Secrets of a Successful Grant Writer

Katie Howard has nearly 20 years of proposal writing experience and was won more than $138 million for organizations in Washington State and around the country. Margie Overhauser recently sat down with Katie to gather some tips to help people navigate the world of grant writing and to learn from her mistakes and successes.

Q: What’s the first step in writing a grant?

A: You should always start with a plan. Start by determining your top program or organizational funding priorities, how much money you need, when you need it, and if a funder will be willing to fund it. If you need the money next month, grants are not the answer. The process can take a long time – up to a year in some cases. I’ve seen so many organizations start grant writing without a plan and squander their chances of writing a competitive grant proposal. Don’t make that mistake!

Q: How do I determine if a funder will be willing to fund my request?

A: After you figure out what your request will be, your next step is to find a funder (also known as a foundation or a corporate giving program) that matches up with your mission. The most effective way to search through the thousands of foundations and corporate giving programs out there is to use an online database. These tools allow you to search for funders by location, focus areas, and types of grants (such as programmatic, capital, or operating). Grant Station is an affordable option and it’s what I personally use right now. But your public library might have a subscription to the Foundation Directory Online, which will allow you to use this fee-based service for free! You can also access foundations’ tax returns (Form 990) at Looking at a 990 will tell you what, who, and how much a foundation has granted out in a particular year. It’s really helpful! If you’re looking for federal grants, you will want to sign up for the daily email notifications. You can tailor your subscription so you receive grant opportunities only from the agencies that fit with your mission.

Q: Do I have to have a 501(c)3 status to be eligible for grants?

A: Generally yes. Some grantors will allow you to apply for a grant under a fiscal sponsor, which is a nonprofit organization that already has its tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3) public charity ( has more information). But it really depends on the funder. Be sure to verify with them that they accept proposals through a fiscal sponsor before beginning your grant application process.

I also get a LOT of questions from people wanting grants for their business (or just wanting grants for themselves – wouldn’t that be nice?). In general, grants are not available for businesses and individuals (with a few exceptions, such as the federal Small Business Innovative Research grants or artist fellowships).

Q: What’s the difference between federal and private grants? Which has an easier application process?

A: The biggest difference is the source of funding. Federal (or government) grants come from tax-payers; they are public funds being used for nonprofit work. Private grants come from a foundation’s portfolios and its priorities. Neither is necessarily easier than the other.

Q: What can I do to improve my grant writing skills?

A: There are a few things you can do:

  2. Try writing one portion as part of a team, or work with someone who can review it.
  3. Give yourself plenty of time.
  4. Look at the questions the funder asks and answer them as straightforwardly as possible. The words you use don’t have to be elegant or impressive vocabulary. It’s just about clearly and concisely giving the facts in response to the questions.
  5. Go back to basics and re-learn how to write a good, strong argument. Find your old middle school and high school English notes and give yourself a refresher course. You know, things like writing a topic sentence. Actually, we should probably give readers a link to some tools that can help them remember! Let’s be sure to provide one at the end of this post.

Q: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see grant applicants making?

A: That could be an entire post in itself! The biggest one I see people making is not having a plan, and the applicants end up going for the wrong foundations at the wrong time. And, actually, an equally devastating mistake is when people don’t follow the instructions. The instructions are not a gentle suggestion; they are the foundation’s rules that you must follow, or you will be disqualified. I’ve heard awful stories of people writing grant proposals, only to have them thrown away because they didn’t include page numbers or write it in the required font.

Q: What trends have you been seeing in regards to foundations?

A: For the most part, over the past 10 years I’ve seen that fewer and fewer grantmakers are awarding large grants. There are a few exceptions, but I see few that are larger than $10,000. A lot of my clients are successful with multiple small grants of $2,500 to $10,000. The big pots of money tend to come from government sources.

Q: Any closing thoughts?

A: Yes! One of the most damaging things an organization can do is to think that grants are the answer to their money problems. They should focus on having lots of funding strategies. Remember that grants are time-limited. They can be great for launching a new program or expanding a program, but a lot of foundations don’t want to give grants for operations or even for ongoing programming (which is a whole separate blog and a topic that could cause me to rant for hours). Be sure that you develop an integrated and diversified fundraising plan. Think of your annual revenue as a pie that you want to cut into as many pieces as possible; that way if one piece is suddenly gone, you still have most of the pie intact.

Additional Resources:

To learn more about how to write winning grants, check out KH Consulting’s instructional DVDThink, Write, Grow: Practical Strategies for Writing Winning Grants.

To find some excellent resources for practicing your writing skills or brushing up on grammar or punctuation, check out the Purdue OWL Online Writing Lab.