Our Top 10 Grant-Writing Tips for Nonprofits

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If you’re a leader at a nonprofit organization, you probably wish you had more funding to do more good work. It’s a common lament and one we hear often. We would posit that grants are a great way for your organization to do more, better.

But don’t just jump into the grant-writing world without some knowledge of the process. With a little preparation, you’ll be in a better position to write a grant application that gets funded.

To help you get started, we’ve compiled our top 10 things nonprofits needs to know about grant writing. 

1. Understand what a grant is and is not

Not to insult your intelligence, but we encounter lots of folks who truly don’t know what a grant is or how it can be used.

Simply put, a grant is money given to an organization for a specific project or purpose. A governmental entity or a foundation associated with a family, private corporation or community are the most common grant funders.

Grants should be used to bolster your organization’s services and programming; they should not be used to keep the lights on. Your other development efforts should be paying the bills. Grants are just icing on the cake.

In fact, grant money should not make up more than 10-20% of your fundraising goals. Think about it like this. You wouldn’t want a private donor’s contributions to account to more than 20 percent of your annual budget. If that donor decided to stop contributing, you'd probably find it difficult to replace the funding.

The same is true of grants. They aren’t guaranteed. If you put all your eggs in this basket, you’re taking a big risk that you’ll lose funding that can’t easily be replaced.

2. Get grant ready

Don’t spending time looking for grants or writing proposals if your organization isn’t ready. The more prepared your organization is, the easier the grant writing process becomes.

Being grant ready means you are financially and organizationally prepared to handle a grant. When you get a grant, especially from a governmental source, you aren't just handed a check. Grants are usually paid on a reimbursement basis. That means you need to have the money in hand to cover your expenses until the grant is reimbursed by the funder.

You'll also need to have some documents in hand. 

  • Tax exempt status letter
  • IRS form 990
  • W-9
  • Mission, vision, values statements
  • Strategic plan
  • Staff organizational chart
  • List of your board of directors
  • Audited financials, if applicable
  • Annual report
  • Details about your proposed program or project including goals, outcome measures, budget and other information
  • Organizational grant history

If you want to apply for federal funding, you’ll need to registered with the System Award Management (SAM) System. Follow these step-by-step instructions ,and the process should be easy. But keep in mind, this is a entity of the federal government and the process could take longer than you expect.

3. Know where to look for grants

Some grants are relatively easy to find. Federal grants can usually be found by searching on grants.gov. Some states, like Califonia, have robust databases. Others require you to do a little digging for stae grant opportunities.  

Foundation grants may be a little more difficult to find. You can use a fee-based database like Instrumentl, Grantwatch, or Foundation Directory Online. However, many foundations don’t advertise themselves. You’ll probably need a personal introduction to connect with potential funders who accept applications on an “invite-only” basis.  

You should also look within your existing community. Public utilities, banks, insurance companies, hospitals and the like often have grants for nonprofits. You’ll just have to ask about existing funding opportunities if they are not advertised on their websites.

4. Forge relationships with funders

Real, live people make funding decisions at every grant program. That’s why relationship building is key to your success with grants. This needs to take place before, during and after the grant cycle, not just after you hit the send button on your application.  

Yes, it takes work to create relationships, but having a connection will bolster your efforts. Get to know funders and learn about their funding goals. Engage with them in the community and ask them to partner with your organization in a capacity that doesn’t involve money, such as:

  • Invite them for a tour of the facility
  • Give them complimentary tickets to a fundraising event
  • Include them on your mailing list
  • Ask them to follow your social media accounts

If they do award you money at some point, follow up and thank them. Diligently report evaluation efforts and results. Find ways to stay connected throughout the funding cycle. Most importantly, ask if the foundation or agency that awarded the grant would like to be recognized publicly.

5. Pursue the right grants

Don’t waste time courting grantmakers who are never going to fund your organization. Find out more about the types of programs foundations have funded previously. Investigating a funder’s giving history using their 990 forms can help a great deal. Each year, tax-exempt organizations and nonexempt charitable trusts file a 990-tax form with the IRS. The form discloses information about their grant-making activities.

You may not get all the information you need from the 990, but it should give you a better idea of the types of organizations the funder selects. To learn specifics, you may have to approach a program officer.

Don’t try to sell them on your organization. Rather, learn about their organization. Find out if the your organization and the foundation are a good match. If you’re having to stretch to make your mission mesh with their funding goals, look for other grants for nonprofits.

6. Partner with other nonprofits

When it comes to grants, there’s strength in numbers. Partnering with other nonprofits can entice a grant-making agency to award funding. Oftentimes, funders want to support well-designed projects that have the potential to help the greatest number of people. Therefore, collaborative efforts between multiple nonprofits can be very appealing to a foundation or grant-making agency.

This approach is also useful if your nonprofit is new or doesn’t have much experience with grants.  By partnering with more established agencies, you are better positioned to be funded. Forging partnerships may also allow you to share scare resources like employees and facilities with other nonprofits.

7. Work on the grant application

Even if the application seems short and straightforward, do not try to complete it the day before it’s due. A good grant application requires thought and oftentimes research. Be intentional in your narrative. Make it a compelling story instead of a laundry list of your achievements. Use good grammar. If you don’t, you’ll lose credibility with the grantor.  

Remember to ask for help if you need it. Board members may be able to help with a portion of the application, especially getting letters of support. Your staff knows a lot about your organization and recipients. Call on them to help you make a narrative compelling.

8. Follow the rules

It should go without saying, but be sure to address the specific application requirements. If the application requires you to submit a 10-page narrative written in 12-point Times New Roman font, do that. We do not advise getting creative with the presentation of the application. Many funders won’t even read an application that exceeds the length requirement, so you’re not doing yourself any favors by trying to make your proposal stand out with unique fonts, colors or design elements.

9. Get a third-party review

Before submitting the grant, seek an independent review of the application. Since you’re intimately involved with your organization, you may not be aware of weak spots in the narrative. You need to identify holes in the narrative that would confuse someone who is not familiar with your organization

You don’t want grant reviewers to be left with unanswered questions after reading your application. A third-party evaluation can help you identify weak spots in your application that should be addressed before submission.

10. Seek grant writing training

You can hire a grant writer to help your organization win grants for nonprofits. But if you’d rather write grants yourself, we’d advise to learn more about the process from a grant writing professional.

Look for a grant-writing course that offers you the flexibility to learn when it’s convenient for your schedule. Our self-paced grant writing course is filled with all the tips and tricks you need to get started on your grant-writing journey. You can complete it on your own time.

Much of grant-writing success comes with experience. So after taking the course, if you need clarification on a real-world situation, we’re happy to answer questions or provide clarification. Just ask. We’re here to support people who take our course in any way we can.




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