J. O'Connell & Associates

The 12 Rules of Successful Grant Proposals

by Jean K. O’Connell — President, J. O’Connell & Associates, Inc.

On June 5, 2001, I had the pleasure of speaking to participants of the 56th Annual School for Highway Superintendents Program, sponsored by the Association of Towns of the State of New York and the Cornell Local Roads Program. It’s no surprise that the presentation was very well attended, because everyone wants and needs more funding to run their programs and departments. For the past fifteen years, working in the field of grants consultation and development, I have discovered that although priorities change, procuring grants is a process that works for all types of requests. Therefore, the following “Twelve Principles of Successful Grant Proposals” is information that can be beneficial to all agencies as they pursue grant dollars for their projects.

Rule 1

Match your idea to the right funding source and thoroughly understand what the program wants.

When you get your hands on that grant application (more commonly known as the Request for Proposal/RFP), the very first thing that you must determine is whether or not your idea fits within the guidelines of the RFP. If not, keep looking. Trying to persuade the funder that your idea is better than theirs will never work. So, keep searching for another application that is in line with your project idea.


Rule 2

Use the program office for technical assistance and advice throughout the entire grant process.

Getting clues to what the funder is looking for starts with the program officer. So find the contact name on the application and give him/her a call. But, you say, “What do I talk to them about?” Well, anything would be the answer! Get them into a conversation, and the more they talk the more that you will learn. You can pick out something in the application that you want clarified, or ask them about budget issues, anything will do. But, don’t stop there, call them again. Try to get them to know you, without becoming a pest. Believe it or not, most of these people have the ability to help your application along the road to success.


Rule 3

Begin the necessary groundwork before the notice of availability is published.

Grant programs tend to come around every year, so when you identify a program that may help with your funding, find out when the RFP will be released, and when it will be due. Before the release of the notice, start doing your homework. Do you need designs of your project? Get them done. Do you need cost figures or estimates? Start now.


Rule 4

Establish a timetable and organize the necessary personnel as soon as funding availability is announced.

When you are working against a deadline, time slips away at a rapid speed. Start by developing a time line that ends with a project due date. Make important decisions; decide who will be writing the grant, and who will work on the other parts of the project. Is someone developing the budget? Is someone getting the letters of support? Is the committee that is working on the request meeting regularly to develop the proposal? Set specific times and dates to gather the needed information.


Rule 5

Follow the instructions and format.

This is my favorite rule! Because nothing upsets reviewers more than if you create a sense of confusion by NOT following their instructions and format. Remember, sometimes the reviewer is reading piles of proposals. If they have to search for answers in your grant because the information is not where they expected it to be, and it’s the end of the day, and your request is at the bottom of the pile, well enough said, put yourself in their place!


Rule 6

Lay out a master plan.

Funding does not appear just because you want it. Proper planning is the secret to success. You will always be one step ahead of the pack, if you have a plan on how your project will work and succeed. It is also important to remember that you need to determine how the program will keep going after the grant expires.


Rule 7

Match the proposed use of funds with the problem described in the needs assessment in your application.

Grant funders want to give you money to solve problems, so the most important part of your application is to compellingly describe your need for their money. The money that you ask for should be used to address that need, and your project should be viewed as cost-effective to implement.


Rule 8

Be reasonable and realistic.

Most projects fail because expectations about what can be accomplished are too great. Keep your project and grant request realistic for the time period of the project. Failing to produce the intended results makes grant program officers very unhappy, and the next time you need their help the door may be shut!


Rule 9

Provide information on all evaluation criteria.

Grant applications are very specific about what criteria they will use to judge the winners. Your job is to address those specific criteria in your proposal. But, please do not ignore some of the stated criteria. If your project does not fit with some aspects of the evaluation, tell the reviewer why.


Rule 10

Explain any omissions, rather than hope no one will notice.

Every question or blank space in an application needs to be answered. Just because it does not apply to your project is not a reason to skip the answer. If it does not apply, be sure to say that, or the funder may think that you are into “issue” avoidance.


Rule 11

Make a reasonable funding request and match the budget to the scope of work.

Let’s get real. Don’t think that you can pull a fast one on grant reviewers by inflating your budget request. They have spent countless hours working on other similar projects – they know what reasonable costs are, and you should not inflate the price to pay for something else that needs to be done.


Rule 12

Keep the proposal simple, reasonable, business-like and totally professional.

Big words, technical words, small type, busy pages are all turn-offs to reviewers. You must write so that any reader can understand what you are talking about. And by all means, have at least one person review your work. Remember, nobody is perfect!