Share and Tell Telling the Story
Writing a Grant Is Like Writing a Business Plan Minding Your ABCs
Understanding Matching Funds Absolute Adherence to Guidelines
Angling for Grants Letters of Support and Commitment

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Share and tell

An important part of your grant proposal explains how you intend to let others know what you've accomplished. Always include a plan for dissemination, replication, and/or distribution in your application. Even if they don't explicitly request a dissemination plan in their guidelines, most funders are eager to see their grant investment have maximum impact. Always design a mix of strategies for multiple audiences.

  • Active (presentations at conferences, radio or television interviews, seminars, live demonstrations or performances)
  • Passive (published articles, DVDs, pamphlets, television or radio ads, poster sessions, press releases)
  • Internal (project participants, funding agency)
  • External (community, state, nation, or perhaps the world via Internet. In general, however, setting up a Website is not considered adequate dissemination by itself).

Your project could develop a product. Some funders allow or encourage products that can be sold to provide continued project support.

Your project's process could become the product. Workshops can teach other people how to do what your group did.

Work with external partners, which might lead naturally into opportunities to distribute or replicate the project.

Document research or findings in displays or publications.

Use marketing or public relations connections to promote the project, especially locally.

Provide a link to action in your dissemination materials, if appropriate. Solicit volunteers to help continue the project or ask for donations if needed. Are there additional resources that are still untapped? If more still needs to be done, provide a contact information and encourage people to contact your organization.

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Writing a grant is like writing a business plan

The United States Small Business Administration says the importance of a comprehensive, thoughtful business plan cannot be overemphasized. It precisely defines a business, identifies its goals, and serves as a firm''s resume. Because it provides specific and organized information about a company and how it will repay borrowed money, a good business plan is a crucial part of any loan application.

Although funders are not looking for an ability to repay when awarding grant money, they do want to support a successful project. Too many grant applicants focus on identifying the need for funding, forgetting that the funder is also looking for evidence of the ability to handle resources properly and make good decisions. Keep a business plan model in mind as you develop your project and the grant application, and you will convince funders of your ability to handle their money responsibly.

First, answer some core questions adapted from a business plan:

  • What's your purpose? What does your department or project provide and what needs does it fill? How does it fit into the college's overall strategic plan?
  • Who are the potential students or clients for the product or service?
  • Why should they come to you instead of going somewhere else?
  • How will you reach these potential students or clients?
  • Where will you get the financial resources? (Grants rarely cover all costs.)

Elements of a business plan

Elements of a grant application

Statement of purpose

Project purpose: Need, goals, objectives, activities

The business: Description, marketing, competition, personnel, insurance

The applicant: Description, marketing, competition, personnel

Financial data: Capital equipment and supply list, balance sheet, breakeven analysis, profit & loss statements, cash flow

Budget and justification: Total project budget, funding request, in-kind or cash matches

Supporting documents: Tax returns, contracts, leases, resumes, licenses, letters of intent

Appendices: Bibliography, resumes, letters of support, course outlines

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Understanding Matching Funds

When a funding source asks for matching funds, it means that the grant is not intended to bear all the costs of the project. Most government grants require matching financial participation by the applicant. In some cases, the granting agency specifies a minimum match. In others, the funding source encourages a match but does not state a certain percentage. Proposals that include a significant match may be more likely to be funded in a competitive grant process. Match is not the same as "institutional support." The distinction is that "match" is required to be met and reported, while institutional support may not have to be met and/or reported. Remember, though, that both match and institutional support are expended college resources and must be approved by Administration.

Matching funds:

  • show that Normandale's commitment goes beyond just conducting a program.
  • demonstrate a more realistic cost estimate of conducting a program.
  • reduce the amount of money required of the funding source, thereby allowing them to fund additional projects in other locations.

The grant application will indicate the types of match that are acceptable for a particular program. The match dollars must be used to meet the objectives of the proposed project and may come from either the college or a third party, but usually not from other grants.

There are two types of match:

Cash Contributions or a "hard match": A cash outlay can come from the general fund, a special allocation, or a third party in the private sector. A hard match could be a portion of the Project Director's salary paid by Normandale or a cash contribution from a local industry to purchase special equipment.

In-kind Contributions or "soft match": Non-cash contributions can be provided by the college or a third party. The goods and services must directly benefit the project or program. Examples include the donation of special equipment, volunteer time, and or supplies for the program.

A few examples of matching contributions:

  • If a consultant charges a lower rate because we are an educational institution, we can use the difference from the normal rate as in-kind dollars. Documentation needs to be provided
  • The time of Advisory Committee participant can be charged as if their company was billing them for time. Detailed meeting minutes and notes must be kept.
  • In-kind match can also come from technical assistance, mentoring, job fairs, tutoring, field trips and presentations if a log is kept recording names, phone numbers, job titles, and hours spent traveling and at the actual visit/meeting.
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Angling for Grants

Grantseeking is a bit like fishing. To be successful, first you need to know the lake, learn the habits of the fish you are pursuing, and use the proper tools and bait to make your hook attractive. In the end, though, a lot is left up to luck and timing.

Careful research can help you target promising funders and tailor your proposal to their interests and guidelines. Like fish, however, funders can be choosy. A proposal idea that they found attractive and fundable one year may not even get a read through in the next grant round.

Sometimes the waters are over-fished. Most funders receive many more requests than they have money to award. For instance, two recent submissions from Normandale (one to a local foundation and one to MnSCU) were not approved. Both proposals matched the funding interests and followed application guidelines. The local foundation's response informed us that with only $11,000 to distribute, it was not able to fund all 24 grant requests totaling nearly $40,000. MnSCU's competitive e-curriculum grant distributed $850,000 to 9 successful proposals. Normandale was in the group of 44 unsuccessful applicants whose proposals totaled over 5 million dollars, far more than MnSCU had available to give.

There is no way to predict which proposals will be funded. Normandale's grant process attempts to maximize our chances by using research databases, involving project teams in the writing process, and adhering to funder guidelines. By the way, we don't practice catch-and-release.

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Telling the Story

Sometimes, while carefully crafting objectives and activities, a grant applicant can forget to create a story. Reviewers need numbers and tables to understand a project, but they also want to visualize the recipient and be reassured that the money they distribute is in good hands. It's important to find a logical spot in the narrative to drop our natural Minnesota reticence and tell the reviewer who we are and what we've done. It's a good thing to proclaim, "We're worthy!"

All proposals should include a brief description of Normandale. Never assume that the reviewers have heard of the college, Bloomington, MnSCU, or even Minnesota. At minimum, include something like this: Normandale Community College, founded in 1968 and part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, is located in Bloomington and serves the southwestern portion of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. If space allows, include more descriptive information in a story format. Saying "In a typical class of 40 students, 23 will be women and five will be students of color," is a reader-friendly way of translating statistics. For visual appeal, use a pie or bar chart instead of the usual table.

Normandale's successful proposal for the EdTrAc project included a "What we're doing" section that described our partnership with Mankato and previous project funding from a Phi Theta Kappa/National Science Foundation grant. The concluding paragraph took the reviewer from where-we've-been to where-we-want to-be: "The PTK/NSF project was one of the driving forces for the development of this [EdTrAc] proposal. It allowed us the time to build support for the proposal and pilot some initial components. We are now ready to build a more comprehensive program for future teachers to address the needs described earlier."

When developing a grant proposal, allow at least half a page for a little chit-chat about Normandale and your department. Take the time to review accomplishments and identify connections to the new project. Show the funding agency how your department fits into the organization and how previous experience and success will provide a strong foundation for the new endeavor. For a government grant, keep the tone businesslike. For a community foundation, include an anecdote or personal story. For either, the "getting to know you" information will hold the reader's interest. After all, they're not going to fund it if they don't read it.

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Minding your ABCs

Grant writing, like most other professions, has its own set of acronyms -- little shorthand arrangements of consonants and vowels. Using acronyms saves space, an important consideration when you are limited to five double-spaced pages.

An acronym is a pronounceable word formed from some of the letters (often the initials) of a phrase. An example is the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) for health benefit provisions.

An initialism consists of the first letter or letters of words in a phrase, in syllables or in components of a word or a combination of letters and syllables, and is pronounced by spelling out the letters one by one rather than as a solid word. Examples are IRS for Internal Revenue Service or ESP for extrasensory perception.

When we use the word acronym, we usually mean both acronyms and initialisms.

Use acronyms wisely. For one thing, not all acronyms mean the same thing to all people. ADA, for example, can mean Americans with Disabilities Act, American Dental Association, or American Diabetes Association. DNR may mean Department of Natural Resources to you, but someone in the medical profession may read it as Do Not Resuscitate. CD? Do you mean compact disc, capitol development, or certificate of deposit?

Always provide the full wording of an acronym when using it for the first time. Never assume the grant reviewer will know what it means, especially when submitting to an out-of-state funder. The Chicago Manual of Style notes that usually you spell out the words first followed by the acronym in parentheses, and then use the acronym for later references. In a large document, it's helpful to repeat the full name in later chapters. Sometimes it makes sense to use the acronym first and put the full name in parentheses, if the acronym is very familiar to the audience.

Common acronyms used in grant guidelines and documents:

CBO - community-based organization
CDBG - Community Development Block Grant
CFDA - Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance
CFR - Code of Federal Regulations
CRA - Community Reinvestment Act
DUNS - Data Universal Numbering System
FBO - Faith-based organization
GAAP - Generally accepted accounting principles
GAAS - Generally accepted auditing standards
GAO - Government Accountability Office (formerly the General Accounting Office)
LEA - Local Education Agency
LOI - Letter of inquiry
MOA - Memorandum of agreement
MOU - Memorandum of understanding
MSA - Metropolitan Statistical Area
NOFA - Notice of Funding Availability
NSF - National Science Foundation
OMB - Office of Management and Budget
OIG - Office of Inspector General
PI - Principal Investigator
RFA - Request for Application
RFP - Request for Proposals
RFQ - Request for Qualifications
ROI - Return on Investment
SBA - Small Business Administration
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The First Rule of Proposal Writing: Absolute Adherence to Guidelines

In 2003, Oregon's On-Track, Inc. complained when the Department of Health and Human Services rejected a $600,000 grant application for a drug and alcohol counseling program. The reviewer noted their application did not conform to instructions for format requiring "conventional border margins of one inch." They learned the hard way that guidelines in an RFP are not advice; they are rules.

RFP is an acronym for Request for Proposals.* RFPs are formal documents that define the requirements of the funding agency, explain how the applicant should respond, describe how the proposals will be reviewed, and provide contact information. Most RFPs include a proposal structure or table of contents. This structure is identical to the checklist that reviewers will use when reading and scoring your proposal. Make their job easier and improve your chances for funding by adhering to the guidelines provided.

  • Read the RFP once, then read it again. Read it a third time, and use a highlighter to mark critical deadlines, formatting instructions, and evaluation criteria.
  • Put the RFP in a 3-ring binder for use as a reference document. Insert dividers in front of each section for quick reference. Place small sticky notes at the edge of a page to mark important information.
  • If an electronic file is available, download it and use it to create your proposal outline. Save headings, subheadings, etc., but delete most other information to avoid merely rephrasing the RFP.
  • Keep important instructions on the first page (due date, page limits, formatting, etc.) so you won't need to continually refer to the RFP.
  • Make sure your margins, line spacing, and font match the guidelines. Don't try to cheat. After looking at hundreds of proposals, agency staff can spot even small variations in white space and type size.
  • For each section and/or subsection of the outline, indicate the estimated or maximum number of pages, the person responsible for researching or writing the section, and the evaluation points. Remember to remove these notes before publishing the final draft.
  • Study the proposal evaluation criteria and the points allocated to each section/subsection. When preparing the proposal, put special effort into making sure these sections address the requestor's funding priorities and describe your project clearly and completely.
  • If you don't understand some of the information in the RFP, contact the program officer or funding agency. Be sure to use their preferred contact method if indicated in the guidelines. Be aware that if you receive information that contradicts the written solicitation, the language in the RFP is usually the "last word."
  • Remember: Adhering to the proposal guidelines demonstrates to the funding agency that you are capable of sticking to the project work plan and the budget.

* Actually, it's an initialism -- see Minding your ABCs.

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Letters of Support and Commitment

When a grant solicitation asks for letters of support or commitment, it is because the funding agency considers collaboration with other partners to be essential for success.

Letters of support are intended to confirm a relationship between project partners or to demonstrate that local businesses, elected officials, or other organizations have an interest in seeing your project succeed.
Letters of commitment indicate that a project partner is willing and able to contribute money or such in-kind support as equipment and labor to the project.

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More Tips:

Read the guidelines carefully. If they specify that attachments aren't accepted, omit the letters.

Obtain the letters early in the application writing process. You will be able to quote passages in the body of the proposal and refer the reviewer to the complete letter.

Solicit letters from partner representatives as high in the organization as possible, as well as from staff who will be directly involved in the project.

Ask the partner to address the letter to the college or to the President. It will emphasize to a reviewer that the college is committed to the success of the project.

Request that letters be printed on business letterhead. However, if the grant application is to a local funding agency and funding will benefit children or families, consider the impact that hand-written letters from the community could have. Keep those to a minimum of two or three.

Include as attachments any partnership agreements that pre-date the RFP announcement, if guidelines and page limits will allow them. Long-standing, formal agreements are an excellent way to show a bona-fide partnership.

Enclose the original letters with hard-copy applications. Scan letters and attach them as .pdf files for electronic submissions.

Always follow up with a phone call or e-mail to thank the partner for providing a letter. If the application is successful, send a letter signed by the project director or president to inform them of the funding and thanking them for contributing to the proposal's success.

Always send suggested wording to the person who is writing the letter on behalf of the partnership. It will be easier for them to cut, paste, add, and edit than to compose an original letter. This is especially helpful during tight deadlines.

Sample text:

First paragraph: State the purpose of the letter

I am writing to support continued funding of Normandale Community College's Math-Science Educational Training Center.

Second paragraph: Describe the organization providing the letter, with special attention to how Normandale and the organization share a mission. If appropriate, explain how partners have shaped the proposed project or give specific examples of how the college and the partners have collaborated in the past.

The Generic School District recognizes that areas of math and science education are of critical importance to the future of our students. Your goals of enhancing science and mathematics competence of teachers and students are our goals, as well. Our district comprises nine elementary schools, three middle schools, and two high schools. We have a long history of partnering with Normandale, and our efforts have included the TRIO Educational Talent Search and School-to-Work programs.

Third paragraph: Describe the relationship and specific support or commitment. Show how partners will share the leadership role or describe ways in which partners will share information and network. For a Letter of Commitment, provide estimations of the number of hours donated by the partner or the value of equipment loaned or donated.

The District is poised to offer support in the areas of professional development, practicum experiences, and student teacher placement. I am pleased to offer my services as a member of the Advisory Committee.

Fourth paragraph. Speak to the funder and close the letter.

I encourage the National Science Foundation to continue the funding for the EdTrAc initiative. We are excited about working with Normandale Community College to find new ways to meet school, community, and student needs through this project.

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Never re-use a letter produced for a different application.

Never waste your time by enclosing generic "feel-good" or "to whom it may concern" letters.

Never mass produce a letter for multiple partners to sign. It's a tip-off to reviewers that you may have created collaborations of convenience for the purpose of the application.

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