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What exactly is Grant Writing?

By Trina Marie Ruffin

Professionals see the words “Grant Writing” in a variety of contexts – including employment listings. But many have only a vague idea what “Grant Writing” even means.

So what is Grant Writing? I’ve tried to end the mystery by providing some words to explain what this important field of work is about. Basically, this is a grant-proposal-writing 101, and I share a tiny part of what it means to be engaged in this work for nonprofit agencies.

Most nonprofits exist to benefit people. Examples of agencies for which grant material is written include: private schools; healthcare institutions; first responders (law enforcement centers, emergency medical services centers, fire departments); religious organizations; and specific groups in need, like Native American tribes. Also, there are the many small grass-roots community agencies that emerge to address local needs, such as centers to protect and council victims of family abuse, after-school programs, and court advocates for children.

Professional grant proposal writing is persuasion that involves systematic, carefully worded statements. The target audience is reviewers who read grant proposals on behalf of funding sources.


Grant proposal writing is not especially difficult, but one should know the terminology and standards by which proposals are judged. Many successful grant-proposal writers have never taken a course on grant-proposal writing, and some may have never even read a book on the topic. The “school of hard knocks” can be an effective means of learning to write successfully.

However, there are quicker ways to become a successful grant writer than trial and error. Information is readily available from experts as to how to write effective proposals. Book reading and courses on proposal writing can quickly take one to the starting line. But the race does not actually begin until one is running shoulder to shoulder with others who seek the same prize. True competitive experience, with a background of knowledge sometimes gained from books and courses, is a necessity.

Grant proposal writing is a competitive profession, We compete against other agencies seeking funds from the same funding sources to which we submit proposals. As well, we often compete with the clock to construct high-quality proposals in a small amount of time.

Grant-proposal writing is approximately 90 percent technical writing and 10 percent creative writing. Actually, in a sense, it is all technical writing, but creative ways of expressing especially important points are appropriately injected into the presentation of ideas. Two successful proposal writers may be given the same project idea and identical supportive information. Both writers will produce a quality proposal. But the one who can grab the attention of reviewers and, in a professional manner, bring a figurative (or even literal) tear to the eyes of the reviewers, will receive the money.

What is a grant? Why do grants exist?

A grant is money provided. Funding sources that support social service agencies – for example, a YMCA, or an organization helping wounded veterans – give money for specific purposes. Grants are almost always given to agencies, not individuals. Usually, the applicant agencies must have formal nonprofit status or be a government entity or tribe.

Types of Grants

The vast majority of grants in the US are competitive grants, meaning that an amount of money is set aside for a purpose and qualified applicants compete for that money. A second type of grant funding may be called entitlement grants, meaning that money is set aside and any qualified applicant that completes the forms correctly and proposes a project that meets the intentions of the funding source will be funded.

Types of Proposals

There are solicited proposals and unsolicited proposals.
Solicited proposals are those that are requested by the funding source. That is, the funding source has money set aside for certain types of projects and invites agencies to submit proposals to be considered for funding. Often, funding agencies announce the funding opportunity through brochures as well as on their website. These announcements are sometimes called Requests for Proposals, and grant proposal writers refer to these using the acronym RFP.
Unsolicited proposals are those sent to a funding source with no invitation from the funding source. These can be equivalent to a telemarketer calling your home asking that you buy something.

Types of Funding Agencies

The major types of funding agencies are public sources, such as government agencies, and private funding sources (foundations).

Public sources: One of the uses of taxes our society collects is a redistribution of funds to causes considered important by government leaders. Thus millions of dollars are distributed annually by government agencies.

Private foundations: These are organizations established with private money for the purpose of dispensing non-governmental dollars. A corporation, a wealthy individual, or a wealthy family may seek to give something back to society through a foundation.

Public sources of funding tend to:
1.  Be influenced by changing political trends
2.  Require longer proposals
3.  Have larger staffs to assist applicants
4.  Have the most money

Private sources of funding tend to:
1.  Provide less information about unfunded proposals – why a proposal failed
2.  Be more responsive to local community needs and smaller agencies
3.  Have more flexibility when responding to unique situations
4.  Be more willing to focus on emerging issues

When to search for funding sources

It doesn’t make sense to invest time developing a proposal before identifying one or more funding sources that will consider your proposal topic for funding. That said, in the excitement of a new project idea, it is fine to begin jotting down key points as the project begins to take form.

Constructing your goal statement and your objective statements are meaningful early tasks.

Here is an interesting dilemma. Should a grant proposal writer engage in some independent planning of projects consistent with the applicant agency mission and then attempt to identify funding sources, or should a grant proposal writer first determine the types of projects funding sources prefer and then build a project around the preferences of funding sources?

Either approach can work, although theoretically I prefer the more former approach. It seems to me that agencies, with community input, should identify what is important to their communities and then try to match community needs with funding sources.

Bottom line, grant writing is a job where you have the opportunity to alert organizations that have money to places where this money will do good work. Employing the right strategies, skilled grant writers can make a difference in a world where there is much need but limited resources, and the need to identify the most worthy projects for these resources.

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