Grant Writing for Beginners: Where to Start with Research

Blog Post by CharityHowTo Expert Diane H. Leonard, GPC

If you are new to grant writing, you are likely focused on what your writing should sound like. Perhaps you ask yourself questions about what is the right style or what is the right person to write in. 

Grant Writing for Beginners

However, the truth about your writing is that the work before the writing is where you should start your efforts and your learning. 

Writing and submitting grant applications without first following best practices in grantmaker research and grantmaker relationships will leave even the best-written applications resulting in rejection letters.

Grant Writing for Beginners – Where to Start

Before you sit down looking at a blank document with the blinking cursor, thinking about how you will describe your project or program to a potential grantmaker. First please spend sufficient time doing your due diligence learning about grantmakers to ensure that you are spending your time writing to grantmakers that you will be the most competitive with. 

Grant writing for beginners isn’t as tricky as it might seem. Let’s first start with how you research potential grants.

Your Grant Writing Research due diligence is two-fold. 

First, you have to think about how you are searching for funding that aligns with your organization’s priorities and funding needs. 

Second, you need to think about what you can learn about a grantmaker that indicates that they would be a good funding partner for your organization. 

If both your priorities and resource needs align with why the grantmaker would make a good funding partner, then you need to learn about their funding application process. Don’t start your research with what their application process is. That will come later.

Regardless of which tool you might use with your research. Regardless of whether you are looking for government or foundation funding. 

There are six items that you want to understand about *each* and *every* grantmaker before you consider applying for their funding.

What is the Grant-makers Mission

You want to read all of the information about why the grantmaker exists and why they are making grant funding available. 

This is more than the few bullet points they may offer on their homepage. You want to read their annual reports and any other publications they have made available about their beliefs and strategies.

While you might start with high-level keyword alignment like “we work in education” and “they fund in education” you will want to dig deeper after your first filter to see if the nuances of the field still align. 

Do you work in higher education or K-12? Or are you a community-based group providing extracurricular STEM programming? Does the grantmaker only fund institutions of higher education? If that were the case and you were any other sort of organization in the education space you would want to move on and look at other grantmakers instead of trying to be the exception.

Are they Accepting Unsolicited Proposals

If you see a government agency releasing a “notice to award” opportunity, it is always very clear that you should not spend time putting together an application even if the online portal might accept it. 

Grantmaking foundations that say they “do not accept unsolicited proposals” should be approached in a similar fashion. 

The only way that a grantmaker with that statement in their IRS 990 filing or on their website will accept a grant application is if THEY have asked for it.

This means that unless you already know a board member or staff member at the grantmaking foundation, you are going to spend a great deal of time and effort trying to find and make connections all the while hoping that they eventually invite you to submit a proposal. 

This is not a good use of your time or your organizations time unless you have such a robust grant strategy already in place that you are really looking to shake loose the final few brand new relationships that might support your work and there is nothing else you can do to strengthen or expand current grantmaker relationships. That situation is so rare, as you read this, please know that is likely not your organization.

Geographic Restrictions and Preferences

Where does the grantmaker say that they make grants? Do they say an entire state? An entire county? One specific city? The entire country? 

This is one of the most important factors to understand before you start working on an application, yet it is one that is often difficult to understand from reading grantmakers’ materials.

Often grantmakers are generic in the way that they report geographic restrictions and therefore when their records are created in funding databases like GrantStation or Foundation Directory Online, they show that they will fund areas larger than their preferred geographic area.

A great example is if you look at the state where you are based and think of what the largest city is for your state. I live in New York State so it is easy for us to think of New York City. 

If you search broadly in any funding tool for grantmakers that fund in New York State the list is *huge* as is the list of grantmakers that are based in New York State and fund in New York State. 

You need to dig deep into materials including the previous grantee list (spoiler alert for the next item!) to ensure that they are willing and hopefully have a history of funding in your community/region of the state. 

To take our New York State example further, have you ever heard of the 1000 Islands region in far (far far far) Upstate New York? Probably not. Neither have most grantmakers based in New York State.

So while they say they are funding in all of New York State, they really mean they focus on a specific area where they live/have ties/are passionate about. 

You will very rarely convince them to fund outside of that comfort zone, so you are best to set those grantmakers aside in your research and instead focus on those that know where you are doing your work.

Research Previous Grantees

This research tip is super important for grant writing for beginners. The understanding of a grantmaker’s geographic restrictions and preference is often influenced by the previous grantee list, but the previous grantee list is so much more powerful than that.

It helps you to see if you are alike or dissimilar to those organizations recently funded. 

If you see that you would be a big exception based on the types of organizations recently funded, you should consider moving on from the grantmaker you are currently researching.

When you look at the previous grantee list you are also looking for organizations that you currently do or recently have partnered with. Would they be interested in partnering with you for a new application? 

You may be more likely to be funded working with them than having both collaborative organizations apply separately. Or if perhaps partnering on an application is not feasible, is that organization friendly enough with yours through staff or board connections that they may be willing to make an introduction to the grantmaker or at least let you know what their process is like and provide a few tips?

Average Grant Size

The average grant size and other financial metrics like the overall asset size of the grant-maker all help you to understand what an appropriate request might be. 

Some grantmakers state their total amount of annual giving as their maximum grant size so they could potentially award all of their funds to one organization or divvy it up many. 

Others have lower maximum grant awards listed as they plan to make multiple grants at that level. It is at the grantmaker’s discretion that they state their funding priorities and limits. 

The published financial data about their asset size and their recent grantee list give you hard data to see what their grantmaking actually looks like.

If they state that their maximum grant is $50,000 but there was not a single grant of that size last year and instead the average grant size was $10,000 with just two grants made of $25,000, you should not request $50,000.

Communication Preference/Capacity

Not all grantmakers have the capacity to communicate with all potential grantees before they apply, so they don’t communicate with anyone. Others prefer not to talk with all as the volume is so high that it would take dedicated staff just for that conversation so they put a no communication policy in place until the letter of inquiry stage is passed by an organization. 

It is up to the grantmaker to set their communication protocols therefore during the research work you want to find out what they will allow or what they encourage. 

If at all possible, you want to reach out to the grantmaker before you apply, but if you see in your research clear language telling you NOT to, be sure to respect those instructions.

In addition to reading a grantmaker’s public filings whether those are their IRS 990s or their previous requests for proposal (RFP) or notice of funding availability (NOFA) you should also look for the grantmaker on social media. 

The social media accounts of a grantmaker whether Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, or other network give you a look into the grantmaker’s day to day voice. It also helps you to understand how they talk about the projects they fund. You can learn about research studies that they think are relevant. 

This information is usually more recent than what you are reading on a grantmaker’s website and therefore helps you to fill in the gaps or to better understand what you have read on their website and in their guidelines.

Don’t be the Exception

Have you caught on to the theme of these six points you should research for each grantmaker? You don’t want to try and be the exception. You don’t want to have to convince the grantmaker that they should consider your work or your organization. That is a long road and you have other grantmakers that are a stronger fit with your organization to build relationships with instead. 

As you dig in on your grantmaker research to determine which grantmaker you will write your next grant application for, be sure to keep these six items at hand and look for the clues to help you understand each point for the grantmaker.

That is the best homework you can do before you reach out to a grantmaker to establish contact and try to start a relationship. 

For More Information On Grant Writing and Management Join Me For One Of My Upcoming Webinar Trainings!

About The Author

Diane H. Leonard, GPC, is a Grant Professional Certified (1 of less than 400 in the world) and Approved Trainer for the Grant Professionals Association.

Since 2006, Diane and her team have secured more than $61.6 million dollars in competitive grant awards for the clients.

When not working with her team on grant applications for clients, or providing grant training, Diane can be found in the 1000 Islands, out for a run, or drinking a strong cup of coffee.

Topics: Grant Management, grants, Nonprofit Grants, getting started with grants, grant writing