10 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Grant Writing

Sometimes the art of grant writing feels more like coloring in a coloring book than painting freehand, and when it comes to the rules, you want to make sure you are coloring within the lines. As mentioned previously, the last thing you want to do is hand a grantor a reason NOT to fund your project.

Grantors have specific guidelines for the proposal processes, and it is for good reasons; their mission statements dictate their funds, or they may have corporate priorities or civic responsibilities. For the grantor to remain compliant with its mission, they need to fund projects that fall within their scope of work. Also, to maximize their resources, grantors often limit their funding amounts. Another reason is volume. Grantors receive a significant number of applications, and to be fair and streamline the process, they put in place rules.

You must pay attention to these guidelines. If a grantor asks for you to submit your proposal on purple paper during a rainstorm on February 29th of a leap year, don’t bother sending a proposal electronically on a sunny Wednesday in March. You may think this is a silly example, but I submitted a grant before where I was required to type “Grant Writing is Awesome” at the bottom of my proposal.

It shouldn’t be hard to figure out what a grantor expects with a little time and some basic research. After you have identified the appropriate grantor and have utilized your connections to build relationships, you need to spend some time understanding the requirements of the proposal itself.

Here is a list of questions that you need to know the answer to before you begin writing:

When are the Grant Deadlines?

Grantors have different deadlines, and those deadlines don’t necessarily fall within fiscal quarters. Some grantors accept applications on a rolling basis, and some accept proposals during a specific window. Make sure to pay close attention so that you do not miss critical dates.

Are there Different Deadlines for Different Giving Priorities?

Are there Different Deadlines for Different Giving Priorities?

Sometimes, if the grantor has several giving priorities, they stagger the deadlines. For instance, if they fund Arts, Animal Welfare, Community Development, and Education, they may receive arts proposals only during the first quarter of the year, then animal welfare grants during the second quarter and so on. If you have done all your research and you know that this grantor supports the work you want to fund, it still won’t do you any good if you turn in your application during the wrong funding window.

How Do They Want to Receive the Application?

It used to be standard practice to submit paper proposals through the mail, and you were often required to print off and collate a specific number of copies. Nowadays, electronic submission is much more common. Still, even with electronic submissions, you need to know if you should email a pdf to the program officer or upload your proposal to a grant portal. Some grantors will even accept or require video submissions or online presentation links such as Prezi.com. Whether the grantor accepts proposals via videos and links or requests that eight hard copies are flown in by carrier pigeon, pay attention to the rules!

Do they require a letter of inquiry?

Do they require a letter of inquiry?

Sometimes grantors want to save you the time of producing an entire proposal if your request isn’t ultimately a good fit, so they require a letter of inquiry first. Letters of Inquiry range in formality from a cover letter type document to a short two to three-page proposal. If a letter of inquiry, otherwise referred to as an LOI or Letter of Intent, is required, then save yourself some time and effort and produce the best-summarized proposal you can.

Is this a Public Competition?

Competitions are especially popular with corporate grantors. These competitions increase awareness regarding the company’s philanthropic aims and ultimately serve to promote the company. These competitions range from social media campaigns to public forums where applicants are asked to present their requests in front of a crowd. Whether you are interested in participating in this type of funding opportunity will indicate if this is a collaboration you should pursue.

What Sections are Required?

Funders seek different information, so it is essential to know what sections to include in your proposal. Some may want detailed information about project budgets, goals, and aims, whereas others may only be interested in your organization as a whole. While there are specific sections that are often required, you never know for sure what a grantor will expect until you do your homework. At the end of this book in Appendix III, you can review an example of a common grant application to see that types of sections are typically listed. Also, chapters eight through eleven of this book focus on the common sections in depth.

Are there Word Counts or Character Limits for Each Section?

Good news, this rule will be easy to follow! If a grantor has a specific word count or character limit on their proposal sections, you likely won’t be able to add more than they require. However, the difficulty may arise in trying to limit your content. Also, if, for some reason, they have a flexible word limit, then you will need to become good friends with your word count function in your Word or Google Doc.

Do they Suggest a Page Length?

If the grantor doesn’t enforce word limits or character limits, then you want to try to get a feel for how many pages they expect to receive. Your proposal should fall within the grantor’s stated length so as not to provide too much or too little information.

If the grantor does not state how long they expect your proposal to be, then this is a great question to ask a Program Officer. For instance, I once asked a Program Officer this question, and they responded with this statement:

“We want you to write as much as you feel you need to write to us to get a good feel for your program. For some, they write more concisely and may submit a shorter proposal; for others, they are wordier, and they may submit a longer proposal. It is up to you…That being said…don’t submit a 20-page proposal!”

What Documents do They Require?

What Documents do They Require?

As discussed in the first chapter, foundations often require additional documents. If the proposal you are writing indicates that you are required to upload a resume, research documents, transcripts, and letters of recommendation, then make sure to upload each of these documents. Here is the list of typically required documents again, however your grantor may require other items or not require something covered on the list.

How Should I Format my Proposal?

When you review the grantor’s application pay close attention to the words and priorities they mention in their funding announcement. Below is an example of a grant opportunity available at the end of 2019. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, like many other funders, posts current opportunities on their website. You can check out www.gatesfoundation.org for current opportunities.

Top Priorities for Maternal, Neonatal, and Child Health in Africa“ GRAND CHALLENGES AFRICA DATE OPEN: 27 NOV 2019 DEADLINE: 14 JAN 2020 – 11:15PM PST

The African Academy of Sciences (AAS), the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, BMBF) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have come together in a transformative partnership to support African investigators to accelerate MNCH targets towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for health.

The first initiative of the partnership is to launch a new Grand Challenge: Focusing on top priorities for MNCH in Africa – solutions to meet the Sustainable Development Goal 3 targets for maternal, neonatal and child health.

This challenge focuses on the top priorities for MNCH in Africa 2019 and aligns with the findings of the MNCH research prioritization using The Child Health and Nutrition Research Initiative (CHNRI) process conducted in 2019 in Africa. CHNRI uses the principles of wisdom of the crowds to systematically collect and transparently score research options against important criteria in a particular field. In a three-stage democratic process lasting 7 months, the MNCH expert convening 2019, aggregated thoughts from MNCH experts working in Africa and showed that there is a need to concentrate on four areas of importance in MNCH that remain a grand challenge for Africa. These are:

  • Better health during pregnancy.
  • Better care at birth.
  • Better post-birth care for women and their newborns.
  • Better hospital care of sick newborns.

The aggregated research priorities are across the spectrum of health research and in all four domains of description (epidemiology), discovery (new interventions), development (improvement of existing interventions), and delivery (implementation research, including health systems).

This is, therefore, a call for proposals looking for big, bold, innovative ideas that can have the greatest impact on African maternal and neonatal health with the potential for future sustainability and scaling.”

When you review opportunities and are preparing to write your proposal make sure to pay attention to the keywords and phrases used by the grantor. In the example above the foundation talks about supporting “African Investigators”, focusing on four aggregated research priorities: “description, discovery, development, and delivery”, and that they welcome “big, bold, innovative” ideas. Don’t use synonyms for these phrases, grantors spend a lot of time creating their funding announcements; they choose words carefully and with purpose. Make it easy for the grantor to see how your project idea matches their goals.

The announcement also mentions four focus areas for projects. “better health during pregnancy, better care at birth, better post-birth care for women and their newborns, better hospital care of sick newborns.” Applicants must show how their project matches one of these goals. Therefore, these phrases should be clearly listed in your proposal format as a heading.

Formatting proposals is an area where grant writing is more prescriptive than creative. Your objective is to clearly show that you have a deep understanding of the grantor’s priorities and that your project matches their work. Use your proposal format as an opportunity to show that connection through headings and the use of their keywords and phrases.


Whether you plan to write a two-page, informal letter of inquiry to a small family foundation or you submit a proposal to a federal agency, one aspect of the process remains the same; you must follow the rules. Read through the application procedures carefully and make sure you have a complete understanding of the priority areas of the grantor for which you are seeking funds. Do not make the decision easy for the grantor to deny your proposal by neglecting to adhere to a stated requirement.

Grant writing is an art. If you are an excellent poet, but you try to enter a painting competition, you won’t be winning any awards. Grantors pay close attention to their focus areas and requirements; it is up to you to understand their rules and to submit a proposal that meets their expectations. Following their rules is the first step in achieving eligibility for funds.