There’s more to grant writing than just ‘writing’

In last month’s column, I wrote about some of the basic tenets of grantsmanship. This month, I want to address what is involved in actually writing a proposal, which can be a bit of a misnomer depending on the grant you are working on. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that must be done, and the success or failure of a grant proposal often hinges on these key activities.

I am often asked, “How long does it take to write a proposal?” Of course, each proposal is different and will take a different amount of time to craft. It could take anywhere from a few hours to several days to write a narrative draft or two until a final draft is ready. But it’s important to consider that, in order to submit a proposal, there are many other steps that need to occur in the process besides sitting in front of a computer and typing the narrative and budget.

For those of you who are new to the grants business and aren’t sure how long the process can take, I’m going to use a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant that I just wrote as an example. If you’ve never written a federal grant before, read on at your own risk!

The writing of a proposal sometimes is only a small piece in the complicated process of responding to an RFP (request for proposal) and submitting a request for grant funds. For the HUD grant that I just worked on, I spent more time on the auxiliary activities that went along with the process than on writing the narrative. Here is a short list of the other activities I spent my time on:

1. Contacting and recruiting community partners. This grant program highly emphasized the importance of having various partners from the community. So, after developing a basic project concept–which involved a few hours meeting with the lead organization and working with staff to conceptualize the project on a daily basis–I (along with two staff people) had to spend time making calls and setting up meetings with potential partners to discuss the project’s vision and the role they could play in its implementation.

Once an organization agreed to be a partner, it had to identify what services it was willing to contribute to the project, such as cash or in-kind contributions. For some potential partners, additional discussions were held to clarify what role they would take in the project and to discuss budget numbers. At the end of the discussions, letters of commitment had to be written and signed that clearly outlined the organization’s role in the project. Again, it took a few hours to draft sample commitment letters that could be used as guides for those organizations that did not already have a template they could use.

2. Researching statistics to support the need for the project. I spent several hours on the internet doing research, making calls to state departments and local planning officials to gather statistics, and researching community documents from United Way that supported the need for a project in our community that would benefit youth that dropped out of high school and provide affordable housing for low-income families.

3. Filling out standard forms and assurances. If you’ve submitted proposals for federal grants before, you know exactly what forms I’m referring to. There are several forms that must be filled out with every federal grant: a standard cover form (the 424), a certificate of assurances form, and a standardized budget form.

For this particular grant, however, there were about 10 additional forms that needed to be downloaded and completed. The most frustrating part of filling out the forms was that some of them could not be typed up and printed out from a computer, meaning I had to find a typewriter (how many of you still have one in your district?) and fill out the forms manually with a bottle of White-Out in close proximity!

As you can see, the process was complicated and it took several weeks to complete. In fact, I wish I had been able to spend at least another two weeks pulling everything together. But the deadline approached, and the proposal needed to be on its way. My advice is to always allow more time than you think you will need, because doing the actual grant “writing” is the easy part.

Deborah Ward, CFRE, is an independent grant writing consultant. She welcomes questions at (717) 295-9437 or

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