Why Writing Excellent Grants Takes a Lot of Time

All seasoned grantwriters know that writing excellent grants takes a lot of time. This is for several reasons.

One reason that a lot of time is needed is because you have to do research to find potential sources of funding. That’s pretty clear. You can’t just expect to type in one key phrase into Google and find a lot of good potential funding sources.

We’ll talk more about tips to approach finding funding sources systematically in later posts. If you follow them, they will speed up the process for you.

But allocating a lot of time is also a necessity because of the way funding is structured. The funder that you’re interested in may not be offering a grant right then. Grant opportunities come in cycles.

Foundations may only make decisions regarding the grant proposals that have come in every three or six months. So you may just be the victim of poor timing if you put in a proposal shortly after the deadline for the current period passed. You will have to wait until a new deadline comes up where you proposal is considered.

With Federal government agencies, the cycle for funding fits within fiscal years. The fiscal year for the federal government begins October 1st. That means the agencies are trying to allocate all of their funding by the end of the September.

Up until this new, current Age of Scarcity, what you often saw was that agencies that projected that they were going to have unallocated funding at the end of the fiscal year would start finding ways to use it so that they could say, “We’ve used all of the funding we were given.”

Thus, the last quarter of the year tended to have a lot of requests for proposals. (The last quarter of the Federal Fiscal Year is July 1-September 30.) Now, in the Age of Scarcity, with many core services being reduced throughout the year, I believe we will see less of this behavior. Still, it may occur to a very limited extent.

The implication for nonprofits seeking funding from the Federal Government is thus that you must be very aware and keep close tabs on the Requests for Proposals that do come out. You won’t be able to hope for additional funding opportunities to suddenly come up in late summer and early fall.

State government grants have a different fiscal year, which can vary from one state to another. A large number of states start their Fiscal Year on July 1 and have it end on June 30. Just as with the Federal government, with state government budgets under considerable stress, discretionary grant announcements are unlikely to be as plentiful in the 4th quarter, from April 1 to June 30, as they used to be.

Government funding is likely to be much more attached to a regular schedule, with funding announcements for particular topic areas coming out at the same time every year.

As a grant writer you must understand what that cycle is. It’s going to be different for different agencies.

The bottom line is it takes a lot of time to find grant opportunities (both foundation and government) because you have to find the opportunities and then you have to wait for the opportunities to be open for submissions.

At that time, when the announcement comes out, you’ll have to begin (or complete, if you have a draft already started) the actual writing of the grant.

Writing a grant ALWAYS takes longer than you think it will. Even when you get to be an accomplished grantwriter, you will take longer than you first believe you will. It seems there is always some little detail that you’re missing.

Also, grant applications must be signed by an authorized individual, so you need that signature and it may not be possible to get immediately. In many agencies, the board of directors has to approve the submission of the proposal, and it may not be meeting for a while (although the chair may have the authority to do so unilaterally).

These are all reasons why it takes longer to finish the grant.

The proposal, when completed, will then be submitted and reviewed by the funder, with finally a decision made. The review and decision-making process can take a number of months all by itself. There is really nothing you can do to speed the process up.

As a grantwriter, you have to be patient and use your time preparing, knowing that excellent grantwriting takes a lot of time.

My Introduction to Grantwriting: Not FUN!!

In the fall of 1980, I was a graduate student beginning an internship where I would learn to write grants. On Monday, my first day, I met my new supervisor, Judy. She handed me two pencils and a yellow legal pad. Then, she gave me a stuffed manila envelope.

Judy instructed me: “I’d like you to start reading these materials. You’ll see that there’s a request for proposals from the Labor Department in there and a couple of pages of notes that you can use to develop the 20 page application.”

I smiled and told Judy “Wow! This is exactly what I’m looking for in my internship.” Her reply: “Great! Just be sure it’s done by Thursday at noon, because I want to look it over before we send it by overnight mail to DC by 5 p.m.”

My joy turned to panic in a heartbeat. I must have looked as frightened as I felt.

Remember, this is on Monday, and I have classes and other things to do before Thursday noon. Plus, I’ve never written a grant before. I gasped, “That’s not much time, is it?”

Judy just flatly responded, “No, it’s not.”

I thought she would continue with “but we will all pitch in and help you” but she didn’t. She just ended her sentence with a cold, hard, silent pause.

But then she said, “When you are done with that, here is this other folder. This is another grant that we’re working on.” Then she smiled and continued. “But don’t worry. It’s not due until the next Friday, so you’ll have a week to finish it.”

I was having second thoughts about this internship!

But then, the conversation continued. (It wasn’t really much of a conversation because I was so shocked that I wasn’t saying much.) Judy consoled me by saying: “You seem a bit upset. But you know what? Don’t worry too much about it, Rick. I don’t expect that we’re going to get either one of these grants. But I figure it’s worth a shot. Just do your best.”

To get a second opinion, I went to my faculty advisor and asked him “Professor Zimmerman, isn’t this is an unusual way to teach people how to do grant writing?”

He told me, “No, it’s not unusual at all. That’s just the way it’s done. You just do it. You learn by doing it.”

(By the way, Judy was right. We didn’t get either one of those grants.)

That was my introduction to writing grant proposals. No training, little help, just a trial by fire. I knew in my heart that this was NOT the right way to train grant writers!

Because of that that experience, I dedicated myself to learning everything I could about writing grant proposals.

I knew that if I was going to become a decent grantwriter, I was going to have to work out the details on my own. I was going to have to read everything I could and work through lunches, dinners, and late into the nights sometimes.

Did I make a few mistakes along the way? I certainly did. (If we ever have the chance to talk, ask me about my encounter with the Associate Dean of the School of Business.)

But I also learned what I needed to know.

By the end of my 8-month internship, I had written successful grants for hundreds of thousands of dollars (maybe a million dollars altogether, I didn’t keep good track), and I was hired as Director of Fundraising for that organization.

And since then, I’ve gotten better. On my own, or in teams, I can count at least $20 million worth of funding over the course of my grant writing career. I’ve also taught other people how to write grants, in person and through the University of Texas at Arlington’s continuing education program.

After 30 years of learning how to write grant applications, I now want to share my knowledge so that others can write powerful proposals, too. There are so many worthy organizations that are starving for the funds they need and I want to empower them through training and knowledge to obtain funding through successful grantwriting.

It is important for you to know I have knowledge and personal successes in grantwriting and grant getting. I hope you will be able to learn from my experiences. If you work hard and pay close attention, then I think you, too, will have everything it takes to be a successful grant writer, even in this Age of Scarcity.

Excellence in Nonprofit Grantwriting, Part 2: The Problem of Sequestration

In Part 1, we talked about how government and foundation funding were under pressure, at the same time that individuals were experiencing more need.  This puts nonprofit organizations in a real bind!

According to www.givevoice.org,

“Policymakers across the political spectrum have and continue to presume that nonprofit organizations in their communities will step in to fill the gaps created when programs are shut down due to sequestration and other spending cuts.

“However, cuts made under sequestration are undermining the ability of nonprofits to maintain programs and services, much less to expand them to meet the growing needs that have resulted. If allowed to continue, the sequestration cuts will hurt the work of nearly every charitable nonprofit in America – even nonprofits that do not receive any direct government funding.  (retrieved from http://www.givevoice.org/sequestrations-effects-nonprofits-communities  )”

Because of,  or despite, this grim forecast, it is vital that nonprofits that want to continue providing excellent services get better at grantwriting.  The next posts are going to offer concrete suggestions on how to do a better job of finding possible grants opportunities.

Excellence in Nonprofit Grantwriting, Part 1: The Problem

January 2, 2013 marks the start of a new era in grantwriting, the Age of Scarcity.

Even though there is a budget deal that allowed Congress to pass a budget for 2014, it still contains a lot of spending cuts, so the Age of Scarcity is far from over.  In fact, I believe we will not return to the “good old days” for a long time, if ever.

The Age of Scarcity is a confluence of three streams of funding for nonprofits (government, foundation, and individual giving) drying up at nearly the same time.  While funding streams typically have ups and downs, this date can be seen as the beginning of a “new normal” for nonprofits.

Most nonprofits have three legs of funding, government grants, foundation grants, and individual giving.  Some also run social enterprises to use business ideas to generate income.  While this has a long, if limited history in some nonprofits (such as Goodwill, the Salvation Army and the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul), it is not widespread enough at this point to be a significant source of income across the board.

Let’s examine what is happening with the three common revenue sources for nonprofits.

Federal government spending is going down.

State and local government spending has gone down.

Foundation funding is coming back a bit after several years of decreasing for human services funding.

Individual donations for non-religious organizations has declined for a number of years.

Despite these trends, most human services nonprofits have to keep trying to get funds from government and foundation grants.  But it is hard.  That’s why there needs to be an emphasis on excellence in nonprofit, in general, and in grantwriting in particular.

A large grant will boost a nonprofit like nothing else.  Grants are really the lifeblood of nonprofits of any size.  This series of posts about excellence in grantwriting will put forward some new ideas on how to be better than other nonprofit organizations that want grant funding also.

Nonprofits need excellence!




The National Council of Nonprofit Associations (NCNA) (2006) reported that in 2003, there were 837,027 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit organizations. As of October 2009, the number of such nonprofits increased to more than 1.1 million (NCNA, 2012) and it’s even higher now.  Approximately one-third of these organizations are in the human services field (NCNA, 2012). The growth in the number of nonprofit organizations has put a large strain on the capacity of the nation to maintain an adequate pool of leaders to run and work in so many organizations.

We also know that funding for nonprofits has been extremely challenging in recent years.  Sequestration cuts beginning in 2013 have led to decreases in spending for human services and other nonprofits.  Federal budget decreases lead to state-level budget cuts, too, on top of the fiscal problems that states had during the recession when revenues dropped drastically.

Foundations saw decreases in their giving and individual giving has also taken a hit in recent years as average income and wealth actually fell.

Nonprofits who have survived have done great things in terms of providing services in these challenging times.   But many had their invoices not paid by state and local governments with whom they had contracts; saw their net assets reduced, laid off staff, did as much as they could with much less, and still kept the spirit of charity and nonprofit values alive.

Given the twin issues of lowered levels of resources and, in many cases, greater levels of need, nonprofits have confronted the issue of excellence with some reluctance.  When the biggest worry is whether you’ll be around next month, survival is more important than striving for excellence, or so it seems.

I beg to differ–it is the excellent nonprofits that will ALWAYS survive–even in the face of increasing competition, need for services, and difficult funding situations.  The excellent organizations have greater resources to draw on and the determination to do whatever it takes to deliver services.  This puts them at the front of the line for excellent staff, supportive stakeholders, and generous funders and donors.

This blog is my effort to support excellence for nonprofits and the clients they serve.

You can expect postings on all manner of issues related to nonprofit management:  program evaluation, board relationships, staff relations, teamwork, becoming more visible in the community, job skills for nonprofit managers and much more, all with the aim of improving nonprofits’ ability to achieve their missions.

Original quote image: personalexcellence.co/quotes/1045
Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/racoles/5205915102/