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Curious about Grant Writing? You Asked and We Answered
October 11, 2018

Writing a grant proposal for funding is often an essential aspect of starting a business or an NGO. However, the grant writing process can be confusing and challenging for many who lack experience in grant writing. That is why we held a #YALICHAT with three individuals who have successfully managed the grant writing process and understand the skill, preparation and planning that go into writing a winning proposal. Over the course of two days, Jesse Lutabingwa, professor of public administration and associate vice chancellor at Appalachian State University, Bernard Otieno, a 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow from Tanzania, and Ulala Kondowe, a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow from Malawi, helped young leaders in the YALI Network learn what it takes to become successful at grant writing and provided tips on how to improve proposals to secure funding. While a variety of topics were discussed, many participants had similar questions. Here are some of the common questions YALI Network members asked, along with answers from our grant writing experts.

What sectors qualify for grants?

Normally, the funders do announce the call for grant proposals and they also specify their areas of interest. Our experts advise researching your personal areas of interest to learn which funders focus on that area. In your research, if you see a call for a proposal from a funder you should adhere to the requirements issued by that potential funder. Research thoroughly on the past funding for this funder to get an insight into what this funder is particularly interested in. In a nutshell, a winning grant proposal is one that abides by the funder’s guidelines and provides tangible solutions for the problem identified.

Where can I find people or organizations to help with funding?

Again, research is key: The easiest way to find funders is to do your research. There are a lot of organizations providing funding, so you’ll have to search online to find them. Another way is to subscribe to FundsforNGOs; they will send you a daily email alerting you of any grant opportunities. Also, following pages on Facebook like OpportunitiesForAfricans can be helpful, as they often upload grant opportunities. An additional option is to network with people who are knowledgeable about such organizations and can inform you of potential opportunities or connect you with prospective funders.

How do I start and prepare for grant writing?

Before you start grant writing, you must first be familiar with whether the grant is solicited or unsolicited. “Solicited” means that there is a call for grant applications, and the organization that has called for grant applications has set the requirements for the content of the grant proposal. It is also necessary to do a bit of background research and planning before you begin writing your proposal. Learn about the funders and draft a concept note; try to uncover who is addressing a similar problem in your immediate location, region or country; research various cost elements in order to develop a sound budget; and look into partnering with other organizations. With all the required research, it may take a long time to prepare and plan to write a grant, but it is important to make sure you have all the various pieces in place before you start writing.

How do I write a grant proposal?

You should have the following key items in your grant proposal:

  1. An introduction, which should be clear and precise.
  2. A summary of the grant proposal.
  3. Project goal and objectives, which should be smart, small, measurable, achievable, and timebound.
  4. Grant justification: Why should your proposal be funded?
  5. Project outcomes: What are the intended outcomes that you expect to achieve after the end of your project? Our experts advise that no matter how big or small the project is, the outcomes should never be more than three.
  6. Project activities: The specific activities should be quantified in order to indicate the number of people that are going to be reached.
  7. Monitoring and evaluation of the project.
  8. Project sustainability.

Grant writing is a process. In this process, one needs to have very good writing skills, but it is also a good idea to submit all your draft proposals to at least two to three people to review and provide feedback. How your proposal looks, in terms of formatting, is just as important as the content. You want your proposal to be attractive, with no grammatical mistakes. Your proposal should be concise, with ideas described in shorter sentences and in short paragraphs. You want to attract the reviewers to read your proposal even before they know what you have written.

How much is okay to promise in a grant proposal? Should I exaggerate my team’s CV in order to look like a stronger candidate?

Our experts advise only promising what you are sure you can achieve. There is no harm in selling yourself and your skills, but if you overpromise, it comes off as fake and can backfire once you fail to meet the standards you set. Conversely, underpromising will make your application weak, so it is important to be honest and set realistic goals for what you can accomplish. It is also crucial to be honest about your team’s background and abilities. Avoid exaggerating your team’s expertise, as it can harm your future chances of securing funding. Funders talk to each other, and therefore your organization’s reputation might be tarnished if you are found to have lied on your proposal. If you are struggling to secure funding because you find that your team is lacking in certain areas or skill sets, one solution is to reach out to other organizations that could partner with you to complement this lack of experience.

How do I write a strong budget proposal?

Because the amount of available funding is limited, the applicant often finds that it must cost-share some of the expense of salaries so as not to exceed the maximum limit of available funds. Our experts advise using 10–15 percent of grant funds for the personnel’s salaries. When creating a budget, it is important to research the cost of different things. Each figure you decide upon must have a clear justification. Once you have done your research, increase your budget by a little more than the initial figure to account for price changes that could occur between the time you write your proposal and when your project is funded. Our experts gave some practical tips when developing a project proposal budget:

  1. Review the grant application for specific budget requirements. Look for what is allowed and not allowed.
  2. Research and organize budget information and ask yourself: How do you know how much it will cost to perform the task?
  3. Select a spreadsheet software tool, such as Excel, or whichever program you are most comfortable with.
  4. Establish the budget period: Is your budget for two months? Six months? One year? Or two years? This is very important in trying to make good estimations when it comes to how prices might change over a long period of time. For example, for a budget of more than one year, you may want to build into the second year’s budget a 3 percent increase in the cost of everything from the first year
  5. Estimate expenses (and revenue, if applicable) accurately.
  6. It is very important for applicants to learn how to estimate indirect costs. These are costs of turning on the lights, using computers, using the office space, etc. Many NGOs use 7 percent of the total project costs as indirect costs. Make sure your organization has a policy on what rates it should use for indirect costs. Please never put “contingency cost” or “unforeseen cost” in your budgets.
  7. Estimate in-kind support and donated goods and services. Many funders may want the applicant to show that they have “skin in the project” by providing an in-kind contribution.
  8. Review the budget for formula and number errors and logic. Once you have completed your budget, please ask others, especially those familiar with the spreadsheet you are using, to review your budget. The last thing you want is to have underbudgeted a particular line item because of the formula in your calculations.
  9. Develop the budget justification. This is a detailed narrative of the significant items in the budget. Explain how expenses and revenues were derived and why they are needed. The budget should completely match your project activities in the methods and approaches section of your proposal. Do not include items in the budget that were not discussed in the methods and approaches section or other parts of your proposal (e.g., monitoring and evaluation).

Very often, funders will be clear on their website as to the maximum cost each project should have. When this information is not provided either on the websites or in the grant announcements, you should try to dig deep to find other organizations that have been funded by the same funder. Sometimes funders disclose this information on their website by indicating which organizations were funded in the previous years and with how much. For further information on creating a budget, please see this Sample Budget Template.

Why is it important to maintain relationships with funders?

Maintaining a good relationship with your funders is important for future funding opportunities. When a funder invests in you and in your organization, you gain credibility and trust with that funder, especially if you were successful in implementing the project they gave you funding for. Therefore, the next time you apply for funding from that organization, that funder will already have a favorable opinion of you and your organization and will know that you are a reliable partner. Additionally, maintaining a good relationship with your funders can help you to know what other funding opportunities might be available, or you could be invited to submit a proposal for a particular activity that the funding organization is interested in.

What are the differences between a grant proposal for funding and a research proposal? Where can I find an example of a successful grant proposal?

There are several similarities between an academic research proposal and a project or grant proposal. However, the major difference is that while an academic research proposal addresses a specific stream of scientific inquiry, a project or grant proposal aims at addressing or solving a particular problem or meeting a specific need. The forms, procedures and guidelines of academic research proposals are much more stringent and rigorous than the ones in project proposals. Additionally, the standards for research proposals are much more demanding than in project or grant proposals. Research proposals must have articulated research questions. For example, academic research proposals demand that the author conduct extensive literature reviews and provide readers with substantial evidence and facts. In cases where human subjects are involved, those writing research proposals are required to have approved IRBs (institutional research boards) before their project can be funded.

You can find a sample of a grant proposal table of contents here. This format may give you an idea of the components of a typical grant proposal. This format may be helpful if a funder has not provided their own template. In terms of sharing grant examples, our experts advise against basing your grant proposal on the work of others, as each grant is different and each funder requires different things. Therefore, a good proposal in one situation might not be a good proposal in another situation.

If you are in the process of writing a grant proposal or thinking about applying for a grant and want to learn more, start by taking the YALI Network Online Course on the Fundamentals of Grant Writing and check out the YALI Network grant writing resource guide for more information on developing a successful proposal

Interested in taking the next step with your business? Check out our #YALIEntrepreneurs page.