Winning Grants: A Game Plan
How to write proposals that work
Posted Tue, 08/24/2010 - 10:51
Pieces of the grant-seeking puzzle
Grant seeking is a marketing process. Simply stated, you define your library’s need and sell it to one who can fund your project. Librarians are their own best grant-proposal writers. No outsider can write a proposal as effectively as a “library insider” who fully understands the institution’s mission and priorities as well as the needs of the community it serves. Over the years, I have successfully tailored skills I learned as a professional grant writer to the needs of the various libraries where I have worked.
In any game it helps to have rules. In italics below are four common-sense ones that govern my grant-writing game plan.
Establishing your “mission match”
It is important to verify that the grant project supports your institutional mission and priorities. My first rule of grant writing is: Pursue only grants relevant to your institution’s mission. As you peruse grant opportunities, ask: “Will this prospective grant project yield real benefits to my library and its patrons?” If you cannot answer this question with a resounding yes, then let the grant opportunity pass.
Your strategic plan should be the basis for clarifying your library’s potentially grantable needs. Use your stated mission, objectives, goals, and strategic tasks to guide your grant shopping. This can help avoid pursuit of “frivolous” grants and can also help justify the investment of library resources in grant seeking to your library’s governing body. In addition, grantors often ask that relevant strategic plan segments be included in the grant application package.
To be a successful grant seeker, your proposal should demonstrate two degrees of mission matching:
- Matching your institution’s mission with the grantor’s mission;
- Matching the proposed project’s mission with your institution’s mission and the grantor’s mission.
Do not be shy or oblique in demonstrating your mission match. Come right out and state that the mission (or goals) of your proposed project and its expected outcomes will directly support the grant maker’s mission, and clearly state the ways. If grant seeking is compatible with your institution’s mission and scope, you will have to face a number of “go/no-go” decision points before your grant proposal can be written and submitted. You must, for example, decide if you possess the eligibility, resolve, and institutional structure for grant seeking as well as the time, resources, and skills to prepare the proposal and manage a grant project. You must also determine if you can stand up to the competition.
Grant makers usually limit specific grants to particular categories of grantees, such as a not-for-profit institution or an individual. Review these limitations in advance so you will not waste effort applying for a grant for which your institution is ineligible. Grants to individuals are very limited. However, foundations, corporations, and governments award certain grants to individuals for education, research, or innovation in science, the arts, and the humanities.
Most grant opportunities are reserved for those not-for-profit institutions granted 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service. If your library is an approved 501(c)(3), you will receive a “tax determination letter” from the IRS confirming not-for-profit status. Keep this letter handy. You will likely need to submit a copy of it in a grant application as evidence of eligibility. Libraries that are governmental departments may be barred from applying for certain grants by grantors or their own governing rules. In addition, many foundations or government agencies do not offer grants to religious or political organizations. Therefore, first confirm that your institution’s enabling documents (e.g., articles of incorporation, bylaws, legislative and taxing authority, and the like) allow you to seek and accept grants. Further, when evaluating certain grant opportunities, verify that your organization meets the grantor’s standards of eligibility. For example, some foundations limit their support to faith-based institutions, so a public library may not qualify.
If you do not meet the grantor’s eligibility conditions or if your organization is weak in certain project-skill areas, you may still be able to receive grant funding by submitting a joint proposal with another grant-qualified agency. My public library has partnered in grant seeking with a university, a municipality, a museum, and an association.
Evaluating time and resources
A successful grant seeker must have the staff and resources necessary to find grant opportunities and write winning proposals within the specified deadlines. To muster these resources, it is important to obtain the support of your institution’s governing body at two levels:
- Support for committing institutional resources to grant seeking in general;
- Support for specific grant-seeking efforts if they will consume significant resources for either the proposal or post-award project;
A major grant proposal effort requires a significant investment of time and money. The average government grant request takes from 80 to 160 person-hours to write plus additional effort devoted to logistical and marketing-support tasks. A senior and qualified staff member must be assigned as proposal manager. He or she must then create a proposal schedule and recruit a team of qualified proposal contributors. Outside consultants may have to be hired and paid. Quotations from equipment vendors may have to be solicited. Editors and graphic designers may be needed. Budget specialists may be required to prepare cost estimates. You may need a print shop to produce the hard-copy proposal and a courier service to deliver it on time. All this can be a drain on the grant-seeking institution’s staff and finances. Therefore, before you begin grant seeking, verify that your institution is able to invest the labor, cash, and other resources needed to generate winning proposals. When determining how much you need to invest in a proposal’s preparation, consider my second rule of grant writing: Do not pursue a grant if the proposal preparation costs more than the grant is worth.
Look down the road and ask if your institution possesses the resources necessary to successfully conduct and sustain the grant project should you win it. Most grants are for new projects rather than for ongoing base operations. Winning a major grant may therefore require either reassigning current staff or acquiring additional staff and facilities. If you are not prepared to handle the additional work, your core operations can be negatively impacted.
What are the odds?
Writing a competitive grant is a gamble, with no guarantee of a payoff for the effort invested. In evaluating the odds of winning a grant, apply my rule number 3 of successful grantsmanship: Do not pursue a grant if the odds against winning are more than 10 to 1. For example, in a recent grant competition to fund cooperative public library/municipal projects, it was reported that 515 proposals were submitted but only nine grants were awarded. With odds against winning greater than 57 to 1, this is not a grant competition I would knowingly pursue.
Assembling the proposal-writing team and assigning work
Every grant-proposal effort needs an individual to serve as the proposal team leader, in accord with my rule number 4: Appoint a reliable proposal manager.
The proposal manager should possess management, writing, and technical project skills and have enough time to devote to proposal preparation. A relatively small, straightforward project proposal (e.g., requesting a grant to buy a new computer or a range of bookshelves) can be a one-person effort, with a single staff member filling all writing roles and serving as proposal manager. However, an intricate proposal that defines a multifaceted project may need a proposal-writing team of several people. For a small (e.g., under $10,000) grant, one or two people may be able to put together a simple letter or e-mail proposal. However, a major five- or six-figure proposal will usually require a team to put the package together. Select and assign your proposal-team members based on six basic criteria:
- Knowledge of the subject area(s) addressed by the proposal and subsequent project;
- Ability to write flexibly in varying styles;
- Imagination and intellectual ability to define problems and solutions;
- Ability to work under pressure;
- Ability to follow instructions;
- Reliability in meeting deadlines.
If more than one person will be writing your proposal, a member of the proposal team should be appointed editor to ensure consistency of style and adherence to standards. It’s a good idea for the proposal manager to prepare a writing style guide and distribute it to team members. Also, line up one or more people to be proofreaders and reviewers at key points, especially during final editing.
Give each team member a task assignment in writing, along with necessary background information (e.g., the RFP and other materials) and define his or her position in the proposal team’s reporting and review structure.
After convening the proposal team and giving them their assignments, the proposal manager must keep in close touch to offer assistance and to keep their writing progress on schedule. The proposal manager is a maestro who must ensure that all proposal pieces will harmoniously come together to meet the delivery deadline. You can only do this by watching and listening to each player and directing from the front like a good concert conductor.
What’s the payoff?
Grants can be an important resource for funding special projects beyond the reach of tight operating budgets. Grants allow a library with limited means to obtain technology and resources that are normally available only to large, well-funded institutions. I know this because, over a five-year period at a small rural public library, I was able to get about $200,000 in grants to fund the purchase of 32 computers, several hundred feet of library shelving, over 100 self-instruction language learning kits, a Ford delivery van, and many special community programs that would not have been possible otherwise.
Grant seeking requires you to develop and apply skills in marketing, writing, and project management, tempered with creativity and a bit of a gambler’s spirit. Once you feel comfortable with grant-proposal writing, you will find it to be an exciting and rewarding game.
HERBERT B. LANDAU is executive director of the Lancaster (Pa.) Public Library and its Leola and Mountville branches. He is the author of The Small Public Library Survival Guide: Thriving on Less (ALA Editions, 2008). His new book, Winning Library Grants: A Game Plan, is scheduled for publication this fall by ALA Editions.