08/19/2010 02:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How to Write a Grant

I've been reviewing a lot of grants applications (for federal agencies and private foundations) over the past year. I'm doing this because I think it will improve my own grant writing skills, and because I am extremely interested in what people "in the field" are thinking about. It is work that I enjoy and I hope to do more of it.

My general impression is that organizations chosen for funding have written well about deserving ideas, and they have answered the questions asked by the funding entity in an orderly and logical manner. Naturally, there are successful applications from organizations that are patently self-serving and slipperier than an eel in a barrel of snot. Mostly though, folks who get funded deserve to be funded.

Applications that routinely fail are from organizations that don't seem very connected to the work they propose to do. It is apparent that they haven't involved a worker bee in planning, designing, or otherwise thinking through how the work will get done, and there is a kind of soullessness in the way that objectives and budgets are developed; they don't really seem to have a real relationship to the project's beneficiaries.

I have -- more often than I care to admit -- been guilty of trolling for bucks for the sole purpose of feeding the company's machinery. I've never felt good about it, but I've done it because I recognize that the machine has to be fed if it is to be able to "help" folks downstream. But funding development that is done solely for the benefit of the machine is a sign that the organization's values and ethics are in critical condition.

More to the point, grant writers and reviewers, like me, almost always see through these values and ethics challenged organizations at a glance. Sophisticated opportunists use lots and lots of words, pages, charts, graphs, and letters of support that never quite say anything. Simpler opportunists just need a job or a job for a pal -- which is okay -- but to do what and for whom often remains a mystery. Some of these organizations do slip by and get funding, but the implemented projects are almost always a waste of the funder's time and money.

So what does a deserving application look like? There are five characteristics of a worthwhile project:

First, the applicant has a passion for the work it proposes to do -- and knows that work intimately. They are able to communicate excitement about the potential rewards and benefits of the project, and how the project contributes to the wider community.

Second, the applicant's enthusiasm is harnessed to thoughtfulness. Their application demonstrates that they have thought for a long time about what it is they want to do, and why, and that their thinking includes ideas and opinions from the people who will do the work, and from the people who will benefit from the work.

Third, the applicant's idea is sustainable and scalable, and that the funding received is just seed capital for a better, brighter, and maybe bigger future for the proposed idea. The application demonstrates that they want to do the work over the long haul; that the work proposed is their "life's work."

Fourth, the applicant can demonstrate a cost benefit ratio that clearly shows what the good results of the project will cost on an individual beneficiary basis. If the project is a community garden, for example, the applicant should be able to estimate the value of the garden's production and divide the value by the number of gardeners (beneficiaries). Continue the analysis by comparing the gardener outcome to the overall cost of the project. There are certainly other, non-monetary benefits to a community garden, but these too should be stated in measureable terms.

Fifth, the applicant accurately describes the organization's stage of development -- ranging from grassroots and start-up stage to mature, savvy, and institutional -- and proposes work that it has the capacity to do, depending on its stage of development. The early stage organization should identify essential helping and mentoring partner agencies, while the well-founded institution should identify how its experience translates into lower administrative costs.

There are many other "rules' for grant writers. Among them are to thoroughly answer the questions asked by the funder, follow the application's format, and to make sure that the funder is the best target for the project that is proposed. But the ultimate, long-term success of any organization's development efforts really depends on knowing who it serves, and to passionately care about why.