Podcast Ep. 39 - How to write a killer grant application


Many of us in the parks and conservation world either have written, or will write grants at some point. I've been on both sides of the grant process - I've written many grants (some successfully, even!) and have served on grant scoring committees. Having just concluded a scoring process and with several grant deadlines coming up in the not-too-distant future, I took some time in this episode to share my tips for writing successful grants.

Listen to this episode here.

Here they are, with some explanation:

1. Have a good project

Make sure your project actually fits well with the grant. Does your project align with the goals of the grant? Will it be competitive with other applications? Does it fit into a bigger picture and/or align with broader plans/objectives/strategies, or is it a standalone, isolated project? Grants generally would rather fund the former. Don't waste a bunch of time and effort applying to a grant program that's a poor fit for your project. 

2. Do your homework

  • Understand the grant program/grantor. Why does the grant exist? What do the grantors (could be the actual money-givers or simply the people on the scoring committee) want to accomplish with their grant investment? 
  • Read past successful grant applications if you can. Research past funded projects. Talk to past awardees. Learn about their projects and how they put their applications together.
  • Gather the relevant data on your project. Maybe you need park visitation counts, species inventories, floristic surveys, public input, survey data...whatever. This stuff can take a lot of time to gather, so start early.
  • Reach out people in charge - reviewers, grant administrators, etc. They're often willing to share insight into how to write a good application or what information you need to provide in addition to the app itself.
  • UNDERSTAND THE SCORING CRITERIA. I cannot stress this enough. Many grants have their scoring criteria published somewhere. Get it. Read it. Understand it. And write your application to that criteria. It doesn't matter how good a project you have if your application doesn't align with how the grant is scored. If you can't get your hands on the scoring criteria, study everything you can about the grant to discern what's likely important to the reviewers and what criteria the grant wants to prioritize (more on this in #4 below). 

3. Leverage

With a few exceptions, most grants generally want to be last, or near-last money in. So leverage is key. Some grants will have a match requirement and maybe even a funding cap. For instance, for a federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), you need a 1:1 match, meaning you need to have the same amount in-hand as you ask for. There's also a cap on the amount you can request, based on population. Sometimes matching funds can be wholly or partly in-kind, meaning you can use your own equipment and/or labor forces as match. Sometimes not. Sometimes you can use other grant funds as match, sometimes not. With the LWCF grant I just mentioned, you cannot match those funds with other federal dollars. But you could maybe match them with certain state or local funds. Do your homework and don't waste time applying if you don't have the proper leverage. 

4. Write a killer application

There's a balance you have to strike between brevity and detail. No grant reviewer wants to read rambling applications that repeat the same dry information over and again throughout the application. You want to be succinct as possible but paint the whole picture of your project. So before you start writing, determine what information matters most to the specific grant you're applying to and share that info, writing it specifically to the scoring criteria. 

Speaking of repeating yourself, put the right information in the right box. Many grant applications are segmented into different sections or ask a series of questions. Keep your answers specific to that section of the grant, providing the information necessary to maximize the score for that particular criteria. Avoid cutting-and-pasting the same information into multiple areas of the grant. (I know some grants seem to have redundancy built in, but think about how the different parts might influence scores in different ways and adjust your content to that.)

Tell stories. I may get some flak for this but what better way to highlight the WHY of your project than to show how it will affect real people? You can do this best by telling real stories. No, you don't have to write a new Harry Potter series based in your park. You simply have to tell a story that drives home your point. Like this maybe, for a grant requesting funds for accessibility improvements down to a canoe launch:

...We had a long-time volunteer named Tammy that always helped with our canoe programs. Due to a serious health issue, Tammy now walks with a cane and cannot navigate steep slopes. We currently have to launch canoes from the steep-sided lake shore while Tammy looks on from the parking lot. This new accessible walkway will allow Tammy, and many others with mobility impairments, access to the lake once more. 

A short story like this humanizes your project and helps reviewers envision what they'd accomplish by funding it. Keep the stories brief and relevant. Add even more power to them by including letters of support (as applicable) from the story subjects themselves, or strengthen the stories with data (example: for the story above, you could include the % of people with mobility impairments, age demographics of your community, etc.).

PROOFREAD! For the love of god, proofread your application. Or better yet, have someone (or multiple people) proofread it for you. You're asking for a bunch of money. You're asking people to trust you enough to invest in your project. The least you can do is send in an application free of typos, misspellings, and punctuation errors. No, the content doesn't have to win you a Pulitzer, but it does have to ace 8th grade English class. This is an enormous pet-peeve of mine that I wish more applicants would address. For those of you in hiring positions, what do you do when you get a job application rife with errors? What perception do you get of the applicant? I rest my case...

While you're proofreading, be sure to review the content through a stranger's eyes. It's easy to forget that the grant reviewers likely have never seen your project and know little to nothing about your community, park, and organization. You see it all everyday. That can show through your writing. Here's where having someone else review the app comes in really handy. They can point out things - little details or omissions - that you may have overlooked. Whoever reviews your app, have them look at it through the eyes of the grant scoring committee. Have them look over the scoring criteria or grant guidelines ahead of time and give them the opportunity to point out ways to "tighten" things up specific to that criteria. This can all take some time, so as noted before, start early.

5. Utilize technology

As more grants go to online applications, there is more opportunity to include non-text media with your application. Use this to your advantage. If "a picture is worth a thousand words," then video is worth, well, a whole generation glued to their devices. A good video can "sell" your project before a reviewer even looks at the text of your app. I would argue even a relatively crappy video can be a good supplement to an application. Not into video editing? Maybe someone in your department is. Or hire it out. Or go find any 20-year-old with an iPhone and you'll be amazed at what they can create. Even if you don't get the grant, the content can work for future promotions or other applications. 

Yes, use drone footage. Even if you're building a playground, a treetop view does wonders for showing how the project fits into your park. Don't have a drone? Your local law enforcement or emergency management agency probably does and probably would welcome the "training" they'd get to do in your park. 

If you can't upload the video directly with the grant application, no problem. Put the vid on YouTube and stick the link in the text of your app. To avoid making reviewers type a bunch of gobbelty-goop into their browser, take the YouTube link and make a custom Bitly link that's easy to remember (it'll look like: "bit.ly/projectname" where "projectname" is something you come up with). For mail-in hard-copy applications (who does those anymore?), use QR codes. That way, reviewers can just scan with their phone and see the video. 

If you don't already use a document sharing application of some sort, I recommend using Google Docs to collaborate with your team of writers and reviewers. I hate writing a draft in MS Word, emailing it to a couple people to look over, then getting multiple copies back with different edit suggestions in each. Yes, Microsoft has document sharing abilities so if you already operate in that ecosystem, fine. But Google Docs, for me, is far easier to use. The specific platform or software doesn't really matter I guess. Just as long as you work across one shared document, saving the time of incorporating edits from separate emailed document copies. 

Projects take a while and there's a lot that goes into them so I like using a project management tool like Asana (I've used that program for years). There are others, some you may already be using, like Trello, or even tools within the Microsoft 365 suite. Just use something to track deadlines, milestones, and assignments to keep the project on track throughout the process. 

Other technology that's worth checking out is: 

  • Seek by iNaturalist - a phone app that uses the camera to identify practically anything you find out in the wild. It's a great tool for doing basic floristic surveys. 
  • Merlin Bird ID - a phone app that uses the phone's microphone to identify birds based on sound. A good tool for species inventories.
  • Acoustic bat monitors - find out what bats are present on your property by using these devices that record subsonic bat sounds and via a software application, identify species based on the audio signature of the recordings. 
  • Trail cams - you know what these are good for, I'm sure.
  • 3D renderings - You'll need an engineer for this probably, but anytime you can create a 3D rendering of whatever you're wanting to build, it's much easier for grant reviewers to envision. Plus, on-site renderings help with public promotions as well.
I'm sure there are more (trail and traffic counters come to mind, for one), but you get the idea. Use technology to your advantage, especially as grants continue to modernize. 

6. Celebrate

Considering most grants have far more requests than money to fund them all, more applications will be rejected than will be funded in any given grant cycle. Don't let this get you down. Not getting a grant just means you have an opportunity to learn and do better in the future. So celebrate that! Use the opportunity to study projects and applications that did get funded. Again, reach out to review committees or grant administrators. Thank them for their work (it's a lot, believe me!) and ask how you can improve. Make notes so you don't forget between then and when the next cycle begins, which can be almost a year away. 

If you do score in the money, of course you'll celebrate. But don't just take your money and run. Be sure to celebrate the hell out of those that made the funding possible. Recognize the granting entities in your promotional materials and media spots. Hold ribbon cuttings and invite grantors to them. Send hand-written thank you notes. Put up signage and make a big deal about it. There's a good chance you'll ask for money again in the future. The better you make the grantors look, the better you'll look when they see your next app. And of course, share your insight, application, and awesomeness with those that didn't get funded. 

I'm sure there's lots more I could talk about but these are the few that came to mind as I reflected after reviewing this last round of grants. I hope this helps. Share in the comments your thoughts and tips for writing great grant applications. 

If you find this information helpful, share it with someone in our industry that would benefit from it too. This show isn't made for the masses. It's made specifically for those of us in the parks and conservation world(s). So the best way for you to help me get into the ears of fellow outdoors professionals is to tell your colleagues about the show.

Thanks for what you do out there on the lands and in our parks!