Sarah Nilsson JD, PhD, MAS
Sarah NilssonJD, PhD, MAS
MAY 19 revised USE Grant Writing USA.pdf
Adobe Acrobat document [4.4 MB]
grant writing participation guide.pdf
Adobe Acrobat document [4.3 MB]

Grant writing is a misnomer –

it’s 80% gathering information















Grant writing competencies:

  • Investigating, asking questions
  • Understanding of the organization’s priorities
  • Researching and analyzing funding opportunities
  • Synthesizing, summarizing key points
  • Reading the “fine print”
  • Developing budgets and supporting documents
  • Responding to funders’ requests
  • Reporting on time and correctly
  • AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST.... Writing clearly and concisely 

Private Funding
140,000 grant makers/foundations
Giving approximately $60B yearly

Keep in Mind:
(1) About 50% of total $ given by the Top 1,500 foundations 

(2) 90% of total $ given by the Top 10% 

of Top 1,500 foundations



Why give to 501c3 nonprofits? IRS requirements to keep Foundation status (no taxes)

  • Expenditure Requirement – foundations MUST expend at least 5% of the previous year’s assets on their stated mission. 
  • Qualifying Distribution – grants to nonprofits which then can be counted toward meeting this 5% minimum. 


PRIVATE FUNDING/Pass Through Foundations

Separate supporting 501(c)3 organizations that exist to raise funds for a public or other agency, not to give grants

Atlanta Police Foundation
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Foundation (hospital) PTA Foundations that support public schools


Private Funding: more fast facts

  • Private funders may give exclusively to pre-selected organizations.

  • Letter of Inquiry (LOI) – some funders require a short letter about your project before inviting a full proposal; see pages 32- 33 for template.

  • Many foundations regularly use Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter

  • Foundation Board members may advocate strongly for their favorite organizations.

  • Only about 25% of foundations have staff, guidelines, or a phone.



How do you find out what they support and how to approach them?

All foundations MUST file an annual Form 990-PF with the IRS. (free and paid accounts and subscriptions)

The Foundation Directory Online (FDO) (limited free and several levels of subscription; check colleges and local libraries)


Private funding: Options for prospect research (Foundation Directory Online + may be free at a library near you!

GrantStation (Chronicle of Philanthropy or GPA Membership)

E-Civis $$$

Foundation Search $$$$

Regional/Specialized private funding:

United Philanthropy Forum (search regional tab by state)

990s (annual filing, BOD, assets, grantees, processes)

Annual reports/donor walls

Current funders and supporters


IRS Form 990-PF

Fiscal Year
Part I Revenue/Expenses
Part VIII Trustees (BOD), Officers
Part IX-A List of Grants Given (mostly)
Part XV How to apply (mostly)


Public Funding is:

26 federal agencies = 1,000+ grant programs annually for public purpose of support or stimulation authorized by a law of the United States


Public funding is NOT:

benefits, entitlements, federal assistance or loans to individuals, may. not be used to acquire property or services for the federal government's direct benefit.


Public Funding:

Who is authorized to make grants?

• 26 agencies at the federal level, such as Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Justice, etc.

• 175 sub-agencies such as Centers for Disease Control, Heritage Preservation Services, Lead outreach Grant Program, etc.


Public Funding

Giving $700B yearly—Here’s the breakdown:

225 FORMULA GRANTS – AKA Block Grants: how 90% of Federal grant $ distributed; only states, state agencies, and large municipalities can apply; then they sub-award within their jurisdiction.

1,000+ PROJECT GRANTS – far less $$ than formula; broad array of applicants; no sub-awards.


Public Funding

Follow federal appropriations to find $ allocated to programs of interest.

Your new best friends: and

Example: H.R. 3249 - Project Safe Neighborhoods Grant Program Authorization Act of 2018

“The Attorney General of the United States is authorized to establish and carry out a program, to be known as the Project Safe Neighborhoods Block Grant Program within the Office of Justice Programs at the Department of Justice.”

“There are authorized to be appropriated to the Attorney General to carry out the Program $50,000,000 for each of fiscal years 2019 through 2021.”




Follow hot topics within Fed Agencies such as:
- President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing

- Neighborhood Stabilization Program

- Affordable Care Act



Public funders always issue a written “Request for Proposals” known as an RFP. What to look for when reviewing grant guidelines:

  • Due date – postmarked or delivered?

  • Are you eligible?

  • Any registration or pre-application requirements?

  • What are the eligible activities?

  • Are there minimum and maximum funding limits?


Grant guidelines continued:

  • What is the required match? Can it be in-kind or must it be cash?

  • Is the application on-line, in a Word, or PDF document?

  • How many copies of the application must I submit?

  • What are the formatting guidelines for the application?

  • What is the time allowable for completing the project?

  • Are extensions allowable?

  • Who is the contact person for questions regarding the application?

Grant guidelines (Public and Private) continued:

  • What are the reporting requirements?

  • What is the reimbursement process?

  • When will the grant awards be announced?

  • Is a resolution (or board approval) required?

  • In addition to the application, are there any required attachments, such as support letters, site/location maps, etc.

  • Who can sign the application? – Mayor, CEO, any Board Member, Board Chair only, ED?

  • Is there a required or optional workshop?


Three 'buckets' to organize grant proposal information:

1. Program/Project/Thing

 - ProblemStatement

 - Goals&Objectives

 - Methodology

 - Evaluation Plan

 - ExecutiveSummary

2. Overview/Admin

 - Credibility/Intro
 - Presentation/Formatting/Technical/Compliance Requirements

 - Funder Research


Introduction: aka Organizational History or Background

Paint a verbal picture of your organization including:

 - MissionStatement

 - Size and growth of budget, staff, volunteers

 - History, reason established

 - Service constituency

 - Truly unique characteristics

 - List of significant and/or recent accomplishments


Do you have room for an opening paragraph? If so:

- Identify your chosen approach

- Validate it
- Compare it


If permitted, establish credibility with:

- Media clips (TV, radio, print, social media)

- Letters of support/video testimonials

- Letters of appreciation/video testimonials

- Financial and service collaborators


3. Financial: overall and grant specific

- Project Budget

- Budget Justification/Narrative

- Funding Plan
- Plan for Sustainability




- Who decides what grants to pursue?

- Who actually does the writing and research?

- Who has the authority to sign the grant application?

- Who makes the purchases?

- Who does the reports?

- Who submits for reimbursements?

- Who keeps the records?

- Who prepares for the auditors?

- How do you track payables and receivables?


Know where your grant information is:

- Internal Policies/Procedures

- City/County Attorney

- Senate District

- Congressional District

- TIN/IRS 501c3 letter


- Master/Strategic Plans

- Budget

- Important Contact List
- Council/Commissioner/ Board Member List

- Department Liaison/Program Director

- Photos
- Comprehensive Plan

- Evaluations


Frequently Requested Attachments

- Organizational Chart

- Maps

- Timelines

- Charts & Graphs

- Logic Models

- Job Descriptions

- Resumes/Prof Bios

- MOUs

- Letters of Support/Endorsement

- Operating Budget

- Audits
- Monthly Financial Statements

- Form 990 (nonprofits)

- Annual Report
- 501c3 letter



Books on Writing in General :

On Writing Well by William K. Zinsser

On Writing by Stephen King

Bird by Bird Annie LaMott

Elements of Style Strunk & White (yes, the same onefrom high school/college composition classes)




Grant Proposal/Application

“WOW” needs or problem section that identifies need or challenge and offers your agency’s solutions

Compellingly and Effectively Answers:

- What you are proposing

- How you plan to do it

- When you plan to do it

- How much it is going to cost


Writing Tips:

- Be innovative and creative

- Avoid wordiness

- Know your audience

- Avoid and/or explain jargon and acronyms your reviewers may not understand

- Do not be redundant

- Use the active voice and be positive

- Stay away from clichés

- Use examples; tell stories


Review and Editing

- Don’t do it all yourself

- Every detail matters

- Consistency is crucial

- Clarity is essential

- Allow plenty of time to incorporate suggested changes

- There is always ONE MORE TYPO! (ASK ME HOW I KNOW)



- DEFINE using appropriate definitions from outside sources.

- DESCRIBE how this problem affects your community and be comprehensive.

- SUBSTANTIATE using hard and soft data.


Where to find good data:


- KidsCount (Annie E. Casey Foundation)

- PubMed (medical/behavioral health)

- ERIC clearinghouse (education, social work)

- State/County Departments: Public Health, Department of Labor, Public Safety

- Individual Agencies: public safety, emergency response, city, country, school district

- Peer-reviewed journal

- Public Agency

- Trusted source!


Source citations are essential to show needs statement/program credibility where space allows.

If word/character counts are limited; keep references in case of questions/follow up.

- Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) 

- The Citation Machine 

- Easy Bib


Research should include:

- Data from outside authoritative sources that best support your concept of the problem:

Policy Research Centers, PubMed (other sources for peer reviewed journal articles

State/County departments

Larger foundations and community foundations (The Ford Foundation, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

- Data comparing the problem in your geographic region with other regions/states:

- Cost in $$ of problem continuing unabated

- Return on Investment (ROI) in addressing problem now

Census data


Avoid LACK OF METHOD Problem Statements

- Problems are objective and exist independently of your organization and its intended approach.

- Methods are subjective and depend on your organization mission, capacity, type, location, and beneficiaries.


Goals and Objectives

Not what you will DO, but what you will CHANGE as a result of what you do.

- Who? Beneficiaries

- What? Change from the conditions described in the Problem Statement; for example, report changes in knowledge, attitude, actions, behaviors, systems

- When? During the funding period

- How Much? Math is involved

- How Measured? Using tools


Goals = long term, broad impact

Objectives = concrete achievements, step by step


Methodology aka Program Description

Planning Process

- When did it begin?

- What was the process?

- Who was involved?

- Did this come out of a strategic plan?

- Is this a model? Is it based on a model?

- What is the estimated time and cost?


Marry mission with money:

- Cite funding focus or priorities as stated by funder

- Illustrate how your organization/project helps fulfill this


- Cite collaborators previously funded by this source

- Cite your own successful funding relationships



Design of Plan

- Process/output – how will you PROVE that you did what you said you would do in Methodology?

- Product/outcome – how will you PROVE that you will achieve what you said would be achieved in Goals & Objectives?


Who will be “The Evaluator?”
- Internal

- External


Data Collection

- Quantitative – hard data

- Qualitative – soft data

Analysis & Reporting
- Formative–ongoing

- Summative-final


Agencies that fail to report as required – Excluded Parties List System (EPLS)




FUNDING PLAN (where the rest of the $$ is/will be)


- Increase revenue of organization’s operating budget allowing you to “institutionalize” project

- Frame grant request as a 3-year project requiring decreasing amounts from outside sources

- Build a fee-for-use structure into project

- Volunteerism

- Leverage existing services from outside sources

- Be forever dependent on grants (not what funder wants to hear)


Grant Application and/or Final report may require/include a section on“Dissemination of Findings” AKA “How Will You Publicize This Award?”

Common ways to share info/promote grant award include:• Websites

- Social Media

- Organization Newsletter

- News Releases

- Conference Presentations

- Publications such as Annual Reports


Alumni Network

List of over 200 sample grant applications

Alumni Forum

password: friendship


Top 10 reasons grants are rejected

(1) Poor fit – Your request does not align with the funding priorities of the grantor.

(2) Guidelines not followed – If the page limit is 20,  submitting 21 pages is NOT “extra credit”

(3) Missed deadline – If the deadline is March 1 at 3pm,  3:01won’t cut it.

(4)  Missing requested information– Make sure you include all necessary attachments and answer all questions.

(5)  Duplication of service – If every city around you already has a mobile command center, your chances of getting one too are slim.

(6)  Blanket proposals or fishing expeditions – Keep your request focused.

(7)  No Sustainability–make sure your project/program has the ability to continue beyond the life of the grant.

(8)  Unrealistic expectations – Make sure your budget and time frame are both realistic. Better to scale down a project to make it fit the grant requirements than take on more than you can handle.

(9) Inaccurate, vague writing and poor presentation –Inaccuracies in your budget totals, spelling mistakes, and grammar errors may seem small, but they show your attention to detail.

(10) No donor recognition – Many donors, particularly corporate donors, will want to know how their contribution will be appreciated or recognized. Overlooking this is one of the most common and easy-to-avoid errors.



- Contact foundation/agency for feedback (not always available)

- Keep the application as a resource.

- Prepare for the next application round; sometimes you have to apply multiple times before your application is awarded.

- Notify the appropriate individuals, such as your co-workers, city council, grant partners, agencies supplying support letters, etc.



- Read the agreement and make any necessary amendments.

- Execute required documents and return when expected.

- Notify partners, elected officials, public (via your website, newsletter, e-blast, etc.)

- Review awarded budgets and make any necessary amendments.

- Understand reporting requirements.

- Understand reimbursement process.

- Set up working file and timelines


Some useful websites/organizations



Get a Leg Up on Grant Prep:
Become a Fed/State/United Way Peer Reviewer

- Improve your skills for grant prep and writing

- For more info check out: D H Leonard Consulting


Kimberly Hays de Muga and Amanda Day - Podcasts

Grant Management Training

Foundation Center - search to find a library that is listed as providing free access to Foundation Directory online

Trustworthy source of sample LOIs, budgets, full proposals etc. 

Grant Professionals Association

National Grant Management Association

Independent Sector - the value of volunteer time is....



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Sarah Nilsson, J.D., Ph.D., MAS


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