Best Practices Guide for Grant Writing
Bridget Newell, Ph.D.,
updated by Thomas C. Caves Jr., MPA
Originally Composed By Bridget Newell, Ph.D. Updated by Thomas C. Caves, Jr., MPA – June 2015
Note: this was written for the International Association of Chiefs of Police with a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The original document can be downloaded here.
Many law enforcement agencies today utilize grants, which are available from a variety of sources including the federal government, to fund their programs. Public sector grants are primarily federal and state grants made to local and state governments or to government agencies. Foundation grants are provided by non-profit, charitable organizations, like a corporate foundation or family foundation. The process of securing all types of grant funds requires the completion of a grant proposal.
Grants can be both competitive and non-competitive. Non-competitive grant applications are approved when the recipient simply meets the requirements or formula established for a particular grant. Competitive grants are only awarded when a grantee successfully meets preset criteria, through a written proposal submitted in competition with other prospective grantees.
Federal funds can also be awarded as either Discretionary Funding or Block Grants. Block grant funding is federal funding that is administered through a state administering agency, or “S.A.A.” With block grants, every state is guaranteed to receive a share of the funds. Applicants seeking block grants apply to the S.A.A.
Discretionary funding is sent to applicants directly from Washington. The competition for discretionary funding is more intense, as these funds are not typically spread evenly among the states. If the best proposals come from one region of the country, that’s where discretionary funds will go. Discretionary dollars are granted “at the discretion of” the funder.
Purpose of the Grant
A grant proposal is a formal, written request for funds to support a specific program or project. While the exact content of a grant proposal is determined by funding agency guidelines, most grant proposals include information that explains (1) why the funds are needed, (2) what the funds will be used for, and (3) how the funds will be managed.
When planning and writing a grant proposal, it is important to remember that most proposals are submitted in a highly competitive forum. No grant proposal is guaranteed to receive funding, and hundreds of grant proposals may be submitted to the same organization to compete for the exact same funds. Given this fact, grant writers must view their grant proposal as a document with at least two goals: (1) to inform the reader of their plans, and (2) to persuade the reader that their project is worthy of funding. That is, they must sell their readers on all of the following points:
- The need or problem they will attempt to “fix” with the grant money is significant and worthy of funding.
- The project or program the funds will be used for is planned and designed well, with a good chance of
- The agency requesting the funds is capable of successfully managing the funds and completing the proposed project on
Finally, grant proposals must respond to readers’ needs and expectations. This means that grant writers must:
- Explain their background and the situation that needs improving.
- Include details sufficient for clarifying plans to a reader who is unfamiliar with them and who may be reading several other grant proposals at the same
- Include good reasons for funding the proposed
- Ensure that the proposal is well written and easily accessible. Readers who have trouble accessing or understanding important information will not be convinced that the proposed project deserves
Most funding agencies provide guidelines (directions) that identify the information they expect to find in grant proposals submitted to them. These guidelines are invaluable resources and should be viewed as the final word on what should and should not be included in the grant proposal. Do not omit information required by the guidelines. Failure to adhere to the guidelines can be justification for rejecting the proposal. Despite differences in grant proposal guidelines, most grant proposals require the same general information. The overview below outlines a number of pieces you can expect to include in most grant proposals.
Application Form: In some cases, grant proposals might consist only of a form that must be completed by the applicant. In other cases, a completed application form must accompany a more detailed written proposal. In either case, the grant writer’s responsibility is to include all requested information.
Cover Letter: A cover letter or letter of transmittal serves as an introduction to the proposal and can be used as a screening tool for readers. Given that it might be the first component readers see, this letter can be viewed as the initial tool writers use to sell their plans to the funding agency. A typical letter of transmittal includes three sections: (1) an opening that identifies the proposal, (2) a middle that introduces and sells the proposed project or plan, and (3) a closing that contains contact information.
Grant agency requirements differ. However, many detailed written proposals are required to be composed of the sections outlined below:
|Abstract or Summary
|An abstract provides a concise summary of the grant proposal and therefore includes significant information from each section of the proposal. Because it functions as a stand-alone overview of the proposal, readers may also use it as a screening tool.
|¨ Why are you writing this grant?
¨ What is the purpose of your grant?
¨ How will this grant meet your need?
|Problem or Need Statement
|This section of the proposal thoroughly describes the need (or problem) that will be met (or solved) through the use of the grant funds. When writing this section, writers should attempt to show that they understand the need/problem and that it is significant or worthy of immediate attention.
|¨ What is the problem?
¨ Why does it exist?
¨ Who is impacted by it?
|Solution or Scope
|Also called the problem statement or description, this section provides a detailed explanation of how the funds will be used to address the problem or need. In other words, what do you propose to do with the funds? When writing this section, writers should attempt to show that the plan they advocate will successfully resolve the problem or address the need.
|¨ How will you solve the problem (or meet the need)?
¨ What are the details of your plan?
¨ Why is this plan appropriate?
|Sometimes a stand-alone section and sometimes part of the solutions section, the methods section explains how the project or plan will be implemented. When writing this section, writers should strive to provide details rather than assume that readers will know what they mean.
|¨ What methods will you use to implement this plan?
¨ What justifies the use of these methods?
|Like the methods section, the benefits section is sometimes a stand-alone section and sometimes part of the solution section. Because this information helps to sell the proposed solution, this section (like all others) should be clear, focused, and detailed.
|¨ Who will benefit from the proposed solution?
¨ How will they benefit?
|Also called the capabilities section, this section includes information that persuades the reader that the agency or organization requesting the funds is capable of under-taking and successfully completing the proposed project. To supplement this section, writers often include a collection of resumes in an appendix.
|¨ Who will be responsible for under- taking, overseeing, and completing the project?
¨ What are the roles, responsibilities, and qualifications of the
|Funding agencies sometimes require that writers include a plan for evaluating the success of the project. Some agencies require the use of an outside evaluator to ensure objectivity.
|¨ How will the success of your project be evaluated?
¨ What justifies the use of this evaluation strategy?
¨ Who will evaluate the project?
|This section of the proposal identifies when each segment of the proposed plan will begin and end. Whether presenting this information in a table, Gantt chart, or calendar format, the writer must show that time will not be wasted.
|¨ What are the specific scheduled begin and end dates of each component of the plan?
|To some readers, this is the most important part of the proposal. It explains how the money will be spent and justifies the need for the proposed amount. Many guidelines require that this section be presented in the form of a line-item budget, and some require a budget narrative that provides a written justification for (or in place of) a line-item budget.
|¨ Exactly how will the money be used?
¨ Is the requested amount reasonable? Why?
|Not always requested, but sometimes helpful, this section allows writers to reiterate the key components
of their proposal.
|¨ Highlight issues from problem, solution and
¨ benefit sections.
As indicated above, grant agency requirements differ. Therefore, it is best to view the above information as an introduction to grant proposal content or, as discussed below, a planning tool to use when developing a project plan.
Strategy – Planning and Writing
Writing a grant proposal is a challenging task, not only because grant proposals include a significant amount of detailed information, but because there is more to submitting a grant than writing the proposal. Before writing the proposals, writers should:
Develop a solid plan of action, preferably outlined in writing. Rather than piecing together a proposal at the last minute, agencies seeking grant funds can plan ahead by (1) identifying a need or problem that must be addressed, (2) determining how they might address it, and (3) drafting an outline of the plan. The plan and draft can be developed by responding to the question presented in the previous section of this document.
This proactive strategy is more likely to result in a clear, complete plan, and having an outline of the final grant proposal makes the grant writing process easier.
Identify potential government sources. To find funding opportunities from government funders, applicants can search many opportunities at www.grants.gov. This site is intended to be a one-stop shop for all things related to federal grants. Applicants can search this site by need, keyword, funding opportunity number, or by funder. Many government funders are requiring that grant proposals be subscribed at grants.gov, so applicants should go ahead and register at that site, even before they find a specific opportunity to pursue. Grant writers should also check individual cabinet agency websites, such as www.ojp.gov, and www.dhs.gov. These federal agencies administer block grants, so be sure to check with your state administering agencies, as illustrated above, for funding opportunities from these sources. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (www.cops.usdoj.gov) supports discretionary funding that goes directly to local agencies.
Identify potential foundation sources. A 501(c3) non-profit foundation cannot always count donations made directly to law enforcement agencies as part of their federally-required annual giveaway. So a donation made directly to a law enforcement agency is indeed a truly charitable act. Some larger law enforcement agencies, such as the Houston1 and New York2 Police Departments have incorporated their own 501(c3) non-profit entities, so that they can qualify for more funding from foundations. To find foundations in your city, visit www.irs.gov and type, “Search for Charities” into the search box in the upper right corner of the page. Then click the options for “Exempt Organization Check,” and select the radio button marked, “Are Eligible to Receive Tax-Deductible Contributions.” Then use the keyword “Foundation,” type your city and state, and click, “Search.” This action will show how many of these organizations are in the immediate area.
This search is free and it does not require a registration or subscription. Many of the foundations listed here will be grant seekers. In the interest of fostering positive relationships in your communities, this tool can help foster new outreach to the leaders of these grant-seeking service providers, as well as foundation funders.
Select an appropriate funding agency:
Once you have identified a potential funder, review current opportunities from those organizations. In addition to providing information regarding content and format, grant guidelines often include significant information regarding the kind of projects funded by the organization. A careful review of an agency’s guidelines usually reveals whether an agency is a viable option for funding a particular project.
Selecting an appropriate agency (i.e. the one most likely to fund a particular project) becomes easier after thoroughly reviewing grant guidelines and making initial contact with funding agency representatives. Some writers have indicated that they use this initial contact to discuss their ideas and determine whether submitting a grant at that time is worthwhile. After identifying agencies that appear to fund projects similar to their own, writers can request guidelines from them.
Draft and revise the proposal. Experienced writers do not tackle a large project all at once. Rather, they chunk their writing projects, drafting one section at a time until the whole is complete. Grant writers at all levels can do the same. Because the guidelines provide specific information regarding content requirements, they can be used to develop an outline of each section of the draft. After making an outline, writers can work on one section at a time until the grant is complete.
Review the proposal. Most writers have a difficult time reviewing their own work. Because they know what they meant to write, they often have difficulty seeing how different what they meant is from what they actually wrote. For this reason, it is best to ask someone unfamiliar with the project to read the draft to identify unanswered questions, unclear statements, or errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling. Ask someone technical to review the proposal for accuracy. Then ask someone outside the industry to review for flow. This second step can help the funders explain to their supporters why they invested in the project.
Writing Style Tips
A well-written proposal adheres to the standards of good professional writing. Therefore, grant writers should strive to make their proposals clear and easy to understand. Below are ten tips for professional writing. Writers should be aware that these tips are only guidelines; good reasons for ignoring some of them exist, so writers must use their best judgment when finalizing their proposals.
- Remember the reader. Reader expectations are established by the grant guidelines, so it is best to include information that is asked for in the order in which readers expect it. Also remember that some readers may not be familiar with law enforcement jargon, so including it may confuse rather than clarify the message. Finally, readers are busy. Many readers review more than one proposal in a sitting. To ensure that a busy reader is left with a good impression, writers should strive to make their writing clear and easy to
- Begin with the main point. Readers should not have to hunt for important information. Forcing them to do so makes their task more difficult and potentially frustrating. By beginning each paragraph with the main point, writers provide context for readers, and they make accessing important information
- Be concise. Redundant or long-winded sentences and paragraphs are distracting. Use enough words to convey your point, but no more. For example, it is preferable to start the narrative with language such as, “To begin this project we will…” etc., instead of a sentiment that reads, “In order to undertake the beginning of this strategic project, this agency will commence by…”
- Use clear specific language. Big words and jargon often complicate rather clarify a message. Plain, straightforward, English is often the most effective approach. For example, it is often preferable to write begin rather than commence and end rather than
- Write in a friendly, professional style. An extremely formal or an extremely casual tone often detracts from the message. As a guideline, grant writers can write in the same style they would use to speak to an important, intelligent colleague or supervisor in a professional
- Prefer active voice. Active voice (She threw the ball.) is preferable to passive voice (The ball was thrown) because it clearly conveys the sentence’s subject (she) and verb (threw) in the order in which most people expect to receive them (subject before verb). When possible, write in active voice to let the reader know who did (or will do) what.
- Move from known information to new information. Good writers provide context for new ideas. They do not simply “jump into” a new topic without warning. Including transitions that connect new ideas to those already present enables readers to follow the discussion and understand how ideas are connected.
- Avoid complicated sentences. Too many complicated sentences make a document overwhelming and hard to follow. Writers should strive to limit the number of long, complicated sentences by varying sentence length. Clarify messages by adhering to tips 3 and
- Use correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Whether good or poor, writing reflects on the writer. Sloppy writing indicates carelessness; and clear, correct writing suggests that the writer is clear thinking and careful. To make the best first impression, writers should ensure that the final draft is written in correct
- Use signal words. Good writers guide their readers through their documents by including transitional words that tell them what to expect. For example, “therefore” indicates that an important conclusion follows; “because” indicates that a reason is being presented; “first, second and third” indicate chronology or steps in a plan; and “in addition” indicates that the point that follows is directly related to the previous point. These and other signal words can be very helpful to readers, if they are not
Some grant guidelines include information about formatting the grant proposal. In these cases, the best option is to follow the guidelines. Most grant guidelines today require online submission of proposals. By requiring electronic grant applications, the funder can keep applicants from exceeding page limits, or even the length of specific sections within the proposals. Instead of composing proposals within the electronic submission system, type your proposal in a word processing program such as Microsoft Word. Use the
“Word Count” feature under the “Review” tab to keep track of the number of characters you have written. Once your proposal has been completed, copy and paste each section into the online system one section at a time. If you have charts, graphs, pictures, or letters of support that you would like to add to your proposal, add those files as attachments or simply mail them to the funder, with an original copy of your proposal.
Resources and Assistance
Undertaking a grant research and writing project can be overwhelming and time consuming, but no writer has to do all of the work alone. Writers should consider options for delegating tasks within their agency, and they should consider contacting the following resources, all of which can offer a wide range of assistance:
Colleges and universities: Writers can contact local colleges and universities to determine whether they offer classes in grant writing, editing, professional writing, business writing, statistical analysis, and/or research methods. If such courses are offered, writers can contact professors who teach those courses to determine whether they would be willing to develop a class project in which students help with writing, editing, and project evaluation. Many professors strive to incorporate real world experience in their classes and would be glad to help if given time to plan.
Some colleges and universities offer internship programs that allow students to receive college credit for work they do outside of school. Again, writers can contact professors or college representatives in student services to determine whether an internship (paid or unpaid) can be arranged to help with grant writing, Internet research, etc.
Professional organizations: Some local and national professional organizations for writers, fundraisers, and retired professionals may provide free help or advice on grant writing and research. Again, writers could contact professors at local colleges for information about these resources.
As with most complicated projects, planning ahead and utilizing available resources help to make the grant writing task much more bearable. Additional tips can be found in the resources listed in the bibliography that follows.
Brusaw, C., Alred, G.J. & Olin, W.E. (1996) The Concise Handbook for Technical Writing. NY: St. Martin’s Press. Coley, S.M. & Scheinberg, C.A. (1990) Proposal Writing. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Evaluating a Web Site. Westminster College Giovale Library web site. http://www.wcslc.edu/library/Online-info/web_eval/web_eval.htm. The Foundation Center web site. http://fdncenter.org/.
Guidestar web site. http://www.guidestar.org.
Locke, L.F., Spirduso, W.W., & Silverman, S.J. (1993) Proposals That Work: A Guide for Planning Dissertations and Grant Proposals. (3rd ed.) NY: Sage Publications.
Locker, K.O. (1997) Business and Administrative Communications. (4th ed.) NY: Irwin McGraw Hill. A Proposal Writing Short Course. The Foundation Center web site. http://foundationcenter.org/getstarted/tutorials/shortcourse/index.html.
Checklist for an Informational Webpage. Widener University Wolfgram Memorial Library web site. http://www.widener.edu/about/campus_resources/wolfgram_library/evaluate/info.aspx.
Williams, J.M. (1994) Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. (4th ed.) NY: HarperCollins.