Grant Writing Tips

Grant Writing Tip #1: Evaluation Tips

How will you know if your project was successful? Grantmakers will look for sound data collection methods that will accurately measure the success of your program–both quantitatively and qualitatively. And, the evaluation plan should be aligned with the objectives and activities in your proposal.

The evaluation section of the Minnesota Common Grant form takes up one-third of the application, as follows:

  • Please describe your criteria for success. What do you want to happen as a result of your activities? You may find it helpful to describe both immediate and long-term effects.
  • How will you measure these changes?
  • Who will be involved in evaluating this work (staff, board, constituents, community, consultants)?
  • What will you do with your evaluation results?

If you are designing a new program, engaging a professional evaluator at the outset is recommended. This will ensure that the different parts of your grant proposal will be carefully linked together, which will make your proposal stronger. You can also include the cost of a professional evaluator in the grant.

Another way to look at the evaluation process is through the lens of a logic model, which has been used in business since the 1960s. Increasingly, federal grant opportunities require a logic model. United Way proposals require them. Logic models consist of Inputs (What your organization invests), Outputs (hard and fast numbers of what you do and who you will reach), and Outcomes (changes in knowledge, behavior, or status) in the short-term, medium-term, and long-term. Outputs let you quantify your success and outcomes let you qualify your success. Short-term outcomes are changes in knowledge of program participants. Medium-term outcomes are changes in action/behavior. Long-term outcomes are changes in conditions.

The Grotto Foundation recommends using the following verbs to describe outcomes: increase, decrease, improve, reduce, expand, update, upgrade, maintain, start, or complete.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Evaluation Handbook is a highly recommended resource for evalutions. See


Grant Writing Tip #2 – Collect Sound Bites

Have you noticed how our day-to-day parlance changes all the time? It’s in constant flux. Words are in the air, we hear them, repeat them, and they’re in vogue for a time. Perhaps they make their way into the dictionary like “boomerang children.” For instance, “sweet” has replaced “awesome,” and suddenly everyone saying “It is what it is…” A few years ago, we constantly heard “At the end of the day….”

In the philanthropic arena, words are constantly changing as well. For example, “underrepresented” is replaced by “underserved,” and “low-income” is replaced by “economically disadvantaged.” While conducting grant research for your organization, make a list of “sound bites” or phrases funders use on their Web sites that speak to their current priorities. This list will give you an idea of philanthropic trends in your funding area as well as terminology currently in vogue as funders respond to the times. You can tweak your organization’s vision, goals, and objectives by using some of these sound bites to align your organization with potential funders, which will help attract funding. Your grant proposal is a sales document; you don’t want to be using dated language or concepts. Also, use the phrases on your sound bites list in grant proposals to make you look “current.” And while writing a proposal for a specific foundation or agency, sprinkle in sound bites from their Web site. This will help you look like more of a perfect match.

Grant Writing Tip #3: SBIR Funding Best Opportunity for Small Businesses

The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) government funding consists of R&D (research and development) money set aside for high risk, high payoff research conducted by small, for-profit businesses. SBIR government funding is $2.5 billion annually. Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) funding is $300 million annually. In addition to R&D, the technology should be intended to be commercially deployed and have a potentially large national impact.

Eleven government agencies offer these opportunities that can be searched from the SBIR Gateway,, and Award amounts vary from agency to agency. Phase I awards can range from $150K to $220K to $450K. Phase II awards can be $1 million, $1.5 million or $3 million, depending on the topic. Typically, 1 in 6 to 1 in 12 Phase I SBIR proposals receive funding, and approximately 2 in 5 Phase II proposals win. Thirty-three (33) percent of businesses are first-time winners of Phase I funding.

If you’re planning on submitting one of these proposals, Mark Henry, CEO of Grow Emerging Companies LLC offers the following helpful tips:

  • Plan ahead: You’ll need an EIN and DUNs number, and it takes 44 days to complete government registration via System for Award Management (SAM),, formerly CCR (Central Contractor Registry). You’ll also need a case number at
  • Preparing a Phase I proposal takes from 100 to 300 hours or 10 to 12 weeks. Your proposal must be a top fit for the agency topics. Search on Google Scholar to search for papers on your topic.
  • In Phase I proposals, reviewers will want you to push the envelope for commercial impact.
  • Understand the playing field. Then write about your idea and sell it. Your proposal is a sales document. Set the stage for your innovation and quantify the problem. Get the audience interested in the problem and quantify the problem. Identify and substantiate the need. Summarize state-of-the-art technology and its shortcomings. Don’t rely on the government’s definition of technical challenges.
  • If your company doesn’t have a strong commercialization track record, make sure some of your team members, consultants, and advisers have commercialization and intellectual property experience.
  • Your proposal has to be a research project with research questions. SBIR/STTR funding is not appropriate for product development. You’ll need preliminary data; give the reviewers the confidence that your plan will work. In Phase I proposals, you need metrics to measure success.
  • Your proposal must have technical merit, innovation, and credibility … and impact is getting more attention now.
  • Focus on your idea and where you want your company to be in 3-1/2 to 5 years (average funding cycle).
  • Be smart about collaborations and teaming. Don’t work in a vacuum.
  • Add academics to your team.
  • Collaboration with academics, other firms, and national labs are allowed, but they should be considered outside costs.
  • Agency program managers will not serve as the reviewers. They don’t have control over your proposal.
  • What you may learn with one government agency SBIR proposal will not translate to another agency.
  • More than half the funding in these programs are contracts. Contracts are the government’s ideas that are reviewed by internal staff and are not as flexible as grants. (DOE is a contract agency in “grant clothing”; focus on clear responsiveness to their topics. These reviewers are a complex audience, i.e., a mix of grant and contract approaches for reviews; and they mix both internal staff and external experts.)
  • Treat the proposal as a business venture, not just a proposal. It should be a combination of something that works (involving inventors) and something that sells (involving entrepreneurs).
  • It’s never a good idea to treat the whole budget as a direct cost. The budget has to be a realistic relationship between direct and indirect funds.
  • Be careful about what you ask for in equipment.
  • These opportunities are not usually price sensitive.
  • Assign consultants an hourly rate.
  • There are 3 phases. Don’t over promise work in Phase I. This should be a proof of concept feasibility study (9 months). You must win a Phase I to get to Phase II.
  • DOE (Department of Energy) does not allow co-PIs.
  • Your principal investigator (PI) must be in the company, not somewhere else.
  • The work plan is usually from five to seven pages, not a 2-page bulleted list.
  • Prior to submission, get outside pre-reviews of your proposal and have confidentiality agreements in place.
  • USDA SBIR/STTR opportunities are once a year.
  • DOE opportunities are twice a year and possibly three.

Grant Writing Tip #4 – Government Grants

Institutional buy-in is absolutely necessary for government grants. You need at least three people in your organization that have a vested interest in the proposed project or program.

Writing government grants can take more than 100 hours to put together. And competition is stiff. For example, in a recent funding round, 46 grants were awarded from a pool of 600 applicants.

The submission consists of a proposal narrative (10, 15, 25, or 35 pages) and as many as 25 attachments. If you know about the funding opportunity before the RFP (Request for Proposals) comes out, call the funding agency and vet your program with a program officer. Please note that federal agency staff do not like to talk with potential funders after the solicitation is out. And many agencies are turning to help desks to answer queries. Program officers will not be reviewing your proposal. A panel of peers from around the country will review your proposal.

What are reviewers looking for?

  • You are a partner with the government agency. They want taxpayers and legislators to know that tax dollars are reaching the public and doing good.
  • Government agencies are looking for breadth and depth. They want their awarded programs to reach a lot of people. Your proposal will be stronger if it’s national in scope, or perhaps replicable by others.
  • Your program or project should develop relationships with constituents over a longer term.
  • Make sure that your program demonstrates a positive impact on others.
  • What makes a good proposal?
  • Write clearly and succinctly.
  • Pitch your language to an educated, general audience and avoid using professional jargon or buzzwords.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep. For example, make sure you have both the staff capacity and money to carry out the program, otherwise, you’ll have to return both the awarded contract and the money.
  • Do your homework. Make sure your project will not duplicate a project or research already in the field or serve as research pulled from the Internet.
  • The more innovative the program the better, which will serve your constituents and the field.
  • Have a sound evaluation plan that answers the question: How will you know that your program is successful? Keep in mind that you’re a research partner with the government agency. They’re collecting information on what works. (If you’re hiring an evaluation professional, you can create a line item for them in the project budget.)
  • Getting in-kind gifts or additional support for your project is always attractive to potential funders.
  • Resolve inconsistencies in the proposal. Do all the pieces make sense?
  • Case studies can be persuasive.
  • Have at least three people look at the submission before it goes out the door.
  • To get started, visit

Grant Writing Tip #5: The Letter of Introduction

Have you noticed the increasing number of foundations in recent years that no longer have open submissions and have resorted to invitation-only? (And the number of these seems to be growing.) The situation is disheartening especially when a potential funder seems like a perfect fit.

In response to this situation, a philanthropic trend has emerged that involves e-mailing a one-page letter of introduction to these funders (with attachments such as a brochure, Board of Directors List, and 501c3 letter). The letter provides a brief way to introduce your organization and programs and may lead to funding.

Although there may be several approaches to this letter, I’ve outlined two below. These two have one important thing in common: don’t broach the subject of funding with this letter. This letter should serve as a no-strings-attached communication to let foundations know: 1) who you are and 2) the important work you’re doing. Keep the letter to one page, if possible.

Here are the two approaches recommended by the following professional fund-raisers:

1) Tony Poderis of recommends beginning the letter as follows:

Please accept this note, not as a means to solicit funds, but as simply a letter of introduction and to respectfully ask the following questions:

“What would it take to enable our organization to be considered to be on your charities’ priority support list?

“How often do you add new grant recipients?”

“With our pledge that we will not ask for money, would you be interested in learning more about our organization directly with additional information we would be pleased to provide through an informal information-only meeting with you, or perhaps you may be interested in having a site visit with us to see our organization in operation?”

A possible last paragraph: “I will follow up with a telephone call _______ (exactly when). At that time, I hope you will discuss the possibilities I cited in this letter in order to introduce our organization—with no obligation to you, nor any expectation on our part—and otherwise, receive your valuable guidance.”

Poderis then recommends waiting ten days for a possible response, and if none, follow up with a phone call. He says that sometimes things do change and there’s always a chance for an opening. He also recommends being spare and selective with any enclosures or attachments. (These might include a 501(c)3 letter, Board of Directors list, and an organizational or program brochure.)

2) Steve Paprocki of Access Philanthropy says foundation staff will read your letter and surprisingly, they will open your attachments (supporting documents). He recommends that letter is open-ended and not have an expectation of a response from the funder … so there shouldn’t be a mention of following up with them. Steve also recommends following up with a small postcard about a month later.

Contact Cass for a 30-minute complimentary consultation to discuss your fund development or communications projects.


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