Grant writing: A game you can win

grant writing folderGrant writing is fun! It’s a way to get a lot of money, and more. I love it because it’s a game I know I can win. You can, too, if you use my game plan.

A former University of Florida classmate, whom I believe to be one of the best football coaches in the country today, recently gave us the first key to winning. When losing a game, he said, “I guess we just didn’t want it badly enough.” Like sports, grant-writing is competitive. Winning requires a plan, and more; it requires passion. Here’s my plan.

Step 1: Believe in yourself. I tell my workshop participants that they can reach any level they are willing to work for, and for three decades they have proven me right. You can, too. Just follow these steps.

Step 2: Play to win. Avoid the trap of those who just like to talk about the game. Grant writing is not a spectator sport. Decide up front that you are going to win. This passion will give you the drive and energy to reach the finish line.

Step 3: Choose a winning topic. Note your journals’ coming themes, your forthcoming conventions’ themes, and the keynote speakers’ topics. From these, choose a topic that you like, I mean really like. This passion will put you on top.

Step 4: Choose the right funding source. Just go to the Federal Register, which lists all the funded grants in the country. Here, you can see who is funding grants on your preferred topics. In other words, align your preferred topics with agencies who also embrace these topics.

Step 5: Use the requests for proposals (rfps). I mean really use the rfps. When I write a grant, I literally put my finger on every line in the rfp and I don’t move it until I have responded to that item. Otherwise, it is easy to stray off on a tangent – pursing my goals instead of the funding agency’s goals. To win this game, you must keep the funding agency’s goals first and convince the reviewers that you will do a better job than the competition will do in reaching the sponsor’s goals.

Step 6: Put clarity first. Most proposal readers face tons of boring, hard-to-read proposals. You can help them escape this torture by giving them a clearly written proposal. Use short, jargon-free words, short sentences and short paragraphs. These readers aren’t impressed with unfamiliar words and complex writing. On the contrary, they are impressed with good ideas, presented clearly.

Step 7: Include some unique features. Imagine a lonely grant proposal reviewer, sitting hour-after-hour, plowing through dozens of poorly-written proposals. Then, in acres of these proposals, the reviewer finds this unique proposal, one that offers a few fresh ideas.

Step 8: Develop a grant-writing workbook. Instead of thinking of grant-writing as a piecemeal, one-shot, or occasional project, make it an ongoing part of your professional life. Grant reviewers love data. I use a three-ring binder. As I find an important statistic, percentage, or quotable quote (a short statement that sends a powerful message), I put it in my binder and use it again and again.

Step 9: Contact the funding agency. I find two advantages in making contact with the funding agency. First, it makes the agents familiar with my proposal, even before they see it. Second, I listen for goals that are not found in the rfp. This gives me an advantage over all the competition.

To eliminate travel costs, I use the phone. Because these people are very busy, before calling, I make two bulleted lists: one, of things I want the agent to know about my proposal, the other, of agency goals that are not listed in the rfp.

Step 10: Attend a grant-writing workshop. I find that it takes about five hours to deliver all the nuts and bolts advice and examples that serious grant-writers need. Seek out an experienced speaker who uses clear and practical terms. Sit up close, ask questions, and take copious notes.

Like any sport, your love for grant-writing will improve as your skills improve. Good luck.


Kenneth Henson is Distinguished Professor of Education at The Citadel’s School of Education. He is the author of Grant Writing in Higher Education: A Step-by-Step Guide, published by Allyn & Bacon.