It is better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.

Eleanor Roosevelt

11 Questions Winning Grant Writers Know How to Answer

Every day I am approached by nonprofits asking how they can get a grant to fund the great work they’re doing. Some have successful grant-writing records, and others are new to the foundation world. No matter the level of experience, the first thing I tell everyone who asks how to write a successful grant proposal is: You need to convince the funder why they should care. Once you’ve done that, you need to persuade them that your organization can deliver what you promise (or in evaluator lingo, show measurable results).

I just finished up work with a Pay it Forward organization, World Animal Net (WAN), and our focus was grant writing. Part of the reason I chose WAN was that their mission is really consistent with that of Pay it Forward. They aim to “avoid duplication and competition, promote innovative programs, and stimulate cooperation and coalition building.” In short, they believe that cooperation is a more powerful force for good than competition. They are working to help animals around the world by sharing knowledge and expertise, and building communication networks and partnerships.

One of the things that came up early in my work with WAN is the importance of not thinking about grants in a vacuum. A successful grant proposal needs to fit logically in the context of the bigger-picture plans for your organization. Who wants to pay for a project that will come to a grinding halt once the money runs out? This question spurred internal discussions at WAN that resulted in updates to their strategic plan and a more informed decision-making process about which projects for which to pursue grant funding. As a result of our conversations, the WAN staff asked me to provide a cheat sheet of questions that they could refer to as they thought about whether or not to apply for grants in the future. In the spirit of Pay it Forward, I thought it might also be helpful to others.

So before you start writing your next grant proposal, make sure you can answer these questions:
1. What problem or issue will your proposed project solve or address?
2. Why is it important to address this issue?
3. What will be different as a result?
4. How will you measure or document your results?
5. How does what you are proposing fit into your organization’s strategic plan?
6. Why is it important in the context of that plan?
7. What is your overall funding strategy?
8. How do grants in general and this grant in particular fit into that funding strategy?
9. How will the work accomplished under the auspices of the grant be sustained when the grant period ends?
10. Why should funders care about this issue?
11. How do the issue and your approach to addressing it match the funders’ priorities or areas of focus?

What do Yogi Berra and your program’s success have in common?

As Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else.”

So what does that have to do with your program?

Look at it this way. If you were planning a road trip, what’s the first question you would need to answer? You would need to know where you wanted to go, right? Once you know where you want to go, you need to figure out how to get there. You need a road map. Think of a logic model as the road map for your program, a tool that helps ensure you don’t, in Yogi’s words, “wind up somewhere else.”

The logic model addresses three key questions:

  • Where are you going?
  • How will you get there?
  • How will you know when you’ve arrived?

It graphically displays connections between your program resources, activities, outputs and outcomes. Think of it as a picture of what you plan to do and what you will achieve.






The logic model can and should be used in all phases of a program’s life cycle, from planning to implementation to evaluation. During the planning phase, the logic model can be used to strengthen the program by identifying gaps in logic and selecting activities that are clearly tied to desired outcomes. For example, if your program activities are focused on developing children’s reading skills, don’t expect their math scores to improve. During implementation, the logic model can be used as a management tool to monitor program activities. A program that isn’t being implemented as you intended is unlikely to produce the results you expect. Finally, the logic model helps you decide what data you need to collect in order to track progress and show results.

Successful programs have logic models and know how to use them. In fact, many foundations and public sector funders now require program logic models in grant proposals. Having good intentions to change the world is great. Pairing those good intentions with a road map to achieve results is better.

Got Outcomes?

Let’s face it. A lot of people are afraid of program evaluation. There are countless explanations we use to rationalize not evaluating our programs. How often have you heard (or said):

  • “I’m not an evaluator.”
  • “Evaluation is expensive. We don’t have those kinds of resources.”
  •  “Participants love the program, so it must be working.”
  •  “Our program is complicated; it’s impossible to measure outcomes.”

To make matters worse, lack of staff expertise in evaluation is sometimes accompanied by fear that perhaps the program won’t show the results we expect. Then what?

I understand the reluctance and the fear.

Yet as concepts like results-based accountability become the norm and funders increasingly require evaluation plans in grant proposals, it’s important to step back and consider what can be gained from program evaluation. Most importantly, evaluation provides critical information about whether or not your program is achieving desired results.

We all know resources are limited. Isn’t it better to know sooner rather than later if those resources are being used effectively? And for those whose work focuses on our most vulnerable populations, there is even greater urgency to ensure that programs produce positive outcomes.

So the next time you’re tempted to fall back on all the reasons you can’t evaluate your program, think about all you have to gain if you do. Remind yourself that evaluating your program and tracking your outcomes will pay off by helping you to:

  • Clarify program objectives. What are you trying to accomplish? How will you define success?
  • Solidify support and raise money. People–including funders–want to support successful efforts. Demonstrating positive outcomes is an invaluable fund-raising tool.
  • Monitor your program. Are you really doing what you said you would do?
  • Make informed decisions about program changes. Do you need to alter the program or make mid-course corrections? Better to make those changes before the opportunity to get back on track is lost.
  • Identify unintended program effects. Are there “side effects” that need to be addressed?
  • Assess overall effectiveness. Did the program work as intended? Are program recipients better off? If so, how?
  • Assess program cost versus benefit(s). Do the program outcomes justify the investment?
  • Do even more good. If you can show your program works, you have the opportunity to increase your reach and broaden your impact.

So, got outcomes?

Watch the VALOR Video

We are just wrapping up evaluation of Safe Humane Chicago’s second round of VALOR (Veterans Advancing the Lives of Rescues). Learn more about the impact this program is having on veterans and shelter dogs.

Guest Post: Beyond Intuition

Guest blogger Elisa Kosarin of Twenty Hats shares her insight on successful strategies for interviewing prospective volunteers.

When you interview volunteers, trusting your gut leads to mixed results

True or False?

Our gut feelings about a volunteer are the best predictor of volunteer success.

Since I’m asking the question – and it’s a leading question – you’ve probably guessed the correct answer: FALSE.

Five years ago I would have answered ‘True’. The program where I have worked, Fairfax CASA, takes volunteer screening seriously. We expect candidates to complete a one hour orientation and two interviews before being considered for training, and then the staff discusses each candidate before making the weighty decision to accept or reject someone.

About those “gut feelings”

Despite all this rigor, our decisions often came down to our “gut feelings” about a candidate – even though our gut feelings were not paying off. We were having a tough time meeting our recruitment goals because so many trainees either dropped their cases or never even took one. This was a huge problem because our judges wanThumbs Up Downt to see a volunteer on every single case that enters the court.

The pressure to bring in qualified volunteers had a silver lining, because it forced us to take a good hard look at our recruitment and screening methods. And we were fortunate to receive help from a human resources specialist who taught us how to conduct behavior-based interviews.

A Better Way

The concept behind behavior-based interviewing is pretty simple: past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. You ask questions that require your applicants to give examples of the competencies you seek. If you need a volunteer who is reliable, you ask your prospect to describe situations where others could count on him to deliver. If a position requires good interpersonal skills, ask your candidate about a time she handled a disagreement with someone.

Questions usually begin one of two ways: “Tell me about a time when…” or “Give me an example of…” Then you assess how closely the candidate is able to answer the question. The response, or lack of an adequate response, speaks volumes about that person’s ability to handle a similar situation with confidence.

Shrinking the Gray Area

Fairfax CASA experienced some striking results from the shift to behavior-based interviewing. We shifted from a typical year with over a dozen non-engaged trainees to an average of two volunteers per year not taking a case. And the number of applicants falling into the “gray area”, when we are on the fence about someone, has become much smaller.

There are other factors that play into volunteer screening, like getting clear on the competencies you seek and spelling out expectations, but if I had to choose just one factor, I would pick interviewing. It’s one area where volunteer engagement still relies on the human resources best practices for excellence.

About Twenty Hats

Headshot - circleTwenty Hats is led by Elisa Kosarin, CVA, a nonprofit professional with 15+ years experience in marketing, development, and volunteer management. She is deeply familiar with the challenges faced by nonprofit staff who wish to improve their skills with little time and few resources.  She founded Twenty Hats to promote trainings that expand the skill base of her colleagues.


The Pay it Forward winner is…

At Making Good Work we recognize that changing the world often doesn’t pay well, at least not financially. That’s why we created Pay It Forward. Every quarter we select an organization for which we provide a service at no cost.

So what’s the catch, you ask?

All we ask in return is that the organization pay it forward, agreeing to provide a specific service at no cost to another organization in need.

This quarter selecting the Pay it Forward organization was particularly difficult. There are so many organizations in the world doing truly inspiring work. Sometimes it’s hard to choose just one.

Here’s the story…

I recently returned from a trip to Africa during which I spent two weeks in Tanzania. Seeing the annual wildebeest migration in Serengeti National Park was fantastic, but getting to know the people of Tanzania was even more inspiring. Learning about the wildlife and the culture from guides who are passionate about both was a profound experience. Each day I was moved by the differences in our way of life and reminded how much we in the United States take for granted.

One of our guides, Olais, shared his dream of starting his own organization, tentatively called Friends of Nature, and giving back to the community. His focus is on wildlife conservation, cultural engagement and helping to educate his community about the importance—and advantages—of protecting natural resources. I was touched by his intelligence, passion and aspirations.

Another of our guides, Rem, introduced me to Roots in Jungle, a small organization dedicated to giving back to the community by using sustainable tourism to support an orphanage, ensuring that children who have lost their families have a safe place to live and get an education. Shortly after meeting Roots in Jungle’s Director, Jacqueline Mosha, she emailed me and said, “Please stay in touch. We welcome your ideas and will receive them with an open heart. Let’s help the orphans to have a place to call home that’s filled with love, hope and opportunity.”

I am pleased to announce that this quarter we will be working with both Friends of Nature and Roots in Jungle to develop a strategic plan and launch a website. And in true pay-it-forward style, Evan Karatzas, Founder and Director of Proximity Lab, was equally moved by meeting Olais and has agreed to provide pro bono website design services.

My trip to Africa inspired me in a way I didn’t think possible. I’m thankful for the opportunity to join with new friends and colleagues to give back. Together we really can change the world.

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