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Seven Steps to Focus on the Art and Science of Grant Writing

June 11, 2018

By Jennifer Wilson

Jennifer WilsonWriting grant proposals can be one of the most rewarding parts of fundraising. You can entrench yourself in writing, curate beautiful stories and become one with the written word. You come out feeling like you’ve created a masterpiece and are confident that anyone reading your work would award you money. So why is your grant portfolio underperforming?

Often it has to do with one of three things: prospect selection, funding type and content.

  • Prospect selection is key. Grant writing is not exclusively a numbers game. Sending out 400 proposals to grant makers with a mandate to support sustainable farming practices won’t help you if your organization offers art programs to older adults. Instead focus on a number of carefully crafted and well-aligned proposals.
  • Consider what you need the funding for. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find grants that award funding for operating costs. Grants are well-positioned for pilot projects, program and service-delivery expansions, capital projects, and revitalization work.  
  • Generate content that balances the art and the science. Grant makers come in many forms: corporate CSR departments, foundations (private family, corporate, community, etc.), and provincial and federal government programs and agencies. They each have unique communication styles, motivational factors, expectations of grant recipients and approaches to how they operate. But one thing they all have in common is that they are looking for content that balances, what I call, the "art and the science."

The art of the proposal is the storytelling component. Everyone loves a good story. The way that you curate the content in your proposal needs to ignite the reader’s spirit, their sense of social responsibility, and their desire to give.

The science component comes down to facts. It doesn’t matter how beautifully you articulate your mission and the financial need of your organization. If the reader does not believe that your organization has the capacity to put the funds to good use, you will not be awarded the grant.

Seven Steps to Focus on the Art and the Science

(...and because a lot of organizations do better with the art, I’m going to focus 6 out of 7 steps on the science.)

  1. Curate personal stories. Every organization and every individual that is served by the organization has a story. Take the time to tell these stories well. Generate content that comes from the end-user. Evoke emotion and articulate the broader social impact of your work.
  2. Showcase the organization’s track record of success. Simply put, you need to convey the organization’s ability to get the job done. Detail examples of how your program has grown, how the impact has increased, or how you focus on continual quality improvement.
  3. Communicate existing capacity. Cite organizational tools and knowledge assets that impact your ability to carry out the work. Perhaps you have an evaluations department or a project management office that will support the proposed initiative, or maybe you use a Social Return on Investment tool. 
  4. Develop a well-thought-out plan. The most common thing I see when working with organizations is great intentions, a clear vision, wonderful staff—and no plan. You need to articulate a plan. If the initiative that you’re seeking funding for is adaptive/agile (it will take shape as it unfolds), you still need a plan for how you will manage its adaptability. No one will grant you money without having confidence in your ability to translate a vision into a plan and then operationalize it.
  5. Leverage partnerships to optimize outcomes. This is about doing more with less and makes organizations stand out. If you can serve more people with a higher impact because you understand the value of collaboration and partnership, then your future is bright. Partnerships are becoming increasingly important to all types of grant makers. 
  6. Evaluate. Saying you will "evaluate" the initiative is not enough. How will you evaluate? What will you evaluate? Will you determine core objectives and success criteria at the outset? Will you collect quantitative data such as the number of people served or qualitative data such as end-user testimonials, or both? Research, plan and implement evaluative tools. 
  7. Articulate a comprehensive approach in a clear and concise way. This comes down to the quality of format, structure, and writing. Take your time and leverage team members with strong written communication skills. 

Jennifer Wilson is a Toronto-based nonprofit specialist with 15 years experience helping organizations increase their impact. She is passionate about stakeholder engagement, fund development, project management, communications and strategic growth. Her personal mission is to impact positive social change. Contact her at

4300 Wilson Blvd, Suite 300, Arlington, VA 22203 • 703-684-0410 | 800-666-3863 | Fax: 703-684-0540
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