How To Write a Winning Grant Proposal
By Rebecca A. Clay
Stanley Kusnetz, M.S.Ed., has reviewed hundreds of grant applications in his long career as a senior review administrator in SAMHSA’s Office of Program Services. A few stand out. Take the application from a would-be grantee that didn’t bother to mention the substance abuse problem the organization was hoping to tackle.
“Rather than actually describe the substance abuse problem in the South Bronx, the organization just kept describing itself as Fort Apache—a reference to a movie that was about substance abuse in the South Bronx,” said Mr. Kusnetz. “But as far as the review committee was concerned, the South Bronx didn’t have a substance abuse problem, because the organization didn’t describe it.”
Making assumptions is just one of the common mistakes Mr. Kusnetz and other reviewers see. They have plenty of advice for those seeking funding from SAMHSA.
Use the following tips to boost your chances of crafting a winning grant proposal.
- Plan ahead. “Applicants are often scurrying at the last minute,” said Cathy J. Friedman, M.A., a public health analyst in SAMHSA’s Office of Policy, Planning, and Budget and a former staffer in SAMHSA’s review office. Allow yourself enough time to give a grant application the time it deserves.
Make things easier for yourself by doing as much as you can ahead of time. “Certain parts of a Request for Applications (RFA) are standard, so try to prepare those parts in advance,” recommended Ms. Friedman. Once you’ve put together that information, she said, you can re-use it in every SAMHSA application. If you’ve never applied for a SAMHSA grant before, you can review SAMHSA’s past grant announcements.
- Look for a good match. Don’t apply for grants willy-nilly. Instead, said Ms. Friedman, look for a good match between what the grant program requires and what you can offer. Start by reviewing the Executive Summary on the first page of every RFA, which gives a thumbnail sketch of the award information, program’s purpose, application due date, and other details. Also check to make sure you’re eligible to apply. For some programs, for example, only states are eligible.
And don’t over-promise, warned Mr. Kusnetz. Before you apply, consider whether you actually have the capacity to do what you propose, including collecting data on outcomes.
- Follow directions. No matter how good your proposal is, it will be screened out if you miss the deadline, exceed the page limit, fail to follow formatting requirements, or make similar errors.
Pay special attention to the project narrative section, where you have a chance to explain your proposal in depth. “Write in plain English what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, and how you’re going to evaluate it,” recommended Ms. Friedman. “Sometimes people are so convinced that their project is terrific, they just send in something about their program without really responding to the requirements of the grant announcement.”
Be very specific, added Mr. Kusnetz. “A very common mistake is for applicants to give you a list of what they’re going to do without saying how they’re going to do it,” he said. “Lots of ‘whats’ without ‘hows’ don’t work.”
- Don’t make assumptions. Don’t leave things out of your application because you assume the reviewers already know them. “You leave something out at your peril,” warned Mr. Kusnetz, explaining that the experts who review grant applications use a structured checklist of criteria to score applications.
Cultural competency is one area that applicants often overlook. “We might get an application from an Indian tribe that doesn’t discuss the cultural competency elements of working with the tribe because they figure, ‘Hey, we’re a tribe, so of course we know these things,’ ” said Mr. Kusnetz. “But the reviewers are instructed not to assume anything. If it’s not written in the application, it doesn’t exist.”
- Have someone else read your application. Simply running a spell check isn’t enough. “For some reviewers, it’s hard to get past the technical errors to see the quality of a program,” said Ms. Friedman, citing punctuation problems, run-on sentences, and inaccuracies in the table of contents or appendices as just a few examples.
Having at least one person who hasn’t been involved in writing the application read it over can save you from more than embarrassing typos: A proofreader can also catch inconsistencies. “So many times we get answers that are contradictory,” said Ms. Friedman. “Sometimes organizations have different people write different parts of the application. They need someone to read the finished product and make sure it all hangs together.”
- SAMHSA’s grants Web page lists announcements of SAMHSA funding opportunities.
- Developing Competitive SAMHSA Grant Applications is a manual that guides readers through the process of planning and preparing successful applications.
- Grants.gov lists grant opportunities from all Federal agencies. Search the database or sign up to receive emailed alerts based on subject area, funding agency, or other criteria.