January 20, 2022

Things I Learned About Writing Grants While Reading Them

When I first signed up to review grants for a Community Foundation, my motives were purely selfish. I thought reading other people’s applications would make me a stronger grant writer. And I was right! Nothing has been more instructive to my grant writing than reviewing grants written by others. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that might help you write your next proposal.

Answer the Question They Asked!

Topic drift is a serious problem in grant narratives. I’ve seen this in my own work, as well as grants I’ve read. When given a broad or multi-part question, it is easy to meander away from what was asked and get a little too tangential. When editing your draft make sure to ask yourself—did I answer the question they asked?

But How Are You Going to Spend the Money?

I’ve reviewed grant proposals that do an amazing job of explaining the need in their community, the important work their organization is doing, and the wonderful collaborations that they have fostered to solve big problems, but fall short when answering the most important question in grantmaking: “How are you going to spend the money we give you?” Make sure your budget is balanced and explain how the funding will be used in your narrative. (For more advice on crafting your budget see our previous post, “But First Build Your Budget.”)

How Valuable Are Your Services to the Community?

When reviewing grants for a very small, rural community without a lot of funds to give out in each grant cycle, I came across the occasional organization I felt should probably have thought twice about applying for funding. Typically, these applications came from very large, well-funded organizations, based in cities far from the rural community that they claimed to help. Their plans to use the community foundation’s finite funds often included paying someone from the big city’s salary, gas, or hotel to visit the rural community, or mailing flyers and brochures to people residing in the rural community. These applications were not nearly as compelling as the applications from organizations based in the rural community, providing services directly to the people living there on a daily basis. Take a hard look at the work you are doing and make sure it really serves the community’s needs before you apply.

Grant Reviewers Are Tired!

Most grant reviewers are volunteers. Some are paid a small stipend for their work, but many do it gratis on their own time because they care about their communities and want to help (and a few others, like me, are selfishly trying to improve their own writing skills). Additionally, a grant reviewer generally reads between three and up to 20 grants per session. This means that the level of time and attention your grant application gets from your panel of readers can vary widely. Some reviewers will print out a hard copy of your narrative and read every single word in a silent, well-lit room with a red pen in hand. Others may be more interested in just understanding broad strokes and sometimes skim grants for what seem to be the important details.

Your job, as the grant writer, is to be as clear and concise as possible to ensure that – regardless of whichever type of reader your proposal ends up in front of – anyone will understand your program, the need, and your budget. Consider these strategies to help craft an easily digestible proposal:

  • Repeating the question in your answer is a nice way to leave breadcrumbs for your reader to follow. A detail-focused reader will underline the point and a distracted reader can’t miss it!
  • Leave out extraneous details—these can raise questions you didn’t intend in a panel discussion or confuse a reader who isn’t paying close attention.
  • Use bullets, headers, bolding, underlining and other visual cues strategically. You’re not writing a mystery novel; don’t make a grant reader work to understand your proposal. (For more tips on how to write a compelling narrative check out our post, “How Can Hollywood Help You Write a Winning Proposal?”)

If you have the time and energy, I highly recommend volunteering to serve on a grant panel. It’s a great way to learn about your community and hone your craft. Bonus: if you meet in-person, they usually give you snacks! However, if you meet virtually, you don’t have to wear shoes – so, really, it’s a win-win either way!


 Contact: Sacha Siskonen, Resource Development Officer, sacha@thegrantplantnm.com

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