25 Grant Writing Tips for Nonprofits
Part of a successful nonprofit’s diversified funding almost always includes some grant dollars. In the article below, we’ll cover 25 grant writing tips for nonprofits in all phases of the grant writing process to help you secure financial resources for your organization.
You’ll learn how to assess the readiness of your organization to take on a grant, find potential grant matches, complete a winning grant proposal, and pave the way for a solid relationship with funders.
Tips for Beginners: Before You Start the Grant Writing Process
1. Understand the distinction between grants and other types of funding.
Nonprofit organizations sustain and eventually build capacity by utilizing many types of funding sources.
Private donations, business sponsorships, contracts, loans, and grants make up the repertoire of contributions. Grants are attractive sources of funding for nonprofits. Unlike loans, grants are dollars that do not need to be paid back. Rather, they are best understood as investments in furthering the organization’s cause.
Grants tend to be larger in size than many private donations, and unlike sponsorships do not typically necessitate any kind of formal reciprocal promotions. While a contract usually pays for work or services on a completion or reimbursement basis, grant monies are typically disbursed before work occurs and are used to fund future projects.
2. Perform a grant-readiness evaluation.
Free money! Now that you know what a grant is, it may be alluring to jump at the prospect of free dollars. But organizations must also first take stock of their overall stability. To be attractive to grant funders, an organization should be able to affirmatively answer the following:
a. Does the organization have a clear mission?
b. Does the organization have sound financials?
c. Does the organization have a leadership team that reflects the population served?
d. Does the organization have outcome data and/ or evidence for its model?
If you’ve hesitated on a “yes” answer to any of the above, it may not be the best time to apply for a grant. Rather, you may need to work on some of the nonprofit basics first. The most successful nonprofits are not built on passion alone, but rather sound business principles.
For more information on these basics for nonprofits check out the resources page from The National Council of Nonprofits.
3. Evaluate your organization's capacity to manage a grant.
Most small nonprofits with limited staff or all volunteer groups need to determine whether they have the bandwidth to perform all the work that a grant will require – from the start to finish. Further, they must be able to identify who will be the point person for all the work that the grant process will require. If split among multiple people, identify who will be taking on which roles, so there is no confusion about responsibilities or missed deadlines in the process.
Writing grant proposals typically includes several parts and it will be helpful to determine who will be responsible for each section. Pictured below is an example chart:
If it seems like a struggle to get a handle on all the tasks involved, it might better serve the organization to forgo a particular application. A mismanaged grant due to limited staff capacity is often worse than having had no grant at all, as it will reflect poorly on the organization’s overall ability to manage funds and has the potential to impair future requests. A grant is about establishing a relationship with the funder, and this requires you to be confident stewards of this investment.
Going for It! 5 Tips for Finding Grant Opportunities
Once you’ve determined your organization is ready to take on a grant, the next hurdle is finding grants that are good fits for your service area and mission.
Keep reading to get tips on conducting a successful grant search.
4. Understand the different types of grants.
Grants come from many sources and it’s good to familiarize yourself with the options available for your organization. A few of them are explained below:
a. Philanthropic community foundations: These groups are typically dedicated to investments in bettering the community or further cause, in accordance with their own mission.
b. Family foundations: These are generally family estates in which funds, like above, have been dedicated to vested causes or community interests.
c. Government: Local, county, and state grants are often available, targeting certain needs or for assistance in response to widespread issues (think COVID or disaster relief grants). Other examples are federal or state grants for Community Development, Urban Renewal, or other needs.
d. Humanities, Arts, Science, Technology, and other special categories: These grants are for projects and organizations to further investments in arts, culture, education, science, etc. (Example: Nebraska Arts Council, National Institute of Health, many others).
e. Private corporations: As part of their social responsibility, many private businesses and corporations make grant money available. Examples are credit unions, banks, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and others.
5. Utilize existing resources.
While online searches provide a great starting point, often finding a suitable grant can feel overwhelming. There’s so much information out there! Utilize resources that can help you streamline your grant search. Start with your local library or college campus library. Reference librarians often can help with specific targeted searches or even provide access to online databases.
If a nonprofit support association exists in your state or county, a small membership fee may allow you to access databases to find foundations and other grant opportunities.
Check out our 14-day trial to get personalized grant opportunities for your nonprofit at a local, regional and national level.
Just like anything else, always be wary of high-priced services who promise to get you quick guaranteed grant money. Grant monies are neither quick nor guaranteed.
6. Subscribe to get emails from potential funders.
Who needs more emails, right? But often it is helpful to get on the email lists for foundations, municipalities and other agencies who offer grant funds. They will communicate with patrons when they have upcoming grant cycles or when announcing new grant opportunities. Set your email preferences with each to keep the communications from flooding your inbox. Or just sign up for a monthly newsletter. Keep an eye on your inbox for their most important announcements.
7. Network with other nonprofits.
Does an association in your area host webinars or networking nights? Join in to meet other nonprofit leaders, develop potential partnerships, and learn about funding opportunities. It’s helpful to hear what other organizations are doing so that you can potentially collaborate in the future.
Many organizations have monthly networking nights and in autumn, it’s not uncommon for them to host an annual meeting or a member’s night to give an update on the year. The Women’s Foundation of Colorado’s schedule below is an example.
It’s always nice to be able to share resources with other organizations that may be carrying out similar missions. Having peers with different experience or knowledge always can always help in grant writing and development.
8. Form a fundraising committee.
Networking is key, and often nonprofits gain momentum from sharing collective resources. Pool together a team of a few staff and board members to form a fundraising committee, who can always be on the prowl for grant opportunities in the private, public, and government sectors.
Encourage board members to identify any potential grant opportunities in their industries or fields of business, or personal networks. One of the advantages of having a diverse Board of Directors is the ability to draw from multiple sources for information, knowledge, and advising.
Is this “The One”?: Tips for Finding the Best Grant Matches
Just as in any relationship, you want to ensure your organization is a good fit for a particular grant since applications take time and effort to complete.
Here’s a few questions to consider and tips to better help assess the fit.
9. Does the grant match the service area?
Sounds simple right, but often you must read into the grant application to see if your organization qualifies. For example, does it apply only to organizations serving a certain zip code or demographic?
Government grants often have regulations that spell out certain criteria for income levels, percentages of poverty, etc. Other grants may have criteria such as age or gender of population being served. Or they might stipulate that an applicant is a woman-led or BIPOC-led organization.
Each grant application will call for different requirements. Make sure you meet the requirements before you invest energy.
Instrumentl can help do this for you with our matching algorithm.
10. Does the grant match the mission?
Make sure your organization is searching for grants that match the mission, and not the other way around. Often desperate or newly developing nonprofits resort to “chasing money”. They craft programs around a particular grant opportunity, rather than establishing their services and then seeking the necessary funding. If this is the case, consider backtracking and evaluating the prerequisite steps outlined in the grant readiness section above.
11. Are you seeking project-based funding or money for general operations?
While it is not uncommon for grants to cover general operating costs, the increasingly competitive grant market is becoming more project specific. This means rather than using the grant money for general organizational costs (rent, utilities, personnel, equipment, etc) grants are often earmarked for more targeted projects.
An example of a project-based application from the Connecticut Health Foundation is pictured below. Applications will often require a more descriptive explanation. And, if approved, project-based grant money tends to have a much more detailed reporting requirement.
12. Attend the information session or meet with the grantmaker.
Many foundations or government agencies will hold information sessions that are either elective or required which allow prospective applicants to ask questions and get more info.
Most applications are processed by a Program Officer or Grants Manager.
You may even get an opportunity to pitch your proposal and hear some initial feedback on whether your organization meets criteria or is a good candidate.
Next Up: 5 Tips for Writing a Winning Grant Proposal
Once you have decided to pursue a specific grant, and attended the grantmaker’s info session, the next step is completing the application.
Here are a few tips to better your chances of being accepted by composing a winning grant application.
13. Make a timeline to gather information.
It’s stressful enough having a leadership role in a nonprofit organization. Don’t pile on more stress by having to hustle to meet a grant deadline. Give yourself enough time to complete and review the application before you send it off. You will likely need to write a narrative piece explaining the organization and/ or project and assemble financial documents. Create a timeline and give yourself deadlines for each section. You can use the table of tasks from Tip #3.
As you notice in the table the goal is to have the application completed several days before its due date to sidestep any potential hurdles created by staff illness, vacations, or the unexpected everyday issues that pop up as a nonprofit leader. Grant evaluators will be able to tell who spent time on the grant application and who flew through it just to get it done.
14. Answer the questions clearly and succinctly.
Be mindful of what the questions on the grant application are asking and answer them clearly. Grant evaluators will often have to read through many grant applications, and they benefit from having concise answers to the questions.
The grant request should answer the basics of WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, and WHY.
Here’s an example:
Grant application: Please state your grant request and provide a project description.
Answer #1: The XYZ Food Bank has been a longstanding resource for residents on the Northeast side of the city. This area has seen an increase in poverty rates and staff have reported more requests for food than ever before. People have also reported traveling further to get food. Therefore, the need for assistance is greater than ever. With funding from this grant, we will be able to serve more residents in need and transport food to them. We request $35,000 for this project.
Answer #2: The XYZ Food Bank has been a longstanding resource for residents on the Northeast side of the city. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the area has seen an increase in unemployment rates adding to already-existing poverty. Staff have reported more requests for food than ever before and have witnessed recipients traveling from further away to access food. Therefore, XYZ intends to offer a mobile food pantry on weekends at the community’s Grace Church to meet this growing need. We request $35,000 to start this mobile food pantry which will offer an additional pick-up location and alleviate transportation barriers interfering with food access. This amount will cover an additional Program Coordinator position and the purchase of a van for the pantry.
In Answer # 1, the writer gives some helpful info about the WHO (Northeast residents needing food) and communicates the intention to assist. But it lacks explanation about HOW the organization will carry this out. It doesn’t detail the WHY (why have they seen an increase in food requests or why they need to start a new initiative). The answer covers the dollar amount of the request but does not state WHAT the money will be used for.
Answer #2 is a concise answer that covers all the bases.
- WHO: residents of Northeast who have increased need for food due to unemployment
- WHAT: van and personnel to start a mobile food pantry
- WHEN: on the weekends
- WHERE: in the Northeast neighborhood at Grace Church
- WHY: staff witnessed people traveling further to get food and identified transportation as a barrier
Answer #2 provides all the information a grant reviewer needs and describes the project fully.
15. Write to an unknowing audience.
When completing your application, remember that the grant evaluator reading your application may not be familiar with your organization. Even when applying for a local grant, do not assume that the reader knows what services you offer or how long you have been in operation. When given the opportunity it is often helpful to add just a few additional words or sentences to better explain the project or your organization.
Here’s a couple examples of easy ways to do that:
- “For over thirty years, XYZ has been serving the low-income residents of Chester County.”
- “Since our beginning in 1988, XYZ has grown from serving just one zip code to all of the residents living in the Northeast part of the county.”
- “Though our organization has changed its programs over the years, we still adhere to our mission of helping all Northeast residents achieve healthy, active lives.”
16. Stay within character or word limits.
As mentioned above, grant evaluators will often have to read through many grant applications. Be kind by sticking to the character or word limits given for each application question. Stay as close to this number as possible, and ideally, stay under it. Remember that when filling out an application through an online portal, character limits include both letters and spaces.
Complete your answers in Microsoft Word or Google Docs first so you can make sure you know the word and/ or character count before posting the answers to an online application.
In Microsoft Word, highlight the passage and click on the “Review” tab on the toolbar. Then click on “Word Count” on the upper left of your screen to see the word and/ or character count for the highlighted passage.
In Google Docs, highlight the passage, then click on “Tools” at the top of your screen. This will bring up a drop down menu. Choose “Word Count” to see the word and/or character count for the selected passage.
17. Be transparent and honest.
Like all businesses, nonprofits may go through transitions that impact operations, programs, or finances. Even if your organization has had some history or challenges in this realm, explain these in a way that provides reassurance to the grant evaluator.
If you have had leadership changes, explain how your board and/ or existing staff have adapted to these changes.
If the organization has had tenuous finances, explain how you have planned to get back on track. It is not the challenge itself that is a red flag for the grant reviewer, but rather the absence of a plan to remedy it.
If there are any lingering questions, it will decrease the likelihood of approval.
18. Review and proofread.
A lot of small nonprofits do not have a designated development department or specific grant writer on staff. Therefore, the grant applications often fall on the shoulders of the Executive Director or other senior staff, along with all their other duties. Have another staff person or a Board member give the application a second check.
Tips for Follow-up to Your Grant Application
Perhaps the hardest part of the grant process is once you’ve submitted the application. Below you’ll find tips for follow-up on your application and its outcome.
19. Get confirmation of receipt.
Many online portals will automatically send an email confirmation once you have submitted your grant application. Take advantage of the opportunity to print out or save a copy of the grant application for your records. If you are emailing the completed application, it’s always a good idea to send a follow-up email requesting confirmation of the application’s receipt and thanking the foundation or grantmaker for the opportunity.
After you put in the work, it will be comforting to know that your application made it to the desk of the grant evaluator and is not floating around in cyberspace or buried in someone’s email inbox.
20. Be available to answer questions through the appropriate contact.
Always be prepared to answer further questions about the organization, your project, or grant application. Keep an eye out for emails about the grant application or questions that the evaluators might have.
On that note, the person who is listed as the primary contact in the application should be the one best suited for follow-up questions. It does not always have to be the CEO or Executive Director listed as the primary contact. If the Program Officer wrote the grant and is overseeing the project, they may be better able to answer questions.
21. Welcome an interview.
In some cases, the grantmaker will conduct an interview with finalists or as a precursor to awarding grant money. This is your time to shine!
Just as you would with a job interview, be punctual and prepared. Dress to impress. If the meeting is virtual make sure you have all the technology in place to log on at the given time. If the main grant contact is not the Executive Director or CEO, ask if that individual can also join the meeting. If you are the Executive Director or CEO, consider also inviting the organization’s Board Chair, President, or another member of the Board. This demonstrates collaboration and provides assurance to the funder that the request and stewardship of the requested money, if awarded, is a team effort.
22. Accept an approval.
After you’ve patiently waited for the evaluation of your application, it's time to celebrate when you receive a notice that you have been approved! Be sure to share the info with your staff and Board and thank those who contributed to the effort. It’s always an exciting time!
You will generally receive a grant award letter that outlines that grant agreement and necessitates a signature from the responsible party. This letter should explain when you must file a grant report and what needs to be included in said report. As soon as you know these deadlines, mark them on a calendar for future reference. Since grant reports are often due many months in the future, they can easily get lost in the shuffle of everyday responsibilities, but their deadlines are imperative. See more on writing grant reports in this article.
Send back the signed grant award letter confirming your acceptance within the requested time period outlined by the grant funder.
23. Receive funds.
Grant money will be disbursed either through paper check or electronically. It could be in one disbursement or may be spread out over the course of a project timeline or be contingent on grant progress reports. Make sure you consider that even when approved, it can be several months or more from the time of the application due date to the time when monies are disbursed. Make sure to factor this into your organization’s projected timeline and budget. Also, if grant money is project specific, it should be placed in a restricted fund. That way you can clearly demonstrate project costs without the ambiguity that is caused when project monies are lumped into general operating accounts. Send a follow-up thank you note to the foundation or funder acknowledging your appreciation and receipt of funds.
24. Learn from a declined application.
Since the grant writing process is always a big investment, it’s disappointing when your grant application is not approved. Always be sure to follow-up with the funder with a thank you for the opportunity and for their consideration. Request a brief phone call or meeting to discuss the decline. Or if a meeting is not possible, ask if the evaluators could send you any feedback that might help in future applications.
Grant applications are more competitive than ever before. Many organizations are competing for the same pool of philanthropic money. Remember that a decline is not always a reflection of the work of your organization. Many times it’s a reflection of the competitive nature of the process and the funding available. Most importantly, learn from the feedback and process, and keep pursuing funding!
Final tip: Keep at it!
25. Plan your next step.
Whether you have received a decline letter, or have just deposited a check, it is never too early to start thinking about your next opportunity. Completing grant applications, being stewards of grant monies, and cultivating strong relationships with grant funders will continue for the life of the organization. Take what you have learned with each part of the grant writing process and use this information for future opportunities!
If you found these grant writing tips for nonprofits helpful, find more detail in articles like How to Write a General Operating Grant Proposal and How to Match Your Grant Application to Funder Interests.