Six Principles of Effective Grant-writing

DCNR just announced the recipients of their 2014 Community Recreation Conservation Grants list and I was thrilled that one of my projects made the list. Do you want to increase your chances of being on the list of next year’s awardees? Then read on…

I recently attended a workshop where Jeff Knowles from the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) offered six principles that made an effective grant application in his mind. Jeff is DCNR’s Regional Advisor for the Southeast PA Regional Office and he reviews many grant applications as part of his duties. I found his tips to be extremely helpful and Jeff was gracious enough to provide the information for reposting here. So without further ado, here are his Six Principles of Effective Grant-writing.

1. Get to the Point

Your very first sentence in your grant application narrative should explain exactly what it is you need funding to accomplish. Do not make the reader hunt for it. Context is important and it should follow, but keep it brief. If this project is part of a bigger program, make that distinction clear and make sure it is reflected in the budget.

2. Make a Case for Urgent Action

Describe the steps that have led you to this point in your development history. Why is now the time to do the project? What opportunity is lost if I do not act? Typically you have had to assemble political and financial commitments to apply for funding. Make sure the funder knows that you need to strike while the iron is hot, otherwise your project could face a setback.

3. Establish Your Credibility

Now that you’ve explained the project in simple terms and made a case for urgent action, you need to take a step back and establish your credibility. First, why are you the right applicant for the job? Why are you involved? Is it because you have led previous phases? Is it your organization’s mission? Are you working to achieve a strategic plan?

Second, why should you be trusted? Here’s how to quickly establish trust and avoid skepticism. Describe similar projects your organization has led and the results. Be specific about how many projects, the types of funding used, was it completed on time, did it stay within budget? Even if there was a problem in the past, showing how you solved it helps establish credibility.

4. Introduce the Team

Funders like to see support that you have built, so take a few sentences to describe the partnership you have put into place. Partners will provide more than just well wishes. Partners have skin in the game either by pledging funding or some in-kind labor. These are the letters of support that are most effective.

5. Tell the Truth

In the midst of all this, don’t try to cover up issues with the project. Some projects are simply not ready to move forward. If there are issues that you need to resolve, break up the project into smaller projects. Exclude the pieces that have issues or be prepared to discussion them in detail. Anticipate what may look like a red flag to the reader and preempt it before the application gets tossed aside.

Common issues that applicants try to hide:

A) Right of way is not secure. If it is secure – state it unequivocally. If it is not, how many properties do you need to acquire. What is the strategy for doing so? If you have willing landowners, are there letters to back it up?

B) Environmental or other permits have not been obtained. Again, you can quell skepticism simply by showing that you are familiar with the process. What is likely to arise? What permit do you need? What is your timeline for getting approvals. Have you met with the permitting agency? A letter from them would be a nice addition to the file.

C) Cost estimates. What are they based on? When were they conducted? Who produced them? Your budget should be as detailed as possible. A simple budget tells the reviewer either you don’t know what this is really going to cost (which makes the reviewer question your competency) or that you are hiding something. Be forthright. Be detailed.

D) How much money have you actually raised? What funding is committed and secure? Prove it with a letter!

6. Stand Out from the Crowd

Now, if you follow rules 1-5 you will most likely not be a complete failure and may even get funded, however to achieve that coveted status as a memorable project, you need to stand out from the crowd. More importantly, the goal should really be to turn the reviewer from a cautious skeptic into an advocate for the project. That reviewer will have to stick his/her neck on the line when recommending the project to a supervisor that will eventually go up to Bureau Chief, Secretary and Governor’s Office or to a Board of Directors.

So, how do you stand out?

  • Be the answer to a recommendation in a plan. There are few things better than implementing a plan, particularly if your project is a named as a priority. DCNR has funded many feasibility studies and township open space and trails plans. Make sure you remind the reviewer of any past plans that they have funded that you are implementing.
  • Build off of recent successes. Funders like to follow their money.
  • Include visuals. A picture is worth 1,000 words, which is good because typically grant programs have page or word limits. Include site photos, photo simulations that show before and after images, and maps.
  • Discuss the impact of the project in terms of economics and health. What have similar projects generated elsewhere? Use communities with similar characteristics to yours to draw comparisons.

To learn more about DCNR’s Community Conservation Partnership Program, you can attend one of the free workshops being held this November (I’m scheduled to attend the Camp Hill session on the 5th). See this flyer for more details and to register. Also, DCNR’s Regional Advisors are a wealth of knowledge and you should absolutely contact them to discuss a potential application before you do anything else! See this map for the representative in your area and their contact information.

I hope you found this information to be as helpful as I did. Thanks to Jeff Knowles from DCNR for passing along these helpful principles and thanks to DCNR for being such a superb resource for getting great community projects done in PA!

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