The Top 5 Ways for Understanding What Grantmakers Want

Putting together a competitive grant proposal is challenging.  Still–it’s sad but true–as grant seekers we often make the process more difficult than it needs to be.

Take the first step–finding appropriate grant opportunities.  With the tens of thousands of foundations in the US and the multiple levels of government, each with untold numbers of requests for proposals at any one time, beginning grant proposal writers can feel overwhelmed.  To help you quickly and easily narrow your focus, use these top 5 ways to understand what grantmakers want.

#1:  Scour Websites

Foundations frequently post on their website the types of ideas that they want to give attention (and money) to.  Foundation staff don’t want you to waste your
time (or theirs!).  Be sure to read everything on a foundation’s website to get a sense of what they espouse, sympathize with and support.

For example, if you are working with people who are substance abusing and homeless, and you want to implement a “housing first” model, you’ll probably be wasting your time if you don’t find some positive mention of this approach on the foundation’s website.

#2:  Read Strategic Plans

Most government agencies develop strategic plans that indicate what they are interested in supporting and the directions they want to follow in the next few years.  If you wish to apply for funding from a particular government body, you can use the information to seem like a mind reader.

To take one example, the federal agency, in April 2013, within the larger Department of Health and Human Services, the Administration for Children and Families released a strategic planning document (which you can view here).   Among other important information, you will learn that ACF’s overarching vision is that:

“Children, youth, families, individuals and communities are resilient, safe, healthy, and economically secure.”

Does your agency understand what these terms mean?  Do any of your programs promote resilient children and youth?  Do you have an idea for bringing economic security to families?  Can you think of ways to change individual lifestyles to make them healthier?

The chances are you can begin to incorporate such concepts into your current programming to build a case in future grant proposals that your agency is already on board with these strategic directions.

#3:  Know What’s Been Funded

You can often gain access to at least synopses of recently awarded grants which provide you with hard data on the decision-making outcomes of a foundation or government agency.

Foundations, if they make these available, usually have a section of their website devoted to this information so this is another reason to become very familiar with the target foundation’s website.  Other sources for this information may include the Foundation Directory or Guidestar.

All successful proposals funded by the federal government are available through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request (there may be a charge for this information).  Some agencies post successful proposals in their entirety already (click here, for an example of the successful application of the Latin American Youth Center’s Street Outreach Program).

When you take the time to see what is being funded be sure to note the details of a successful proposal–how the different sections are addressed, the level of depth of the information, and how technical details are described.

#4:  Attend Conferences

Professionals in your field talk about new ideas and promising practices at conferences.

Listen to the keynote speakers at the plenary sessions.  Their ideas are cutting edge and may hold the secret to your next successful grant proposal if you adapt them to your context.

Attend sessions throughout the conference to learn what other organizations are doing and the latest research on effective and evidence-based programs.  You may get some ideas that you can implement in your agency.  Ask about funding sources when talking with representatives of successful programs in your area–sources that have given once are more likely to give again.

#5:  Get More Training

All of us like to think we’re educated enough.  But how can you ever know too much about your job?  Advanced continuing education can inspire fresh ideas and also help you remember basics you’ve forgotten.  Look for professional education opportunities to keep you sharp and up-to-date.

Your next step

I will be leading training webinars on this and other topics starting September 2014.  Be sure to sign up to receive notice about these trainings by signing up at


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