August 19, 2020

Write a Proposal with Grant Management in Mind (a.k.a. Learning the Hard Way)

You write a beautiful proposal. The award notification comes in. Congratulations! This funding is so needed!

And then. . .

The annual report.

How did your proposal stand up against the test of time . . . and measurable objectives?

It’s one thing to write a grant proposal that meets the priorities a funder lays out in their Request for Proposals. But come reporting time, how did the actual work match up to the proposal?

As a grant writer, you may not be the one executing a project or program. It is disconcerting to get to the point of writing the annual report, and then learn that staff didn’t run the program like the proposal stated. Maybe the work that needed to happen was different than the proposal laid out. Objectives and outcomes may be hard to pin down. Or funds may have not been spent as described.

So what can you do to ensure that a proposal sets up the organization for successful implementation? Here are a few questions to consider up-front to save yourself a scramble at reporting time:

What is this grant for? Start with the budget and the metrics. What is the money really needed for? What will support your organization’s priorities? This should be work you are already doing, or are primed to be doing—work that a little more money can help you do even better or bigger. Or funding to help meet a demonstrated need that the organization has not been able to meet due to financial constraints. Make sure that even busy teams review this basic budget and metric information prior to submission to ensure the funding request is aligned with the actual work and needs.

Do we have time to do this? Ensure the capacity is in place to implement the project.

  • Is the staff already onboard? Make sure they have the time and interest to take on the extra work that comes with an award. And most importantly—make sure they know they will play an important part in this proposal. Give them the opportunity to weigh in on what the work and objectives will look like. Instill ownership from the get-go, so that an award is a celebration for all, rather than another To-Do added to everyone’s overwhelmed inboxes.
  • Do you need to hire someone to support the grant and oversee the work? Make sure a living wage is written into the proposal (or otherwise planned for), and draft a job position to submit with the application if required, and to have at the ready to support post-award implementation. Once funded, this will set you up to begin recruiting and hiring quickly. If you are receiving a 12–24 month award, a hiring stage that takes 6-9 months will really set you back. Have a plan to make sure someone is available to lead the work from the start, and then train the new employee, as needed. Also consider (and be transparent about) the sustainability of the position, and if this is a grant-term contract position or a permanent addition.
  • If you’re requesting funding for a consultant, do you need to put the request out to bid prior to moving ahead? If hiring staff, what are organizational requirements for posting a listing? Make sure you are aware of any required processes (organizational and federal).

How do I show that? Choose metrics that set you up to win. This doesn’t just mean choose goals and objectives that align with the funder. It means you need to work with your team to identify objectives you really want to pursue. Metrics that move your mission-aligned work forward. And importantly, measurements that you are able to gather when report time comes (and along the way to track your progress), without adding significant burden to anyone’s time. If you’re tracking the number of outreach events you attend, then it’s great to set a goal of attending two more over the year. But don’t sign up for impacting an additional 500 people if you do not have a method to actually count these people. And if you commit to a new method—such as surveying a group to assess the outcomes—be sure to bring that up at the time of the official grant launch so people can plan ahead and work it into the schedule. A metric that truly helps is one that you can use consistently throughout a project to track progress, and inform your decisions and revisions. Metrics collected merely for the sake of the report will make everyone grumpy and may not actually improve your work.

How involved will the reporting be? When possible, look at the report before you write the proposal. You can learn a lot about the funder’s priorities by looking at how they structure their report. Federal grants are much more black and white than a private foundation, which may be interested in learning with its grantees. Does the report seem open to hearing about challenges and growth during the funding period, or is the emphasis on outputs and outcomes, and demonstrating that the funded work was completed as planned? What must be reported in tables or forms? Understanding this may help you decide how to write out your objectives, or report on numbers. For example, federal grants often use a 524B Status Report for the Annual Performance Report. This format requires you to have an overall goal, followed by 1–3 measurable objectives. If you write your proposed metrics in this same format, it makes reporting MUCH simpler and cleaner. And it also helps you to limit your objectives—for example, five goals, each supported with three performance measures, multiplies into an overwhelming number of 15 different metrics that you need to report on). The ultimate goal, as a grant writer, is to make sure that the funding—and reporting—moves your work forward, rather than shackling you to data hunting and busywork.

Who’s responsible for that? Officially launch your grant. After securing staff buy-in during the proposal-writing phase, be sure to bring the team together once an award is made, to celebrate and make sure everyone is familiar with the goals, budget, and reporting needs from the start. Build ownership in the work by making sure everyone understands their role within the grant, and how it integrates with their daily work. Engage all stakeholders in creating or reviewing the action plan and timeline, and develop a schedule for meetings to keep the work aligned and on track. If there are funder meetings, who will attend? Make sure everyone knows what reports to anticipate, who will write them, what metrics need to be tracked, and how they will be tracked.

What is this grant for again? Create a grant summary. Post-funding, create a 1–2 page summary as a reference document, with the grant award number, funder contact information, the amount of award, the grant team and roles, report deadlines, a short overview of the purpose of the grant, the approved goals and objectives, and the budget. Make sure everyone on the grant team and in organizational leadership receives a copy, and knows where to access the file.

Where’d that number come from? Along the way, document, document, document. From proposal creation until grant closeout, keep records of your data and grant communications. The funder may have additional questions for you about the proposal. Staff may wonder how you came up with a figure. The annual auditor may have questions. Always keep copies (digital or hard copy) of information that directly impacts the proposal writing and reporting. This means to be sure to keep any website price lists and email quotes used to develop budgets. Keep citations for any resources or data listed so you can easily re-create it. If you request bids for consultants or products, document all responses. Save emails with funders and consultants. And if you have a phone call with a funder, follow up with an email summary to the funder highlighting the discussion. This ensures that you and the funder are on the same page, and illustrates to an auditor or future Program Officer at the foundation/agency that you are carefully stewarding your funding, and that any modifications are approved (this is a big one: one grant we manage has had five Program Officers over four years!).


Full disclosure—I really like writing grant reports. Like a test in school, report time is when you see what the proposal had right—and wrong. The reporting process helps to strengthen proposal-writing skills and deepens understanding of the work. It is a great feeling of accomplishment when a report goes smoothly—the data is available, the team has learnings and anecdotes to provide, the metrics are showing progress of a program or process, and the budget is being spent on schedule. And alternatively—and more typically—reports provide time to engage the team in reflecting on the funding’s impact, realigning the work where needed, determining if any budget modifications are required, and offering the chance to tease out lessons learned. Reporting gives the whole team the opportunity to concretely see the difference they are making. And it provides the opportunity to share with the funder real-life stories that reinforce just why the work is so crucial, and how future funding can best support the ongoing needs.

Writing a winning proposal is just the beginning.

What grant management lessons have you learned along the way? Please share! Aly Sanchez and I will present a workshop on Managing a Grant with Confidence, Compliance, and Capacity at the Grant Professional Association (GPA) annual (virtual) conference in November 2020. We’d love to include any of your experiences as we put this online presentation together. 

Contact: Cecily Peterson, Senior Resource Development Officer,

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