Insights Proposal Writing

Beyond the Basics of Grant Writing

While grants may masquerade as simple applications for money, successful, grant writing requires reliable research, cultivation of the grantmaker, an action-oriented, deadline based plan for successful completion, and attention to the details. Applying for grants doesn’t need to be overwhelming if you break down the simple steps along the way.

Do Your Homework, and Get a Meeting

Grantmaking organizations have limited funds and full portfolios, so if you are going to break into that portfolio you have to show that your work aligns with the funder’s objectives and goals—all while standing out amongst the crowd. This means you need to do your homework before even starting the application. Doing your homework significantly improves your chances of getting in the door, and securing an in-person meeting provides the opportunity for the funder to extend a verbal invitation to apply for a grant. For most grantmaking institutions, being invited to apply is 80% of the battle. 

Here are a few good places to start your research:

  • Go to the funder’s website and identify their key initiatives to see if your organization or project is a fit.
  • Review their past and current grantees to see what projects have earned their investment, and to see if you offer something competitive and compelling.
  • If the grantmaker does not list past grantees on their website, go to sites like or and review their grant list. This will give you a sense of what they fund, and at what amount, which can help you propose an amount that is more likely to get a “yes”.
  • Prepare a short pitch about your organization and project that shows how you meet their giving objectives and request a meeting to discuss applying for a grant. It is best to do this by phone. If you aren’t able to speak to a person directly, send a follow-up email with your pitch; follow up in one week if you don’t hear back.

Identify the Deadline, and Schedule Incremental Internal Deadlines

You and your team are busy, and successful grant applications will require input from program staff, budget information from finance, quotes and signatures from the Executive Director or CEO, and supporting materials from the marketing team or other administrators. You will need to plan ahead to ensure you are able to obtain the necessary information from everyone involved in time. If you are a small organization, be even more rigorous in your planning as it is likely the various elements of the grant will fall to just one or two individuals.

When you’re ready to get started:

  • Read through the grant in its entirety and identify all the people from whom you will need information.
  • Put the grant deadline on your calendar and create incremental internal deadlines—consider co-workers and others you need information from so you are creating achievable deadlines. Be sure to communicate these internal deadlines with everyone involved upfront so there are no surprises.
  • Identify the part of the grant that will be most challenging for you to complete and start with that section. Work your way back to the more manageable sections to finish, when you have less energy for the work.
  • Pay attention to the requested attachments. Gathering attachments always takes longer than anticipated, and this is often left to the last minute since attachments appear at the end of the grant application. Begin working on the more complex attachments (i.e. budgets or outcomes) early on, but go ahead and gather the easier ones (i.e. tax designation letter, audit). right away and set them aside.

Answer the Question Asked and Show How You Solve Their Problem

Beware of cutting and pasting. You likely have great content written about your organization or project that you have produced before. Pulling from prior work to apply to relevant questions on the grant application is a great starting point, but when you revise your initial responses be sure you have specifically answered the questions asked. Craft your language to resonate with the funder’s style and show how your work speaks directly to their giving focus and philosophy.

Here are a few tips to consider:

  • After you draft your grant application answers, let the grant sit for a day or two, and then re-approach with the question, “Did I answer the question asked?” in mind. Revise accordingly.
  • Cull the grantor’s website, annual report, or strategic plan (anything you can find!) for language and key phrases that you can use to show at a granular level how your work supports their mission and vision. Do not carelessly mimic language – authenticity is critical. What do you do and what is the real and meaningful connection to their work?
  • Give what they ask for and no more. They don’t want to read more; they want to read what is relevant.
  • Consider how you help them achieve their goals, how partnering with you will fulfill their giving objectives, how you solve a problem for them and articulate that.

Grants bridge and formalize partnerships between those with the capacity to give back and those with the passion, programming, and talent to make front line change in the world. Grants are not obstacles, but rather opportunities for organizations to articulate a purposeful message and to show how, in the end, we are all connected in a shared desire to leverage different assets to make a lasting positive impact.

Insights Proposal Writing

Know Thy Donor —A Proposal Primer

Colleagues in the fundraising industry often ask about trends in proposal writing. What’s new? What are best practices? My answer is that the best proposal is the one that resonates for a particular donor at a particular moment in time. I’ve written a dense, single-space 30-page proposal for $1 million. A two pager with graphics for $7 million. I’ve also “written” a four page PowerPoint presentation that was almost entirely illustrations and photographs for a $100 million ask.

So how do you know what to prepare? It’s the oldest rule—know your audience. Your most important conversations are with the fundraiser (if that’s not you) and with the person affiliated with your organization who knows the donor best. Through these conversations, you are trying to understand the dynamics behind this ask—are you testing the waters with someone new or re-engaging a loyal supporter? What is the basis for thinking that they’re interested in supporting this area? Is the donor a detail person or an overview type? Do they know the topic well or is it new to them? What is their educational level and their facility with English? Have they expressed any opinions related to this ask?

The risks of proceeding without this kind of context are legion. Say, for instance, you’re asking a donor to build on previous support for an initiative with which they’ve been closely involved. The writer may dig out a previous proposal and revamp it, preserving lots of “beginner’s guide” type language explaining what the initiative is all about. To the donor, this could feel like a slap in the face. They might feel like their involvement and the knowledge and relationships they’ve built have been discounted. In an instant, they go from thinking they’re perceived as a valued partner to feeling like an ATM. What you want to do instead is acknowledge the relationship and their advanced knowledge. Emphasize how much their involvement and interest—not just their money—has been a boost. Reiterate what you’ve been able to accomplish together and that you’re going to them again before anybody else because they are your champion.

The opposite situation holds similar perils. Perhaps your prospect has never given to this area and as far as you know, is not particularly knowledgeable about it. This is a moment where it’s especially important not to be cowed by the subject matter experts and include a lot of impenetrable jargon. Because while the donor could simply be bored and uninspired as they slog through your proposal, the reaction could be much worse. They may feel actively annoyed that you’ve made little apparent effort to render the information into something engaging and relevant. Worse still, they may feel stupid and alienated—because by breezily including very dense, specialized language, you’re implying that everybody should understand it with little difficulty. In each case, you’ve hurt the relationship and that is a very bad thing in fundraising.

You may have noticed that nowhere, so far, have I talked about researching the details of the initiative itself for which you’re trying to raise funds. This information is key, obviously, but as far as proposal writing goes, it’s the easy part. Facts are easy. The hard part is the writerly task of presenting the information in a manner that is most impactful and resonant for a particular donor at a particular stage of the solicitation. This task of shaping information into a narrative and navigating through approvals—especially for those who don’t do a lot of writing—is a whole different animal and a topic for another day!

Is your nonprofit getting ready for its next ask? Let S. Sutton & Associates Inc. help you with your proposal. Contact us today so we can be your guides and provide you with the right roadmap and the right experts!

Complimentary Consultation