Two Secrets to Grant-Writing

Today, someone asked me,

“Is it really true that guy you see on the Internet with all of the question marks on him, that it’s possible to get a government grant for anything?”

In a word, no. People come to me all of the time with ideas that not even your own mother would fund. They want to pay for a preschool program for upper-middle-class families or to start an ice cream shop in Santa Monica or start a ferret preserve. Okay, well no one asked me to help them write a grant for a ferret preserve, but the other two really did happen.


Here are what you really need for a successful grant proposal:

  1. Need. Whatever there is has to be lacking and it’s lack must affect the public good in some way. Whether or not children from privileged families benefit from preschool is open to debate (although the advantages for low-income children are well-established). While ice cream is very yummy, I’m not sure the city would fall into the sea without it.
  2. Program. Say you do document a need – unemployment is bad, therefore you should give me money for an ice cream shop so I can hire people. Even with half the equation, you have to convince grant reviewers that your program is a better way to meet that need than funding a training center so that people can learn computer skills and qualify for a better job than scooping ice cream. There will be lots of proposals to reduce unemployment and you need to provide numbers and studies to back up that yours will probably have a better outcome than the rest.

Here is a secret that novice grant-writers often miss : Start early. Start months before the request for proposals is published.

How does that make sense? How can you respond to a request before it is published? First of all, government agencies tend to have the same schedule year after year. If they released an RFP for small business innovation research grants in December of last year and for vocational rehabilitation for American Indian reservations in March, they will probably release very similar RFPs at about the same time this year. So, around January, you get last year’s RFP and you start preparing for the one to be announced in March. If it says you need letters of commitment from school districts, you go around and start talking to the superintendents of schools in your area. If you need resumes from all the staff members who will be involved, email them and tell them to all update their resumes. You’re going to need a literature review. Start reading those books and articles now.

I used to be proud of myself as on top of things because I would watch the Federal Register and know as soon as a request for proposals was released. I would pride myself on the fact that no one could possibly have been working on this one minute longer than me. (I was very young.) I’d also be confused as to how anyone could get all of this done in the four weeks or so allowed from when the RFP was released to the due date.

This all came back to me today when I was surprised to get an RFP. I was surprised because we have been working on this proposal for two months. Of the five sections, two are almost final. I sent both out for review, got the review back from one person and made the changes. A second section has been revised twice and I should be finished with it next week. The other three sections – literature review, program plan and budget – I have drafts written. So, when I got the email in my inbox today, I briefly wondered, “What’s this?” and then realized, oh, yes, it was officially released today – and I’m more than half done.

The second secret to grant-writing is so obvious but it is unbelievable how many people miss this: Follow the instructions. All of them.

When I received the RFP today, I read it. All 52 pages of instructions. By the time I submit the proposal, I’ll know those instructions better than God knows the Bible. That wasn’t too bad because the last one I wrote had 83 pages of instructions. The instructions were very similar to last year, but not identical, so I needed to make some changes in my proposal. Some years, for some proposals, they are quite different. For example, the page length went from 25 to 15 pages. In that case, since I already had a draft done, I had to cut everything by more than half. If it says the grant should be 12-point font, 1 inch margins, then it has to be or they will reject it. If they say you need a bibliography, cite scientific literature, review how this relates to your own prior research – whatever it is, do it! You’d truly be amazed the number of grants I’ve reviewed that were obviously written for a different competition.

Follow these two suggestions and it really will help you win more grant money.

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