Grant Writing: Not Free Money

David Hesselmeyer helps build your foundational knowledge of grants so you can build on it through your experiences.
Back in the late 1980s through the 1990s, I remember watching television and seeing loads of infomercials, several of which I remember vividly. These informercials focused on telling you to buy their books and it will allow you to find free money through grants. Of course, these infomercials were extremely hokey. One infomercial included a guy wearing an outrageous yellow suit with question marks all over it.

As much as I know we all wish grants were like this, they are much more complex than these commercials and grant writing vendors may describe. This does not mean that the hope is lost in grant writing. What it does mean is that we must put effort into it and grow daily in the art of grant writing. We must build our foundational knowledge of grants so we can build on it through our experiences.

Need vs. Want

As a firefighter of 23 years, I enjoy the nice and shiny widgets (my term for the next newest and coolest fire service product) just as much as the next firefighter. I love being able to go to FDIC International every year. I am like a kid in a candy store. I am often asked when I teach at FDIC how to get grants for those new widgets. Unfortunately, it is not that simple.

When we are writing proposals for a grant, we must change our mindset from “I would love to have that” to “If we could fund this project, then we could make our lives easier, simpler, and safer.” Funding organizations do not want to hear about why you want this new widget. They want to know how your organization and, ultimately, your citizens will benefit and make an impact by using their funds to pay for this project.

One way that I work to ensure this proper focus is to ensure that I have our agency’s mission statement, general operational duties, and overall objectives written down beside me as I write a grant. As I decide on what project to focus on for the grant opportunity, I will check the project against those three focal points for our organization. If the project does not support parts of three items, then I will take it to our team and discuss whether this project should be one we try to get funded through grant funding. Most of the time, the answer will be no.


Next, look at what your objectives are for this project. What do you want to accomplish through this project?

First, having objectives shows that you are thinking more globally and not simply just asking for money. The objectives should be impactful to your department and your citizens. This will help clearly show how you are focused on a plan for the project and how you plan on accomplishing it.

Second, by having proper SMART objectives (Smart, Measureable, Achieveable, Realistic, Time sensitive), you can hold your department accountable to make sure the project is handled properly. This also provides some level of comfort for the funding organization to see how you plan to accomplish the project and to show that you realize this is not simply getting money. Unfortunately, not being able to complete a project properly can have a negative impact. Funding organizations can require a portion or even the whole grant to be paid back, even if you have spent a decent amount of the funds. I don’t know about you, but I do not want to have to go to my chief and explain why we must find funds to repay even a $3,000 grant.

The Notice of Funding Opportunity

Most grants have a document that they release called the Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO). This is an extremely important document that the funding organization uses to provide information and guidance on the grant opportunity. In short, this document is the textbook for this grant. NOFOs provide information concerning the history of the grant, the purpose of the grant, important deadlines, and so much more. Failure to follow the instructions and guidelines included in this document often constitute lower competitiveness or even automatic rejection of your proposal. Many agencies apply for these grants, and the funding organization does not want to spend time on incomplete proposals or failure to follow instructions. Think about it: Do you want to read proposals all day that are incomplete or fail to follow directions? Probably not.

This is an area where I have learned a lot during my grant writing tenure. I highly encourage you to make a binder for each grant you are applying for to aid in organization. The first document to put in it is the NOFO. Read this document. Highlight important dates. Underscore or mark important areas you need to remember to follow. Review this document regularly to ensure that you are on track to meet deadlines and following all directions.

The last thing I do before submitting a grant is to check all the deadlines and instructions against our proposal. You may just find that one item that seems to be in fine print that you need to correct.

Deadlines are NOT recommendations

One of the simplest ways to get your proposal rejected is by not meeting deadlines. Some grant opportunities may have only one date, which is the deadline for submission of your grant. Other grants can require participation in a meeting to announce the grant and give out provide specific instructions, notice to the funding agency for notification of intent to submit a proposal, and so on. These need to be strictly followed. Failure to do so will reduce your competitiveness or will result in outright rejection of your proposal.

So many times, I hear people say they will submit the grant even though it is late. This is not recommended, and it can also hurt future chances, as the funding organization may make note of the failure to meet deadlines for future proposals.

We do not have the time or space to cover all the foundational elements here. However, the ones mentioned should be the corner foundations of your grant writing knowledge and experience. It can make the difference between a highly competitive grant proposal and one that is thrown into the trash and not considered because of the issues the funding organization has with it.

DAVID HESSELMEYER is the owner of On Target Preparedness, LLC, in Lillington, North Carolina. He was an emergency management planner with a county government and has an MPA from East Carolina University.

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