Getting Started with Grants: 5 Grant Writing Tips for Nonprofits

Learn to write nonprofit grant applications

If your nonprofit organization has never applied for or received special funding from governmental bodies or grant-giving foundations, the mere idea of grant writing can be intimidating!

After all, every nonprofit would be interested in some free funding for their large projects. The competition for major grants can become intense.

The good news is that by following a handful of fairly basic best practices and acquainting yourself with the grant writing process before getting started, you can drastically increase the chance that your organization’s grant application will attract attention! Start here with these introductory tips that can acquaint you with the right approach for grant writing:

    1. Understand the amount of work required for grant writing before starting.
    2. Research grant-giving foundations and opportunities to tailor your plan.
    3. Keep your data and resources for the grant application organized and accessible.
    4. Write your grant application clearly and boldly.
    5. Don’t be afraid to get personal when grant writing.

Once you’re familiar with these tips, be sure to check out our more comprehensive¬†nonprofit grant writing guide for more exhaustive information. Remember, successful grant writing takes focus and dedication, so it’s important to understand the process now; scrapping your application draft halfway through will waste your organization’s time and your hard work.

These tips will familiarize you with the correct mindset for writing a winning grant proposal or application. Most importantly, don’t be intimidated! Staying relaxed and thoughtful is the best way to ensure your application covers all the most important bases.

1. Understand the amount of work required for grant writing before starting.

Of course your nonprofit organization is eager to win grant funds for its upcoming major initiative or outreach project, but it’s essential that your team never loses sight of the amount of dedication and hard work required for successful nonprofit grant writing.

Let’s say your organization regularly devotes considerable energy to prospect development and research to target major donors for upcoming projects. Grant writing requires the same level of careful precision to hone your strategy and hit the right targets.

Since grant funds usually represent a significant amount of money for the bodies or foundations that distribute them, whichever organizations ultimately receive the funding must prove several things:

  • That their missions are worthwhile and¬†align with those of the grant-giving bodies.
  • That their operations are sustainable.
  • That their projects and plans for the grant funds will work.

So first of all (unless you plan on applying for a very general operational or annual fund grant), you need to already have a fully-formed concept and goal that needs funding. Never approach the grant writing process from the other way around!

Remember, too, that grant applications and proposals typically require a considerable amount of written material. Some grant-giving bodies will require applicants to submit an initial letter of intent before continuing with a full proposal, where you’ll need to include all of the following materials and in-depth information:

  • Full organizational structure outlines
  • Comprehensive background and context
  • In-depth program models and plans
  • Projected budgets
  • Prospective partnerships

Some grant proposals even require additional materials like multiple letters of support from community stakeholders and other local organizations.

All these moving parts means that it’s rarely a good idea to attempt grant writing alone!

The Big Picture: Form a dedicated grant writing team for your nonprofit and then make sure each member understands the scope of the entire grant proposal process. Only once everyone understands how each element will fit into the whole should you assign separate sections of the grant application to individual team members.

2. Research grant-giving foundations and opportunities to tailor your plan.

Remember, your grant writing process begins with your specific mission, not¬†necessarily with a specific grant that you’d like to receive. This approach is effective in the long run for two reasons:

  1. Beginning with your mission forces you to fully develop your plans, making them more defensible and your case more passionate.
  2. Clearly defining your goals lets you find the grant-giving body whose mission most closely aligns with your own.

Both of these effects will boost your chances of writing a winning grant proposal!¬†Plus, they’ll minimize wasted resources across the entire grant writing process.

This means, though, that you’ll need to do some serious research to identify appropriate or ideal grants to apply for.

Try starting your research at This government database and resource center is the most comprehensive source for up-to-date information on federal grant opportunities, plus it offers helpful instructions and tips. The National Endowment for the Arts and state-level databases are also extremely useful resources at this stage.

Once you identify a particular grant whose description matches the main concern of your organization’s project, research the grant’s source. Try to learn as much as you can about the agency or foundation offering the grant. This might include:

  • Its known giving history. Who has received its grants in the past? What kinds of projects does it support?
  • Its leadership. Does its network overlap with yours? Who are its new and senior board members?
  • Its own mission. What is its explicitly stated purpose for distributing grant funds?
  • Its political and social positions. Has it been in the news lately? What is its public perception?

Align the angle of your grant proposal with whatever you learn about the foundation. That is, understand what motivates the funder, then tailor your grant writing strategy to best attract its attention. This does not mean allowing the funder’s mission to completely influence or change your own!

Your organization’s integrity and dedication should shine through in every part of your grant application. One great way to make sure it does is to field stakeholder thoughts on the project or initiative you need funded. Let them help you identify what part of your plan is the most unique, impactful, or significant. This can become an excellent talking point in your grant proposal and give you an angle to push.

The Big Picture: Understand your mission and programming goals, then identify grant opportunities that align with them. Don’t completely plan your proposed program to suit the grant requirements; instead tailor your plans to make sure your already relevant idea perfectly suits the grant’s requirements.

3. Keep your data and resources for the grant application organized and accessible.

You already focus on keeping your nonprofit’s data organized; that’s just a general best practice for any nonprofit organization.¬†Once you begin the grant writing process, though, all that hard work will pay off!

All your various digital tools will become useful to your grant application if they’re effectively reporting and compiling data. That means it’s important to make sure data is reported systematically and to a central location from your software and other platforms, like:

  • Your website analytics
  • Your online donation platforms
  • Automated matching gift tools
  • Prospect data services
  • Your membership software
  • Any other management software

Ensuring that your digital tools work together and that their data is compiled in a single member database or CRM will make the grant writing process incredibly faster and more organized.

A successful nonprofit grant application must make a strong case for support. A winning nonprofit backs up its project plans with effective stories of impact, descriptions of the issue to be addressed, and (most importantly) data. Grant officers and grant-giving foundations might appreciate and champion your nonprofit’s plans to enrich its community, but only persuasive and illustrative data can fully justify the decision to give major support like a grant.

Being able to authoritatively reference your own data and any reliable outside data you find in your research will not only streamline your grant writing, it’ll also allow you to back up any claims you make about your organization’s work. Use your data to make insightful connections that will set your grant proposal apart. For example, your data can help you make and back up connections between your planned programming and:

  • Your donor and volunteer engagement rates
  • Your most effective communications channels
  • Your work’s social impact in the community
  • The growth of your local and regional networks
  • The wants and desires of your constituency

Plus, referencing concrete data to support your claims will present your organization as a professional, efficient, and responsible steward of funds.

The Big Picture: Insights and connections between data often make the difference between a good grant proposal and a winning grant proposal! If your nonprofit already follows some smart data protocols, organizing your data and keeping it close at hand during the grant writing process will give your application boost and should take little additional effort to implement.

4. Write your grant application clearly and boldly.

Grant writing is not a one-day process. Ideally, your organization should work on its grant proposal for at least a month. This means that you should continually comb through your language in the application to make sure that it’s as effective as possible.

Here are some key characteristics of effective grant writing:

  • Be descriptive but specific
  • Stay concise and focused
  • Provide relevant details whenever possible
  • Support your plans with data or direct quotes

Another great way to bolster your case for support in your grant application is to provide some concrete stories of your organization’s impact in your community. What was your nonprofit’s most successful outreach initiative or public project? Do you have any local partners? Are there any families or individuals you’ve helped who want to share their story? Personal stories about community impact can be extremely persuasive!

Remember, though, that grant writing is more about explaining the specifics of your project than it is describing your organization’s values.¬†

Use your grant proposal to emphasize the nonprofit return on investment of your planned program or project. By using strong, effective language, incorporating supportive data, and providing a personal story or two, your entire application can reinforce the value of your proposition and intentions for the grant funding. Here’s an example:

Let’s say your religious organization is beginning the grant writing process to secure funding for an upcoming project. Your grant application should use data to describe the successes of your past projects, your engagement rates, your digital tithing and donation tools, in other words, the literal return on investment your past projects have generated.

Your grant application should also include stories of your social impact, like testimonials from families you’ve helped, as evidence of your work’s community return on investment.

Striking this kind of balance in your grant proposal is an effective way to make sure your case for support is both persuasive and moving. 

The Big Picture: Your grant writing style should be clear and bold. Keep your language straightforward and concise to make it as persuasive as possible. Including relevant data and making smart insights should do the convincing, not the length or vocabulary of your proposal.

5. Don’t be afraid to get personal when grant writing.

As you already know, relationships are an extremely important part of the nonprofit world. The ties between organizations, community partners, stakeholders, constituencies, and governments are very often the key to nonprofit success!

This is true for grant writing, as well, especially when the grant-giving body you’re targeting is locally-based.

Since many nonprofit professionals might be intimidated by the grant writing process, they’d likely be hesitant to consider personally reaching out to relevant individuals. Of course, your grant proposal should be the main focus of your efforts, but personally reaching out to the funding body can be a good idea at times, particularly towards the beginning of the grant writing process when you need more information or context.

Calling, writing, or personally meeting with the grant’s program officer can be a good idea to discuss the alignment of your ideas and the priorities of the grant-giving body. Personally introducing yourself and your organization in order to request further information about the grant program is the best way to initiate contact, but be sure to keep your contact completely forthcoming and relevant.

Requesting more information or briefly discussing your proposal are good reasons to make contact, but never contact the grant officer simply to make an impression. Many foundations will specifically request that applicants not contact the grant program officer, so always check before moving forward.

If more information on the grant or some quick feedback on your plans could be helpful to your writing process but you’re hesitant to reach out, remember that making contact at the personal level like this can have some very useful benefits:

  • If the grant program officer thinks your ideas would be a good fit for the grant, you’ve made a memorable impression and increased your chances for success.
  • If the grant program officer doesn’t think your plans suit the grant, you’ve just saved your organization a lot of wasted time and effort.

Since the payoff for a winning grant proposal is usually quite significant for a nonprofit organization, it always feels like the stakes are high when grant writing. Don’t let seemingly high stakes prevent you from feeling comfortable making contact or requesting information that will help you in the long run!

The Big Picture: If not explicitly discouraged, try to get in touch with the grant program officer or someone else who can offer you more insight into what the funding body is looking for. Not only can this help guide your process as you write, the payoff can also be significant.

Grant writing is serious business for nonprofit organizations, but by approaching it with careful planning, realistic expectations, and belief in the value of your work, you can write a successful proposal! Effective grant writing requires a special mindset that you learn through trial and error, but these tips can get you started on the right foot.

For more information on grant writing and securing new sources of funding, be sure to check out these additional resources:

  • Our grant proposal template. Our guide to the essential components of any winning grant proposal can give you a handy checklist for your own grant writing process!
  • Fundraising Letters. Check out this exhaustive resource of fundraising letter templates that might come in handy while writing your grant application.
  • Top Volunteer Grant Companies from 360MatchPro. If your organization features an active volunteer program, these corporate philanthropy programs are another great way to fund your mission!

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