Lately, we’ve been hearing from many programs that are preparing for or are in the midst of grant writing. Big proposals or small proposals, grant writing can be a headache! The time and attention it takes to draft a proposal can be daunting. But, with proper planning and clear focus on the outcome – a competitive (winning!) proposal – the process can go smoothly and the narrative will be compelling.

Kelly Schaffer, Consultant at Foundations for Families, has significant expertise in competitive grant writing for the early care and education field, including writing many Head Start/Early Head Start grant proposals as part of Designation Renewal System (DRS) as well as Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership and Expansion Grants. Here, Kelly offers her insight into competitive grant writing and one of the ways you can help to ensure your proposal stands out.

What do you think are the most important factors for creating a highly competitive grant proposal?

There are many aspects of grant writing that are critically important for creating a highly competitive proposal. It starts with having an individual/team who is overseeing the grant writing process and can keep their eyes on all parts of the process. You need a strong writer, someone who can see all of the moving pieces within a proposal and bring them together into a cohesive and compelling narrative. You need a sound program design and, equally as important, a clear and reasonable budget that justifies that design.

I believe one of the under-appreciated aspects of grant writing is the central aspect that demonstrating needs plays in a proposal. It’s the piece that comes before program design and budget development. It’s the “why.” Why does your program need these funds? Answering this question should help reviewers understand your “what” (what you will do with the funds) and why your proposal is the one worth funding. Every funding announcement I’ve seen has asked applicants to demonstrate need in their grant proposal. If the demonstration of need is not robust then it can be hard to make a case for funding the proposal.

What challenges have you observed when it comes to programs’ abilities to demonstrate need in grant proposals? 

Having outdated data is one roadblock we often see. Even if your program conducted a complete community assessment a few years ago, the information in that report may no longer be the most compelling data to cite. One, the data might simply be outdated. And two, there might be emerging trends that aren’t captured at all. Take, for instance, the current opioid drug epidemic. In some communities, challenges with the opioid drug epidemic have grown substantially in recent years. If the data you have at your fingertips is outdated or no longer relevant, finding the most current and relevant data will be essential. 

The second challenge we often see is having data that isn’t at the right level of detail. For example, when a grant is being written for a service area that is a neighborhood or zip code, the most compelling data is (usually) data that speaks to those particular neighborhoods or zip codes. In this example, county-level data may be interesting and set the stage broadly for what children and families are experiencing in that particular area. However, it is probably not enough. Getting as granular as possible on the needs of the particular population served will help show the reviewer that you have a solid understanding of the best approach to meet those needs.

We find that programs sometimes get far down the path of developing their program design (what they’re going to do with funds) that when they go back to draft the demonstration of need it doesn’t align. It’s important to make sure the program design is justifiable and is rooted in need.

Are there other considerations that impact how the program design/plan for use of funds aligns with the demonstration of need?

Definitely! There are certainly cases where factors aside from what the data says will impact your plan for use of funds. Consider a situation where a Head Start program is looking to expand their services. They might find families have a significant need for services in zip code 00011. But, in zip code 00022, directly next door and where there is less need, there is an available facility that the program could obtain at low cost. And, families who live in 00011 (the highest need area) are in close proximity to where the center would be located. You could justify providing services in 00022 because families in 00011 (the highest need area) would be accessing those services.

This is only one specific example, and there are many, many more. The insight that you have about what your program, children, and families need is an important part of the narrative that is the demonstration of need. Knowing the data, and also knowing how it balances with day-to-day considerations (e.g., availability of facilities, impact on community partnerships), will help you weave together a compelling narrative.

What other tips can you offer that will help programs create a strong demonstration of need?

First, start the process of defining need early. It can take time to gather data, analyze data, and link it to a proposed use of funds. Put this toward the top of your grant writing to do list. Understandably, parts of your proposal development will have to take place at the same time. We recommend that as often as possible you get a jumpstart on the data that is the demonstration of need.

Second, challenge your thinking about your existing data. If you’ve been updating your community assessment year-to-year, or if you have “go-to” statistics that you typically use in your proposals or reports, some of the data you’ll need may come easy. Look beyond your go-to data sources and try to find new information that builds the story. Look for new angles, look for new sources, and try to identify new trends.

Lastly, once you have the data (and other factors) that are your demonstration of need, weave this information throughout your grant proposal. Often, funding announcements require applicants to draft a specific section of the proposal that is the need. You will want to make sure you address need to the fullest extent in this section. Look for other opportunities throughout the proposal narrative to remind reviewers about the need and show the reviewer how your proposed use of funds is meeting that need.

Foundations for Families consultants have an exceptional success rate writing winning grant proposals. We offer a variety of grant writing services that are customizable to a program’s needs, and we offer community assessment report writing that will help to set the stage for a competitive proposal. If you’re interested to learn more about our community assessment and grant writing services please feel free to be in touch.

Thank you.

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