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Right on the Money: Recipe for a Winning Grant Proposal

Photograph of jigsaw puzzle pieces coming together.

It's no secret nonprofit organizations are struggling to find new funding sources in these tough economic times. But with the right grant writing formula, your organization has a better chance of weathering the storm.

"Federal proposals are very much like baking a cake," says Tammy Hopper, director of organizational advancement for SENetwork in Bonita Springs, Florida. "On the Betty Crocker box, it tells you what ingredients to use, what temperature to cook your cake, and it even tells you what type of pan to put the cake in."

One of the most critical mistakes grant writers make is getting a little overzealous with their proposals, she says. But clever techniques, graphics and numerous quotes won't ever trump a well-written proposal that answers the funder's questions. Hopper offered the following tips on crafting a good proposal:

Dos

  1. State the facts. State the problem that exists in your community and find current research to support your proposal.
  2. Fill the gaps. In cases where you don't meet all the eligibility criteria, state what resources and partners you have access to that qualify your organization for funding.
  3. Ask questions. Most funders have training and technical assistance centers as well as project officers who can answer questions.
  4. Invest in a grant writer. Hiring or contracting a qualified grant writer can be worthwhile. Another option is including someone with these skills on your advisory board. Check out the American Association of Grant Professionals for help finding a certified professional.
  5. Proofread, please! Although you won't lose points on paper, if the grant reviewer spots a typo, you won't make the best possible impression. Have a pair of fresh eyes review the final product.

Don'ts

  1. Don't recycle. A common mistake is pulling out last year's winning proposal and starting from there. But unless you have the reviewer's comments, you don't know why that old proposal was funded. Get the reviewer's comments and start a brand new proposal from scratch.
  2. Forego the old "team" approach. Because many staff members have information to contribute, proposals often come in without a cohesive voice. Hopper says a grant reviewer "shouldn't feel the proposal was written by six different people." Have one person tie it all together to present a uniform tone.
  3. Don't rush. Too many grant writers are chasing the FedEx truck at the end of the day because they didn't allow enough time to write a good proposal, Hopper says. Give yourself enough time to polish your work.
  4. Don't beg. Funders are aware of how difficult it is to find support, but that isn't license to use your proposal to overstate problems. Rather, explain to funders what techniques you've already established to ensure stability.

Grant writing is not a science. There are human beings on the other end reading your proposal. Hopper says, "You've got to make the best case possible. It's not enough to say we have a problem in our community and we should be funded. Your job is to convince them to invest in your project and that the investment is well placed."

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