What kind of writing is grant writing?
From one angle, it walks and talks a lot like academic writing: polished and officious. From a different angle, it bears a striking resemblance to journalism for its emphasis on the clear reporting of facts and experience. And from yet another perspective, grant writing has the heart and individuality of creative writing.
No matter your point of entry into grant writing, there are best practices about this discipline that can influence your ultimate success in winning that grant your nonprofit wants and needs. And especially with grantmaking from foundations on a strong upward trend, now is an ideal moment to remind yourself of these practices and put them to work in your writing.
Here are the 5 things every nonprofit should know about grant writing:
#1: A real, live person will read your application 👋
The robots have not yet come for the job of program officer or grant reviewer.
No matter whether you’re applying to a small, local family foundation or a national-level, household name of a foundation, a real, live person is going to read your application.
This is an important reality to keep in mind when you’re grant writing, because you want your application narrative to be reader-friendly. What does being reader-friendly mean on the page? It means your responses are thoughtfully organized and structured. It means there are topic sentences to tell the reviewer the point of each paragraph, and transition sentences to make connections between paragraphs. It means the reader doesn’t need to take several mental breaths in one sentence because it’s so long and complicated.
The best and easiest test for reader friendliness is to read your narrative aloud. Whereas writing might appear fine on the page, you will immediately know if it’s too clunky, long, unorganized, or confusing when you hear those same words spoken out loud.
#2: Formatting and style density matters ✍️
Another nod to reader friendliness comes in the way of your formatting.
No one looks at a paragraph that takes up nearly a full page and thinks, “Oh boy, what an enjoyable read this is going to be!”
Our eyes need breaks when we read. Shorter paragraphs with ample white space on the page are easier to read than very long and dense paragraphs.
The same goes with individual sentences: if you’re using commas, semi-colons, and every fancy trick of syntax in just one sentence, you need to edit. First of all, are you using these syntax devices correctly (check out Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab for quick and easy help)? Where can you replace a comma with a period? Where can one sentence become two (or maybe even three?).
Thread has more ideas on shortening up your style to maximize reader friendliness too.
A good litmus test of formatting and style density is that if you ever lose your train of thought while writing, you can be guaranteed you’re going to lose your reader too.
#3: Your budget also tells a story 💰
Grant writing is first and foremost about wordsmithing, but it’s also about presentation (hence the big to-do about formatting in #2 😬).
One asset that is notoriously overlooked when it comes to its presentation is your budget.
Budgets tell stories in numbers. More than just a reckoning of revenue and expenses, they communicate how you relate to your community to raise money. They convey your nonprofit’s priorities when it comes to spending money and what actions and resources you consider worthy of investment. Good budgets reiterate and bolster the key storylines of your grant narrative.
But a poorly formatted and presented budget misses that opportunity. A budget that is just an export of your accounting chart is nothing more than a list of numbers. It doesn’t help make your case. Your budget is no throw-away document; you absolutely should be reorganizing and reformatting it to make clear to the funder how you spend your money and why.
#4: Answer the question asked 🙋🏻
Your nonprofit does a lot of work, and all of it is important for your community. It can thus be tempting to go off-piste to the question asked in the grant application because you want to address all the various facets of your mission, work, and impact.
However, your charge when grant writing is to answer the question asked.
Remember that with their grant applications, foundations are trying to make an apples-to-apples comparison amongst nonprofits to evaluate which organizations are their most aligned mission partners. If your narrative doesn’t answer the questions asked, you’re implicitly communicating to the funder that you’re not a listening and cooperative partner, which then makes it easy for the funder to push your application to the rejection pile.
It requires discipline and editing, but you need to answer the question asked.
#5: The attachments will always take longer to compile than you think they will ⏳
Forrest Gump would surely agree that grant narratives and attachments go together like peas and carrots.
However, it happens all too often that while you’re spending all this time cooking up the perfect grant narrative, you forget that you also need to prepare the required attachments. You think you’re ready to submit, only to realize you’re not because the attachments aren’t ready. You then subject yourself to a mad rush to compile them, and an emergency is no one’s favorite way to work.
So, as you embark upon a new grant application, be sure to look at the list of attachments early in your process. Figure out which documents you already have ready, which you need to give yourself time to compile, and which you’ll need to ask other colleagues for.
Like all fundraising strategies, grant writing is part art, part science. With these 5 reminders and best practices in mind, you’ll be well-positioned to mix up craft and discipline to make fundraising magic! 🪄
Givebutter made a $100 donation to Loree's campaign of choice, Riverlife's Party at the Pier: Haute on the Highline, presented by PNC, for her guest blog.
Loree Lipstein is Founder and Principal Consultant of Thread Strategies, a firm that helps small and medium-sized nonprofits build sustainable development departments by focusing on strategy, operations, and staffing.