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Successful Grant Writing:

Six Steps to a Winning Proposal through

Collaboration & Teamwork

Cassie McVeety

Director of Regional Development and Campus Advancement

WSU Vancouver 14204 NE Salmon Creek Avenue Vancouver, WA 98686


Table of Contents


Writing Successful Grant Proposals


As state and federal sources of funding continue to decline for arts, schools, social service and civic organizations, the importance of seeking and securing external funding has never been more important. Money that the federal government does still use for funding is being administered more and more via block grants to states or other direct granting methods. Private companies and foundations are also excellent sources of grants, but scrutinize most projects and applications for appropriate fit with their goals. Many funders now look for collaborative proposals that can show tangible impact. Therefore whether a non-profit agency seeking operating or capital funds or a local government entity or agency seeking federal or state support, effective grant writing is an important tool for any public or non-profit administrator.

The focus of this paper is to define an effective strategy for successful fulfillment of a grant request. The process will look at six key steps in the process including Defining Need and Institutional Commitment, Research Funding Sources, Preparation, Writing, Follow Up and Stewardship. Examples from my 13 years of professional experience in institutional advancement will be used with each of the six steps to illustrate the importance of carefully adhering to all of these points. Internet references to will be cited as well to provide resources in each area.

Defining Need and Securing Institutional Commitment

The first step in any successful grant seeking process is to have a clearly defined sense of the problem or need and the stated commitment of the agency or institution involved. It is also extremely advantageous to collaborate with partners in seeking external funding.

Many grant seekers make the mistake of finding a source of funding first, then trying to 'find' or 'fit' a project or program into the funder's priorities. Successful grant writers start with the identified need first, then seek the source of funding that best fits that need. There are many ways to define the institution's needs. The fit of the request into advancing the mission of the organization is an excellent barometer of the likelihood of a grant to be funded. Nearly every funder will ask what the institutional mission is -- and how the grant request fits within that mission. Furthermore, whether the agency or institution is led by an executive staff or a board of directors or both, the leadership may have defined a strategic plan for the institution. Projects that not only fit with the agency's mission but their stated short or long term priorities as well, will have greater credibility with funding agencies.

Commitment by the leadership of the institution, whether a board of directors, decision making executives, or both, is a critical piece in successfully garnering external support. Most funding agencies will want to see either in the application form or by separate letter, at least a contact name and sometimes a written endorsement of the project by the institutional leadership. This must be done at the very beginning of a project in order to ensure that the project or program seeking funds for is truly a priority for the agency.

As an example, in a University setting, a faculty member may write a grant proposal seeking funding of a research project. If they wait until a few days before the proposal is due to get a signature of their department head or dean, it could spell disaster for the outcome of the proposal. If the department chair or dean is not available or does not buy into the project as a priority, the faculty member may have prepared a proposal that will not go forward institutionally.

Finally, if the appropriate project is defined and institutional commitment clear, it is vital in this climate of highly competitive grantseeking to find partners that will collaborate on the project. This collaborative approach ensures a wide breadth of impact to the funder and also provides the agency seeking funds with additional resources to carry out the project.

Once the need has been clearly defined as an institutional priority and is endorsed by the leadership of the institution, buy-in from project partners has been achieved, research for appropriate sources of funding can begin.

Researching Sources of Funding

Many times a grant seeker will already have in mind an appropriate source of funding, but conducting proper, thorough research about funding sources will pay great dividends in the successful outcome of the process. There are many sources of external funding, including state and federal agencies and programs. This paper will address those, as well as many other private sources in other arenas, with electronic references listed as appropriate.

The Federal Government, although amounts have been declining, remains the major source of grant funding in the US. As federal resources decline and inter-governmental relationships change through increased block grants, federal dollars for transportation, arts, health and human service, scientific research, education, etc., are highly competitive. The project grants of the 1950s and 60s were consolidated in the 70s and evolved to the federal entitlements characterized by the 1980s. (Wright, p.65-69) Witness the recent congressional debates over the abolishment of the National Endowment for the Arts. Congress is voting on possible elimination of the NEA -- due mostly to the conservative majority in Congress -- and proposes to replace the NEA's direct grant making process to artists with a greatly reduced set of block grants to states. Whether a non profit agency or a city, county or municipality, keeping on top of federal trends and changes in funding policies is important.

States as the recipient of federal block grants and through their own legislative action, are also sources of funding for agencies and institutions. Both state and federal grants are complicated in nature, and use an "RFP" or Request for Proposal system where they will define a priority and issue a request for proposals that fit that funding priority, These notices appear in the Federal Register, similar state publications, and a variety of catalogs and registers by subject. At Washington State University, federal and state grant notices are listed in the Office of Grant and Research Development (OGRD) bulletin. A brief index of on-line federal and state grant making resources is provided in Appendix A.

There are over 39,000 active grant making Foundations that are a major source of external funding in the US. According to the Foundation Grants Index of 1997, in 1995 alone, 1,012 Foundations gave over 73,000 grants of $10,000 or more to non profit agencies and institutions for a total of $6.3 billion. More foundations were formed in the 1980s than in any other decade. Despite the fact that the stock market is volatile and the tax incentives for setting up a foundation continue to change, the growth of private foundations, particularly community foundations, continues to climb.

There are four different types of charitable foundations: An Independent Foundation is typically a grant making organization funded from an endowment from a single source such as an individual, family, or a group.Corporate Foundations are set up as independent foundations with close ties to the corporate entity that provides funds either annually or by endowment. (Murphy, p. 7-9) Operating Foundations are organizations that use resources to conduct research or provide direct services. The American Red Cross provides a good example of this type of non profit organization. Finally, Community Foundations are publicly sponsored organizations that make grants for charitable purposes in a specific geographic region from donations of usually individual donors. Some donors may direct the uses of their specific funds held by a community foundation, while others will rely upon a board of directors to make allocation decisions. (Abbin, p. 225-233)

Foundations can be found to match a particular need or project using many different means: printed directories such as the charitable trust directories of states, the Foundation Directory, Foundation 1000, etc. As more and more Foundations and charitable trusts are putting home pages on the World Wide Web, access to information and searching by topic on-line are becoming widely acceptable. Foundation Centers at area libraries are an excellent source of foundation and trust information. The Multnomah County Library is a Foundation Center affiliate and maintains a broad array of printed and on-line materials. Annual reports of foundations, are an excellent way to see where a particular foundation has invested their dollars and is also an great barometer of the size and frequency of gifts. The IRS requires all foundations to file annual 990-PF forms stating the amounts and descriptions of distributions (awards) each year. Philanthropic journals such as the Chronicle of Philanthropy offer postings of recent foundation awards and upcoming deadlines for proposals. A brief index of on-line private grant making resources is provided in Appendix B.

Companies and Businesses are another source of external grant funding. In the age of mergers and acquisitions, it is also imperative to stay current on a company’s philanthropic priorities. For example, Portland General Electric has always operated a small foundation granting funds to agencies in the Portland metropolitan area. With the recent merger of PGE and Enron, a global energy conglomerate, the resources of the PGE/Enron Foundation have skyrocketed to $20 million. Keeping abreast of local business developments also give a grant seeker an important edge in seeking funds from a company. Most corporate entities give where they do business, For example, the area served by the US West Foundation is the same territory of western states that are served by their businesses. The Pacificorp Foundation funds projects only in areas where they have customer and employees -- and they recently announced a global merger as well that may effect their corporate philanthropy.

The key to successful grant writing from corporations is to make a link between the business of the corporation and the project or area that you want funded. Partnerships with involvement of companies is critical to grant funding. Corporations can give through their own foundations or from the company itself. Many companies make in-kind gifts (non-cash grants of equipment, facilities, tools, etc.) If you are seeking money to connect a set of computers in an school district, look first to companies that provide these services. This was the successful strategy with a local partnership called Tools For Schools. If a grant makes good business sense to a company, it is much more likely to be funded. Information about companies that make charitable gifts is also available from on-line and printed directories. (See Appendix B) Annual reports from companies are an excellent source of information. Most corporate foundations or charitable giving operations print guidelines for seeking funds. In any grant writing research process it is crucial to have guidelines in hand before beginning the writing process.

Individuals are also a major source of private funding.  Although the approach to an individual is rarely through a grant proposal process, but rather a process of cultivation, involvement, solicitation, acknowledgment and stewardship. Some individuals maintain private funds in a community foundation and will entertain proposals to those funds through the community foundation process. Check with local community foundations (Community Foundation of Southwest Washington and the Oregon Community Foundation) for additional information about donor directed funds held by community foundations as well as general grant making guidelines.

The personal relationship between an individual donor and the institution seeking funds is one that is carefully crafted. That same care and attention given to individual donors must also be taken when seeking funds from a federal, state, corporate or foundation or trust entity. Making personal contact with the program officer of a foundation, the corporate contributions manager of a corporation, or the grant administrator of a federal agency is vital. For example, through personal contacts with a program officer from a local Trust, we learned that he was a former faculty member in Physics from a college in the Midwest. This college is the same one where our CEO & Dean received his undergraduate degree. In addition, the research specialty of the program officer is similar to those of one of our faculty. We were able to invite the program officer to campus to meet with both these individuals with common interests. That relationship building will help strengthen our ability to successfully seek funds from this Trust in the future. By personalizing our institution, we no longer are just another grant application but we appeal to the Trust as people that the program officer knows.

Proposal Development

Now that the need has been identified, the leadership of the institution has been involved and has endorsed the project, the research has been conducted as to the source of funding that best suits the project, guidelines for the grant process have been secured form the funder and a personal relationship -- if at all possible -- has been established between funder and seeker, it is now time to prepare the actual proposal.

Before a single word is written, it is important to gather together the team of people that will be involved in the project. For example, if budget information is needed, seek the input of the staff budget person. The principle investigator (or the person who will be running the project) is typically the key author of the proposal. In addition, those who will also benefit from the project through partnerhsips and collaboration should also be consulted. A planning meeting with all of these individuals present is an ideal way to have all parties buy in to the grant proposal, seek their individual contributions to the proposal via budget information, commitment of in-kind donations, or letters of support. In some cases due to time or distance this type of meeting may note be feasible. Electronic mail is an excellent vehicle for communicating with all of the partners in a grant request and can help keep the project on task and moving forward.

For example, when WSU sought funds from the National Science Foundation for a project involving the ESD 112, Hewlett Packard and six area school districts, the Principle Investigator (PI) Anne Kennedy got representatives together throughout the process of proposal preparation, development, and award to ensure that all the partners stayed involved and on-task.

Once the instructions have been clearly read and the deadline for each phase of proposal development agreed upon by all partners, assign tasks to each of the players in the proposal development team. In some cases, the team may be one or two people, but the theory is still the same. For example, when working with an individual faculty member on a local foundation grant, I will typically meet with the faculty member, support staff, and budget staff. We agree to divide up the text to be written with the PI writing the 'meat' for that which they are seeking funds. I typically write all institutional material including mission statement, history, etc., and pull together all other needed information like copies of needed forms like the certification of 501 (c) 3 status, lists of boards of directors, and so forth. This process works best when the person actually preparing the proposal (many times it will be a support person) is involved in the project from the beginning. That way they feel a part to the success the project rather than someone who simply types it and mails it. The presentation and mailing of the proposal are absolutely important to the positive presentation of material to the funder, so do not underestimate the importance of involving the preparer as a key member of the proposal team.


If earlier steps are adhered to, the writing stage of the proposal will flow easily. Many agree that actual writing of the proposal is 40 - 50 % of the actual time used to prepare a successful proposal (Riebe). Unless the writing is clear, compelling and flows easily, the proposal will not be competitive. Few grant applications offer the grant writer an unlimited format to discuss their project. Rather, most require the grant writer to respond to stated questions, and space is typically limited. Therefore concise writing that quickly answers the question is crucial. Always keep in mind that the reviewer most likely sees thousands of proposals. Trying to wade through elaborate text in usually unwanted and unnecessary.

The overarching rule of thumb when writing any proposal is do what the funder asks you to do. If the proposal guidelines state no more than one page per answer, then never pen more that that rule. You must clearly articulate the answer to each section and adhere to the formatting guidelines of the funder. Some proposals are now presented on-line, which offers a great time savings to the preparer. See the Meyer Memorial Trust home page for an example of on-line proposals. Typically grant requests consist of the areas found in Appendix C. It is imperative to answer each section, stating "N/A" if it does not apply to your situation, and prepare the report neatly and briefly. An on-line short course on proposal writing is available from the Foundation Center as well.

Cover letters are always important to include and show your institutional support of the project. It is typical to have the letter authored by the institutional CEO or chair of the board of directors. Other letters of support are equally important, particularly with projects that are multi-agency and with many partners. When all of the writing is complete, the final form is prepared, signatures and appendices are gathered, the final step is mailing to ensure delivery before the stated deadline. Hand delivery of proposal is often done with local funders and it gives the grant seeker another opportunity to make personal contact with the funder.

Follow up

Once the proposal is in the mail, it is always a good idea to follow up with the personal contact to make sure that the proposal has been received. Many funders ask for additional information if the grant is being seriously considered and this process of gathering addition information is vital. Some funders will ask a grant seeker for names of outside reviewers if they feel that the area is outside their own realm of expertise. The grant seeker can look to the project partners for assistance in putting appropriate resources together in response to those requests. Some foundations will schedule 'site visits' to tour a facility or meet with project coordinators. Thoughtful planning and executing of the site visit is imperative -- as a visit typically indicates a real interest on behalf of the funder.

Acknowledgment and Stewardship

Once the award letter is received, the first order of business is to thank the donor immediately. Written acknowledgment letter from the CEO or project endorser should go out no later than 48 hours after receipt of the award notice. Then a celebration for all the members of the project team can occur. Make sure that you communicate to the extent that the donor wants you to about the award and publicity surrounding the grant. Many donors expect naming opportunities, press conferences, mention in agency newsletters, in addition to written acknowledgement. This not only gives good exposure to the funder, it assists the project in gaining exposure and recognition as well. Required reports must be submitted in a timely fashion and can be augmented with other periodic notices. Keep your funder apprised of progress you are making with the project, even if it is not requested. With one grant that WSU Vancouver received to study Alzheimer's disease, the faculty member involved writes a quarterly update to the funder (although not required) just to keep them in the loop about progress he is making with the research. This keep the donor interested and sets the institution up well for the next proposal we will submit.


The steps of grant writing outlined above: Defining Need/Securing Institutional commitment, Research, Preparation, Writing, Follow Up and Stewardship are really six steps in a continuum of grant writing success. Once the cycle has begun, future successes will flow from the relationships built, the publicity generated and the reputations earned by the grant seeker and funder.



Abbin, B.A. (ed.,) (1995) Tax Economics of Charitable Giving. Arthur Andersen: Washington, D.C. p. 219-240.

Chronicle of Philanthropy. (July 1997) [Online]. Available: http://www.philanthropy.com/.

Council for Advancement and Support of Education. (1997) Advancement Links References. [Online] http://www.case.org.

Foundation Center. (1997) The Foundation Center On-Line. [Online] Available: http://fdncenter.org/.

Multnomah County Library Grant Information Center. (1997) [Online] Available: http://www.multnomah.lib.or.us/lib/grants.html

Murphy, C.E. (ed.) (1995) Guide to US Foundations, Their Trustees, Officers and Donors. The Foundation Center: New York.

Murray, D.J. (1987) The Guaranteed Fund Raising System. American Institute of Marketing: Poughkeepsie, New York.

National Institute of Health. (1997, June). Human and Animal Protection. National Institute of Health Office of Extramural Research Home Page on Protection from Research Risks. [Online]. Available: http://www/nih.gov:80/grants/oprr/oprr.htm.

Renz, L. (1997) Trends in Foundation Giving, 1995. [Online] Available: http://www.fdncenter.org/trends/fgi1.htm

Riebe, M.A. (1997) Successful Grant Writing: How to Access External Funding Sources. WSU Vancouver Continuing Education, Vancouver, WA.

Wright, D.S. (1988) Understanding intergovernmental Relations. Wadsworth Publishing Company: Belmont, CA


Appendix A: Index of Selected On-line Federal Funding Sources

  • Community of Science Funding Sources



    This is an excellent resource for those seeking funds in the sciences. The COS has devised helpful search engines to assist the grant seeker in finding appropriate funding sources.

  • Federal Register
  • Multnomah County Library Grant Center



    An affiliate of the Foundation Center, the Multnomah County Library grant center has many resources for federal, state, and private funding sources. Annual reports of companies and charitable trust directories are available, as well as many on line resources.

  • National Institutes of Health



    Grant information for areas in health research

  • National Science Foundation



    Grant information for areas in science research, applied science and science education

  • US Department of Agriculture



    A major source of funding for agricultural research

  • US Department of Education



    This is a good index maintained by US Department of Education about grant opportunities in all areas of education. A helpful search engine to the Federal register is also in this site as well as other online resources.

Appendix B: Index of Selected On-line Private Funding Sources

  • Armstrong Atlantic State University's non federal grant resources

    A listing of private foundation web sites maintained by Armstrong Atlantic University

  • Chronicle of Philanthropy



    An excellent resource for federal and private grants. Online version of this publication also offers upcoming deadlines, recent award announcements, and more.

  • Creighton University's non-federal grant index



    A listing of private foundation web sites maintained by Creighton University

  • Council for Advancement and Support of Education



    Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) is the largest professional organization for educational advancment professionals in the world. Listings here are for grant seekers in education at all levels.

  • The Foundation Center



    The Foundation Center maintains information about on-line funding resources, recent awards, tips for grant writing success and upcoming deadlines.

  • Foundations On-Line



    Maintained by Northern California Community Foundation, this site is an excellent directory to aid non-profit charities in their search for grants. Entries include web resources, directory of fundraising events, fund raising software and consultants, attorneys who specialize in non-profit work, etc.

  • Multnomah County Library Grant Center



    An affiliate of the Foundation Center, the Multnomah County Library grant center has many resources for federal, state, and private funding sources. Annual reports of companies and charitable trust directories are available, as well as many on line resources.

  • Washington State Charitable Trust Directory



    Ordering information for this resource is provided by Washington state's governmental index. Most states are required by law to publish charitable trust directories. Check with the respective offices of Secretaries of State. These resources are also typically in the reference section of public libraries.

  • Foundations 1000, & Guide to US Foundations, Their Trustees, Officers and Donors.



    Two comprehensive directories published by The Foundation Center.


Appendix C: Typical parts of a grant proposal

This outline is typical of private foundation request forms. Federal and State requests for proposal (RFPs) may differ and call for more detailed information in the request.

Cover Letter

Abstract or Executive Summary


Background and Mission of Agency

Statement of Need

Description of who Served by project

Goals and Objectives of Project

Methods to carry out project

Evaluation Plan


How will the project be disseminated

Other sources of funding

Key figures involved in project and their credentials

Appendices i.e., Letters of support, 501 (c) 3 IRS status, Board listings, human subjects review, animal subjects review, financial statements of institution, other compliance forms

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