7 Grant Writing Tips and “Best Practices”

Picture of a Grant Writing Diagram. Source: Anna Lena Schiller
This diagram was created to help WikiMedia get grants, but is also relevant to other organizations.

Recently I have been asked by Twin Rivers Adult School to help in the writing of their WIA Title II Grant Application.  Like many grants, this one is a team effort, where the subject matter experts are being asked to primarily write the portions of the grant that correspond  to their area of expertise.  But, not all of these subject matter experts have done a lot of grant writing, and while I don’t want to claim that I have done a tremendous amount of grant writing myself, I have written a few in different contexts that have been successful in receiving an award.  So based upon my previous experience I wanted to write up some tips for my fellow subject matter experts at Twin Rivers, and also given that they are a publicly funded school, thought I should make this knowledge available to the world at large.

While I make no guarantees (and bear no liability) that the advice I’m sharing here will produce good results, I will explain my rationale for each “best practice” so you can make your own decision about whether to follow my advice or not.  (I really don’t like the phrase “best practice”, but I’ll use it for now, as it is what is commonly used.)

1. Have a Team of Contributors in the Writing Process (or in other words, Don’t Think a Single Grant Writer can do Everything)

I have seen people in organizations have a fallacy that they can just hire a grant writer, and that person can do everything. A grant writer (whether a “professional” or someone within the organization who is tasked to be one) will not know all the details of the organization, and will still need the contribution of others who are involved in the specific parts.

But a grant writer can still be quite valuable.  But, their value is in how well they can coordinate those who are contributing to the writing process, and how well they are able to take these contributions  (whether written or verbal) and editing it to fit the grant requirements.

2. Know Your Audience

This is the most important part of all communication, and when the stakes are high, it is even more important.  The more you can understand the people who are likely reading your grant application, the better you can tailor the grant to them.  While it is unlikely (and probably unethical) to know the exact person(s) who are going to read the grant, you can probably make some reasonable assumptions about their background and potential biases.   By thinking first about how they might perceive what is being written, you will have the best chance of having it perceived in a positive manner.

3. Write to the Rubric

Nearly all grants are now determined through a rubric, and the grant readers are generally instructed to only grade the grant applications they receive based upon the rubric.  So the first thing I do when I get a new RFA (request for applications) is to go to the rubric and copy and paste the description it has for its top score for each category to a new document, as that is the goal to reach in writing.  (Although see my “best practice” #7, as trying to reach the top in every area is not always good…)

4. Put Yourself in the Grant Reader’s Shoes

One of the simplest ways to get an understanding of how your grant may be judged is to ask yourself, if you were the grant reader, would you give it full points for the rubric.  And also, have other people read your grant application, and the rubric to see if they think it would get full points.

5. Err on the Side of Assuming Non-Knowledge in the Reader

It has been my experience that often grant granting bodies have a hard time getting grant readers, or they try to get a range of readers from different backgrounds, or in some rare cases they have people who only read grants of many different types.  This means that there is a probability that the reader of the grant may not be an expert in the field that the grant is about.  Thus, while you don’t ever want to sound condescending in your writing, you should also make it very clear from the context what you mean by technical terms.  Also remember, the grant reader, even if an expert in the field, won’t know your specific organization.  Because you work in your organization every day, you probably take a lot for granted and are likely to assume the reader may know things about it that they really don’t.

6. Use Terminology from the RFA

Because the grant reader may not be an expert in the field, one way you can improve the chances they will understand your application, and tick the higher box in the rubric is to use the same wording that the RFA uses.   While I know good writing technique usually suggests that a word should not be repeated often, sometimes it is better to be “boring” but clear than to lose your reader.

7. Be Sure You Can and Will Do what You Say You Will Do

While I know that you want score as high as you can on the rubric, you also don’t want to make empty promises.  Especially because most grants require follow up reports from your organization to keep the grant.  If you over-promise what you can do, and you don’t deliver, you run the risk of losing the grant later.  And at that point in time you would be using the money already, so it could be very damaging.  So it is better to lose a few points on the rubric in select areas by being honest about what you will be capable of doing, than to lose it all later on.

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