Posts Tagged ‘grant writing’

An exercise to evaluate grant proposals

Recently, nonprofit consulting firm, Amanda Johnston Consulting, released their Grant Writer’s Toolkit, an educational resource that provides strategies, worksheets, and case studies for grant writers who are passionate about winning more funding for their organizations. Amanda Johnston is generously sharing excerpts from this resource with CausePlanet readers. This is the first: an exercise designed to help you evaluate your grant proposals. Find out more about her toolkit at Amanda Johnston Consulting.

Use the scale below to score various components of your proposal narrative. This tool will help you identify the strengths and weaknesses in your application. Add the points from each section to see your total score.

Use the following scale:

1 Totally Agree

2 Agree

3 Neutral

4 Disagree

5 Totally Disagree


______ Proposal demonstrates a real need/problem.

It does so by using data, case studies, interviews, focus group results, media attention, etc.

______ Proposal demonstrates timeliness and/or urgency.

It does so by showing that the investment in this work is urgent, pressing; uses recent data, events, press attention.

______ Proposal provides clear and tangible outcomes.

It does so by specifically explaining the objectives and desired outcomes for the project. Examples include improved client status, greater public awareness, new or improved systems, etc.

______ Proposal uses sound methodologies.

It does so by using methods, approaches and strategies that are realistic, effective and outcome-oriented.

______ Proposal demonstrates organizational credibility.

It does so by clearly explaining and demonstrating that the organization has strength in this type of work, name recognition, a track record of achievements, a unique position and/or providing letters of support.

______ Proposal clearly explains staffing for the project.

It does so by appropriately allocating human resources to this project specifically, including internal staff, use of consultants, advisory committee, etc.

______ Proposal clearly explains participation for the project.

It does so by identifying the stakeholders, partners, clients, beneficiaries and funder representatives who will participate in the planning, implementation and/or evaluation of the project.

______ Proposal clearly explains collaboration efforts for the projects.

It does so by including new partnerships and an overall collaborative approach.

______ Proposal demonstrates creativity and uniqueness.

It does so by using a concept that is innovative and not redundant with other projects.

______ Proposal demonstrates the projects’ multicultural/intergenerational efforts.

It does so by providing a clear recognition of the value of diversity and use of multicultural and/or intergenerational approach.

______ Proposal has a solid evaluation plan.

It does so by clearly explaining who, what, where, when, why and how the project will be evaluated.

______ Proposal demonstrates a project dissemination plan.

It does so by explaining how the results of the project will be effectively disseminated – through peer review journals, press events, mailings, websites, etc.

______ Proposal demonstrates project replicability.

It does so by clearly explaining how the proposed model can be replicated in other organizations.

______ Proposal demonstrates sustainability.

It does so by clearly explaining how the project is sustainable, including what funding has been awarded and what further funding is being pursued.

______ Proposal explains in-kind contributions.

It does so by clearly explaining what in-kind contributions have been awarded or what further in-kind contributions are being pursued. (funding, staffing, equipment, office space, etc.)

______ Proposal explains the organization’s use of technology.

It does so by demonstrating the organization’s willingness to use the most up-to-date and emerging technologies.

______ Proposal demonstrates overall value of the project.

It does so by explaining how the overall value of the project (relationship of benefits to cost) is high. The overhead rate is reasonable and competitive.

______ Proposal demonstrates how the project fits with the funder.

It does so by clearly explaining how the project fits with funder priorities and parameters. It is based on research and pre-submission conversations with the funder.

______ Proposal demonstrates clarity, organization and completeness.

It does so by ensuring the proposal content is well organized with a local progression of ideas. The writing style is concise and the funding guidelines are strictly followed.

______ Proposal is presented in a visually appealing manner.

It does so by including graphics/charts/tables, exhibits, marketing materials. Proposal is neat and orderly.


Total Score:


Reviewer: ______________________

Comments: _____________________

© 2013, Amanda Johnston All Rights Reserved

Excerpt from the Grant Writer’s Toolkit

Available at:

See also:

Storytelling for Grantseekers: A Guide to Creative Nonprofit Fundraising

The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants

How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money

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Breakthrough fundraising strategies for tireless grantseekers

Six mistakes even experienced fundraisers make and how to avoid them

1) Make sure you are asking for the right amount.

2) Do the math: keep track of your success rate.

3) Learn the rules, then break them.

4) Cultivate good relationships and update your grantors, even when you aren’t asking for money.

5) Participate in a grants review committee and learn how proposals are scored firsthand.

6) If you get declined, find out why.

A closer look at motivating grant makers

1) Make sure you are asking for the right amount.

When submitting a grant proposal, it is essential to find out what the grant making organization’s average gift size is, so you can be sure your request is on target. You can learn this by looking at their 990’s, which are public documents available through places like your local library and county public records office or online through the Foundation Center database or Guidestar directory. Many foundations and corporate charitable giving arms list the names and award amounts of their grantees on their website, but if you want to dig a little deeper into a particular foundation’s giving history, The Foundation Center directory will allow you to pull up the average, largest and smallest gift a foundation has made over the last few years. You may be eligible for a larger grant amount than you think and many organizations err on the side of asking for too little. Do not get caught in the cycle of asking for $10,000 every year just because you always have. You may discover that another organization with a similar mission and operating budget has been receiving larger grants each year and you have not because you didn’t ask for it.

2) Do the math: keep track of your success rate.

If you want to increase your grant dollars, it is very important to know what the overall success rate of your organization is. To do this, you must calculate how many proposals you submitted over the course of one year, the total dollar amount of all requests submitted, and the number and total dollar amount of grants awarded that year. If you received 30% of the total amount requested and you need to raise $100,000 in grant funding this year, you will need to plan to make $300,000 in grants over the next 12 months. Then you will find that doing step one, making sure you are asking for the right amount, will help you plan the total number of proposals and dollar amounts per request to submit to meet your fundraising goal. This is assuming you are asking for funding from places you already know are a good match, are interested in your mission and have either funded you or other nonprofits like yours in the past.

3) Learn the rules, then break them.

You can compare the next point to writing. In order to become a good writer, you first have to learn good grammar and punctuation rules, but once you understand the basics, you can intentionally break the rules to establish your own style. I have seen this rule-breaking trend often over the past few years, as the economy has hit nonprofits particularly hard. I have seen organizations that were facing a deficit budget or were at risk of closing their doors make a special appeal to foundations for the funding they needed to carry through. We have to remember that these grant-making organizations are not banks but are made up of real people who care about your mission, probably for some very personal reasons. If you need emergency funding or have a time sensitive project, go to your grantors outside of their grants cycle, explain your situation and ask for permission to submit a special request. This tactic is not likely to work with government agencies or strict corporate giving arms but may be probable with family foundations where you have built good personal relationships with people who care about your work.

4) Cultivate good relationships and stay in touch with grantors, even when you aren’t asking for money.

Make a habit of sending a monthly update to your donors so they stay current on what is happening with your organization. There are several things you can do to keep the communication open, such as sending newspaper clippings, sending out photos of special events, and if your major donors are accessible, set a date to have lunch once a quarter. It is very important to make sure they know when you reach certain milestones and when you are truly struggling. Find out why they are personally interested in your work. You may not always want to grow or operate in exactly the way your donors want you to, but keeping communications open and giving them plenty of opportunities to stay involved and feel good about supporting you will help strengthen your partnerships and make it a lot easier to go to them for increased funding when you need it.

5) Participate in a grants review committee and learn how proposals are scored firsthand.

Many places like the United Way, government agencies and local community foundations use volunteer review committees to score proposals and make decisions on how to distribute the funds available to various organizations. A great way to learn about the scoring and distribution process is to volunteer to serve on one of these committees. Some committees divide the proposals into sections, score each part individually and then fund the ones with the highest overall score. Participating in one of these review committees is a great way to see how the process works firsthand. By doing so, you are being a good citizen and getting involved in important decisions for your community. It is best to avoid any conflict of interest, so if for example you are involved in an arts organization, choose to serve on a committee around education. The process is the same and it will help you understand how people outside your world view your work.

6) If you get declined, find out why.

You may have to ask more than once to get a real answer, but if your proposal is declined, do not accept the standard response form that says, thank you for submitting your request but unfortunately we have limited funding at this time. Make sure you have a real conversation with the foundation’s program officer about why you were turned down, and if there was a review committee, ask to see how the proposal was scored. Read the reviewer’s comments and share that information with your colleagues. It is impossible to improve your overall success rate if you do not have a real understanding of why the proposal was declined. Sometimes, the answer truly is that there was not enough funding and the donor is supporting organizations with which he/she has a long history. If you can commit yourself to engaging someone in a real conversation after each decline, you will take great strides to improve your process and your success rate.

See also:

Level Best: How Small and Grassroots Nonprofits Can Tackle Evaluation and Talk Results

Storytelling for Grantseekers

The Ultimte Insider’s Guide to Winning Foundation Grants



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When seeking grant funding, remember your financials tell a story

The competition for grant funding is high, and foundations and other grantmakers are faced with making very difficult funding decisions during every grant cycle. Many foundations, for example, decline more than half the proposals they receive. Tightening funding streams also means that some funders have less resources for grantmaking than in the past, making funding less secure for even long-time grantees. With all these challenges facing grantseekers, all nonprofit organizations can benefit from taking the time to ensure that every aspect of their grant applications are telling positive stories about their organizations.

Grantwriters often spend significant amounts of time crafting the narrative sections of their proposals. While the narrative is an essential component of grant success, many organizations fail to realize their financial information often tells equally important stories about their organizations. For many organizations, the financial information is often attached as an afterthought but plays a significant role in how a grant reviewer interprets a grant application.

To share financial information with a grant application, here are some suggested topics to cover. In other words, here are some stories your financial information can tell about your organization:

Positive information: Nonprofit organizations record items like multi-year pledges, cash reserves, building a capital fund and other positive situations in many different ways. While most program officers are skilled at interpreting financial statements, it is sometimes difficult to discern what these mean for an organization. If an organization is building significant cash reserves for a capital campaign but does not explain the purpose of the fund, a grant reviewer can interpret such a fund as sitting on too much cash. He/she may think the organization is not using it to advance an organizational mission or it is at a comparatively lower level of need for funding compared to other applicants.

Negative information: The last few years have been difficult for many nonprofit organizations, with organizations dipping into cash reserves, experiencing deficits or shrinking budgets. These scenarios are obvious on financial statements, yet financial statements almost never come with any explanation from the applicant organization. If your organization’s financial statements reflect one of these situations, it can be important to explain the root causes, how the situation has affected your organization and the steps you are taking to control or reverse the situation. Without these kinds of explanations, a funder is often left with only one reasonable interpretation: the negative trend will either stay steady or continue, making a grant a risky proposition.

Scope of activities: Financial statements often help verify an organization’s priorities. If an organization is seeking funding for a specific program and states in the narrative the program is a top priority, a grant reviewer can use financial statements to gauge whether or not the program is reflected as a priority in how the organization uses its financial resources. Financial information can also help a grant reviewer assess the depth of an organization’s programs. For example, if an organization states that it serves thousands of individuals but has a very small cash and in-kind budget, a reviewer can conclude that an organization is not providing a high level of service or may be exaggerating its reach.

When submitting grant applications, it is always wise to minimize the red flags. Many funders do a preliminary review of proposals that does not include phone calls, site visits or requests for additional information. If your proposal contains a few red flags with regards to your financial information, a funder can decide to decline your application during the preliminary review, which never gives your organization the opportunity to provide additional information that might eliminate concerns. Because so many nonprofits are facing financial challenges, many funders will be far more sympathetic when an explanation and course of action are shared, rather than leaving a funder to make an interpretation on his/her own.

Many grant applications, including the Colorado Common Grant Application, allow applicants to submit a budget narrative. In reviewing hundreds of grant applications in recent years, I have seen very few organizations use this optional attachment but have seen dozens of financial statements that tell a negative or unexplained positive story about an organization.

These scenarios leave the grant reviewer to interpret the situation, rather than rely on information directly from your organization to explain the situation. To help increase your success with grant funding, take the time to see what story your financials are telling about your organization and if it leaves room for negative interpretations. Take the time to help your financials tell a more complete version of your organization’s story. By taking the time to explain your organization’s financial situation, you can help minimize red flags and maximize your organization’s chances at funding success.

See also:

Storytelling for Grantseekers

The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Winning Grants

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