How Do I Write a Grant?
How do I become a Grant Writing Unicorn? Like unicorns, grant writers are perceived to have superpowers. They know how to get free money!
Well, it’s not quite that easy. There is no such thing as free money and grant writing is a lot of hard work. It is, however, an incredible skill set to have in your quiver and it is very learnable.
The trick is following consistent processes to stay on schedule and produce your best work. This blog post breaks down our best advice on how to write a grant in seven steps.
What is Grant Writing?
But first, let’s get a little nitty gritty. What is a grant? A grant is a financial award to support a person, organization, project, or program. It is intended to achieve a specific goal or purpose. Typically, a grant is awarded to an organization from a foundation, corporation, or government agency.
Grant writing is the act of preparing an application to receive funding for a project or organization. The reason grant writing seems so magical is that the money awarded for a grant does not need to be paid back. See... free money.
With that, let’s dig into our seven step approach to writing winning grants!
Learn How to Write Grants
Step 1: Follow Your North Star (the Funding Guidelines)
Funding guidelines are instructions from the funder on how to apply. These guidelines are not like the Ikea instructions you did not read, or the airplane safety card you ignored. Nope, these funding guidelines are like having the recipe to your great-grandmother’s famous family spaghetti sauce, and if you deter at all you will not quite get it right.
For that reason, treat your funding guidelines like great-grannie’s recipe, with care and attention to detail. The guidelines will include information on how to apply, eligibility, what the narrative requires, attachments, and much more.
You usually can download funding guidelines from the funding agency’s website. Once downloaded, print them so you have a hard copy to mark up. Yes, the anti-paper millennial just told you to print your guidelines.
Why print your guidelines? Because you will catch nuances that, for some reason, are difficult to see when reading on a computer. Even if you have two screens, you want the instructions by your side to spill coffee on!
Read the funding guidelines from beginning to end and then take a break. Dance to your favorite song, do a few sun-salutations, pet your dog, whatever you do to maintain your energy. When you are done, come back to the guidelines and reread them carefully. Highlight keywords that are used repeatedly and specific instructions like font size requirements.
The funding guidelines should, at a minimum, spell out what information the funder wants in your grant narrative. If you are lucky, they will also include how they score your responses.
Federal grants can easily have 80+ pages in their funding guidelines. Easier applications might only have two pages. The complexity usually correlates to the funding award size and funding source.
Check out this video for an overview of Steps 1 and 2.
Step 2: Prepare Your Narrative Skeleton
‘Nothing is more intimidating than a blank page. To avoid feeling overwhelmed, you should always prepare a “narrative skeleton.” The skeleton is an outline for each section of the narrative and, if available, the scoring criteria.
Start by typing each narrative prompt into a blank document. By doing this, you are preparing the exact headers and subheaders that the funding agency wants to see in your narrative.
Below is an example of a question pulled from a funding guideline that I typed into a grant narrative skeleton:
Rating Factor 1: Capacity of the Applicant
Subfactor 1.1.a Managerial and Technical Staff. You must describe the project-specific roles and responsibilities and knowledge/experience of the project director and all individual key staff in planning, managing, and implementing projects for which funding is requested. Experience pertaining to specific activities should be relevant, recent (in the last five years), and demonstrate that past projects were completed on or ahead of schedule.
Scoring Criteria: You describe the roles/responsibilities and the knowledge/experience of the project director and all individual key staff in planning, managing, and implementing projects for which funding is being requested. Experience of all individual key staff is relevant, recent, and successful.
It may feel like a waste of time rewriting the application guidelines into your text editor. The reason we encourage you to do this is to help organize your thoughts about how to respond to each section. You can even begin brainstorming here by adding bullet points with information you want to include in each section.
Do not start writing complete sentences! I know it is tempting. You only want bullet points to capture ideas and questions, so you can more readily identify where you have gaps in information. From the example above, you may realize you need to collect specific project examples from key team members on their recent and relevant experience delivering projects on schedule.
Once you have a complete narrative skeleton with bullet points, you will have a robust understanding of what is needed to prepare the proposal.
Even then, we still do not start writing! The next step is hosting an official grant kick-off meeting.
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Step 3: Host an Outstanding Kick-Off Meeting
A kick-off meeting is where you gather everyone involved in the project to plan for the grant preparation process. The amount of help you receive during the grant writing process is directly correlated to the success of your kick-off meeting.
If you are meeting in person, bring cookies or lunch to express your gratitude to the group for giving their time to help you prepare an application. Even if you are meeting remotely, you can arrange to have coffee and pastries delivered right before your call. If people feel appreciated and inspired by you, they will make your requests a priority.
Prepare an agenda beforehand and email it one day in advance.
⭐ Tip: Develop a grant kick-off meeting agenda template that you can reuse over and over. You can download a template on our free resources page.
It is good to email the narrative skeleton outline along with the agenda ahead of the kick-off meeting. This gives your team a better handle on the application requirements and can spur ideas on other information they can provide you. Plus, it shows you have a process in place and are well organized right from the start.
The agenda template includes names of attendees, date, time, and subject. If needed, start with introductions. You will then run through the narrative skeleton, asking where you can get the information you need for the grant application. Team members often come up with ideas for additional information or resources to reference when they can see the narrative skeleton themselves.
You can close out the meeting by discussing the grant development schedule. You want to know now if someone will be unavailable because of vacation or other work obligations. Even if you carry 95% of the responsibility for completing the grant application, it is still important to establish a schedule with deadlines for your own accountability.
Following the meeting, send out an email summarizing action items and a calendar invite for the next progress meeting. It is easiest to agree on a fixed time per week to meet. You should schedule progress meetings that last no longer than 30–40 minutes. Shorter meetings help attendees feel refreshed enough to complete their action items immediately.
Watch this video on why kick-off meetings are so important to the success of the grant preparation process.
Step 4: Finalize the Grant Budget
Even if it is a back-of-the-napkin estimate, I am assuming you have at least a rough cost approximation for your project. In a perfect world, project budgets would be nearly complete before starting an application, but it never seems to work out that way.
However, finalizing your budget is now your top priority! The project budget impacts all other parts of your application and progress will be impeded if it is not finalized.
For instance, if a grant requires 50% of the project cost to be funded by the applicant, it is impossible to calculate your cost share without knowing the total project cost. On top of that, an applicant’s cost share commitment must be documented in a formal resolution or letter from someone authorized in your organization to do so. It can be a time-consuming and formal process to get a resolution passed, so it is best to get that ball rolling early on.
Grant applications often require a budget narrative to describe how you developed a reasonable cost estimate. It is challenging to write a budget narrative without a complete budget!
Most narratives also require an implementation plan and description of the benefits of the project. Does your budget allow you to impact the lives of 20 Veterans or 200? Will you renovate four low-income housing units or 14?
I am guessing the last few paragraphs were pretty overwhelming! Before you give up, know that none of that will be an issue for you if you have a finalized project budget. As such, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of finishing your budget as soon as possible.
⭐ Tip: Download your free copy of our grant budget template here.
Free Grant Budget Template
If preparing a grant budget scares you, those days are about to be over! Download the free grant budget template below and take our free grant writing class to learn how to use it.Free Grant Writing Class
Step 5: Write Your Narrative Fast and Furiously
A narrative is a written description of your project, the problem it solves, and why it should be funded.
The exact nature of your narrative will vary depending on the requirements of each funding agency. Sometimes, a private foundation will ask for a letter of inquiry first. This is usually a two page letter summarizing your proposal. If the funder likes your proposal, you will be invited to submit a full application. Other times, a grant narrative is going to be 15 pages of single-spaced writing with other lengthy and technical attachments.
Your grant narrative should always be customized to the grant for which you are applying. You can certainly recycle text from previous applications, but it must be intentionally reworked to fit the funding guidelines.
Prepare your first draft as fast as possible
The length of time it takes to prepare your first draft of the narrative depends on if we are talking about a relatively straightforward grant application or a complex federal pursuit. If you are completing an online form, with responses generally under 500 characters, you should finish your first draft of the grant narrative in four days or less. If it is a more complex proposal, requiring 18–20 pages of content, try to write your entire first draft in eight days (or ideally even less).
How do you write quickly? It is tempting to leave your narrative to track down information. At all costs, avoid doing this! Often the information you seek will get deleted in later drafts anyway, and it costs you too much time and energy to refocus.
Let’s pause a hot second and talk about context switching. It is immensely taxing for your brain to bounce between tasks. With the best of intentions, we sit down to bust out our grant narrative. Not five minutes later we are glancing at our phone because the notifications lit up on the screen, which somehow leads us to opening our inbox. Then we find ourselves ten tabs deep in our browser. It is crazy!
In fact, one study by Gloria Mark, Professor at the University of California—Irvine’s Department of Informatics, found most people average only three minutes on any given task.
Guess what? You will not be loving life as a grant writer if that is how you approach grant writing. This field requires deep work to A) get the job done, and B) keep you from burning out.
When we context switch, it can eat up to 80% of our overall productivity according to psychologist, Gerald Weinberg.
Context switching is a topic unto itself, and one that we cover more in my book, How to Write a Grant: Become a Grant Writing Unicorn, but for now all you need to know is this: stay parked in your narrative. Perhaps you are writing about who benefits from your project. It is tempting to stop mid-sentence to look up supporting data. Instead, I want you to write a sentence like this, “XX% of the project beneficiaries are low to moderate income.” Later on, you can look up the exact statistic.
Write your grant narrative backward
The harder sections are usually towards the end of your grant narrative and include topics like budgeting, project feasibility, etc. Working through the complex portions of the application first makes it easier to write the beginning sections, which are typically broader strokes.
⭐ Tip: Dreading the idea of writing a long narrative? Here is a time-saving hack for you! Record yourself talking slowly and clearly about each section of the narrative. Use your grant narrative skeleton developed in Step 2 to guide your recording. Then use any number of online resources to convert your audio file into text. The text file will be much easier to edit than writing your first draft from scratch. This method can save hours of writing, and it is how I wrote the first edition of this book!
Stay accountable to writing deadlines by collaborating with someone else
It is invaluable to find someone that will accept your progress writing a grant narrative. Your “accountability buddy” does not need to read your earliest, messiest versions of the narrative. But, if you have them accepting your drafts, it keeps you accountable to writing deadlines. Send your progress every two to three days to inspire working quickly.
Identify who this person will be during the grant kick-off meeting. Ideally, it is someone within your organization. If you do not have someone in your organization to collaborate with, ask a friend or other working professional that you can repay the favor later.
When I was just starting my business, I hired my sister to edit my grant narratives. She named her price by putting something she wanted in my Amazon cart, and I was happy to pay for it because of the mistakes that she caught. When we spend a lot of time working on a narrative, we become blind to silly mistakes. Prevent errors and write faster by having someone else evaluate your grant writing progress.
Edit, edit, and edit some more
After you complete your first draft of the narrative, you want at least four more versions. Great writing is concise and clear. The only way you get to that level of brevity is to continually fine-tune the writing. On complex grants, you can have as many as 15 different narrative drafts!
Step 6: Prep Your Key Attachments
You are picking up great momentum now! You have read your funding guidelines, prepared your narrative skeleton, hosted a kick-off meeting, drafted a budget, and gotten underway with narrative writing.
Now comes the time to prepare key attachments. The attachments required for each application will vary depending on the grant program. In this section, we will cover the most common attachments you can expect to encounter: a budget and budget narrative, a resolution, and letters of support.
Attachments can require a long lead time to get finalized, so it is important to start them early in the grant writing process. Generally, we advise discussing attachments at the progress meeting after your kick-off.
The video below highlights how to prepare common key attachments.
Grant Budget and Budget Narrative
In step four, you developed your grant budget. We recommend you use our grant budget spreadsheet as your “base camp budget” for the general project as a whole. Then, in this step, you are adapting your budget to the format specifically requested by the funder of this grant. Some might have you fill out the information via an online fillable form. Others will have their own spreadsheet.
This is where things can get confusing as budgets do not always have the same categories. If you get stuck, reach out to the funder for guidance.
Often the funder will ask for a narrative to accompany your budget. They are seeking a written description of how you arrived at the project cost. This is why it is important to track that information when you initially create your budget and for you to keep it documented in your project folder for easy reference.
We format budget narratives by using subheaders for each of the budget categories the funder includes. Be exhaustively detailed and thorough in your response.
A resolution is approval from the highest in command at your organization to submit a grant application. If you are a nonprofit organization with a board of directors, you would get a resolution passed by your board. If you are a government entity, your tribal or city council would approve the resolution.
Resolutions are not always required, and sometimes they will not be asked for till later in the process. The idea behind a resolution is that the funder wants to make sure your organization is aware and willing to legally bind themselves to the rules of the funding agency if awarded funds.
In more complex federal grant applications, the funding guidelines may have very specific wording they require in the resolution. As always, follow your north star (the funding guidelines!) when preparing an attachment like a resolution.
Timing for getting a resolution approved can be the tricky part. Most boards meet no more than once a month, which can make it challenging to get your resolution done and in their hands before the grant deadline. Be sure to figure out when your approving body meets and add that to your grant calendar, so you do not miss this deadline.
Coordinate with the Clerk or person responsible for preparing the board meeting to get your resolution on their agenda. Have the resolution printed on official letterhead. You need the signed copy for your application.
Letters of Support For Grants
Let us be real—this blog post is plenty meaty. We have an entire blog post dedicated to helping you land compelling and vibrant letters of support. Check out the post!
Finalizing Your Attachments
Once your attachments are complete, you might consider adding a cover sheet that describes what is included. This is particularly helpful for attachments with several documents like letters of support. You can list every organization that submitted a letter to make it easier for the reviewer to understand what they are about to read.
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Step 7: Independent Review and Submit Your Grant!
Part of what makes grants so intimidating is the number of moving parts. You have the narrative, several attachments, the application submittal process, and more. Even if you are impeccably well organized, it can be easy to make a mistake.
We use the Asana collaboration project management platform for project management, which makes tracking moving parts easy. You mitigate making mistakes or getting surprised by last-minute work when you plan thoroughly at the beginning. Learn more about project management for grant writers in this blog post.
Once you think you have completed everything in the application, package it as if you are going to submit it right then and there. Before submitting, give the application package to your independent reviewer.
Your reviewer will double-check for things like all the forms being included and the contact information being correct. It is usually the simple things where we find the most mistakes!
Turn in your application at least one day early, but preferably two. Most people are not managing their time well and submit their applications at the very last minute. Avoid burnout, unnecessary stress, and embarrassing mistakes by submitting your grant early.
Don’t miss this video for more tips to always follow before submitting a grant proposal.
You will experience a bizarre adrenaline rush after submitting the grant. There is something absolutely awful and wonderful about pressing send! If you followed the seven steps laid out here, you know the application was submitted in tip-top shape. Even then, it can give you nervous energy.
Have a plan to dissipate this energy. Take the afternoon off and go for a hike. Meet up with a friend. Take a bike ride. Doing something active is the best way to diffuse any lingering grant writing intensity, while also helping celebrate the successful submission with “you time.”
Grant Writing For Beginners
You now know the seven steps to write a grant! The trick to being a Grant Writing Unicorn is not having magical superpowers, but simply following the funding guidelines to a tee, being the best project manager you can be, and learning to manage your focus. Mastering those principles will make you an unstoppable force.
Grant Writing Resources
Keep reading our blog articles. Specifically, this one has more tips for writing draft narratives. This post covers how to avoid last minute grant pursuits.
Also, check out our FREE Class on Writing Grants to decide if grant writing is your next right step!
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Is Grant Writing For You?
If you are looking for a career change and interested in grant writing consulting, check out this training on how to get started. Build a flexible life you love!Watch Video