.
  • Remember the 12/12/12 rule. Imagine yourself in the shoes of a program officer. It's midnight and they have been working for 12 hours straight, reviewing grant proposals. Yours is the 12th one in the stack.  How are you going to get their attention? The key lies in the story you tell.

Balance

Create a good balance between high-concept generalizations about the proposed project’s goals and impact, and details that demonstrate your ability to execute it. 

  • Don't over promise what you can achieve with the funds requested. Check and double check your budget. Surprisingly, quite a number of proposals arrive with math errors that undermine credibility. The budget should add up AND it should to support the logic of the proposal's narrative.
  • Focus on solutions. Your proposal first and foremost, must focus on what you’re going to do about the problem or need.

Visual Clarity

When a proposal is longer than one page, break it up into sections. Try putting section headings in bold, and/or using extra spacing to separate paragraphs. Make your charts or other graphics as clear and informative as possible, and only include those that are necessary.

Components

In general, most private funders ask for the following in their proposals:

  • Abstract/Summary. The abstract is the most important component of the proposal. Spend time developing the best possible title. Include highlights in the topic sentence in each section of the proposal.
  • Statement of Need. Provide convincing evidence that what you are proposing does not duplicate other work. Answer questions such as:
    • What is the issue that you are addressing and why does it matter?
    • Why is what you propose necessary?
    • What is the void in knowledge?
    • Who benefits? 
  • Project Activity, Methodology and Outcomes. Explain the following:
    • Why did you choose to address the issue in the manner that you have?
    • Are there other approaches? If so, why aren't they appropriate to the situation?
    • What are the specific activities involved? Who will do them? Present a timeline of activities. Tables and charts work best here. They crystallize data, break up pages of narrative, and convey extensive information well in a limited space.
    • What specific outcomes will be achieved?
    • Why are you the best one to do what you propose to do? Is it an extension of successful, innovative work or a pilot project you already completed?
  • Evaluation. An essential piece that should be both quantitative and qualitative, if feasible. Outline clearly the methodology that you will use to assess the project’s success.
  • Dissemination. Describe how you are going to get your idea/results out to the community; this should be linked to your project goals and objectives. Describe your communication strategy. Be creative. Sending an article to a professional journal is only one of many options. Consider:
    • submitting op-ed pieces to newspapers and articles to more popular periodicals;
    • engaging in conference presentations, community outreach activities, presentations to policy-makers and community groups;
    • launching a website or blog;
    • convening work groups of your peers; and
    • creating briefing papers, videos.
  • Budget and Sustainability. Show your budget in table form and use a budget narrative to explain each item. Only include other sources of funding if the funder mandates it's inclusion. Indicate how the project will be funded or be sustainable after the grant funds have run out.

Proofreading

As a courtesy to your reviewers, be sure your proposal is error-free. Do your very best to give your reviewers an enjoyable and compelling reading experience.