Grant Writing for Beginners: The Ultimate Guide

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April 23, 2022

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May 3, 2022

Are you ready to take your first steps into the wide world of grant writing? Because if you are, you’ve come to the right spot!

This post is designed to be a 101 in grant writing for beginners and will explain the fundamentals of what a grant is, how to start writing a grant, and what you can expect in a typical grant lifecycle. So let’s dive in!

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First Things First: What is a Grant?

The textbook definition of a grant is: money, goods or services given from a funding organization (also known as “grantmakers” or “grantors”) to another entity without an expectation of being repaid.

That entity could be an individual, a public organization, a private business, an educational institution—the list goes on. Most importantly, once you feel comfortable with the grants process, it’s going to be your nonprofit!

Grants classically are sums of money, although they can also be “in-kind” opportunities, which means grants of goods or services as opposed to “cash” grants.

A few different common categories of grants include:

  • Federal grant opportunities (this is probably the type most commonly associated with the word “grant”)
  • State grants, which are administered through state governments
  • Private foundations (“foundation grants”)
  • Corporate social responsibility (CSR) grants support from private businesses.

While grants are given without an expectation of being paid back, they most often require a return on investment (“ROI”) in terms of measurable benefit to the target area you will use the grant in. Your proposed project or program that the grant will fund must also fit the initial criteria set forth by grantmakers, a shared vision between the grantor and the grantee that is also known as “mission alignment”.

You might have noticed now that while grant opportunities have unique nuances, they also tend to follow a relatively uniform structure. We call that structure “the grant lifecycle”, and in this next section we will go over what that entails in practice.

What Do Grant Lifecycles Look Like?

Now that we’ve established what a grant looks like, your next question is probably- how do I get one? And where does a grant lifecycle start and end? Let’s break down exactly how this process works.

A grants lifecycle is the process of finding, applying, securing, and reporting grants.  You’ve probably guessed by now that a grant lifecycle is a process that is repeated in a cyclical way. There are a few different models that can be used to describe the grant lifecycle process. Here’s a breakdown of what the different steps entail:

1. Idea generating/brainstorming: This first step of the grants process involves rallying key stakeholders, identifying the need in the target community, and making overall decisions about what your nonprofit would like to get done. This is the point where you would work on your theory of change and a high level overview of the main points you would like to address with your project.

2. Funding identification/internal evaluation: This next step is a two-fold evaluation of the external grant funding landscape and what internal resources your organization has on hand.

Now that you know what you want to accomplish, this is the point where you determine whether you are grant ready and what opportunities exist in the grant funding world to support your project. During this stage, you should engage in grant research to select the opportunity you want to focus on.

3. Proposal development: The grant writing step! Here is where you outline and then develop your full grant proposal for a particular funding opportunity you found. You should start the writing process by thoroughly reading the guidelines created by the funding organization.

You should then create a document that has each section of the grant funder’s criteria that you can elaborate on. You can then cut, paste and tailor your already existing project information to best fit each section of the specific funding opportunity.

4. Submission: This administrative step involves getting your grant to the funding organization, most generally through an online portal. Make sure that you allow for about a week to complete the registration process for this step, especially for large grant opportunities like federal grants.

5. Management/reporting: This step takes place after you have been awarded the grant (congratulations!) and can look a few different ways depending on the requirements for the particular funding opportunity. Grant reporting is how you convey your outputs and outcomes from your work to your funder, as well as any additional information they are interested in.

The reporting guidelines are relayed to you by the funding organization, and most likely were also referenced in brief in the initial guidelines for the proposal. The management aspect is braided throughout the lifetime of the grant, and involves the activities associated with administering the funds.

6. Final dissemination of results: This step is the final chance to highlight the results of your project. The final report might look like a brief about the overall outcomes of your work along with qualitative reporting like pictures and narratives of the project successes.

It might also look more quantitative, and involve a series of final statistics and demographics submitted to the funder. Disseminating results might also involve reporting on project successes and best practices to peer organizations that wish to recreate your program models.

7. Sustainability action steps: This last step is the closed loop of the grants lifecycle process, e.g. what makes this a “cycle”. Once you have completed one grant, you will need to look for funding opportunities for future project iterations and/or additional projects you would like to get funded.

So this last step in the grants lifecycle is the transition before starting the process over again, taking action to carry out the sustainability plan detailed in your grant proposal and preparing to move back to step 1 as needed.

This graphic from illustrates what the grants lifecycle looks like for grantees alongside grantors. This is an awesome example to note as you can see how important the relationship is between your work and the grant funding organization and the similarities between your experiences when it comes to the grants lifecycle.

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How to Find Grant Opportunities

This section includes research tools and tactics you can use to compile a comprehensive list of grant making organizations and opportunities for your project.

The Best Places to Find Grants in 2022

This article is the perfect place to begin learning about the various tools that are available to you to help you find grants. The post also provides an overview on how to identify the specialized types of grants that would work for your organization and your project. It also provides a grant readiness evaluation checklist and some tips for the first steps you can take for relationship-building with grant making organizations.

The Best Grants Database (For Nonprofits and Grant Writers)

Grants databases contain extensive lists of grant opportunities and key search features that make your research easier. The databases are constructed in ways that allow you to quickly filter potential grantmakers and hone in on the ones that best align with your work.

How to Identify the Right Funders for You

So you’ve done your research and found your list of grant opportunities (great work!).

How do you decide which one is the right funder for you? There are a number of factors to consider when thinking about how to identify a good fit funder. Here’s a list of questions that can help guide you in your funder evaluation:

  1. Does the grantor have a history of supporting projects like yours, that are based in the same target area?
  2. Does your nonprofit’s mission align with the mission of the funding organization and the goal of their grant opportunity?
  3. Is there space to build a relationship with the funding organization, for example are there any connections between your board and the grantor?
  4. Are the funding needs of your project aligned with the available funding from the grantor, or do you have a sustainability plan that this opportunity can be included in?
  5. Are you able to commit to the reporting requirements outlined in the opportunity, such as any mandatory coaching or training sessions?
  6. Did you check the timelines for submission to make sure you are able to submit each part of the proposal for each deadline?

If you answered yes to all of these questions, then it probably means the funder is a good match!

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How to Assess Your Fit for Grant Opportunities

Now that you have identified the right funding opportunities, let’s discuss the internal evaluations you should do to make sure that your organization has a solid foundation to begin its entry into the grants landscape.

Grants are often very competitive and difficult to win, so you need to make sure to apply to opportunities that you are certain you would be a good fit for. Here are some questions you can ask to assess if the grant opportunity is a good fit:

  1. Is your project fully ready to go—have you developed your theory of change for your project, and do you have stakeholder support?
  2. Do you have the organizational capacity to pursue this opportunity, to compile all of the documentation, and conduct all the writing that is needed?
  3. Do you have the administrative capabilities to be able to manage the amount of grant money that you are applying for?
  4. Are you confident that you are at a point where you can describe the ROI to the grant funder should you be awarded the funds?
  5. Is your project competitive with other projects that have been supported by this funder?
  6. Is this funding opportunity open to new applicants, and/or have you been formally invited to apply?
  7. For an in-depth overview, check out this article that goes into the fine detail of how to match your project to the grant funder’s interests.

How to Structure a Grant Proposal

When it comes to writing a grant proposal, it’s easier than you think—especially if you supplement what you learn here with these free grant writing classes that are specifically designed to provide training in grant writing for beginners.

Just like the grants lifecycle, the grant proposal process follows a general structure that you will see for most grant funding opportunities. Here’s a brief intro to grant writing with a breakdown of the proposal structure:

1. LOI/Cover Letter: Depending on the opportunity, the first portion of the proposal might be an LOI, which stands for “letter of inquiry” or “letter of intent”, or it could be a cover letter, which essentially functions the same way. This is the brief you use to introduce your organization, your mission, and your program.

2. Executive Summary: An executive summary is a high-level overview of the entirety of your proposal. Grant applications will always have prompts and directions to guide you in the writing of this section.

3. History of the Organization: Here’s where you highlight your previous successes as a nonprofit and illustrate your ability to carry out your proposed project. Sometimes this section is called “organizational capacity”, which gives you a sense of what should be highlighted- your capability for the work in the project you are seeking support for.

4. Statement of Need: Your statement of need should highlight what gaps in resources exist in the target area you’re serving. It should specifically highlight the most serious issues and how your project will effectively make a change.

5. Goals and Objectives: The goals and objectives section illustrates that you have a coherent list of milestones and measurable markers that define your project. Goals will be either traditional or SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) and objectives should always be SMART.

6. Program Design/Project Narrative: The section that provides details about the activities and timeline of your project is most often described as the “Design” or “Narrative” section. This is where you can describe the key pieces of your program or project.

7. Evaluation Plan: Evaluation is a key piece of your grant proposal, as it illustrates that you have a strategy in mind to prove the ROI for your grant funder. Evaluations can be conducted internally by your organizational staff or externally by an outside party that specializes in evaluation.

8. Sustainability Plan: Your sustainability plan for your grant proposal will take place in both the immediate and the long term.

In the immediate, you should have a comprehensive plan in place to make sure your project is fully funded, such as multiple funding sources if you are applying for multiple smaller grant opportunities.

In the long term, you should have a stakeholder-endorsed plan on how your organization plans to ensure the project is sustainable for years to come.

9. Detailed Budget: A budget for grants most often involves a line item form and a detailed narrative on how you came to the amounts listed in the line items. Sometimes the budget narrative will be incorporated into a text section, and sometimes the explanations will be included into the budget form itself.

10. Attachments: This last section is where you upload any attachments required by the grantor, such as a letter of determination, tax return, and organizational budget. The attachment section might also leave room for you to attach items that illustrate you have a marketing plan for your project, like an agency brochure and program flyers.

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Additional Grant Writing Tips for Beginners

The previous sections have given you the background and project management scope that you need to start working on grant writing. And that was just the beginning! The next few sections will provide additional tips and resources to supplement the basics of grant writing for beginners to help you take your grant writing to the next level.

Build A List of Grant Writing Resources to Continue Your Growth as a Grant Writer

Are you ready to roll up your sleeves and continue building your own personal database of grant writing resources? This post leads with “The Best General Grant Writing Resources for Beginners”, so it’s a perfect place to start fleshing out the basics while building on your intermediate and expert skills.

Use Full Grant Proposals as Examples

For those of you that learn best by seeing what the final product should look like, check out these samples of proposals for different interest areas. This article also highlights the common threads between successful proposals, so you can learn the nuances of what can strengthen your work.

Study Up on Grant Narratives, the Most Essential Part of Grant Proposals

The core components of a proposal are often called the “narrative” sections, and they include the main elements of your grant proposal (the project design, objectives, outcomes, timeline and proposed impact). For more about these crucial areas, here's an article that provides a thorough list of tips and tricks for crafting an effective grant narrative.

Learn How to Create Comprehensive Grant Budgets

Budgets are a crucial part of grant proposals and can be one of the trickiest sections to create. This article provides a how-to on both the line-item budget and the budget narrative so you can craft a full budget section that wows your grant reviewers.

Additional Resources for Finding Grants

To make sure that your grants research toolkit is fully stocked, here’s a few more resources that build on the grant writing for beginners fundamentals that we have gone over so far.

The Best Grants Research Tools

Grant search engines help you streamline your research efforts and help you avoid spending hours searching the traditional way. This article delves into how to evaluate the best grants search engines to find the right one for your specific organization. For more research tools, check out this National Council of Nonprofits chart that compares and contrasts more options.

15 Common Grant Prospect Research Mistakes to Avoid

So far, we’ve gone over what to do when it comes to grant research, but not what not to do. Here’s a post that outlines common mistakes to avoid when starting grant research. You can also check out this article from The Balance Small Business that illustrates how to streamline your prospecting search to escape making costly mistakes from the start.

How Many Grants Should I Apply For?

How much funding do you need for your project, and how many grants do you need to get to that ideal number? This article will help you tailor your grant search to be effective, and provide advice on what you need to build capacity for grants management and administration.

Wrapping Things Up: Grant Writing for Beginners

Let’s recap. Now that you’ve read through this post, you absolutely are ready to start on your journey into the world of grants. You have a solid grasp on the fundamentals of grant writing and what it looks like to manage the grants lifecycle.

You also have a toolbox of resources you can use to find grant opportunities and you have a list of guiding questions you can use to determine whether your organization is grant-ready and if the funding opportunity is good fit for your nonprofit.

So now the last thing that is left is to go out and do it! And there’s no better place or time to start your grant research and planning than right here, right now.

Instrumentl team

Instrumentl is the all-in-one grant management tool for nonprofits and consultants who want to find and win more grants without the stress of juggling grant work through disparate tools and sticky notes.

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