How to Be a Better Grantwriter, Part 2: Fuel

I had a teenager in the house who had a truck with a broken gas gauge.  Seems like he didn’t keep tabs on the mileage or anything. He just kept driving with no regard to the consequences. And what happens when a truck runs out of gas?  It stops running.

Gas Gage Illuminated Empty

A necessity for driving his truck was gas and having gas required re-filling every now and then or else it wouldn’t work anymore.

Something similar happens to grantwriters.  They work hard.  They work VERY hard.  And they may be willing to work very long hours when it is crunch time.  But without the second F, FUEL, the proposals are not going to be competitive.

There are various types of fuel grantwriters need and we’ll look at three of them today:  biological, factual, and knowledge of the craft.

Biological Fuel

Sometimes hardworking grantwriters keep going without eating a proper lunch, or even a nutritious dinner.  They put off sleeping and when they do try, their brains are whirling at hurricane velocities, making a good night’s sleep only a dream.

Then what happens?  They become just like that teenager’s truck—they stop working.  The brain crashes, the body rebels.  And they stop, even if the deadline is just hours away.  Bodies need the fuel of adequate fluids, food and forty (or more!) winks.

Longer term, quality of food is important.  An unhealthy body is going to lead to more illness, more time off, and an inability to bounce back from the stress of a grantwriter’s life.

Just as you can’t make a truck run on air, you can’t make yourself transcend the need for good fuel at the biological level.

So the basics of life such as clean water healthy food and adequate sleep are the foundation for becoming a better grantwriter.  This is truly the good FUEL that you need to be a better grantwriter.  The good news here is that you can make this happen for yourself—you don’t need anyone else’s permission.

Factual Fuel

Another type of fuel grantwriters need are facts.  Competitive grant proposals don’t just come out of thin air, or the writer’s opinions.  My students are often surprised by the amount of evidence they need to put into their grants—what’s the need and how bad is it?  What’s the solution and why do you think so?

A proposal without facts can’t breathe, grow, or be successful.

It can take a great amount of time to track down “the one” fact that brings client need to light, or shows an impressive way forward in supporting your proposed solution.  Can one fact make the difference between receiving funding or not?  Maybe not but if you’re willing to stop short in one area, you may be willing to leave out other information as well.

Far better is to plan your proposal so that you know what the needed facts are from the beginning than to haphazardly search as time (and your chances) slip by.

Even when you plan carefully, however, you will learn new things as you write and come up with better ideas.  So what seemed adequate at the beginning now seems less than complete.  Be sure to building some “learning” time into your timetable so you can track down the information that might make the difference between being funded and being a failure!

Other times the problem is not you at all—the information just has never been collected or is otherwise unavailable.  In this case, find a substitute, a workaround or a way to disregard that gap.

Making sure you have enough factual fuel is generally under your control, but there may be times when you have to give up your search for one particular fact or other. In that case, move on with the rest of the proposal as much and as quickly as you can.

Grantwriting Craftsmanship Fuel

This is the type of fuel that most people first think of:  I have to know what I’m doing.

And that is absolutely right.  The days of rank amateurs striking gold with their first proposal are drawing to a close.

After you’ve been a grantwriter for a year or two, it’s easy to forget just how much you’ve learned and how far you’ve come.  Just think of the vocabulary you’ve come across and the abbreviations that make complete sense now:  process evaluation, outcome evaluation, logic model, ACH, RFP, FOA, NIJ, IRB, etc.

For most people, this is the easiest fuel to start with and fill up on.  After all, there are scads of books and trainings for new grantwriters.  Everything seems geared to help more people start nonprofits and writing grants.

But it’s much harder for the experienced beginners to move to another level.  Results from a survey I did indicate the problem.  Just 4% of respondents agreed that available training was at too high a level for them; 63% indicated that available training was at too low a level for them.

If you’re a grantwriter who has learned some of the ropes but could feel a need for additional support, you may need some additional fuel in this area.

Sources of this fuel, as noted by survey respondents, include finding a mentor where you work, local grantwriters’ groups, participating in LinkedIn discussions, and tuning in to funding institutions’ websites and updates.

Another approach is to hire a coach, someone who can provide you with an experienced but outsider’s view of your work.  I have a couple of slots open for this type of support if you’re looking for it.  Just send me an email at and we’ll arrange a time to chat to see if it’s a good match.

Thanks for all you do to promote nonprofit excellence!


How to Be a Better Grantwriter, Part 1: Failure

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to be a better grantwriter as I teach a master’s level course on the topic this semester.  While these are not the “only” things you need, I think having what I call the “4 Fs” will inevitably make you a better grantwriter than you otherwise would be and will lead to the 5th F.  Today we look at the first requirement of becoming a better grantwriter:

Failure concept.


While this may seem an unusual prerequisite to becoming a better grantwriter it is absolutely essential.

Failure, in this case, means you didn’t get the money.  Your proposal was rejected.  Maybe you were close or maybe you were not anywhere close to being funded.  It doesn’t matter.  The key aspect is that you put in a lot of work–hours and hours of time–and your net result is zero.

Failure, in this case, helps clarify where you stand.  YOU may think you’re pretty good at your job.  And you are probably correct.  Odds are, you’re the best grantwriter in your organization.  But lets’ face it–facts are facts.  You didn’t get funded this time.

The key question here is how you react.

If you crumple into a ball, sobbing on the floor, for more than a couple of minutes, being a grantwriting professional may not be the wisest career choice.

We all fail sometimes by not getting that proposal funded.  That’s not the big deal.  Looking failure in the face and figuring out what to do better next time is the big deal.  If you can learn something from the experience you’ve taken potential failure and turned into a lesson and a way to become better.

Learning something from the experience is what YOU must do.  Some people say that you shouldn’t write federal grants to start with because they are so difficult.  But I think the opposite.  I think you should write as many federal grants as possible because the reviews are worth their weight in (future) gold.  Those reviewers (and I am one) don’t pull any punches.

  • If your grammar and writing are not top notch, you’ll hear about it.
  • If you leave sections out, you’ll have points deducted.
  • If your logic model doesn’t make sense, you won’t receive any slack.
  • If your proposal isn’t one of the top ones submitted, you won’t get funded.

Who else do you know who gives you that kind of feedback?  Who else do you know who COULD give you that kind of feedback?  Probably not very many people if anyone at all.

Federal grants, while grueling, are the best post-graduate course in grantwriting you can get.

Failure without feedback, however, is futile.

This is why some foundation grant processes may not be worth the effort.  These are the foundations that either send a check or a rejection letter but not much in the way of feedback.  YOu may as well go to Vegas and put your salary into the slot machine–the outcome is about as randomly selected.  Or maybe blackjack is a better analogy–there is some skill involved to see if you win or not, but the deck is always stacked in favor of the house.

Without feedback, it is much more difficult to learn from failure.  So you must seek out commentary from decision-makers whenever possible.

But suppose you can’t get beyond the decision-maker’s door?  In that case, the feedback has to come from within.  After you’ve picked yourself up, and dusted yourself off, look in the proverbial mirror and read the proposal with fresh eyes.  Stop thinking the world is just set against you–figure out what could be improved for next time.  Here are some questions that might be helpful in your self-review.

  • Compare the original request for proposals with your submission.  Is anything missing?  Did you address all the components?
  • How’s your writing and punctuation?  If there are numerous errors, you’ve undercut your credibility right away.
  • Have you written the need or problem statement as something that we all can agree is a problem?  Hint:  if the words “lack of” something appear in your need statement, you probably are on the wrong track.
  • Does the solution you propose actually have a chance of alleviating the need you uncovered?
  • How good is your evaluation plan?  Will you learn anything from the data collected?
  • Is your budget really reasonable and justified?
  • Have you explained how you can sustain the program after funding ends?

Pretend you’re the reviewer or a competitor, looking to knock your proposal out of the running.  How would you cut down your own work?

Look, failure in grantwriting is inevitable.  No one I’ve ever heard of has a 100% acceptance rate, particularly for federal grants.  But it only STAYS a failure if you don’t learn something from it.

Failure, particularly when you’re new in the field, is a valuable opportunity to become a better grantwriter.  Don’t pass up the chance to do so.

Thanks for all you do!


PS.  If you’d like to work with me personally to improve your grantwriting skills, email me at  While I don’t currently have time to write grants for many agencies , I can do a few coaching calls and proposal reviews.  We can have a quick phone call to see if it would be a good match for both of us.

The Ice Bucket Challenge: Responses from YOU

A short while ago I sent out a series of emails related to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge asking for other fundraising ideas and thoughts relating to the backlash that the Ice Bucket challenge was generating.  I am gratified by everyone who shared with me their ideas.

Some of them are shared here, but not all because I didn’t get explicit permission to share them publicly.  I’d rather be safe than betray anyone’s intentions.

A respondent shared that she had had to watch her mother die from ALS and how excruciating this was for them both.  This reader was extremely grateful to all donors and hoped the effort would continue until a cure was found.

One of the first responses came from my colleague Dr. Larry Watson who shared a short video made by an individual that talked about Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI).  This is a medical condition that causes bones to be extremely brittle and likely to break if the person falls.

The tie-in to ALS was to talk about the ALS ice bucket challenge, but before having water dumped on her, the person in this video talked about OI and the OI Foundation.  She also had a raw egg dropped on her head to demonstrate how easily her bones could break due to this condition.

I thought this was really a more powerful potential fundraising approach because it relates directly to the situation people face.  If my bones broke as easily due to a fall as an egg shell does, I would live in some fear every day and the egg drop performance helps me get that!

I had an additional response about a fund-raising effort from Lorrie Wolfe, Former United Way Executive Director, from Loveland, Colorado.  She wrote:

My good experience was a “thank-you-thon” phone bank at United Way, held on Valentine’s Day, using senior volunteers who called every one of our current and former donors to say “I don’t know how much you gave. I only know that you gave, and we just want to say thank you.” 

 That generated lots of good will, especially from donors who had not ever been personally thanked even after years of donating. In the next campaign, we saw lots of increased giving. It didn’t bring in millions right away, but donor loyalty is worth a lot over the long term.

 In another email, I listed out the backlash and criticisms that this extremely successful donor recruitment effort was generating.  This generated feedback from readers, including a person who once worked for a water conservation nonprofit who agreed this made her very sensitive to seeing water used in a cavalier way, although she was very happy for ALS and its success.

Other respondents indicated they had no concerns about the bucket of water, especially if it was dumped on a lawn.  The funding and awareness that were raised outweighed their concern for the water use.  “This is a win/win” one person wrote.

A respondent who granted full permission to distribute his comments voiced these ideas:

I think these criticisms are ridiculous. ALS has raised 80+ million dollars for their cause, not to mention awareness, which is the point of nonprofit fundraising. Hats off to whoever came up with this brilliant idea! My only possible complaint is that I didn’t think of it first!

 Below are some responses to specific criticisms from your list:

 “It can be dangerous to people with certain cardiac conditions.”

 It’s not like people aren’t doing this VOLUNTARILY.

 “The people who are donating aren’t thoughtful about their gifts.”

 Who cares? They’ve raised $80,000,000 and still counting.

 “Philanthropy is being demeaned as a serious activity.”

 Don’t be such a buzz-kill! Who says philanthropy can’t be fun?

 “It’s too much about the giver and not enough about the people with ALS.”

 Again, I bet you’re loads of fun at parties. Here’s a news-flash. ALL charitable giving is about the giver.

 Feel free to use my responses.

 Tamar Reno

Finally, one respondent educated me on her insistence that all gifts she made to charities were predicated on the organization not harming animals in testing new treatments.  An article that was forwarded was critical of ALS researchers using animal testing as a paradigm because there was little connection between what could be found using that methodology in animals and the impact on humans.

After I ended the email series, more people on the web began their conversation about the pros and cons of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

Whatever we think of the actual tactic of the ice bucket dump, it’s clear that it has been enormously successful and I wish them all the best in using their new-found donation pool to help end this horrific illness.

While this type of fundraising is not exactly the same as grantwriting, it is certainly related to excellence in nonprofits and funding for nonprofits that I write about.

Thanks for all you do!

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