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How to write a winning grant proposal

Looking for extra funds? There may be a grant out there – if you know how to craft the right proposal.

Whether you’re looking to support projects, events or R&D, there’s grant money out there — but getting your hands on it is another issue altogether.

Writing a grant proposal can be a daunting proposition, but it gets easier the more you do it. Like beginning a regular exercise regime, the hardest part is just getting started. Here are a few tips to help navigate the process.

Do your research

The grant-writing process starts long before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). First is knowing where to look. This takes considerable time and effort but it’s important to narrow down the search and find the best matches.

Start by researching potential funders, like government agencies, private foundations and industry associations.

This can be done through online searches (look under philanthropic interests), philanthropic publications and news reports, as well as direct contact through networking events.

There are also a number of commercial grant-writing agencies that list sources on their websites, but a good place to start is the government’s Canada Business Network.

Research is key to finding the right funder, so don’t just apply willy-nilly for any potential funding. You may hold great respect for the grant maker, but make sure your mission fits theirs and that you can meet their deadlines. Many grants are turned down simply because they don’t fit the mission.

Do you actually qualify?

According to the Association of Fundraising Professionals, “while there may be many grant makers that match your organization’s interests, locating the handful that will be most swayed by your proposal is important.”

They go on to explain: “It is beneficial to specifically tailor your grant request to the organization you are submitting it to. Knowing the details of the organization’s philosophy and mission is an invaluable tool to beginning a grant relationship.”

And once you identify potential funders, then what? Make personal contact and cultivate relationships, according to Carolyn Brown. The idea isn’t to write a proposal and then look for funders. First, get to know the funders, review their website and research their annual reports.

The 7 most important guidelines

The biggest problem foundations come across when they read grant applications is that grant writers don’t follow the foundation’s guidelines, according to expert Pamela Grow, quoted in an article on The Balance. So here a few important tips:

1. Stick to the guidelines: Request a copy of their grant guidelines and follow it to the letter. That alone will make your application stand out. If you’re not sure you meet their requirements, there’s no reason why you can’t pick up the phone and call somebody to find out.

2. Be clear and concise: Answer questions succinctly in the format provided, using back-up documents. “Most applicants fail because they simply do not answer the questions,” according to a blog post on grant writing from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Make sure you understand what the funder is looking for, and give them what they want.”

3. Don’t over-do it: Don’t be overly concerned with filling up the allotted space when answering the questions, so long as you say what you need to. And also remember, if they ask for a paragraph, don’t give them two pages.

4. Stick to a budget: When writing your proposal, spell out how you’re going to spend the money with a line-by-line budget. Don’t overestimate and don’t underestimate — just be as honest as possible. You could be disqualified for providing an improper budget.

5. Use proper grammar: Be concise, use correct terminology, solid facts and legitimate statistics, and provide good referencing, according to Douglas Hagedorn, CEO and founder of Tactilis, who has received multiple grants.

6. Tailor your content: Don’t cut and paste; make sure you tailor your writing for every application. You can also connect with past recipients to find out what worked and what didn’t (so you can avoid the same mistakes).

7. Avoid buzzwords: Stay away from jargon and buzzwords. Keep it simple and to the point. You may want to consider working with a professional grant writer; at the very least, make sure someone qualified (internally or externally) copy-edits the final draft for grammar and spelling. A proposal with spelling mistakes looks sloppy and can quickly undermine your organization’s credibility.

Focus on solutions – not problems

Remember that funders have a purpose, writes Hagedorn. Their decision to fund you is based on your ability to serve that purpose. That’s why it’s so important to align yourself with the right funder.

You’ll get noticed if you follow their guidelines, have your documents in order and provide a realistic budget that shows you’ve done your homework. But if you want to truly stand out, make sure you focus on solutions — not problems.

“A grant proposal is a plan of action, so make it as specific as possible,” writes Joanne Fritz in an article for The Balance. “Explain the problem but then move on to what you’ll be doing about it.”

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Image by The Blue Diamond Gallery

Vawn Himmelsbach

Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. She has covered technology and travel for 15 years, for media outlets such as, The Globe & Mail, Metro News, ITBusiness, PCworld Canada and Computerworld Canada. She also spent three years living abroad and working as an Asian correspondent.

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