Grant Seeking 101: Writing Your Application | npENGAGE

Grant Seeking 101: Writing Your Application

By on Sep 5, 2019


grant writing, grant applications

In the last post, we discussed how to find the perfect grant for your organization. This week, we’ll dive into how to write an effective application that will get you the grant.

Since you’ve already done your research and determined that your organization is grants-ready, you should be confident you’re a good candidate for this grant. Now your job is to show the grantor that you’re the perfect match—with a persuasive application. Here are some tips to get you started:

Answer Their Questions

This may seem obvious, but grantors ask the questions on their application for a reason—they need that information to determine if they can give you a grant. Don’t make their job needlessly complicated by skirting around the questions they’ve asked. Take the time to find the information you need to completely answer the questions and be direct and straightforward in your responses. If answering a question directly puts your organization in a bad light, take some extra space to explain your response and show the steps your organization is taking to improve the situation.

Tell a Story

Thread your answers to the questions together to tell a story. These stories add color. Your application will stick in reviewers’ minds and remain a part of the conversation throughout their deliberations.

Let’s pretend we’re grantors evaluating a grant application. Which opening are you most likely to remember?

“We need $50,000 to support a new initiative to provide breakfast to people in need.”

“When Alyssa Jones, a student at City Community College, must choose between eating breakfast and paying the rent, she skips breakfast. She’s not alone—over 75% of low-income students in our city skip breakfast for financial reasons. With the support of the National Breakfast Foundation, we could improve the memory, alertness, and concentration of 2,000 CCC students like Alyssa by providing a free, healthy breakfast each morning.”

What makes the second opening so effective? It presents a story that is specific enough to be memorable, while also illustrating exactly how the funds will be used and how the grantor will be a part of the solution.

Want to try it for yourself? Follow this formula:

  1. Start with a story about one specific person or individual circumstance.
  2. Add statistics that demonstrate the universality of this story.
  3. Show your organization’s plan for fixing the problem.
  4. Present the grantor as the hero who can solve this problem by partnering with your organization.

An effective application demonstrates your organization’s successful track record in fixing similar problems and partnering with other grantors. Use your financial statements to back up your responses. Demonstrate the impact of your past programs and the projected impact of the proposed program, as well as the associated costs and risks. Your finances should complement your narrative, adding depth and credibility to your application.

Be Clear

Effective writing uses clear, precise language. Avoid vague statements and words like good, bad, or challenging. Instead, push yourself to show how something was good. For instance, “We connect 1,000 at-risk youth in our city with mentors who help them graduate high school and start successful careers.” This explains precisely what the organization does and how they do it.

You have limited space, so make sure you use it effectively. Show, don’t tell. Let’s compare two sentences:

  • “We implemented the new reading program quickly.”
  • “We implemented the new reading program in just 2 months—half the time it took us to implement our writing and math programs.”

The first sentence provides little detail. (“Quickly” can mean something very different, depending on context.) With the second sentence, the grantor not only learns exactly how long it took you to implement the program, but also sees how that implementation measured up against your normal time to complete projects.

Choose the best words, not the biggest words. A bunch of flowery language doesn’t contribute anything but extra noise that detracts from your key points.

Read back through your writing to ensure you’ve gotten rid of extraneous language that doesn’t add to your story. Be aware of your crutches—those words you reuse out of habit, even when they add nothing to your application. More often than not, these crutches weaken your writing.

Edit Your Writing

Have a plan in place for how you’ll edit your writing. Ideally, after writing your application, you will:

  1. Take some time (a few hours, or even a day) to step away from the finished application so that you can look at it again with fresh eyes.
  2. Reread and edit the application for clarity and precision. (This is a great time to get rid of all that unnecessary language!)
  3. Check to ensure that the language and voice are consistent throughout the application—especially if multiple people have worked on or edited different sections.
  4. Run a final spelling and grammar check to get rid of any glaring errors.
  5. Solicit feedback on the completed application from at least two other people.
  6. Send the finalized application to an editor before submitting it.

Not every organization will have a professional editor on staff. But at a minimum, every grant application should be read by at least one other person and reviewed for spelling and grammatical errors. Typos, incomplete sentences, and bad grammar make you look careless and unprepared—the opposite of what you want a grantor to think about you!

Once you have a perfectly worded application, don’t bury its beautiful language in a single grant application! Reuse and recycle the content you worked so hard to create in your case statements, social media posts, newsletters, and annual reports.

Remember, your written application isn’t the only part of your grant application. Next week, we’ll turn the tables and learn how to think like a reviewer to ensure every part of your application is effective.


Jocelyn is an instructional designer with Blackbaud University. Her passion for the social good space began with her first job working in visitor services for a small museum in New York City. She has held various roles within higher education, including teaching, researching, applying for grants, and coordinating events. As an instructional designer, Jocelyn creates interactive workshops on best practices for the social good community in various topics, including fundraising, marketing, finance, volunteering, and alumni outreach.

Jocelyn is an active member of Team Blackbaud, which coordinates corporate social responsibility initiatives for Blackbaud’s Austin office. She serves on the board of Inside Literature, an Austin-based nonprofit that provides university-level literature courses to inmates in pre-trial facilities. She also conducts alumni interviews as part of the Rice Alumni Volunteers for Admission.

Comments (14)

  • Karina says:

    These are all great point. I especially like the one about walking away from it for a day and coming back to read it. We have done that on a lot of appeals and it has helped us catch many mistakes. Great article!

  • Karen says:

    LOVE this article, Jocelyn! Great reminders and a page I can refer back to while writing grants. I have found telling a story paints a picture in the readers mind that they can relate to. This imagery provides a compelling impact on those reading and reviewing grant requests. Thank you.

  • Jose says:

    I always found that developing a story helps reviewers understand what your goal is. Addressing the problem and the details on what your institution is doing to remedy it provides a level of transparency of what would be done if given the grant.

    Simply saying, we need x amount of money to do this and that sounds cold and really show what your institution is really doing. I also agree that use of complex language only just confuses the reader and doesn’t add much to your story.

    I’ve saved this article and share this with my department.

  • Shelly Gammieri says:

    This is fantastic! We’ll definitely be updating our approach to grant-writing with the tips in your podcast. Thank you so much!

  • Krystle says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Jocelyn! I recently had a conversation with someone who is starting the grant writing process, and this post has lots of great tips for her.

  • Tineke says:

    I like these points for writing a great grant. I have found using the annual report to get some of the information needed to create the descriptive statements is very helpful. I like the idea of having someone else proof for errors and grammar.
    This series is very helpful for those of us who are searching for and applying for grants for our companies.

  • Amy Wieck says:

    Excellent article! I especially like how it gives solid examples to back up the concepts of effective grant writing.

  • Alicia Barevich says:

    I love this! Straightforward advice that should always be taken into consideration for grantwriting!

  • simone miyasato says:

    Thank you! I am not a grants writer, but this will help with my letter writing!

  • Claudia says:

    I think the same concepts apply to a lot of writing in development. Thanks for sharing!

  • Sarah says:

    This is great info, I can’t wait to apply this to my work, thank you for sharing!

  • JoAnn says:

    yes, sharing the story so key

  • JoAnn says:

    solid ideas

  • Beth Gibney says:

    Great read. Thanks for sharing!

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