Learning grant writing is a rite of passage for many nonprofit professionals. Many of us first dive into grant writing with minimal (or even no) prior experience.

Writing a grant proposal might seem like a big, scary task. After all, you’re presenting your organization for judgment with real money and support on the line during a time when many nonprofits are seeing drops in their donation numbers.

While this is all true, it’s important to remember that grant writing is really just a series of steps, not a mysterious process that results in money for some lucky nonprofits and rejections for others.

Successful grant writing comes down to organization, careful decision-making, and experience. The more you try, the more lessons you pick up and the better you become (which is why many organizations rely on grant writing freelancers who focus solely on the craft).

But let’s say you’re working in-house and just got handed your first grant writing assignment—what next? We break it down into an approachable 10-step process.

Step 1: Understand the Grant Landscape and Process.

First, you’ll need some context to make more informed decisions. Spend some time learning more about these key areas of the grant landscape:

  • Funders. Private foundations, public foundations (technically referred to as public charities), government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels, and corporations are the primary types of organizations that provide grants to nonprofits.
  • Funding structures. Grants come in a few different shapes and sizes. Funding can be restricted to the specific project laid out in your proposal or unrestricted for general use. Payouts might be given all at once or provided in installments. The total value might be a flat amount of money or matched, meaning the grant provides a certain portion of your project’s total costs (often 50%). Each of these categories can bring different reporting considerations that you’ll need to understand ahead of time, as well.
  • The stages of the grant lifecycle. There’s more to grant seeking than writing a proposal and winning funding, most notably the post-award steps of grant management and reporting. Closely following your funder’s reporting guidelines not only ensures compliance and smooth payouts but also sets you up well for future partnerships.
  • The parts of a grant proposal. If you’re brand new to grant seeking, you’ll need to understand the different sections and documents that make up a typical proposal. The exact requirements and order will vary from grant to grant, but you can generally expect to see these sections:

The sections and supplementary documents usually required by nonprofit grant proposals

Check out Learn Grant Writing’s introductory guide for a breakdown of these common components and documents.

Step 2: Review Your Nonprofit’s Project.

What are you seeking funding for? The vast majority of grants are restricted, meaning they’re intended to fund specific projects, programs, or initiatives.

Ideally, your nonprofit already knows the new projects that need funding as part of its broader strategic plan and calendar.

Do not put the cart before the horse—only apply for grant opportunities that align with your mission and what you already want to accomplish. Do not come up with new projects and programs solely for the sake of applying for a grant. This is a recipe for mission drift, disorganization, and ultimately, a less focused and effective nonprofit.

Step 3: Research Grant Opportunities.

Start looking for your first (or next) grant to apply for.

There are many helpful sources to check out. For government grants, rely on the official grants.gov website. Candid and The National Council of Nonprofits provide helpful directories for a wide variety of foundation grants, as well.

Memberships and paid platforms are also available and provide additional features that can help you build a consistent grant funding pipeline. Instrumentl and GrantStation are both popular choices in this category.

Start your research by finding opportunities that align with your mission, intended project, value, and timeframe. Don’t be afraid to put together a long list at this stage.

Step 4: Prioritize Your Options.

Next, begin narrowing down your list of grant opportunities to those that will offer you the highest chance of success. Several criteria can help you prioritize your opportunities, including:

  • Mission alignment between your nonprofit and the funder
  • Project alignment with the grant’s stated purpose and goals
  • Any existing connections you might have with the funder
  • Applicant success rate, or the number of awardees over the total number of applicants for past grants provided by the funder
  • The prominence of the funder or the niche-ness of the grant (as proxy measures of competitiveness)
  • The cost of pursuing the grant or the trade-off of time spent applying for and managing it versus its actual value or impact on your project

There’s no one perfect way to measure competitiveness, and your comfort zone will vary depending on the specific circumstances. One helpful rule of thumb we recommend is to prioritize grants with applicant success rates of 20% or greater.

Remember, too, that you can (and should) reach out directly to funders to learn more if you can’t find relevant information online or through any databases you use.

Work through your list multiple times, narrowing it down to a handful of the best opportunities. When you’ve settled on your #1, it’s time to start applying.

Step 5: Dive Deep into the Grant’s Guidelines.

Your chosen grant’s guidelines and requirements will be the foundation of everything that comes next. Take your time to read, read, and reread them.

Actively seek clarification from the funder and experienced team members as needed. Better to invest the time in understanding the guidelines now than struggle through the application process later and realize you’re off-target!

Step 6: Prepare a Narrative Skeleton.

Begin by giving yourself a solid structure to build on, one that’s built directly from the stated requirements of the grant. This will keep you on track, save time, and result in a more effective proposal.

We call it the “narrative skeleton.” Work your way through the grant’s guidelines and requirements and compile them into an outline.

Use the exact language from the guidelines as the section headings—this will immediately convey relevance to your funder. Begin brainstorming talking points and types of data to include in each section as you think of them, but don’t worry about filling in the details and drafting complete sentences yet. The goal is simply to lay the groundwork with an easy-to-use template that you’ll later fill in and polish into a finished product.

Step 7: Kick Off the Project and Collect the Necessary Info

Grant proposals contain information gathered from across an organization, so they usually require input from multiple team members and departments. Before you begin drafting your proposal, it’s a good idea to sync up with the individuals who’ll help you along the way.

While preparing your narrative skeleton, you identified information that you’ll need for your proposal, like impact data about past programs or projections for your proposed project. Prepare an agenda and invite the individuals who can help you gather this information to a grant kickoff meeting.

During your meeting, review the following essentials:

  • The grant, the funder, and the guidelines
  • Your timeline and intended submission date
  • The data you need, from whom, and by when
  • How to share information and documents with the grant team
  • Anecdotes and constituent feedback that would be helpful to gather

This is also the time to discuss some important logistics. Your organization should finalize the budget for your proposed project as soon as possible (especially for matching grants) so that you can include it in your proposal. Discuss any additional documentation required by the grant, and get the ball rolling on securing it soon. For some organizations, it can take quite a while to secure official board resolutions, for instance.

Answer questions, thank everyone for their time, and follow up as needed. The key is to be organized—no one wants to be roped into a project where they don’t understand what’s needed of them or when.

Step 8: Write Your Grant Narrative.

After your meeting, and as data and input begin rolling in, start drafting your main grant proposal. Consider these best practices to help make this process as smooth and effective as possible:

  • Start from the end and work backward. Most grants end with the meatier and more complex sections, like sustainability plans and budgets. Try to tackle these first to both get them out of the way and to keep their important details fresh in your mind as you draft the earlier, more narrative-driven sections.
  • Follow storytelling best practicesActive language, use of the first person, illustrative details, real people and places, and a dynamic, positive tone all help your readers better envision their own roles in your story and those of your community. Try to strike the right balance of subtle but emotionally compelling storytelling.
  • Balance your narrative with hard numbers. Funders are moved by stories, but they have to use numbers to make decisions. Make sure that your proposal makes a balanced case that’s defensible from both the qualitative and quantitative angles. Use data to illustrate the problem you’re solving, your progress so far, and how much further your new project will push you toward success.
  • Stay focused and impact-forward. Write from a position of strength rather than scarcity; that is, while you should clearly illustrate the problems at hand, keep the focus on how you’re moving forward urgently and intentionally. Tie your main talking points back to measurable impact whenever possible and illustrate them with tangible examples and details.

We recommend tackling this step fast and furiously.

If you’ve planned out your timeline well, you’ll have plenty of time to review your proposal, get feedback, and make revisions, but for now, you want energy and momentum. For most grants, you should aim to complete a full first draft in four days or fewer.

Step 9: Prepare the Complete Application.

With a complete draft in hand that you’ve combed through and tightened up, it’s time to compile all the additional documentation you need to provide the funder. These most commonly include budgets, resolutions, and letters of support. Remember, it’s never a bad idea to closely review your grant guidelines one last time to make sure you’re not missing anything.

At this stage, you’ll also likely want to create a cover sheet for your proposal that outlines the contents and supplemental materials.

Step 10: Review, Submit, and Take a Breather.

Finally, ask a teammate to carefully review your complete proposal and compare it against the grant’s guidelines. Have them look for any big-picture issues, missing details, and clunky language.

Then, make your final revisions and submit the grant according to the funder’s instructions (ideally at least a day or two before the official deadline).

Once it’s out of your hands, take a breath, let everyone know, thank them for their help, and shake off all the nervous energy. We recommend taking a walk, bike ride, or just taking an early afternoon to meet up with a friend. Whatever works for you!

This 10-step process has served us and our grant writing students well, and it should serve as a helpful framework for your first forays into the world of grant writing, too. Follow its core recommendations and stay extremely organized. If you want to make your new skills official, try exploring online grant writing courses that offer recognized certification!

Bonus points if you go the extra mile for your organization—remember the list of prioritized list of grant opportunities you developed in Steps 3 and 4?

Revisit them to create a coherent Grant Funding Strategy, a yearlong roadmap of grant opportunities that will sustain your current and upcoming projects. This simple exercise can go a very long way to streamline your future grant writing efforts and set your nonprofit up for long-term success. Best of luck!

About the Author

Meredith Noble

Meredith Noble

Meredith Noble is the co-founder of Learn Grant Writing, an online membership for those building their careers in grant writing. Her book, How to Write a Grant: Become a Grant Writing Unicorn, is a bestseller for nonprofit fundraising and grants. Her expertise has been featured in NASDAQ, Forbes, Fast Company, Business Insider, and other top publications. She has secured over $45 million in grant funding, and her students have secured over $627 million – a number that grows daily.  If Meredith’s not biking or skiing in Alaska, she can be found curled around a steaming cup of green-tea and a good book.

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