How to write a successful grant application, one step at a time

A lot of people ask me about writing grants. How hard can it be? After all, it’s just putting some information down on an application about how great their non-profit organization is, how many great things they do, or how broke they are, right? And then shortly afterwards the money should start rolling in. That’s it, right? Anyone that’s actually attempted putting together an application for a grant program would answer, WRONG.

Note I said “putting together an application,” not “writing an application.” It is correct that you could write a lot of sentences and submit a lot of applications in a short period of time, and maybe one of them will hit. There’s also that saying about a blind pig and truffles that you might want to keep in mind. In my experience of putting together grant applications I’ve learned the whole process is meant to be competitive. Since time is the most expensive commodity in the world, why waste yours on any efforts that aren’t going to pay off? If you need funding you need to ensure you’re doing everything possible to avoid being just another file in the stack.

Do your homework

At the grant-writing workshops I teach, I often throw out this simple statement: 95 percent of grant writing has nothing to do with writing a grant application. This short statement is both profound and confusing for a lot of folks. This is the moment when students start to realize it may not be such a simple endeavor to try and solicit funding from grant programs. The truth is, putting together a competitive application package involves a lot of work, before your files even get touched. The reason why we can say that writing an application is only 5 percent of the effort is the fact that ALL grant applications ask the same basic 5 questions in varying formats:

Who are you?

What do you need?

How much will it cost?

What good will it do?

How will it improve the organization?

Since every grant application asks these same questions, there is no reason why we shouldn’t have the answers at any given time. Don’t wait to look for the answers when the grant deadline is announced.

The mantra of every public safety agency is to be prepared. I find it funny, then, that grant applications are some of the most predictable events and most agencies are completely unprepared for them. Application periods happen either quarterly, biannually, or annually, and from one application period to the next very few changes occur for the most part, so there is no reason to be unprepared.

Be specific

After you know what the questions are, you can work to create answers to those questions. The thing to remember when crafting concise answers is that since every grant application asks these questions, and every applicant is answering them, the key to success is in the specifics.

Knowing the specifics involves legwork on your part. For instance, as a law enforcement agency the general answer to the first question is that you (as an agency/applicant) are a police department charged with protecting and serving your community. Well, so is every other police department. The way to become competitive is to figure out how you’re really different from every other police department, including those that are right next door to you. Ask yourself:

How many officers are in your department?

What special services does your department provide? (Mounted patrol, foot patrol, bicycle officers, SWAT, car seat education, DARE, etc.)

How often do you conduct community outreach, and what types?

What specific types of crime are trending in your area?

What risks in your area create unique enforcement issues?

The answers to some of these questions will also lend information for the next question, because it’s not what you’re asking for that a grant review will be concerned with, it’s why you need what you’re asking for, and whether or not there are valid reasons for your agency to need them. Again, it’s not the general reason why a law enforcement agency would need something, it’s why your specific department has the particular need that is the issue.

Someone with even a small bit law enforcement knowledge knows that every police department has basic needs that must be satisfied in order to function, including officers, training, vehicles, uniforms, weapons, and communications capabilities. It’s when the grant request is above and beyond these basics that specifics will come into play. For example, any department might have a use for night vision equipment to help with night-time surveillance. Wanting night vision equipment to help you see better at night is not something that’s going to resonate with a grant program’s review panel in a competitive manner.

Instead, communicate why your agency has a need for it in the first place. Consider the expense of military grade equipment; what is the Return on Investment (ROI) to the department and community for this project? Has there been an increase in night-time drug trafficking? Burglaries? Assaults? What’s happened in recent history to prompt this particular request?

Without doing the research to know what the deep-seeded reasons are, you as a writer aren’t going to be able to distinguish your application from allthe others.

Talk turkey

One of the most important specifics that many grant applicants skip over is the financial reasoning behind a request. After all, you are making a request for some other entity to give your agency some of their money. The first question they’re going to expect an answer to is “Where is your money going now that prevents you from making the investment in the project?” This means you need to know where your money is going every year to the penny, which is going to require intimate knowledge of your own budget and all expenditures under every line item.

To be even more competitive you should know why you aren’t getting more funding, and simple answers like “city/town council is making cuts” aren’t enough. Why are they making cuts? Why have revenues gone down? Has a major employer closed? Has tourism been a staple and now your area isn’t getting the same level of visitors as in the past? Have you recently had a natural disaster that diminished state or local reserves? These types of local and specific financial conditions will only affect a small number of potential applicants, and will help shore up the need for non-local funding to effect improvements.

Once you get to this point, you’ll find answering subsequent questions will now be more intuitive, because you’ll have asked yourself the questions and prepared answers that point to specific reasons behind your request, improvements that will be made, and the need for outside funding for your organization.

Again, these are basic beginning steps to a successful grant application. There are many nuances to every step of the process, but a strong start will help make your journey that much easier, and also repeatable for every grant application you attempt thereafter.


Brian P. Vickers has been in the fire service for 18 years with numerous state and national certifications for fire, rescue, and EMS disciplines. He is a former department training officer and district captain, as well as a former Army National Guard soldier. He is CEO of Vickers Consulting Services (VCS), a public safety consulting firm specializing in strategic financial planning and grants.