Key Elements to Enhance Success with Grant Proposals

Not all grant application submissions are persuasive to reviewers, nor are they all funded. Obviously, some grant applications are more successful than others. It is certainly important that the grant application be written as clearly and succinctly as possible. Most granting agencies will be receiving more applications than they can possibly fund. Later in the book, there will be a detailed dis­cussion about how to construct a winning grant proposal.

Certain elements enhance success. One of these is fiscal accountability. Can your non-profit concretely demonstrate that it has in place the necessary fiscal accountability measures that will ensure that the granting agency’s dollars will be spent exactly as specified in the grant application? Private foundations may and the government will audit most non-profits receiving funding. Even governments are audited. For example, the federal government audits state governments to ensure that the money was spent as specified.

How can you demonstrate fiscal accountability? In some applications there will be direct questions about this issue. Don’t brush off these questions with a cursory answer. Provide as much detail as possible about how these grant funds will be segregated from other funds that the non-profit receives. It is of particular interest to auditors how the non-profit will track personnel costs identified in the grant application. The non-profit may be asked to supply pay stubs.

Do not apply for multiple government grants if the non-profit does not use the services of an outside accounting firm to audit the non-profit’s books. An independent audit is of the utmost importance. The actual amount changes over time but any non-profit receiving more than $500,000 from government grants must have an outside auditor.

Unit Costs

Unit Costs

Think of the funding organization, whether public or private, as a smart shopper. The reviewers are looking at unit costs. Private or public raters will be comparing how much product, services or outputs of some kind, can be produced among the competing applications. If your non-profit has the capacity to inexpensively deliver a particular program or service because it cre­atively uses volunteers or interns, then the non-profit should emphasize that fact in the grant application. Non-profits, where the personnel costs are high because of expansive benefits such as health insurance or retirement plans, are at a disadvantage when it comes to unit cost comparisons unless they have some other factor that minimizes these high costs. However, this alone should not discourage potential grantees from applying since the delivery of high quality, innovative or highly effective programs is important to reviewers. Cost is not the only factor.


Most public and private granting organizations, in their cost cutting mind-sets, need to make every dollar count so collab­orations become extremely important Some grant applications will demand the existence and functioning of collaboration as an eligibility criterion. The eligibility criteria will spell out exactly the composition of the collaborators. For example, in a health-related research project the collaborations could be among a local government entity, a private or public institution of higher learning and a non-profit that can conduct effective community outreach. Usually these collaborations don’t exist so they need to be constructed for the purposes of the grant. By submitting the grant application to the granting organization certain demands must be met. Most commonly, the members of the collaboration must have written agreements spelling out the exact responsibilities of each member of the collaboration.

Non-Profit Acts as Fiscal Agent for Individuals

Non-Profit Acts as Fiscal Agent for Individuals

Collaborations are often the best tool for individuals seeking to obtain grant funding. For the non-profit it is an opportunity to utilize the talents and services of an individual often by treating them as a sub-contractor or specifically acting as their fiscal agent. Most government granting agencies do not permit individuals to submit applications. For the non-profit this can be a low cost alternative to having or hiring specific staff for a project or program. Private funders also permit a small or mid-size non-profit to be treated as a contractor and a large non-profit to act as the fiscal agent. This allows a smaller organization to leave the fiscal account­ability and many personnel issues to a larger organization to manage. No organization acts as a fiscal agent without some form of financial remuneration. Usually this translates into the large organization receiving some type of indirect cost from the grantor or­ganization (5-20% of the total grant award).


How does a grantor organization, public or private, determine the value of a grant submission? Some private foundations, usually the largest ones, and most government grantors develop a point system that allows them to grade each application. Most government grants are reviewed by career civil servants or recognized experts based on written criteria located within the RFP or announcement. Information required in the grant application is often assigned specific points. The actual point system will change from grant to grant, public agency vs. private foundation. However, the concept is universal. All government grantors and most large foundations need to have a reasonable objective and formal review systems in place. An actual rating sheet will be created for each applicant. Under the Freedom of Information Act the rating can be made available to the public in the case of government reviews.

A good hint for estimating the number of actual reviewers (excluding online applications) is the requirement of how many copies of the grant application to include in the submission. If you are required to send three, four, or perhaps even six copies, the number reflects the number of reviewers involved in the process.

Be sure to carefully read how the point system is allocated. For example, a recent Health & Human Services grant on Sexually Transmitted Diseases had only two categories: Plan Description (60 points) and Capacity (40 points). There were only a few questions pertaining to each of these statements in the Criteria section of the announcement. However, in the body of the RFP there were a series of far more detailed questions. It then becomes the challenge of the grant writer to incorporate all the other discussion points into these two major criteria described in the RFP.

It is quite common to have the RFP list five, six, or even more specific criteria. Typically, NIH lists five criteria: significance, approach, innovation, investigator and environment. Many NIH RFPs list the five criteria but don’t specify a numerical point system. Instead, the RFP states that the reviewers will make the determination. However, the RFP will provide information on the expected “Objectives and Scope” of the proposed program/project. The areas of interest to NIH are provided in the RFP as examples of studies that are more likely to be funded.

A recent state agency RFP was incorporated a model design format. Each selection criteria was clearly listed (there are seven); and the issues to be addressed for each criteria were given. In addition, the point system was placed on the page next to each crite­rion listed so immediately the grant writer can determine where the reviewers are expecting the strengths of the submission to be placed. In this case, the greatest importance rested with budgetary issues.

When preparing drafts of the submission, keep reminding yourself which criteria the reviewers are emphasizing. On the draft page write the points assigned to each criterion. Imagine that you are writing a critical essay and the professor assigns points to each portion of the essay. You can get partial credit for an answer.

Family foundations and smaller private foundations do not have an elaborate point system such as the ones utilized by the big foundations or government agencies. However, the vast majority of corporate foundation grant applications do include a series of detailed questions that must be addressed as part of the application process.

Don’t Agree To More Than the Non-profit Can Handle

Don't Agree To More Than the Non-profit Can Handle

Never commit to more than your non-profit can complete during the grant period. This is a common mistake of inexperienced applicants. If the RFP requires that the non-profit provide services for up to three distinct categories of populations such as minori­ties, women or geographic areas with high rates of a specific disease, don’t automatically conclude that your non-profit must pro­vide coverage for all three populations. There are no extra points by the reviewers if your plan is expansive, especially if the reviewers don’t think the non-profit can deliver on its promises.