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Best Practices for First-Time Grant Writers

by Jackie Davis
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Grant seeking and writing is no small task, especially for educational institutions that are already struggling with limited budgets and resources. Thankfully, there are organizations out there designed to help educators find, write, and procure grants to help their schools. We talked with Elizabeth Evans, Senior Grants Development Consultant for Education at Grants Office LLC, to discuss how grant writers can stand out, and asked her to share her best practices for grant writers.

Today’s Modern Educator (TME): Tell us a little about The Grants Office and your position.

Elizabeth Evans (EE): Grants Office LLC is a nationally focused grants intelligence and consulting firm. We offer funder prospecting research, project development consultation, and proposal writing or editing/review services. We’ve been around for about 20 years now and the majority of the work that we do is supporting clients within one of 3 main verticals: healthcare, state and local government (transportation, police, fire, smart cities), and education.

I manage our education team here at Grants Office which includes clients from K-12 schools or districts, higher education institutions, adult education and workforce development programs, museums, libraries, education service agencies, and other education affiliated nonprofits.

The bulk of the work that we do is related to potential funder research and project development. Most clients come to us with a vague idea: they want to pursue grant funding because they don’t have the budget for an organizational need. We help them refine this need within the context of a larger problem that they hope to address and that will resonate with funders, and then scour the state and federal funding landscape to see which grants are going to be the best fit – we also check for potential corporate or family foundation funders for good measure.

From there it’s a matter of helping the client continue to hone their project idea to be as competitive as possible for their target grant. I generally assume the role of a project manager in this aspect. Should a client like our assistance with proposal development, I’ve also got an excellent cadre of grant writers who are based all across the country. These writers have experience not only drafting successfully funded proposals, but they have also been reviewers for many of the state or federal agencies to which the client might be applying.

TME: Do you have any advice for first-time grant writers?

EE: TONS! Firstly, set realistic expectations for yourself and others around what is possible. If grant seeking/writing has just been added to your plate of 12 other responsibilities, honestly consider how much time you have to dedicate to its practice. Grant seeking is always a risk and submission of an application doesn’t guarantee the time spent will result in funding. BUT it’s also a numbers game – the more applications you submit, the greater your odds of being funded increase. So, if you only have a couple of hours every week or month to work on grant seeking/writing, know that you’ll have a more limited capacity to pursue grant opportunities as they arise and therefore be submitting fewer applications than those who can dedicate several hours each week to grant seeking. Grant writers who are able to dedicate more attention to their efforts are inherently advantaged as they have the time hone and refine their funding prospects list, project ideas, and application/proposal language.

Secondly, I would advise new grant seekers to start small. While it isn’t impossible for a brand-new grant writer to win a $1 million-plus federal grant, the odds are usually not in your favor. The narratives for larger grants tend to be more lengthy, and the application packages as a whole usually have several opportunities for you to make a minute mistake and have the whole thing tossed out without being read (e.g. not following formatting requirements). State and foundation funder grants have lower application burdens, with foundation applications usually being the least complex, so they are a great way to dip your toe into the water. While state grants tend to be more specific and will usually require all new content development, you’re often able to retool partial content from one foundation application package to the next (e.g. your organization’s history and the population you serve).

I would also advise new grant seekers to try, try, and try again. Grant funding is not a guarantee, so you need to be comfortable with the modicum of risk. Remember, very rarely is the funder saying they don’t want to support YOU specifically – instead, the reason for denial is probably a result of some weakness with your project plan. You need to have thick enough skin to take reviewer feedback from a denied project (along with a bite of humble pie), and then try submitting again with their concerns addressed. Reviewer comments are a valuable resource that can improve both that specific project’s funding request as well as future grant proposals for related efforts.

Lastly, know when you are in over your head and be comfortable asking for help. Great grant seeking takes a village. In our highly specialized and often siloed off roles within an organization, it’s unreasonable to expect one person to be intimately knowledgeable of all aspects of that district, college, or agency. Even if you are the person who has been assigned to the job of grant seeking, instead think of yourself as “herding cats” or “leading the charge.” You’ll need information from various teams to answer every question asked by a funder – curriculum, finance, IT, leadership, etc. Therefore, be prepared to ask for help and information from these other parties. Get comfortable with being vulnerable too. If you have only ever pursued foundation grants but want to go after a new federal funding opportunity – it can be a whole new world to navigate! Sometimes the best thing to do is hire some outside help (i.e. a professional grant consultant) who is more experienced with that funder and can help you navigate the submission process.

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