Grant Writing 101

Grant writing is an extremely valuable skill. In my last post, I wrote how grant writing can be a way to offer something valuable to your organization or client, especially if you’re starting out as a medical writer. Every organization I’ve worked with in health care, social services, community-building, and academic research rely on grant moneys to operate and to run projects and programs.

Coming from academia, all I knew about grants by the time I graduated in 2013 were research grants. Since then, I’ve come to learn that there are many other kinds of grants, such as project grants for the arts, capital/infrastructure grants, and operational grants for non-profit organizations.

If you’re a social science and humanities grad, you likely have strong writing skills, which is a good starting point to doing good grant writing. Below are some additional tips for producing strong grant applications.

It’s not all about you

While you’re asking for funds for the project (your own, your organization’s, or your client’s), ultimately the grant application isn’t about you or the project. It’s about the funder’s priorities and goals. What does the funder want to achieve through this grant line?

You should definitely describe your project with enthusiasm and passion—and this part is generally the easiest because it’s the most exciting part! But make sure you don’t gush about your amazing project to the point of forgetting about the funder’s needs. Your gushing needs to speak directly to the funder’s priorities. When you do, it’s much more likely for the funder to heed your impassioned plea to support your project.

Do a little bit of research

Many grant lines publish names of previous award winners, perhaps even a description of these projects. This list can give you a sense of the type of projects that receive the award. If the opportunity is available, contact one of the past winners for their experience of going through the application. They might be able to give you helpful information that’s not available on the grant guideline. Perhaps they’d be willing to share their application with you. (This might take a bit more than a cold call. See if you can tap into your network for someone who knows past award winners.)

Have a good working relationship with the administrative office

Let’s not forget the relational aspect of all this. It’s very important to make yourself known to the folks in the administrative offices at agencies where you’re applying for funding (or at university offices, if the grant first goes through an internal process). Some grants require you to submit an “intent to apply”, which is a kind of pre-application, and to speak with the admin office before being invited to submit the actual application. Even if this stage isn’t part of the grant application process, make sure you connect with the admin office by email or phone or in person. The admin staff know a lot. In my experience, the staff want to help candidates put the best application forward. They can help you navigate tricky questions in the application.

Answer the question

This might seem like a silly point but it’s not. It’s actually very easy to lose sight of the original question when you get carried away by the writing and many rounds of editing. Here, connecting with the admin office can help to ensure that you’ve understood the question correctly to begin with.

My grant application drafts contain the original questions so that I know exactly what I need to address. It’s kind of like writing essays in high school—always write to the thesis statement. It’s the same idea. Stay focused on what the funder is looking for, not only on what you want to say about your project.

Draw on the funder’s language

Funders develop grants to meet organizational objectives or goals, which are outlined in their strategic planning documents. Some grant applications refer to specific objectives and goals within the questions themselves (sometimes appearing as a hyperlink). Track these down. Go to these links.

Lift certain phrasings and language and put them directly into your answers. Wrap the language of the funder with specifics of your proposed project. Show how your project aligns with the funder’s goals. For example, if the funder’s priority is to support community development and addressing the gap in services for marginalized populations, make sure you describe how exactly your project or program will do these things.

But don’t lose your integrity

It’s a careful balancing act of speaking to the funder using their language and focusing on their priorities, while also arguing for the strengths and benefits of your project or program and highlighting what you need. Just as it’s important not to over-emphasize your project or program, over and above the funder’s priorities, it’s important to meet your and your organization’s/client’s priorities, without over-emphasizing those of the funder.

If you find that integrating the funder’s language into your project (and vice versa) is especially difficult, if it feels like you’re forcing the two to align, or if the admin staff gives you strong hints that your project or program isn’t a strong candidate, then perhaps the grant isn’t right for you, your organization, or your client. Perhaps it’s not the right time and you need to develop the idea more. It’s a tough call to make but grant writing takes a lot of time and energy and you want to make sure that the work is worthwhile.

Best way to learn is to do

The best way to learn how to write grants is to write grants. I’ve taken a two-day workshop on grant writing as part of my professional training at my last full-time job. I have to say I learned more by writing grants than from that workshop. It’s not to say that courses and workshops are useless. But not having taken a course or workshops on grant writing shouldn’t stop you from writing grants. I’ve also learned a lot by writing grants with people who have experience writing grants. I did this on a volunteer basis in my community organizing and I’ve transferred these skills and know-how to grant writing for paying clients.

Reflection questions

  • What grants have you written before?
  • What type of grants do you (or do you want to) write?
  • Do you know any organizations or individuals who is looking to write grants? How do you think you can support them?
  • Do you know any grant writers you can learn from? Perhaps you can offer to help them with editing or writing in exchange for learning from them?

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