September 20, 2018

Plant seeds that grow into trees: The value of grant writing even if you’re not sure if you’re competitive

Deciding which grant opportunities to pursue is a challenge; organizations with limited budgets and staff frequently try to reduce risk by pursuing the same grants and the same funding levels annually, often looking to small local foundations for funding. This approach can be a great way to start—it can help to develop strong relationships with funders over time, support consistent funding projections, and minimize the investment of time and resources in grant writing. However, it can also be valuable to stretch outside of your grant seeking comfort zone. Is your organization is looking to grow capacity, or add or change programs? Then it may be time to dream bigger and look to larger funding opportunities, even if you’re not completely sure you will be competitive. Generally, the process of shooting for bigger grants requires some trial runs before you hit on success, but in the meantime it can be a great way to help your organization get organized.

The thought of sinking precious resources into a new, more-daunting-than-normal proposal with an uncertain outcome can be scary, especially if you’re not sure if your organization can be competitive. First of all, be realistic and do not overshoot. It is important to employ a strategic growth plan when it comes to grant seeking—grants are almost always highly competitive and your organization inevitably has limited resources to respond to RFPs. You want to identify opportunities that are a small stretch for your organization, but still within reach. With every new award, you are diversifying and increasing your budget, growing your capacity, and demonstrating that you can be a good steward of grant funds. All this means that you can continually expand your reach and the award size requested.

Even if you are not funded, the process of putting together a more ambitious proposal, including a budget and all the attachments, can pay dividends. A larger, more process-intensive proposal forces planning and organization work to happen quickly because you have a deadline and a list of requirements. Those general thoughts of “we should update our financials and our org chart” become “we need to do those things now.” If you have partners that have been noncommittal for some time, the process can be an excuse to formalize those relationships and get roles and obligations in writing. Especially if your organization works with partners and you’re having a hard time getting them to commit to anything specific, working together on a large proposal can be galvanizing.

Even when the terms of the proposal seem a bitbeyond your organization’s means, the proposal preparation process can be a useful exercise to getting your ducks in a row and set you up for future proposals for which you know you will be competitive.

Let’s look at the benefits of progressively stretching your proposal-preparation wings.


  • Solidify your partners and define your relationships
  • Gives you a hard timeline to convene your partners around the table
  • Get specific commitments and timeframes for completion in writing


  • Get your organization and program documents in order and up-to-date (for more on preparing for a proposal, see In Grant Writing, Getting Ready is (More Than) Half the Struggle)
  • Think through the project or program details and put together a comprehensive budget, organizational chart, and staffing plan
  • Create useful visuals like a logic model, services flowchart, and other infographics. These are handy both in proposals and for general marketing when you need to explain your program and/or organization.

Thinking big and telling your story

  • Practice telling your organization’s story and describing your program
  • Allows you to dream big—what would you do if you had more funding?
  • Writing something longer and more ambitious gives you material to draw from for smaller proposals, making other grants less work down the road.

A bonus of going through this process—the more you write grants, the more practice you get thinking on a funder’s terms. Every funder speaks its own language, and your success rate will improve if you practice changing your writing voice to mirror it (while not compromising or changing your programming in order to chase funding). Look at the available materials that are written by the funder, such as the website or the RFP, and use their jargon and phrasing, focus on their priorities, and look at what types of projects they have funded in the past and make sure your organization seems well positioned relative to these funded projects.

And a final thought—you might be more competitive than you think! At The Grant Plant, we submit at least a few “longshot” proposals every year as part of our strategy to help our clients grow their capacity and community impact. Many of these have been awarded and launch productive new relationships with funders. Remember, you have a 0% chance of an award if you don’t apply; submitting something ensures that you’re at least in the running. You never truly know who is going to review your proposal; your organization and the work you do may just be kind project they are looking for!

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