Friday, September 3, 2010

How Did I Learn Grant Writing? - Phil Johncock

The latest post in our "How Did I Learn Grant Writing?" series is a guest post provided by Phil Johncock, The Grant Professor:

Here are the top 5 strategies that I used to learn grant writing:

Strategy 1 – Get Paid To Learn

Like most of the grant writing experts I’ve interviewed this year on my radio show, I started learning grant writing on-the-job. Luckily, I got paid to learn. In fact, I doubt that I would have learned grant writing at all had I not been paid to learn. That’s why when I designed one of the first grant writing certification programs in 2000, I made sure to include paid internships, so students would have the opportunity to get paid to learn, too.

Strategy 2 – Study Funder RFP’s

Here’s the story of my first grant:

On June 5, 1988 - actually the very next day after graduating with my master's degree - I received a phone call from an administrator at the local community college. She was looking for someone to write a grant proposal for the college and asked me if I would be interested. I responded that while I was flattered to be asked, I had never written a grant proposal before; how could I possibly write a successful one?

"Don't worry," she replied. "The proposal is pretty straightforward. And if you need some help, just let me know."

I spent over 100 hours on that first grant for $125,000. To provide some perspective, my last grant for $425,000 took 4 hours to write.

In that first grant, the guidelines were provided by the state Department of Education. Without any formal training, I started by studying – in great detail – the Request for Proposal (RFP). Why did I start there?

I had no grant writing experience to draw from. However, I had been successful with getting excellent grades in college by figuring out the grading criteria used by each university professor. The skill of studying a course syllabus and asking questions to clarify the rating scale used in a university class transfers to grant writing.

You see, the RFP from a funder is like the syllabus from a professor. It provides – occasionally not – how a paper will be evaluated. Whenever possible, ask questions to clarify the guidelines, and organize your proposal so that it can be easily and favorably reviewed. In college, you get good grades. In grant writing, you get money. How cool is that!

Strategy 3 – Interview Experienced Grant Writers

In that first grant, I tracked down the one experienced grant writer at the college and spent a lot of time interviewing him about his experience and any advice he had. He helped alleviate a lot of fears I had.

I have expanded this strategy to require students to interview experts in some of my courses. Also, I interview experts on my radio show. I find it helpful to have a beginner’s mind even with 22 years in the business and a 92% success rate.

Strategy 4 – Read Funded Proposals

Back to my first grant. I tracked down old grant proposals that had been approved at the college. While this was helpful to get some tips, I learned over the years that the best funded proposals to read are ones that the funder considers “well written.”

If the funder doesn’t provide you with a good proposal when you ask – my experience is that they almost always do - then check the funder’s 990 tax return to identify previous grantees. Find one that is comparable to your agency; call them up. Everyone I’ve ever asked has been flattered and more than willing to provide a copy of a funded proposal.

Strategy 5 – Teach Grant Writing

I was approached about teaching a grant writing seminar in 1993. A great advantage of teaching something is that you soon learn what you don’t know. One thing I didn’t know was a systematic way to teach-and-learn grant writing since I had no formal training.

So, I got a grant to attend a 5-day grant writing training offered by the Grantsmanship Center. They handed out this huge binder of materials that I haven’t looked at in almost 13 years. They did have one very good 49-page booklet entitled Program Planning and Proposal Writing by Norton Kiritz. It was touted as the “most widely used grant writing format in the world.” That got my attention.

The final part of the 5-day training was to write a mock proposal using the format presented in the booklet, which I now call the Kiritz Template. We could write by ourselves or team up with someone else. I was surprised with how few actually wrote a grant. I did, though. I found the template - summary, agency introduction, problem/need statement, objectives, method, evaluation, future funding, budget – very useful in organizing of a standard grant.

In fact, I liked it so much that I started using the Kiritz Template in my introductory classes. I expanded the Grantsmanship Center approach to …

  • Create a list of 25 study questions of the most important concepts in the Kiritz template.
  • Create a rating scale for the Kiritz template for students to critique draft proposals and experience what funder reviewers might experience when they evaluate proposals.
  • Include conducting a mock review. I discovered after teaching for a dozen years or so that turning in a first draft of a proposal like we did in the 5-day training was mediocre at best. Now, my students conduct a “mock review” of their proposals in a way that mirrors how reviewers might rate them. They then revise their proposals with the feedback they get from the reviewers. The result is a remarkable improvement in the overall quality of their proposals; the scores of revised proposals are significantly higher than those of the first draft. One expert claims that mock reviews will double even triple your chances of being funded. We need every competitive advantage we can get, right!
In summary, I learned grant writing by using these 5 strategies:

  1. Getting paid to learn,
  2. Studying funder RFP’s,
  3. Interviewing grant writing experts,
  4. Reading well-written (in the eyes of the funder) proposals, and
  5. Teaching grant writing.

Special thanks to Phil Johncock, The Grant professor, for contributing this post.  You can get more information about Phil and grant writing at


There is still time to sign up for Grant Writing 101, our popular online grant writing course!

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Creative Resources and Research is a consulting firm specializing in grant writing, grant seeking, program evaluation and professional development training. We have worked with hundreds of clients including public and private schools, school districts, universities, non-profit organizations, and social service agencies throughout California, securing over $155 million from federal, state and private foundation funding sources over the past decade. Our primary grant writers and program evaluators have over 50 years of combined experience in the education and social services fields. At CRR we prefer a personal approach to the clients we work with; by developing long term relationships, we are better suited to match client’s needs with available funding sources. We provide a variety of services to help assist you, including grant writing, evaluation consulting, professional development opportunities, and workshops.