5 Tips for Writing Effective Grant Proposals

By: Amanda Innes, VISTA Development Assistant

With nearly 10 years of higher education administration experience under my belt and two post-graduate degrees, I was confident coming into my role as VISTA Development Assistant at the Athens Land Trust that I would be more than capable of mastering the responsibilities listed on my job description (and VAD), especially grant writing. Now, eight months later, I can confidently say that I had no idea what I was getting into. There’s a reason grant writing is a highly sought-after skill set and one that takes a long time to cultivate, something I learned the hard way. For those of you who are considering grant writing or who have grant writing listed on their VAD but have no idea what to do, here are some helpful tips I learned along the way.

  1. Read the RFA/RFP/Call for submissions

While this may seem obvious, I cannot tell you the amount of times I have searched Google to find the answer to a question, only to eventually find it in the Request for Application (RFA), Request for Proposal (RFP), or call for grant submission. RFA’s are designed to be comprehensive, standalone references with everything you should need to know about applying for that particular grant. Often they are the only place where you can find clarification on eligibility and requirements. Thus, the more complex the application, the longer the RFA, generally speaking.

  1. Take notes

Whether it’s the first or the tenth time you’re reading over a call for submission, take notes so that you can remember what stood out to you. This isn’t like an article or blog post where there’s a central theme and everything follows a clear narrative. These documents are lengthy, often convoluted, and contain language that can be dense and difficult to interpret. I take notes in Evernote, a computer program that I use daily for note-taking, list making, and general freehand writing. But you can take notes wherever it’s most convenient — as long as you’re able to review them.

  1. Start Early

Some grants are cut and dry. The RFP might be four paragraphs on a website with a “click here to apply” link and it takes all of three or four hours to complete your online submission. Others take weeks and weeks of work with multiple community partners to establish the budget for the project, secure letters of support, construct a comprehensive narrative, and track down any other required miscellaneous items. Make a point to review all grants you are considering submitting well before the due date to see how much work and how many other individuals might be involved. Meetings might need to be scheduled, experts might need to be consulted, and all of that takes time. Waiting until the last minute will stress you out, make your organization look bad, and make it much more likely that you won’t finish the proposal.

  1. Follow Directions

Again, some grants don’t have much in the way directions — they ask for a letter about the project and that’s it (that’s called a letter of interest, or LOI). Most, however, want certain items (e.g. budget, maps, narrative, SF-424, etc.) in a certain format submitted through a certain vehicle. And because hundreds of other organizations just like yours are applying for the same small pot of money, failure to follow directions is a completely legitimate reason for your request to be denied. One thing I like to do is keep a running checklist of any formatting and length requirements, because those can be easy to overlook. I also read over the RFA at least one more time just before submission to make sure that I’ve enclosed every required attachment. It’s time consuming, but it’s better to spend 2-3 hours double checking yourself to make sure you’re right than waste 20-30 hours applying for a grant only to be rejected because the font was wrong.

  1. Ask for Help

This might seem silly, but one thing I had to learn was to ask for help. Instead of spending an hour searching “SF-424” to try and understand what that form was, I eventually asked one of my co-workers if they had heard of it, and they had. When I don’t know how long a given program has been in existence at my agency or how many individuals we’ve served and a quick search of our website and materials doesn’t answer the question, I email the program director or ask for a sit-down with the executive director to get my questions answered. Also — and this is probably the most uncomfortable if you’re anything like me– if I’ve read and re-read the RFA and am still confused about eligibility or requirements, I will email or call the grant program officer. It’s their job to help applicants understand the details of the RFA, and they have always been incredibly helpful when I needed guidance.

There you have it, my five tips for effective grant writing. I know it can feel intimidating and overwhelming, but if you get in front of it, take good notes, and ask for help, you’ll be sure to secure your first grant in no time. Don’t worry — you got this.