Courtesy of Howard University

Grant Writing: Tips and Tricks

Best practices for writing grant proposals to funding organizations.

With thousands of people starting nonprofit organizations and organizing community projects throughout Africa, there’s a high demand for funding. Funding grants from organizations, corporations, private donors or governments are a common way for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and projects to get off the ground. Before you take a dive into the grant-writing world, you should understand the mechanisms of how grants and grant writing work, according to Jeronimo Augusto, program manager for international programs at Howard University, Office of the Provost. Augusto, who holds a master’s degree in health services administration, is responsible for grants monitoring and evaluation, including the MWF grant.

‘Thinking outside the box and within the rules’

Augusto advises anyone seeking a grant to start by “thinking outside the box and within the rules.” He explains that organizations that issue grants are looking for projects with a fresh, innovative and/or creative approach to problem-solving. He continues that anyone seeking funding from a grant must fully understand the parameters set by an issuing organization/donors, including how the project will fit in with their organization’s mission.

Augusto states that writing a grant is not a simple task. It requires an organization or project manager to fully understand their own project, and the competition, so that they can best position themselves to be awarded the grant. Augusto advises that you think through the many aspects of the grant-writing process before diving in and that you ask yourself:

  • How will you use the grant? Is the grant money you’re looking for going to additional staffing for your organization? Or maybe it’s for materials and supplies (say, to build a well or solar panels)? However you plan on using this funding, be sure to provide enough detail to help the donor get a better idea of their potential investment in you and your organization.
  • How much funding do you need? Assessing the realistic cost of your project’s needs is critical when you’re applying for a grant. For example, if you’re planning to use grant money to buy a car to reach remote villages, you’ll also need to factor in the cost of maintenance and petrol, driver, hours, days, etc., etc.
  • Where should the funding come from? Think that applying to each grant opportunity you find will yield more money for your project? Think again. Augusto stresses researching each organization to see if their mission and vision align with the project you’re trying to fund. Research and understand the organization, what they do, and why they’re offering funding. Know your competition and the number of expected awards. Basically: DO YOUR HOMEWORK first.
  • What is your timeline? Know your timeline, deadline and start dates. Also, due to the cyclical nature of the grant process, applicants should understand how long the money they’re awarded will take to get to them and how long it will last before they can apply for a renewal. Include sustainability.
  • What is the impact going to be? How many people will this funding affect? Will your project help a class of 30 schoolgirls get involved in STEM, or a community of 300 get access to safe, clean drinking water? Know how to ask for what you actually need (not over, not under) and how to stay within the scope and budget of your project.
  • What are the expectations for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of your grant? Grant applicants should be mindful of the follow-up work required should their project be awarded. To ensure that reports are accurate and transparent, some organizations may ask you to spend your money and then reimburse you based on reports. Understand all this before applying, making sure you are able to meet all the obligations set out in the RFP (request for proposal).

Must-haves when going after a grant

How is your writing going to increase your chances? “Collaboration is key,” says Augusto. He suggests you gain experience incrementally — first by partnering/collaborating with others to get funding and show proof of concept, experience and ability. Then, when you apply independently, you are a much more credible applicant. Below are lists of what to do and what to avoid when applying for a grant. Read all the instructions carefully.

What to do

  • Display a write-to-win attitude – Use terms like “will” instead of “can.” Write just enough — not too much, not too little — and demonstrate the creativity and novel strategies your project employs.
  • Create a timeline – Give yourself and your team sufficient time to effectively respond to all questions and requests. A must is to reach out and get to know the grant/program officers in government and in for-profit and not-for-profit agencies to develop a personal relationship.
  • Ask for funds that match your capacity – Start small then scale up. Justify your budget; be sure that the budget put forth is verified and reverified by people who have experience in accounting and/or business management. They should also check that the money (budget) makes sense and the math is correct.
  • Demonstrate ethics – Tell the truth as to why you need the funds and be transparent about how you’re going to use them. Grants are not just a paycheck or a bonus for the work you’re doing in your community. Administrative costs, on average, should account for no more than 10 percent of the requested grant funding.
  • Have a clear understanding of the directions and requirements – Know the formatting rules (font, style and size) and length that are outlined in the parameters. Understand that this is a professional document — be sure to have it reviewed for spelling, grammar and readability before it is submitted. When writing about your project, you should outline SMART and concrete goals.

What NOT to do

  • Do not use someone else’s work – There should be absolutely NO COPYING, FORGING, LYING OR PLAGIARIZING in your grant application.
  • Do not confuse the reader – Avoid technical jargon and slang when applying for a grant. You want to convey simply what your project can do for the community. Augusto suggests writing at a secondary school grade level. It’s a good idea to have colleagues review your proposal before you submit it.
  • Do not be unethical – Grant money is not to be used to fulfill a project that will fill your pockets, but rather to benefit the community and bring about impact for the good of the whole.

According to Augusto, after applications are submitted and the deadline passes, the review and award processes take place. First, an independent reviewer checks to see if applications follow the RFP criteria. Then, applications go under a second review by a committee of people and are scored.  

What happens if you’re rejected?

Is it advisable to REAPPLY for grants even if you’ve been rejected? Yes. Tip: Send a thank-you note and ask for insight for future learning. This shows the grantor that you’re willing to learn from your mistakes. If you were a top choice, but not selected, it could boost your chances of being awarded a grant later. Augusto’s final piece of advice: “DON’T GIVE UP AND KEEP TRYING.”

Are you ready to get started on a grant application? Watch the Fundamentals of Grant Writing course and explore additional YALI Network resources to learn more. Good luck!

Jeronimo Augusto has worked with government ministries, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), international organizations, community-based organizations (CBOs), faith-based organizations (FBOs), youth organizations, National AIDS Councils (NACs) and associations of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). Additionally, he worked for the United Nations in poverty alleviation, infrastructure development, budget and grant management, short- and long-term strategic planning, health system strengthening and capacity building of national counterparts. He is also a grant/technical writer at Howard University.

The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government. 

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