We are coming up on grant season for the child welfare world so it seems like a good time to get some tips out before development staff and others in the nonprofit world are hunkered down writing proposals. First, some info on my background. I’ve been reading, writing, and reviewing proposals for about half of my professional career (mostly for federal agencies). I’ve made my share of mistakes and I’ve reviewed proposals that have a few. This is as good a time as any to share some tips on how to avoid making mistakes and increase the odds of obtaining funding for that ‘greater than sliced bread’ project you want to pursue.
1) Read the RFP.
This may seem too obvious but it’s surprising how many people submit proposals for funding and don’t appear to have read the RFP. Or maybe it was read and people just opt to submit a proposal that is not responsive to the RFP. Either way, the likelihood of such a proposal getting funded are slim to none. And to quote a former colleague, ‘slim just packed up and left town’.
2) Re-read the RFP, at least two more times.
(I suspect) this is what happens when people first read an RFP. They spot a few key features and think this is the one that is perfect for their organization or program. So they quickly read through it with visions of dollars dancing in their heads. Meanwhile, they’ve missed at least a few significant items in the RFP. Hence, my suggestion is read it at least three to four times BEFORE starting to develop ideas and/or write a proposal.
3) Grant Writing is a team sport.
This is one time when ‘two heads are better than one’. And three heads are better than two. This doesn’t mean you should involve everyone in the organization, including the janitor. But a team of persons with varied expertise will probably come up with a better proposal than someone writing solo. Especially in cases where there is a strong evaluation or cross-disciplinary component to the RFP, having a team of ‘experts’ working together can ensure you are covering all the bases. (I promise to try to make this the last sports metaphor…..)
4) Pull out the criterion listed and keep that 1 to 3 page section with you at all times while developing your proposal.
You may want to laminate it. Seriously. If you fail to address everything listed in the criterion, the likelihood of obtaining funding decreases with each omission. If you have a team working on the proposal, make sure everyone working with you on the team has a copy of the criterion.
5) If you find yourself saying the following, stop what you are doing immediately: “it’s not a perfect fit for our project but it’s close enough”.
We all have heard the saying, “you can’t put a square peg in a round hole“. This applies in grant writing also. If the RFP has to do with increasing math scores in middle schools and you want to expand your after-school recreation program, move on. Do not pass go; do not collect $200. Halt the presses. Step back and ask yourself, “can we adjust our program to fit the criterion in this RFP?“. If the answer is yes, then proceed. If the answer is something like, “our program is better“, or “they will see how brilliant our project is“, please save yourself (and the funder) the time and energy and keep looking for relevant RFPs. In the above example, maybe you can adjust your after-school program to offer tutoring in math. Now you might have a fund-able idea.
6) Set a deadline for completion of writing at least three days before the actual deadline.
Allow at least three days for tweaking, fixing minor or major omissions, and what many grant writers refer to as a ‘hard read’. (More on that in number 7.)
7) While you are writing and after completion, triple check to make sure you’ve covered all the criterion in the RFP.
Anything left out will reduce the likelihood of obtaining funding and the bottom line is, if you are going to work this hard on something, you don’t want to get rejected because of minor items.
8) Have someone who has not worked on the proposal do a ‘hard read’ for you.
Even if you have a great grant writer and have total confidence in them, I strongly recommend getting a ‘hard read’ before submitting your proposal. Ask someone who has not worked on the proposal but has knowledge of the subject area to do a thorough review of your proposal. They should read the RFP beforehand AND you should give them the laminated copy of the criterion for reference. Ask them to go through item by item in the criterion to make sure you have addressed every single thing required. Preferably, have someone who has reviewed proposals for the funding agency do the ‘hard read’. They will have a sense of what to look for and how the funder evaluates proposals. If possible, give them at least a week for the ‘hard read’. If this is not possible, allow at least three days. Assume you will be making at least minor changes after they have evaluated your proposal.
9) Do NOT wait until the eleventh hour to submit your proposal.
Even in the best of circumstances, things can go wrong. You may realize you don’t have a required certification or piece of documentation. Or your internet connection may go down (if it is an electronic submission). Or you may have misread the exact cut-off time for submission. There are just too many potential snafus to wait until the last-minute. And the bottom line is that there is nothing more disheartening than going to all the trouble of writing a proposal only to miss a deadline.
10) Do not pursue every funding announcement you find.
Funders will be selective and you should be too. Writing a great proposal takes considerable time and effort. Your energy is better spent writing one terrific (and ultimately, funded) proposal than pursuing every funding opportunity you meet. Find an RFP that fits your project perfectly (or adjust your project) and give it your all.
I could go on but in the interest of space, I’ll stop here. I had thought I would cover this, and much more, in a webinar at some point. This was the plan last year but as these things happen, life got in the way. Perhaps this year.
In the meantime, Happy Grant-Writing Season!