Tips for Novice Grant Writers

Takeaways from the Strategic Grant Writing Workshop

Is your library considering writing a grant proposal in the near future? Many libraries rely on grants to fund projects of all sizes, yet few of us have professional grant writers on staff. If you’re new to grants you probably have lots of questions, starting with the fundamentals and the overall process.

To explore some of these questions, I attended a two-day Strategic Grant Writing Workshop from the Institute for Strategic Funding Development in June 2018. The attendees came from higher education, nonprofits, and government, and all were new to grant writing. During the course we learned how to construct strategy-based grant proposals using tips that have been helpful in securing millions of dollars in funding. Here is the information that resonated with me and that I felt would be useful to a wider audience.

Know your funding sources

Grant-makers fall into one of three categories: federal, foundation, or state. Knowing how they differ can help you find a grant that aligns with the goals of your project and your organization.

Federal funding

Approximately 52 billion dollars in federal grant funding is available annually. The awards are often large and the application process is rigorous and competitive. Novice grant writers may want to start with other types of grants before moving on to federal grants. That being said, our instructor gave us some tips for improving our chances of securing a federal grant:

  • Look for grants before the funding announcements go live. You can do this by researching past grants to get a sense of what will be offered again, and when. Then you will have more time to prepare your grant application.
  • The main website for federal grants is Grants.gov. You should also check Assistance Listings (formerly Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance or CFDA) during your preliminary planning to see comprehensive information about funding options.
  • Consider contacting the program officer for the grant that interests you; most are willing to chat with you about your proposal. Keep in mind that summer is a busy time for the grant cycle, so you will have more success contacting program officers during the winter months.

Foundation funding

Foundations offer approximately 54 billion dollars in annual grant funding. Their application guidelines vary but are usually easier and less competitive than federal grants. This is a good place to start if you are new to grant writing.

There are 1,671 foundations in Colorado, plus many more national grant-making foundations. When applying for a national grant, look at where the foundation is headquartered — this is a good indicator of where they will fund. For example, 75% of Colorado foundations make grants only in Colorado, while 25% making grants in other states.

Corporate foundations usually make larger grants with competitive, complex applications. They have websites with detailed information about their grants, which is not always the case with other types of foundations.

Community foundations usually make larger grants with competitive, complex applications. They also have websites with detailed grant application instructions. Unlike corporate foundations, their funding comes from many sources instead of just one. Some of Colorado’s largest community foundations include:

  • Denver Community Foundation
  • Rose Community Foundation
  • Aspen Community Foundation
  • Boulder County Community Foundation
  • Community Foundation of Northern Colorado
  • Community First Foundation

Independent foundations are numerous (over 1,400 in Colorado alone) and usually offer smaller, less competitive grants. However, it is much more difficult to find comprehensive information about these types of grants because many independent foundations don’t have websites or accept unsolicited applications.

To look for independent grant-making foundations, search the Foundation Directory Online, a fee-based database that is available at several Colorado public libraries. The Foundation Center has another resource, Visualizing Funding for Libraries, that is free and available to anyone. It provides information on potential funders and what library proposals they are funding. You can also trying searching The Colorado Trust and The Grantsmanship Center.

Hot tip: Many independent foundation grant processes require a letter of proposal rather than a lengthy application. If you are applying for multiple grants, create a customizable proposal template that you can reuse.

State funding

The State of Colorado is another source of grant funding. While no consolidated grant portal exists for state grants, one place to start is ColoradoGrants.org. You should also check with the state agency most closely aligned with your funding request for more information about the grants that they offer.

Looking for more ways to find grant funding? Many libraries offer services and resources tailored for small businesses and nonprofits, like this Finding the Funding Guide from Pikes Peak Library District. Your local librarian would be happy to help you with your search.

Tips on Writing Proposals

Keep the following advice in mind when preparing and composing your proposal.

  • It pays to write a good proposal — literally! A well-written proposal is less work for the grant funding officer to evaluate, which they will appreciate. Attention to detail may be the difference between you and the funding you seek.
  • Use the funder’s evaluation criteria as a framework for building your proposal.
  • Funders want to see the impact of their dollars, so focus more on outcomes than on details. Embed the “why” in every part of your application.
  • Attitude counts! Don’t act like a supplicant begging for money. Foundations are required to spend money to keep their charitable status, so make your proposal an opportunity for them.
  • Cite similarities to other grants the funders have accepted. This not only shows that your goals are aligned with theirs, but that you’ve done your homework.

I hope you’ve found some of this information useful during your grant writing process. Though I’m a novice myself I would be happy to answer your questions about my experience in the workshop.

Amy Hitchner

Amy Hitchner

Statewide Collaborative Programming Coordinator at Colorado State Library
Amy Hitchner

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