Grantwriting Basics

There’s a lot about writing grant applications that crosses international borders and disciplines. I have written successful grant applications since about 1985 for projects as disparate as women’s fitness programs, community centre building upgrades, the establishment of a foodbank, the founding of a community music school, building improvements for a Black History museum, a Jewish children’s theatre production, an outdoor opera festival, a science-fiction themed audience outreach series surrounding a new opera festival, new music commissioning, outdoor music/theatre in the Ontario northwoods, and scores of more conventional arts projects.

Since the bulk of my grantwriting has been in the Canadian arts–where I have to assume a type of applicant and type of funder–that will be the basis of my examples. Corporate fundraising uses some of these same techniques but as it is substantially a different process than grantwriting, it will not be explicitly covered in this article. Corporate foundations, on the other hand are foundations and should be handled as a part of your foundation campaign.
IDENTIFYING POTENTIAL FUNDERS Know your government funders and programs: If you are an arts or non-profit management professional, you likely already know the major funders for your program activities. In the arts at the national level you will be researching programs primarily from Canada Council and Heritage Canada. (From time to time other departments offer programs for foreign travel, international marketing of arts events.) Provincially, you will be looking at provincial arts councils and tourism programs that are available to support marketing for cultural events. Municipally or regionally, you will be looking at the programs of civic, regional, or county arts councils and regional/local tourism initiatives. Don’t be afraid to call the Officers administering the programs to ask what programs fit your activities. Book a meeting with them if you are a new grantwriter, or new to the discipline, organization or geographic area. You may learn about programs that fit your planned activities that you didn’t spot on the website, or in the literature. Establishing a good relationship with your Grants Officer is a really important first step in grantwriting for an organization. Subscription databases: If you can afford them and you don’t have a good list of funder contacts in your organizational records, you may want to subscribe to one of the subscription databases that are out there. They are expensive but it will only take one additional foundation grant that you would not have received to pay for the Bigonline database or Foundation Search Canada . Even one year of a subscription database will help you build your list of funders to the point where you may not need this resource in future years if cost is an issue. Note that these resources are not without some errors. I have found that where my organization has had an active relationship with a foundation, I have often had more accurate information regarding contacts, programs or even contact information changes. Building and maintaining your own contact list geared to your own program relationships/fits is irreplaceable. Public tax information of charitable foundations: Okay, you can’t afford an online database but you don’t have much of a list of past donors in your organization. In fact the most recent foundation files are dated 1999? Sigh. I have so been there and done that. My commisserations! Here is a real tip. Foundations are in themselves charities. As such they have to file a charitable information return with Canada Revenue. And that return is available to you free ONLINE. You can search the name of any foundation you are interested in, or search on a search term like “Foundation”, or by city, to net yourself a list to browse through. You can open up the information to see who is on the Foundation’s board and which organizations they have given to in the year of the return. See below a screen shot of a search on all private foundations in Ontario sorted by city. All those with icons of returns on the right have accessible returns.
Buried deep within the return you will find a list of the projects and organizations funded by the foundation and the amount of each grant. This, together with the listed mission of the foundation, will give you a strong indication about whether this foundation is a fit for your programs and also what level your ask should be at for a program such as yours.
Finally access the foundation contact information of those foundations who fit and add that contact and any other information about website, deadlines, application forms and process to your grantwriting calendar.Search public and foundation funders of projects like yours: You know who your competition is, who your colleagues are in the community and in neighbouring communities, and a little skill with online search engines and you are able to come up with some unique search terms that will generate a list of programs and services like your own. When you see a pattern of funding projects like your own, pull out all the stops to track that foundation or charitable giving program down. These are key funders with high probability of success.Don’t forget local family foundations: Sometimes we overlook family foundations in our neighbourhoods who may not have a discernible pattern of giving to projects like our own. That is because their giving is focused on all quality of life projects IN OUR BACKYARD. They give a little bit to fitness, some to amateur sport and some to education. If we are looking for “arts funding”, we may never find them. However as the local symphony or community arts organization in their community of interest, we fit solidly within the mandate of their foundation and they want to support us! Don’t deny them the chance to give us their money.
PREPARING ORGANIZATIONAL AND PROJECT PROFILES: Annually when your next season is well advanced in planning and before the first major operational grants are due, it is a good practice to update Organizational and Project profiles. This main document will be used in the following ways:

  1. As is for press-release backgrounders, potential board members, foundation appeals to foundations that lack a set process, as backgrounders to foundation appeals with more targeted content in the main application.
  2. Tweaked for foundation appeals where the emphasis is on an aspect of the program, expanding some sections, condensing or omitting irrelevant content
  3. As fodder to cut and paste into relevant sections of government grant applications and into the application forms for those increasing numbers of foundations that have a formal application process.

Your organizational profile document will be about 4 to 7 pages long and will include the following, organized into sections and illustrated with photos, charts and graphs as needed:

  1. Mission, Incorporation date and charitable number–if you have a briefer version of your Mission, you may want to use it here.
  2. Brief history of the organization (updated, brief, and engaging)–focus on accomplishments, programs, community impact, staying away from tedious details that are of internal archival interest only. Quotes are great!
  3. Artistic or Leadership statement–Put a photo of your conductor or theatre artistic director beside their own words on what is exciting and valuable about your upcoming program. Don’t under-estimate the ability of Artistic Leaders to frame the importance of their work. If they won’t write something for you, give them a phone call, write down what they said and send it to them for approval. It will help you as a grantwriter. You may be looking at a season that looks like a hodge-podge. You have no “hook” to hang your thoughts on, but when the Artistic Director tells you the season is a “dialogue between the conventional and the new, the audience’s taste and the pressure for artistic innovation”… wow… you are off and running with and angle for your prose.
  4. Main Program Description–Describe your artistic season or core programs. While you might start with brochure content here, don’t stop there. You want to think always from the standpoint of impact. What are the benefits to the community, artists, the art form, ties to education or multiculturalism in your program? How is this program a stretch for your organization, or the artists in your orchestra?
  5. Community Outreach/Education and/or Adjunct Programs–separately describe your audience development and outreach programs. Start with and update the descriptions of annual and recurring programs. Next add what is special and unique about this years programs and share details of one-time programs. Illustrate your content with examples and photos from last year’s successful programs. Include participant’s quotes. Their words are always going to include more weight than yours, no matter how hot-shot you think you are as a grantwriter!

  1. Organization–Who are the key players? Brief bios of artistic leadership and management here. Organizational challenges and triumphs. Any major projects in the coming year. (A Board List will accompany where appropriate).
  2. Financial Position of the Company–If you have a debt, here’s where you explain it. If you have a surplus, here’s where you explain why it is needed and why it can’t be used for operating. Do you need to save to repair the roof next year, or are you on a cycle with a festival every two years? This is only a good news over-view, you’ll need a detailed explanation for funders if you have serious explaining to do. (You’ll attach financial statements where needed).


  1. In addition to your main project description prepare single sheets for specific adjunct and optional projects. Are you going to have two composers visit schools next year? Prepare a “Composers in the Classroom” page. Are you going to have musicians from your orchestra give workshops? Prepare a “Young performers workshops” page. Are amateur ensembles going to play before your concerts? Prepare a “Community Overtures” page.
  2. Update or create project pages from the former years projects. If you had a successful collaboration with a youth choir last season, do a one-sheeter on it.
  3. Try to keep your project titles consistent as that will allow you to send three sheets on “Young Artist Spotlight” that detail past and planned activities. Although the activities may have slightly different aspects, the one linking idea–in this example, young artists on the stage–will allow you to build a case for this stream of activity within your organization.

These one sheeters will be used for:

  1. Targetted foundation and corporate appeals
  2. Reports to donors on prior projects funded
  3. Fodder for larger applications
  4. To add to or tweak applications to foundations where added emphasis is needed to match the funder’s priorities or mission.


  1. You can use MS Outlook, a database, or a spreadsheet to construct an annual calendar for you to chart the deadlines and progress of your grantwriting.
  2. Be sure to keep and include your accumulated knowledge arising from your past successes and failures with the funding body. Many funders ask you when you applied to them last, what for and what was the result.
  3. As you talk to officers, look at websites, add all information into your grant calendar listing. Link to application forms and guidelines where those exist.
  4. Where deadlines are given, you can enter those along with your own projections of when to schedule work on this grant. Many foundations will give vague information such as “meet before the end of each fiscal quarter”. You will have to either find out the deadline or plan to have the application in well before the deadline might be anticipated to fall.
  5. You will determine patterns in your calendar which will allow you to schedule grantwriting weeks where you will lock the doors, turn off the phones for some part of the days and focus on a series of foundation appeals or a major operating grant. In my experience, given basic knowledge and writing skill, the major determiner of a successful grant is the time invested.

GRANTWRITING TEAM TASKS: “Team, what team?” you ask. I smile as I have certainly written many grant applications on my own. However, there are ways to divide up the tasks to work with one or two other staff members in assembling materials for your more major grant applications. Even if it is only you on your lonesome, it may be helpful to you to think of working on your grant applications in terms of these tasks which may be extracted and assigned.

  1. Pre-read grant application forms, program guideline sheets AND final checklists, making a list of everything you will need for the grant. Please note that due to over-sight, omission or sadism, there will often be some item that you cannot get at the last minute which will only appear on one of three of these documents, usually the final checklist. If you only look at that as you prepare to mail your application, you will be up a creek without a paddle. Be sure you have defined the deadline properly: is it “postmarked by X date”, “in our office before 5 pm on X date”, or “in our office before midnight on X date”.
  2. Solicit, acquire and create a file of all needed external and internal documents: These can depending on the program include: financial quotes on equipment you are intending to purchase with grant funds, artistic statements from artistic leaders, signed releases from creative partners, signed Motions of the Board authorizing the application, copies of Letters of Incorporation, signed Financial Statements, work samples on CD’s, copies of scores, letters from references, marketing materials, marketing plans from companies on retainer, resumes of partners, etc. You will want to chart progress on these items to avoid nasty surprises.
  3. Create an electronic “fodder” file: On your computer network create a folder into which you throw copies of all documents likely to be of use to you during the grantwriting process. (You will delete these copies later). This will save you oodles of time in searching and opening and re-opening the same documents as you look for re-useable content. These documents will include your organizational profile, individual program sheets/descriptions. Strategic planning documents. Past grant application to the same government body. Recent grant application to other government bodies. Documents on financial planning. Statistics, budgets, and copies of marketing materials.
  4. Fill in grant cover sheet (get signatures done well in advance).
  5. Create separate documents for your main prose sections for the application.
  6. Cut and Paste–Use your current organizational profile and any other relevant content in your fodder file. Do a rough cut and paste of the material into the program sections where it best fits and might be helpful. Do not worry at this point about duplication. You are merely positioning the material for convenient accessibility.
  7. Statistics and Budget pages: Do these as fully as possible before starting on the prose. You can cut the time you spend on editing prose a lot more easily than truncating the time on stats sheets and Budgets. Trends evidenced in these sheets will help frame the prose.
  8. Write and edit. Self-explanatory as this seems, determine well in advance who the lead writer is and who gets to say, “this is done”. Arguments on these points seem to happen frequently in mid-sized to larger organizations and make a tense process much worse.
  9. Proofread.
  10. Make the required number of copies and prepare as required
  11. Checklist of everything submitted
  12. Copy to file.
  13. Cover letter
  14. Mail, courier or hand-deliver. Nothing quite compares with the festive atmosphere in the line-up at the last post-office open in a major city on the deadline of a major grant. It is a time to meet old colleagues and catch up with the news from last year. But really, we’d much prefer to have been home at 5 pm rather than be in a post office at 10 minutes to 10 pm.


  1. Make a plan: List everything you want to tell the funder in brief points.
  2. Make it easy for them to give you the money by using their language. In addition to the application forms and guidelines that shape your writing, be sure to take time to read annual reports, strategic planning and online copy from your potential funding body. As you read, highlight (or electronically extract if possible) the prose in their documents that resonate powerfully with what you do or are proposing. Put this in your “fodder” file. Organizing your argument under sub-headings that echo their goals and priorities, using their language makes it easy for funders to see where your activities and plans fit their funding priorities. I worked with one great grantwriter who called this, “finding the money words”.
  3. Tell your positive story first. Find several key points in each section that are strong positives. Put them upfront and in strong brief language. Use quotes from stakeholders, partners and leaders to enliven and add credibility.
  4. Address negatives briefly and honestly – move quickly to your positive plans (the only exception to this is applications for organizational effectiveness projects where you are making a case for the needs of your org.)
  5. Keep to length guidelines: Find out how flexible your funding body is in length guidelines. If they have some flexibility, don’t abuse them. Sometimes copy from one question might be adapted and moved to another question that allows for a more lengthy response.
  6. Have you hit all your high notes? Look back at your list from No. 1. In your edits and moving blocks of copy around have you failed to tell some of your positive stories? See where you can fit those missed notes back in.

If you follow all these steps you will maximize your success with funders. Remember that the funders want to give you the money but you have to show them why and how your activities are the best place that they can invest in order to achieve their goals.


  • Be honest: Any dishonesty or misrepresentation in your application will assure you have a very short relationship with the funder, so you want to be sure that you’ll deliver on everything you have outlined. Fudging on postage dates is mail fraud, unfair to your colleagues and creates a nasty, unethical climate in organizations where leaders coerce staff into going along with submitting applications days after deadline with an old postage meter label. Expose this where it occurs. If extensions are needed due to dire circumstances, often there is a way to submit a barebones application with additional material coming as updates.
  • Don’t forget to file your reports. A part of successful grantwriting is filing reports as required. Since you are reporting on last year’s activities anyway, send reports even to those funders that don’t require them.
  • Recognize your funders: assure that funders have the logo recognition and thanks that meets or exceeds the funder’s expectations. Forgetting the Canada Council logo on your program book today, means you will not want to send that program to them with your next application, no matter how good it looks. When logos and thanks are part of your development team plan, meeting your final requirements and giving courteous acknowledgement is assured

Writing Grant Proposals as a Team

Recently I realized that my article “Grantwriting Basics” had less detail on grantwriting in a team than I remembered, whether through editing or never getting around to all of the content in my mind. Here’s an expansion for those of you writing in a team environment, something that I find I do about 50 % of the time. By team grant-writing I mean situations in which key parts of the grant are written by others and editing and changes to the document are done collectively.
 Grantwriting in a Team Environment
Grants written with a collaborative team are usually stronger, more realistic and tied to the real activities and history of the organization and provide opportunities for team-building. Grants written with a collaborative team can also be among the most frustrating and time-wasting of activities if there is no plan for the collaboration and team members don’t adequately understand their roles.
Why write a grant collaboratively?

  1. Capitalize on multiple talents
  2. Get multiple viewpoints
  3. Increase organizational and/or partnership buy in to the project proposal

There are four key steps to ensuring a successful collaborative grantwriting process:

  1. Define roles
  2. Choose the team
  3. Chart a realistic timeline
  4. Choose tools

NOTE: Many times one individual is responsible for more than one role in grantwriting, but it is useful to break down the roles to understand all areas of responsibility. For most grants the roles include:
1. The Grant Lead: This is the person, often referred to as “the grant developer” who is delegated responsibility for team leadership on the grant. They define the process, assign grant tasks, manage the timeline and are ultimately responsible for declaring when grant components are final. They may or may not be the actual grant-writer.
2. Grant Researcher: This role requires someone with skills and experience in researching funding bodies and (if applicable) expertise with the fundraising database used by your organization. They identify funding programs with high relevance to the activities of the organization.
3. The Grant Analyst: This role requires someone able to summarize the grant requirements and provide the information to key individuals within the organization for decision-making about whether and how to proceed and to set out key requirements needed to be met (such as signed contracts).
4. The Organizational Historian/Fact-checker: This role provides up to date content on organizational history, mission, projects, as well as needed documents such as board lists, audited financial statements, incorporation papers, photos, biographies/profiles of team members and partner organizations.
5. The Needs Manager/Project Rationale Researcher: This role is able to research the “need” that the project addresses whether it is a need in the community or an organizational need. Articulating the need is important to making a case for the relevance of your project (whether the application asks you to answer questions about needs or not).
6. The Grant Writer: This is the individual who takes all content provided and crafts it into a coherent argument that is presented with one voice through the document. They are ultimately responsible for style, grammar, format.
7. The Collaboration Organizer: This role is responsible for the nitty-gritty of the collaborative effort, sending invitations to team members, organizing meetings according to time-line, chasing people for content, and tracking the receipt of all needed materials, signatures, support letters, etc.
While above, I have defined the ROLES needed within a grant-writing process, one team member will likely assume more than one of the roles. Your grantwriting team may be 2 people or 20 people (or more). Most grants involve 2-4 key contributors with some input from stakeholders. Who you choose for your team depends on your organization and the nature of the application. While you typically would want only one person assigned to some roles (such as project leader and/or lead writer), others can be performed by teams (such as researching community needs or literature surveys, getting equipment quotes).
The skills you need to assure are on your team include:
1. A professional within the organization who has key insight in the organization’s history, goals, and able to speak to the nature and importance of the key points of the proposal.
2. A grantwriting professional who is skilled in researching funding opportunities in tune with organizational needs
3. A budget specialist able to craft a realistic project budget and answer financial questions about organizational finances
4. Writer/editor who will be the “voice” of the grant–responsible for the tone, grammar and persuasive language of the grant
Unless one person has ALL of the skills above, you need to develop a team however small! If you are the Grant Lead–taking into account both the roles needed in the grant and the list of key skills–consider who will make up your team. Following the rules for good delegation, you will need to assure that team members understand their role(s) on the team as well as the role of others. Each team member must have the tools and resources needed to perform the tasks (time, materials, budget) and the authority (existing or clearly delegated) to successfully fulfill their role.
Chart your timelines with key points for completion of stages of grant development through a work back schedule from the due date with full understanding of that due date which can vary from “postmarked by X date” to “must be in our hands by 5 pm on the due date”. While generally the earlier the better, a too early start date can undermine any sense of urgency about the work and lead to procrastination and dropped balls. Likewise some RFP have tight timelines that mean that intensive work will be unavoidable.
Generally the charting done by an experienced Grant Lead will look like this:

By making your first draft completion date far enough in advance, you can allow for a second round of commenting and revision if necessary or if the project gets behind schedule due to external factors or difficulties in obtaining all information needed, you can forgo this step.
Do you need special tools for collaboration? Not necessarily. It depends on your team, process and proximity. If a grant is being written by one person who edits submitted content and incorporates 2-3 team members content and comments (the majority of grant-writing scenarios) no special tools are needed. Emails, word documents or notes written on a table napkin, will all be incorporated by one individual into a master document that is not available for editing by anyone else. No tools beyond a word processor needed.
Where it gets dicey is where multiple individuals are working on writing/editing sections of the grant collaboratively (and there has to be a strong rationale for this approach). Here version management becomes difficult and if there is no system in place, valuable content can be erased by a contributor who lacks the big picture. The grantwriter has started by organizing content into paragraphs dedicated to single ideas, ensuring that all building blocks are in place over the entirety of the grant. This can become lost as new writers add irrelevant details to paragraphs unaware those ideas are stated later, or in a different section of the application that they may not have in front of them. Simply tracking the revisions becomes a chore. Take this as an example: Susan has written the first draft of a project timeline that outlines a series of workshops. She sends it out simultaneously to Sandra and Kevin by email. Sandra gets back to Susan first with her revision and has added 2 workshops to the list. Kevin (working on the original document) adds one workshop. If Susan saves the most recent edit (Kevin’s) as final, she will not have incorporated Sandra’s input. So how will this be avoided without adding hours of pouring over revisions with a fine tooth-comb?
The need for a unified voice and coherence within the full application dictates that:
The process for editing needs to be clearly articulated

  1. There needs to be a start and end point to edits (a date where no more edits will be received and the key writer will consolidate).
  2. A system or tool for tracking versions must be decided on and used by all contributers
  3. The final edit must be done by one person assuring a single voice and coherent thread.

 MS Word “Track Changes”:
When two or three editors work on a document and only one or two revisions are anticipated, the tools within Word for tracking changes, emailed back and forth will likely be sufficient to the team’s needs, provided they agree on version labeling and documents are not sent to multiple editors at one time without the knowledge of the key writer. The key writer needs to know which version of the document the edit is based on to not lose content previously submitted.
The drawback of “track changes” with multiple edits and editors is that the document becomes unreadable unless the revisions are hidden by selecting “show final”, however in that view content crossed out by one editor which may be necessary and need to be restored can be lost.
 Google Docs and Google Drive
Google docs are similar to MS Word’s track changes in look and feel. The advantage of using Google docs is that two people cannot work on the document at the same time so that the most recently saved document is always based upon the work of all previous contributors. In addition, prior versions are saved (and can be given custom names) enabling rollback. All docs can be saved in a Google Drive folder.  In order to have a fully secure work folder on Google Drive, it can only be shared with Google accounts.  Creating a shareable link makes the folder viewable by anyone with the link.  This can be a concern for some teams with non-Google users.
Wikis were developed specifically for collaborative writing and allow team-members to look at all version histories and share files are various types. Within a wiki, it is easy to roll back to a prior version or ensure content is not lost.  Although Google Drive has some of the same functionality, teams might prefer a wiki for ease of navigation and the ability to share different file types and work in familiar software (MS Word vs Google docs).  Teams concerned about the online security of their information might also prefer a wiki space.  There are a number of free or inexpensive wiki spaces available online and using wiki tools are highly recommended where team-writing for sections of a grant involve three or more people and or is anticipated to involve more than two rounds of editing. My favorite wiki spaces include: and  
 Proximity and Face to Face Meetings (a collaborative tool we sometimes forget):
Grant-writing teams seldom go off the rails when collaborators work in the same office space and work the same days/shifts. When they do not, it is important to be able to simulate the good synergy effects of proximity. Wiki tools help with this. Meetings, web conferencing, shared Skype calls, and even meeting virtually in online environments (such as Second Life or an OpenSim environment) can avoid the pitfalls that occur when collaborators feel they are working in a vacuum at some points or are surprised/ambushed by input from other team members at other points.
Symptoms of failed collaborative grantwriting:
 Reluctance to contribute in a timely fashion: One of the leading signs of a process that is failing is the hording of information and avoidance of content sharing until the last moment of a grant deadline. People sometimes do this as a defense when they feel that earlier input will be lost or be subject to so many revisions that it will add to the time they will actually be required to spend on grant-writing. “Why contribute now, it will only have to re-done 10 times?” It can also be indicative of a missing or unclear timeline.
 Lost or confused content: Editors are simultaneously working on the same document making tracking versions difficult to impossible. “I’m sure we had something in here about X in an earlier version. Where did it go?” The wrong tools are being used for collaborative writing.
 Surprises and conflicts: “Why are you working on X? I’ve already done it!” The team and roles were not clearly defined.
Loss of engagement by project and/or writing lead: You send your lead writer comments and edits galore and they stop responding. There’s likely a timeline problem. The editing process needs to have a clear end-point so that final draft can be constructed. Grantwriters who are unsure of when they are needed for final edits may be reluctant to contribute until they are sure the dust has settled to avoid wasting their time.
Lack of consistent voice and format in final grant: Editing and commenting has not been terminated with enough time for grant writer to polish and format or grant writer has not been correctly delegated authority to override edits that are off message or inconsistent in style.
 Lastly take this quiz

  1. We always have organizational buy-in for our grant-writing before we begin. Yes/No
  2.  Our grant team all know their own roles and responsibilities. Yes/No
  3.  All team members know from the outset who will contributing and how. Yes/No
  4.  Our grant process has a defined time-line for key steps. Yes/No
  5.  Our tools match the number of collaborators we are involving. Yes/No
  6.  We work in close proximity or have plans for meeting/conferencing as needed. Yes/No
  7.  We have no difficulty tracking revisions to grants. Yes/No
  8.  We are never surprised at the last minute by missing documentation or signatures. Yes/No
  9.  Team members contribute on schedule with confidence their input will not be lost. Yes/No
  10.  Grant proposals have a unified voice and a coherent argument on completion. Yes/No

Give yourself a point for all your “yes” answers.
A perfect 10: Where do I apply to work for you as a grant-writer? Great going.
7 to 9: You are like most organizations, doing most things correctly but there’s probably just one area where you could avoid conflict and time wasting if you planned a little better.
4 to 6: You are probably experiencing some staff stress or even conflict. You may be wasting time and energy due to duplication of work by people not understanding their roles and/or doing intensive last-minute grant-writing due to lack of pacing.
Less than 4: Grant-writing collaboratively is either very new to your organization or has become a huge trial that your staff members view with dread. They react with either avoidance/delay strategies or by jockeying for position when a grant-writing task is announced. The process is likely always contentious and the results are worse than if one person completes the grant leading you to feel it is better you do it yourself. (Most of us have been there.) Consider, if you feel this way, whether your team really lacks the skills or whether the process is at fault.