5 Golden Rules for Grant Writing

A great plan is important and your project may be the greatest thing ever contemplated, but if the writing gets in the way or your reviewer can’t find the information she needs, you won’t be approved. These five simple rules will help make sure your project shines.

  1. Keep it simple.

The project may be complex but you should be able to describe it in simple terms.

  1. Make it scannable. 

  • Use short sentences and paragraphs.
  • Provide a topic sentence for scanning.
  • Use headings and subheadings that align with the rubric to guide your reader through your document.
  1. Edit your work.

  • Rewrite to avoid excess words.
  • Watchword counts to meet requirements.
  1. Write so anyone can understand it. 

  • Have a non-educator read and edit it.
  • Avoid acronyms and jargon.
  1. Remember the human face—who are you writing for? 

  • Use shared themes and language that show your program aligns with the grant goals and values.
  • Give anecdotes, examples, quotes, etc. to help your reader connect with the students your program will be serving.
  • Remember that your reviewer may not be familiar with your school or the focus of your project. Tell your story in a way that invites the reader into your vision.

A Grant Writer’s Workflow

A Grant Writer’s Workflow

To help you envision how this works, I am sharing the process I use to complete an application. Your process may look different, but it’s a starting point. This process assumes you have already identified a grant you are interested in. I am describing a medium-sized grant with multiple attachments.

  1. Review basic details about a potential grant. Check alignment with goals and priorities. Make the decision to apply or seek approval to apply.
  2. Deconstruct information in the application and website to capture details, language, and values/priorities for a grant. Make note of application deadline, notification dates, and funding procedures.
  3. Download and review any rubrics and templates, such as a formatted budget or other data tracking spreadsheets.
  4. Participate in a webinar or any training available.
  5. Develop your vision for the program; what will be better after the program ends?
  6. Create a purpose statement.
  7. Develop program goals in alignment with grant goals.
  8. Set up a document for your proposal draft. Copy all the questions from the application into the document, including word counts and other instructions.
  9. Fill in the easy information into your documents, such as school contact information, tax identification, and mission/vision statements from your planning documents. These should all be copied and pasted into the document to avoid the risk of typographical errors.
  10. Take note of any information requests that require further work. You may need to create new documents or seek information from others in your organization. Send email requests now to gather information and make a plan to send reminders in a good time.
  11. As you begin to make decisions about your program, add details to the appropriate section in your draft document. Don’t worry about formatting or formal writing at this point. Just get the ideas into each section.
  12. Develop the first draft of your budget, action plan, and timeline. Review with stakeholders and revise as needed.
  13. Finalize your plans with input from stakeholders.
  14. Develop your final answers to each question, checking to be sure you have fully described your plans and expected outcomes.
  15. Double-check that your budget, goals, and timeline all match up.
  16. Review the application carefully to ensure you answered every question completely. Often there are two or more questions in one, so watch for those.
  17. Review the rubric, if available, and compare your application to the criteria for the highest points possible. Make any edits needed to reach the highest standard.
  18. Print out the full application and edit ruthlessly. Revise the document.
  19. Send reminder emails for any missing information.
  20. Share the application with someone who is not familiar with your plans. Have that person edit for clarity and comprehensiveness. Revise the document.
  21. Collect all required and optional upload documents. Ensure that they are in an acceptable format and meet word count or page count requirements.
  22. Compose the cover letter or introductory email if allowed.
  23. Copy all text into the online application system or prepare the paper application, as described in the grant application instructions.
  24. Attach all related documents.
  25. Submit.
  26. Make a note in your calendar of the expected date for notification of awards.

This list is an overview to help you see the whole picture. In the next few sections, we’ll go into detail for each part of the application.


Create Your Project Schedule

Whether you are working alone or with a team, you need to allow yourself the time it takes to do your best work. It’s time to set up a project schedule. How often will your grants committee be meeting? If you are working alone, when and where will you work on this proposal? Who will edit for you? How long do you have until the application is due? What milestones can you plan to keep yourself on schedule?

Start with the application deadline, and back up your schedule from there. Determine how much time you need to gather data and documentation, plan your program goals, develop your budget and timeline, and draft your narrative. Then double it. It always takes longer than you expect.

If you are working with a committee, set up your meetings on the calendar and be faithful to your schedule. You set the tone for your team. Have you completed the tasks you agreed to do? Do you make the meetings a priority? Do you mute your cell phone to ensure you are fully present at each meeting? If you do, your team will follow your example.

If you are working alone, set time aside on your calendar in one- or two-hour blocks and keep your appointments with yourself. For most people, it is difficult to focus on intense grant writing for more than two hours at a stretch so it is far better to plan for shorter sessions a couple of times a week.


Tactic 2: Identify the Problem You Will Solve

In the rest of this chapter, we will take your proposed project from a big idea to a detailed plan. We will create a needs statement that expresses how you know it matters and what factors support your understanding of the problem. Then we will develop your action plan, or what you want to do about the problem. Finally, we’ll determine how you will know if your plan worked.


Find the Root Cause

Let’s imagine that your big idea for this grant is to create a summer reading program for middle school students. You believe that you can improve student engagement with a reading by offering a creative program that addresses the unique interests and needs of this age group. That’s your vision. The idea is important because research and your school data show that students are consistently losing reading skills over the summer break. That’s the problem you want to solve. But what caused this problem? You need to find the root cause.

What is the root cause? A root cause is a basic factor that, if removed or corrected, will prevent recurrence of the issue, problem, or behavior under review. You may need to dig deep to find the underlying cause. You don’t want to just put a bandage on the surface.

Dissolving the root causes of a persistent problem can be the most cost-effective way to resolve the issue. When you seek to understand the underlying factors, you also examine the impact and history of the problem. Your grant proposal will be stronger and your solution will be more successful when you have done this work.

Start by asking yourself “why” this is a problem. Then keep asking why until you get to the place where you know you have hit the deeper issue. This strategy is sometimes called “five whys” because it can take up to five levels to get to the root.


You are seeing a drop in reading scores every year when students return to school after the summer break.

Why are you seeing a drop in scores? Because students are not reading voluntarily during school breaks.

Why are students choosing not to read? Because they prefer to engage with social media or watch movies in their free time.

Why don’t they choose to read books?

  1. Because it’s not cool to read.
  2. Because they haven’t developed the habit of reading in free time.
  3. Because they can’t find books of interest.
  4. Because they don’t have access to quality books at home.
  5. Because reading takes more effort than watching movies.

There are several possible causes for this problem. To support your conclusions, you might wish to survey students to better understand why they don’t read at home. For each of these suggestions, answer with another “why” question and continue until you feel you have reached the root cause.

You would also want to evaluate your assessment data to determine if results vary by certain demographics. For example, is this a problem that impacts boys more than girls? Does it change by grade level? Are there economic or cultural factors in play? Based on your research, your plan would need to address each reason that is validated and offer a solution.

Grant agencies are looking for opportunities to have an impact on a significant problem in an area that they care about. A deeper understanding of the problem will help you craft a stronger proposal.

Establish the Need

Every grant funder that supports schools wants to have an impact on improving student achievement. The overall question that you need to answer is:

What needs to be improved to increase student achievement and how can this grant program support that effort?

Many grant applications will ask you to justify the need for your program. This is called a needs statement. A needs statement typically focuses on the difference between what is and what you’d like to see. You may be working to reduce gaps in student knowledge and skills. You may want to improve access to opportunities for underserved populations. Perhaps you hope to provide training for your teachers so they can support students with mental health issues. Whatever your goal, your proposal will be richer and more compelling if you write your needs statement based on an accurate needs assessment.


What Is a Needs Assessment?

What Is a Needs Assessment?

A needs assessment is the process of collecting and evaluating data to support your needs statement. There are three typical sources for this data. First, you can collect data through a survey of your community to demonstrate the need for your program. You might survey your students, parents, and teachers, for example, to show there is an interest in the summer reading program you are proposing. Second, you can review literature in your subject and pull quotes that support your ideas. Imagine your data suggests that a high number of your struggling students are ELL students (English Language Learners). In this case, you might review the literature on the challenges facing students learning English as a second language and why they can’t or don’t read at home. You’ll look for expert opinions to support your reading program for this target population. Third, you can also use statistical data, such as assessment scores, enrollment trends, demographics, or graduation rates to show the need.

Let’s use academic data to demonstrate the process. Start with assessment results for your target population, and for the general population for comparison. If possible, you will want to review data covering several years to document trends and patterns.

Ask yourself or your team to consider these questions:

  • What is our current performance level for each grade level and each major tested subject area?
  • What trends are noticeable within various demographic subgroups?
  • What is the expected performance level for each?

Your detailed answers to these questions will set the stage for writing the rest of your plan.

Next, we need to analyze the gap between current and desired results. This analysis provides realistic targets for your goals and objectives.

You can use these guiding questions to continue your analysis:

  • What is the distance between current versus expected?
  • How long do we have to meet goals?
  • What do we need to do differently to meet these goals?

First, you determine “what is now,” based on performance data, and then you identify “what should be,” based on standards and school goals. Next, you rewrite these ideas to form your objectives. Then, you’ll use these objectives as the basic criteria for evaluation—compare “what is now” to “what should be.” Finally, you’ll determine the distance between the two. How far do you need to move your students to close the gap and how long will it take?

When you write a needs statement, you focus on the problem you want to solve. Describe how this grant program will solve a problem for your students, NOT on how your school needs the money. A needs statement is often just a few sentences to a paragraph. It takes the reader from “what is the need?” to “what will you do about it?” You want to demonstrate your knowledge and insight into the problem and show that you understand it well enough to address it effectively.


What Will You Do About It?

Describe the problem from the perspective of the community and your school. Tell a story to illustrate the need and back it up with data to make your case. The type of data you use will depend on the focus of your grant program. Typically, you need to describe your school demographics, your assessment data, and possibly other data such as enrollment patterns, teacher retention trends, or graduation rates.

Ask yourself: What needs to be improved to increase student achievement across the school and how can this grant program support that effort?

Your needs statement should:

  • Align with grant announcement and guidelines
  • Communicate your school’s experience with the project activities
  • Include concise and compelling anecdotes illustrating the need for the project (student stories)

Proposals will be read for their fit with the grantmaker’s goals. Show how your project clearly advances those goals.

Develop ambitious but realistic goals.

  • Aligned with grantmaker’s goals
  • Keep reviewers and grantmaker in mind

Offer concrete outcomes.

  • Use numbers to define your expected outcomes
  • Outcomes vs. outputs: outputs are measures of program activities (100 students participated); outcomes are changes that result from the program (increased attendance rate)

Describe the challenges that are preventing you from addressing this issue now.

  • Grant reviewers will be wondering why this program needs their financial support.
  • Describe the hurdles to show that their support is vital or they may just decide another program needs their money more than yours.

Be realistic.

  • Consult experts, review your data trends, be ambitious but realistic.
  • Grant reviewers are familiar with many programs; they know what to expect and what’s likely to be achievable.
  • Improving student achievement by 25 percent in one year is not realistic. Improving by 5 percent per year over five years is more likely.
  • Failure to meet grant goals can make future funding more difficult to find.

Now, look back at the original question.

What needs to be improved to increase student achievement across the school and how can this grant program support that effort?

Have you fully answered this question? Share your work with your team to get feedback. All of the rest of your work will be based on your answers to this question.


Grab Attention with a Great Title

Grab Attention with a Great Title

The title of your grant is often overlooked, but it is the first thing a grant reviewer will see. Take the time to craft an attention-grabbing title.

A good title gives you greater focus as you write your proposal and provides a “handle” for others to grab onto your idea. It also draws grant readers into your program and keeps them turning the pages (or clicking through the application).

A creative title provides focus and direction for your proposal. Base it on your purpose statement. Use strong words or unusual combinations to add emotion and excitement.

A great title has three features. The title should:

  • Predict the grant focus:

What subject areas, grade levels, or target population is the grant aimed at? You can pull this from the purpose statement, people section.

  • Generate curiosity:

Combine unexpected images or emotional words that will cause the reader to think about what you are saying or have an emotional reaction.

  • Promise results:

What is the outcome you expect? Get to the heart of your grant project and tell your reader what difference it will make. You may be able to pull this from your purpose statement, progress section.

Here are some of my favorite titles:

Robotics and Relationships: Building Students One Block at a Time

  • Uses alliteration with “robotics” and “relationships”
  • Incorporates a play on words with “robotics” and “building students”
  • Provides an unexpected combination of ideas (building students and building robots)

Project Runway Boulder: The Mathematics of Sewing

  • Generates curiosity (what does “project runway” have to do with math?)
  • Provides an unexpected combination with “mathematics” and “sewing”

Trout in the Classroom, K, 3, 4 Science

  • Generates curiosity and the unexpected image of fish in the classroom
  • Clearly defines the focus of the grant

Creating and Collaborating with Ukuleles

  • Uses alliteration with “creating,” “collaborating,” and “ukuleles” Defines the focus of the grant
  • Promises results with “creating and collaborating”

Qball – Magically Increasing Engagement and Participation of All Students

  • Generates curiosity with “Qball”
  • Promises results with “engagement and participation for all”
  • Uses strong words with “magically”

None of these titles met all three criteria, and yours might not either. But with careful and creative planning, you can write a title that will get your grant the attention it deserves.


How Much Will It Cost?

Before you go any further, consider your budget. You should have a general idea of what you want to do at this point, so how much will it cost? Brainstorm all the related expenses for the project and make your best guess on costs. What is the total? Add a bit of cushion and then take a look at the grant application again. Are all of the costs you listed allowable? Does your total fall within the range of this grant? If not, it’s better to know now before you do all the work of preparing the proposal.

If the total cost is more than the grant allows, you still have options. You may need to scale back your plans or find a different grant. Or you could consider working with other partners or donors to fund the difference. Maybe you will want to plan a fundraising campaign with parents to support the work. All of these options can actually help make your grant proposal stronger because more and more grantmakers are looking to support community partnerships.