Category Archives: how to complete grant applications

Tone and Voice in Grant Narrative

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS

steno and pen

Writer’s block is a common problem among grant writers. You work hard to collect useful and relevant information for your narrative, create an outline, get organized, and try to figure out what to cut or leave in a narrative paragraph so it passes word count or page restrictions put in place by the grantor.

It never fails! I get to the point of taking the narrative outline and filling it out to make a pleasing and convincing narrative for the grant readers to evaluate and I freeze. The stakes are high, you want this application to be successful, you know you have competition coming from grant writing professionals from disparate organizations, schools, and social service agencies.

You know you are eligible because you’ve checked with the foundation to make sure it provides funds to public schools (or whatever entity you are writing for). You can’t stall any longer. So, you start to write.

Often, what comes out, at least at first, is a stiff, formal recitation of facts: your test and demographic data to support your need, a list of activities you will pursue to solve the problem, your goals and objectives, and data to support your assessment strategy.

On your first read through a common reaction to your own writing is “Ughrrrgh, that’s just awful”. Your spelling of “ughrrrgh” will vary depending on your general feelings of self-worth, but it’s always the same. It’s ok, it’s supposed to be awful at this stage, you will write and rewrite many times before you submit your application. It’s one of the reasons you have assembled your stakeholders in the first place. They will act as proofreaders and provide commentary when the tortuous task of writing is complete. Thank goodness you have friends!

One tip to hold on to: Every foundation, corporation, or government agency that provides grants has grant readers. These folks are experienced; they’ve been reading grant applications for a long time. They know what the foundation is trying to achieve by the careful application of funds in the community. In the first round of reading applications, they may read hundreds of narratives. You want your application to stand out, be readable and be persuasive. You may draw the line at entertaining, but an injection of humor is not out of the question, especially if you’ve met the readers and have a standing relationship with the organization. An excellent, thorough article on grant writing style can be found at the Purdue University OWL (Online Writing Lab) site.

Whatever you do, keep your voice professional. These readers wade through some of the most egregious assaults on the English language you have ever seen. I know this because I have been a reader for a number of private foundations. You would not believe the misspelled, grammatically sinful drivel people submit. Keep your voice professional, your tone serious (but not deadening) and above all, your grammar and spelling impeccable. If you have added footnotes (this is often a good idea if you are providing a review of research literature), use MLA (Modern Language Association) or APA (American Psychological Association) rules of style.

To remind yourself of the best writing you have done, go through old college papers, select the ones that garnered an A, and see for yourself. You’re pretty good at this, but you just need encouragement and support. Your goal is to persuade, so a review of guidelines for persuasive essays might help.

Another tip, when you’ve finished your first draft, go back and eliminate redundancies, shorten your sentences (more like Hemingway than Faulkner). Save your long, winding, lyrical prose for the great American novel you know will write one day.

Tips and tricks for a great grant narrative:

  • Be kind to the beloved grant reader.
  • Keep your sentences short.
  • Use a professional tone and voice.
  • Perform positive, self-affirming exercises in the mirror each day.
  • Support your application with strong demographic information.
  • Used an organized approach (outline, footnotes).
  • Avoid the “aaarrrggghhh” by taking breaks and deep breaths.

Remember, you may fail the first time around, but you WILL get better at this.

If you fail the first time, be sure to contact the grantor and ask for an evaluation rubric so you can find out why your attempt wasn’t successful. They will be helpful and will share their thoughts freely. They want you to succeed; a good strong application narrative helps them see the beauty of your argument and your solution to the problem you face in your school.

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Organize Next Steps

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed., MLIS

white board

I highly recommend getting a dry erase white board. A big one so you can create a timeline for the development and completion of your grant project. Writing a grant is not about creating a document on a deadline. It’s about a project, with many moving parts. You will be distracted by other things, like life. Getting organized is easier for some than others. In my life it has been a real struggle. I’m the one seen running down the hall in my platforms, papers flying, screeching “OMG, I’m late.” There goes Neva again.

There are helpful software programs that can guide you through organization phases. I like something called “Simplicity”, its name speaks volumes, it has a very small learning curve and creates nice visual organization tools you can use to manage yourself, and to communicate timelines to grantors.

Organize/structure the proposal.  I shared this outline last time, it bears repeating. This is just one look at a way to organize the information you want to share with your potential grantors. They will have strong opinions about how they want this to look also.

  • Abstract (consider writing your abstract last; it will allow for more concise, project specific information)
  • Problem Statement or Significance of Project
  • Project Purpose (overall goal and specific objectives)
  • Research Design or work plan (activities and timelines)
  • Applicant qualifications and capabilities
  • Evaluation Plan – assessments
  • Budget (summary and justifications – refer back to the design/work plan)
  • Sustainability (how will you pay for the program when the grant is gone?)
  • Appendix (everything else, if allowable)

Every once in a while, pull back and evaluate where you are going. This is the deep breath part. A grant writer is always in danger of missing the big picture. You get pulled into the minutiae of budgets and document creation. Remember the mission; you and other stakeholders are solving a problem that you have identified by taking a long dispassionate look at your data.

You can further break down your outline when you approach the narrative portion of the application. It might look like this;

  1. Project Narrative
    1. Goals and Objectives
    2. Proposed Activities
    3. Facilities and Resources (laying the foundation for your budget)
    4. Evaluation (how will you assess whether you met your goals)
    5. Dissemination (how will the public be informed of your project and results)

I’m not trying to muddy the water with more steps. My point is there is no one way to approach the narrative portion of the application. The key is to make sure you are touching on all the important things your grantor needs to know about you, your project and your school. You are setting out from a position of pride. There is a great deal of good stuff going on in your school. You can reveal this by presenting a positive tone in your narrative, but make no mistake, your school has issues, you don’t have enough money to solve them in your city budget, and you are appealing to the foundation to join you in a long range relationship to eliminate the problems you’ve discovered.

In general, foundations and corporations are great partners. They are enthusiastic and want to dig in and help. One of the best ways a local company can help is by providing volunteer support for projects. Get the employees in to your school for after school programs, many of them may have attended your school, it gives them a chance to give back. It also lets them see the problems up close and personal. You don’t need to convince when they are right in there with you.

So, create a timeline, when will all of this activity bring valid solutions to your problems? It may be sooner than you think.

Organize Your Approach

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed. MLIS

money backpack briefcase

You are getting ready to write the grant, you may have a notebook filled with notes from encounters you’ve had with stakeholders about the direction for your project and your funding priorities.

Now is the time to organize your thoughts in an outline as you develop the structure for your project. Sometimes the foundation will share a winning application with a fledgling applicant. Don’t steal the words, but certainly use it as a template for what you write. Here’s a template I have used for sections to include in the narrative but check the grantor’s application guidelines very carefully. Each grant narrative is a unique opportunity to explain your school’s priorities and needs.

Organize/structure the proposal.

  • Abstract (consider writing your abstract last; it will allow for more concise, project specific information)
  • Problem Statement or Significance of Project
  • Project Purpose (overall goal and specific objectives)
  • Research Design or work plan (activities and timelines)
  • Applicant qualifications and capabilities
  • Evaluation Plan – assessments
  • Budget (summary and justifications – refer back to the design/work plan)
  • Sustainability (how will you pay for the program when the grant is gone?)
  • Appendix (everything else)

Follow the grantor’s instructions for formatting to the letter. A common mistake grant seekers make is to send in an application that has 25 pages when the instructions said not to exceed 15 double spaced pages. The double spaced part is important too – they mean it and will not read one that is single spaced, you’ll have to wait until next year to try again.

If they want the application signed by the superintendent, the principal will not be enough, they want the superintendent, and it proves the district is in support of this effort. Many grant writers venture off on their own to write a grant. They think the end will justify the means, that they will be a hero for taking initiative. Not in this case. Be sure all those in authority in your district are informed about your school’s project and the rationale for your grant approach. Work with your principal, she may want to include people in the loop that you might not have thought about.

Many grant seekers make another mistake by running all over town collecting letters of support from various dignitaries. Unless they specifically request 3 letters of support from members of the community, don’t look for those supporters, their letters will annoy the grantor. Toward the end of the process, after many phone calls have been made to the foundation to tighten the narrative, and cross every “t”, a phone call from the superintendent thanking the foundation for giving you the opportunity to apply might be a nice touch.

This is the time you may want to bring your school district business manager into the mix. He or she has done a million budgets; they know what one is supposed to look like. If successful, your grant funds will have an impact on the district’s general budget, you want to make sure they know what you’re up to. You’re also looking for sustainability. Who will pay for your project when the grant ends? You business manager may have some ideas about this important piece of the puzzle.

Use the form the grantor provides for the budget, now is not the time to be creative. There is almost always a separate page called “budget justification”. This is the place where line by line you explain in greater detail how the funds requested will be spent. Don’t estimate, get quotes from suppliers, explain that you have sent three requests out for bid, the prices you are quoting are the lowest of the three. I will go into much more detail about building budgets in future articles, this is a broad brush stroke of the process. The bidding process will require an article all its own for instance.

Foundation and corporate grants generally will not pay for staff. So if you’re putting salaries in the budget, you should have prior approval from the foundation for that expense. Likewise, building projects, if you’re writing a grant for construction of a building, this needs to be pre-approved. Building projects are the single most difficult appeal to make, they are better left to the city budget.

Step 6: Completing Your Grant Application the Right Way

I started a seven-step series of blog posts a couple of months ago giving exact details of how to find grant money and write winning grant proposals. I’ve made a couple of posts since step five, but I’m now ready to finish the series. You can find the related posts listed in the sidebar if you wish to review the first five steps.

Once you’ve completed the first five steps in the grant process, you are ready to start filling out the grant application. You have already done a tremendous amount of work. You’ve identified a problem in your school that needs correcting, developed a solution, found a grant that fits your situation, confirmed that you are eligible for that grant, and gathered the application and all the data you will need to complete your grant application.

Completing an application is not all that difficult if you’ve done your homework — but it’s almost impossible if you haven’t. Your primary concern as you begin the application process is to carefully follow all instructions. You don’t want to be disqualified for something as simple as using the wrong type font or font size in your application. And, yes, some grantors are that particular.

Be sure to include four major components in any application regardless of how the application is laid out.

· Describe the problem you have at your school with sufficient statistics to prove that you truly have a problem.

· Give a detailed summary of your solution to this problem and give statistics or other information to show why you believe your solution will produce positive results.

· Include an evaluation component to show how you will track progress throughout the program and exactly how you will determine the gains that were made at the end of the program.

· Include a budget that shows where every dollar of the requested grant money will be spent.

Regardless of the way an application is organized, be sure you carefully complete every section. Some applications may have sections that don’t seem to apply to your situation. You have to remember, however, that competitive grants are generally scored on a point system. Every section of the application is worth a certain number of points. If you don’t complete a section, you get no points for that part of the application. Many applications are so competitive that a score of “zero” on one section will likely eliminate you from the competition.

As you complete the application, you might come to a section that asks you to describe the community involvement aspect of your plan. But what if you hadn’t planned on having a community involvement component? You must realize that if community involvement was not important to the grantor, it would not be a part of the application. If the section is there, it behooves you to go back to the solution you’ve developed and add a community involvement component. If you leave that section blank, you are not likely to be among the final competitors for the grant money.

Each section of a grant application is so important that you need to complete it as if it were the only section you were submitting. Why? Because you need to earn every point possible to stay competitive in your hunt for grant money.

As you complete your application, avoid using “cut and paste” information provided by vendors. Yes, they have great writers who prepare those descriptions, but you are doomed if the same descriptions show up on several applications for the same grant. The scorers see it as evidence that you are relying on a canned solution to your problem rather than personalizing your solution to fit your school’s needs. Similarly, you need to be careful about centering your whole grant request around a single commercial product. Grant money is typically awarded to those schools that seek money to establish well-rounded programs with multiple components — not to schools that just want money to buy a single product.

Also, be sure you complete the application with language that is clear and concise. Don’t try to sound fancy or more educated than you are. You’re not trying to convince the grant readers how smart you are. You are trying to show them that you understand the problems at your school, and that you’ve come up with what you believe to be the right solution. To begin to put that solution into place, you need their grant money. It’s also always a good idea to let the grant readers know how much district money and other resources will be applied to the problem. Again, be straightforward, clear, and concise.

Completing a grant application is not all that difficult if you’ve done the necessary preliminary work. It’s exciting to know that you are in competition with other grant writers to get money for your school. If you closely follow the directions that accompany the application, lay out your problem clearly, describe your solution in detail, include an effective evaluation component, and develop a budget that is realistic and all-inclusive, then you will win grant money most of the time.

You will also get better with practice. As soon as you finish one application, start looking for your next grant. If you follow the steps that I’ve laid out over the past few posts, when it comes time to sit at your desk to complete a grant application, you’ll find that applying for most grants is really not that difficult.