Private Grants: Good to Great

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

Good grant proposals are not the same as great ones. What are the differences?

The first difference to going from good grant proposals to great is to realize that when you sit down to write one you may have to leave social work behind and enter an entirely new realm, the realm of the writer and reporter. Accordingly, you have to do what writers do, which is they conduct research. They seek to compile as much

information about their subject as possible. Like fishermen, they cast a wide net and sift through the catch, tossing aside all but the best specimens.

How to go about retrieving the best, most compelling information about the organization or program for which you’re seeking grant support will differ from one instance to another. But to start with, you have to get out from behind the computer and explore the waters your organization navigates.


Making a site visit and orienting yourself to the organization, its programs, and atmosphere is no doubt on your agenda, or should be. But if the program is deeply-rooted geographically, it would behoove you to take some time to explore the neighborhood, community, or city being served. LAPA has recently been writing grants for a city celebrating the anniversary of its founding, for instance. Having been offered a tour with knowledgeable residents as guides, we jumped at it. The experience proved invaluable. Landmarks and resources we were unfamiliar with registered indelibly on our consciousness.  Many were later referenced in the grant proposal, giving it the kind of flavor and authenticity that made the proposal come alive.

The Library

Plain old library research ought not to be overlooked, when leads surface that arouse your curiosity. Reading the promotional brochure of a client that had been providing social services for more than a hundred years, I happened to notice a reference to a magazine article written about the agency in the 1950s. Hmm, I thought. I found the issue on microfilm in the New York Public Library. It turned out to be most useful because it enabled me to understand how the organization evolved over time.  That understanding went into the grant proposal and added a dimension to the narrative that would otherwise have been missing.

Reporting from the Trenches

The program director of an organization providing addiction treatment services to men in crisis invited me to spend a day at the facility and go through the program along with the clients. I was pleased to do so. Not only was I able to meet clients at various stages of treatment—from stumbling, barely articulate new arrivals to grateful, confident “upper classmen” moving toward graduation—but I personally witnessed the top-notch staff in action, finding creative ways to illustrate the barriers certain men had interposed to forestall their own recovery. That’s something you won’t pick up by reading a brochure.

Program directors are good people to interview to learn what makes a program work. If there are “big picture” financial issues that should be explained to strengthen the case for funding, don’t hesitate to have a talk with the chief financial officer as well.

These three steps—touring the environs, following up leads in the library, and learning about the program and the organization from the folks who make it tick—are just some ways of going from good grants to great.

We welcome your comments about this post on the LAPA blog.


About LAPA

LAPA’s VISION is to positively change the way nonprofit executives and their boards think about development.

LAPA PROVIDES the model, the tools, and the expertise to empower our clients to significantly increase their revenues.

LAPA HELPS nonprofit leaders embrace development as a challenge that inspires, rather than something to avoid.

LAPA ELEVATES nonprofit’s to the next level of quality, and, once successful, our clients achieve exceptional results in increased revenue and a greater capacity to reach their goals.

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