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TL v58n2 Strategies for Writing Winning Proposals: A Proactive Approach to Grant Seeking
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Tennessee Libraries 

Volume 58 Number 2


Strategies for Writing Winning Proposals

A Proactive Approach to Grant Seeking


Shannon Williams
Reference Librarian
Montgomery County Memorial Library System, Central Library
Conroe, TX

Program Abstract: (Program Title: Grant Seeker's Toolkit) Aimed at the novice and the experienced grant writer alike, this workshop  emphasizes some efficacious proposal-writing tactics that helped the presenter to secure $52,392 for several academic and public libraries. Content is divided into prewriting considerations, writing tips, and post-writing activities. A generous supply of handouts will be provided.

“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken bird that cannot fly." –
Langston Hughes


The purpose of this article is to provide librarians with some practical grant-writing strategies so that they may increase their chances of securing grants for libraries. With additional funding, librarians can have a greater impact on their communities, perhaps enhancing the quality of life for thousands of people.  

A Proactive Approach to Grant Seeking

Some proposal writers take a reactive approach to grant seeking that involves frenzied writing in response to calls for proposals announced on short notice. There is a better way to apply for external funding opportunities. For instance, David G. Bauer (2003, p. 6) recommends applicants employ a more methodical and proactive approach to seeking grants because doing so allows them more time to plan; to critically evaluate their project ideas; to conduct thorough research; to find the best collaborative partners; and to write creatively and thoughtfully.   

A Proactive Attitude

A key to successful grantsmanship is to believe that one can and will secure grants for libraries. This optimistic proactive attitude is best described by Kenneth T. Henson (2003) in his manual Grant Writing in Higher Education: A Step-by-Step Guide in which he notes: “The most important attitude a grant writer can have is a sense of efficacy: ‘I can and I will become a highly successful grant writer. I will learn what I need to know, I will develop the necessary skills, and I will succeed at the level that I choose to succeed’” (p. 16).  If librarians believe that they can and will obtain grants, then they will treat their project ideas, their collaborative efforts, and their proposals as if they will in fact be funded (Santovec, 2004). A winning attitude is essential to securing grants simply because it affects how one writes; how one feels about grant projects; how one perceives grant reviewers; how one approaches grant projects; and how one interacts with others involved in those projects. Hence, one’s attitude toward grant writing matters greatly because ultimately it is conveyed to the reviewers.  

Some Prewriting Considerations

Prior to writing, librarians may find it helpful to ask themselves three sets of questions. Such questions can be grouped as personal ones, and project- and facilities-related ones.

Personal questions might include: How much of my free time am I willing to devote to this project? Is there enough time to write a stellar proposal? Can I be committed to this project for the next six to twelve months? What target groups do I care most about? If I had $50,000 to spend, how would I do it? Is there any equipment or services patrons want but are not getting due to budgetary restraints? How passionate am I about the project idea and about meeting the needs of the target group? Who might be interested in collaborating with me? Do I know enough about proposal writing and how grant reviewers consider (or rate) proposals? Should I attend some grant-writing workshops or read more books about proposal writing before agreeing to write a grant application? Am I willing to let go of the ownership of my project idea, possibly allowing others to shape it? What parts of the project am I especially eager to do? What parts do I envision other collaborative partners doing?

Project-related questions might include: Is there enough compelling evidence to support the urgency of the stated need?  Is there enough time to acquire any compelling evidence that would substantiate the need for external funding? What data is available on the statement of need or on the target group? What facts might be cited to indicate that the grant team already has access to the target group? Can the project be replicated by other libraries? How might representatives from the target group be involved in planning the project? How many users might be served through the project? How many activity sessions will be conducted, when, and by whom? How might the project be disseminated, when, and by whom? Is the proposed solution to the problem realistic and cost-effective? How will the project be evaluated? Who will evaluate it, where, and when? Should the project be expanded to include other libraries, community groups, target groups or other geographic areas?

Facility-related questions might include: Is there ample floor space to carry out the project? Are there any facility issues that might impede the success of the project, (e.g., malfunctioning elevators, poorly lit parking lots, leaking roofs, inadequate building security)? If there are weaknesses with security or building issues, then how might we address those concerns? Should building or computer security be described in the proposal? Can the project be successfully implemented without violating fire codes? Will physically disabled persons be able to move about freely when the activities are taking place? Does the library have the necessary supplies or equipment to effectively implement the project (Carlson, 1995)?  

Conducting Preliminary Research

One should learn as much as possible about one’s potential funding sources prior to applying for grants (Bayley, 1995). If the time is taken to conduct thorough preliminary research on various funding sources and one’s project idea, then often the information that is found (if it is reliable) may be judiciously inserted into proposals through footnotes or bibliographies, thus further substantiating the need for grant funding. (Of course, this would be done only if one knew for certain that the funding source would permit this kind of information.) Often, information that is obtained through preliminary research can help applicants to tailor their project ideas more specifically to particular funding sources. Preliminary research can be divided into the following activities:

  • Obtaining facts to substantiate a compelling need for external funding;
  • Conducting a literature review to locate articles or websites to see if other institutions successfully implemented similar projects or any caveats they may have faced;
  • Completing various foundation or prospect worksheets on selected funding sources; and
  • Contacting funding sources’ appointed grants officers (via their preferred mode of communication) in order to obtain privileged information.  

Reasons for Conducting a Literature Review

Prior to writing a proposal, it is wise to conduct a literature review for the following reasons:

  • It can confirm the need or the uniqueness of a project idea.
  • It can be cited in a works consulted, a bibliography, or footnoted to substantiate a project idea.
  • It can help a proposal writer ascertain how (or if) the project idea is replicable or sustainable. 

Susan Evans (2000) notes that conducting a literature review “pushes the grant seeker to define the need for the project and examine how the project extends or builds on what is already known.”

Using Foundation Worksheets

Foundation (or prospect) worksheets (or forms) are completed based on information that is obtained through grants databases or directories; by viewing specific funding sources’ websites; or by phoning funding sources’ grants officers. Several grants authors cited in this article provide foundation worksheets in their grants manuals (Bauer, 2003Dewey, 1991; Kramer, 2004Gerding and MacKellar, 2006. Completing worksheets on selected grantors enables one to readily pinpoint any gaps in knowledge about those particular funding sources. Without the aid of the worksheets, specific details on individual foundations or government agencies can be easily overlooked or forgotten. This is an important point because the forms help applicants to tailor their project ideas and their grant proposals to individual funding sources.

The intelligence gathering phase can be enhanced by combining two or more foundation worksheets, e.g., merging Gerding’s and MacKellar’s (2006) with the Foundation Center’s (Geever, n.d.).  By combining various worksheets into one unique form, librarians may acquire even more knowledge about those potential funding sources.  This in turn could perhaps make them stronger, more viable candidates for funding; and it could help them see how they might adapt their project ideas to specific funding sources. The point is that applicants should align their interests with those of the funder.  Afterwards, a list of specific questions can be compiled and then posed to selected funding sources’ grants officers (Miller, 2002, p. 37). Then, a decision can be made as to which grantor to select for application purposes.

Applicants could conceivably spend weeks or months filling in various worksheets on individual funding sources. The more funding sources that are chosen, the more time that will be needed for filling in the blanks.  During this intelligence gathering phase, applicants will see that some forms are more complete than others. Bauer notes that the missing components are often financial in scope (2003). For this reason, he and other grants authors suggest that such information be obtained through 990-forms, 10-K reports, and annual reports, many of which are accessible via search engines such as Google or Yahoo, as well as several websites and databases, like the ones given below.

990-forms are accessed at the following websites: The Foundation Center ; Guide Star ; and the National Center for Charitable Statistics . One can also request previously filed 990-forms on foundations by phoning the IRS at 800-829-3676.

10-K reports are located by conducting keyword searches in Google or Yahoo by entering the name of companies or foundations followed by the words “10-K report.”  Some library subscription databases that provide 10-K reports are LexisNexis Academic Universe (click on “Company Profile Section”); Business Dateline; General Business File ASAP; and Business and Company Resource Center.

Annual reports are obtained through the following databases: LexisNexis Academic Universe (choose “company financial information” followed by “SEC annual reports”); Thomson Research; Factiva; Mergent Online; and Value Line (Cornell, n.d.).

Websites that provide annual reports include,,, and

Annual reports also may be obtained by phoning the public relations or share holder departments of companies or foundations. Such contact information is always provided on their websites.  

Phoning Funding Sources’ Grants Officers

Many foundations and agencies prefer to receive initial letters of inquiry prior to receiving proposals. Others however, encourage applicants to make their initial contact by phone. Prior to phoning, applicants should confirm that the funding source does in fact welcome or encourage phone calls. Likewise, the names and titles of the funding source’s grants officers need to be determined first. Such contact information is usually found in the entries on the individual funders listed in grants directories or databases; stated on the funding sources’ websites; or noted in the requests for proposals. Librarians should make that initial call only after the contact information has been verified (Gerding and McKellar, 2006, p. 150). Rebecca Gajda and Richard Tulikangas (2007) note that “calling is better than e-mailing because it is more personal and allows [one] to more easily express interest and enthusiasm.” Bauer (1999) estimates that “the chances of success increase an estimated threefold if contact with the funding source takes place before the proposal is written” (p. 91). 

Patrick Miller (2002) suggests that applicants: 1) Begin phone conversations by briefly introducing themselves and stating the reason for calling. 2) Describe the project idea concisely, the intended benefits, and any collaborators who may also be involved in planning the project. 3) Transcribe everything the grants officer says and confirm that the project idea is of funding interest to the grantor (p. 38). It is also a good idea to avoid speaker- and cell-phones because they can be annoying or impersonal. Peggy Barber and Linda Crowe (1991) rightly note that when proposals are “developed with the help of a program officer, [they are] more likely to be recommended to the foundation board for funding” (p. 89). 

Writing Considerations

It is imperative that librarians allow themselves plenty of time to think critically, to collaborate, and to write excellently. The grants literature indicates that inexperienced grant writers often do not fully consider how their rushed proposals may be perceived by the reviewers. For this reason, Barbara Dewey (1991) suggests that librarians allow themselves about four weeks to write letter proposals, and at least three months to write full proposals (p. 59).  

Proposal Writing Tips

  • Write the first several drafts quickly to get the initial thoughts on paper first. Then, divide the text according to the proposal components, e.g., needs statement, goals, objectives, etc. Doing so will accentuate any content that is excessive or lacking. This is one way to begin drafting a proposal.
  • Try to obtain copies of previously funded proposals from the funding source. If they can be obtained, then comparisons can be made between the rough draft and the copies that were previously funded. Proposal writers should pay careful attention to the former applicant’s use of the funder’s buzzwords, recurrent themes, hot button issues, punctuation, writing style, word choice, format, font, grammar, tone, etc. If copies cannot be obtained, then phone the funding source’s grants officer to ask specific project-related questions to obtain privileged information so as to perhaps increase the chances of securing the grant.
  • Work the project idea and the proposal around the grantor’s funding priorities, values, or mission- and vision-statements. Make the connection between the statement of need, the target group, and the grantor’s funding values and other priorities.
  • Be ruthlessly critical when drafting the proposal. Try scrutinizing it from a grant reviewer’s perspective. To do this well, one needs to know how grant reviewers consider and rate proposals and how to write superbly.
  • Have one person write the proposal so that it reads cohesively with “one stylistic and editorial hand” (Dewey, 1991, p. 59). Ideally, that person has previous grant writing experience; understands how grant reviewers critique proposals; works well with others; and understands the importance of meeting deadlines.
  • Remember that the reviewers may not be familiar with one’s geographic area; the library system or academic institution; the needs of the target group; or information technology. It is important to write with this lack of familiarity in mind. Such assumptions can be easily overlooked when writing proposals.
  • Share the final draft with a trusted person who has superb writing or editorial skills. If it reads exceptionally well to that person, then the chances are that it will also be more favorably perceived by the reviewers.
  • Explain how those involved in the project have attempted to remain current in the profession (e.g., joining consortiums, purchasing databases, utilizing virtual reference, attending workshops). Discuss only the changes that directly impact the project. 
  • Verify that the budget and its narrative do not contradict other statements made throughout the proposal.
  • Incorporate a solid evaluation component into the proposal early in the writing phase rather than adding it as a last minute after thought (Geever, 2007). Evaluation is important because it indicates that the applicant takes the grantor’s funding seriously enough to hold him (or her) self accountable.
  • Address a compelling need that can be passionately addressed for a particular group. One’s genuine concern for their welfare will come across to the reviewers. Express enthusiasm by writing creatively and succinctly; by stating the need as clearly as possible; and by citing carefully worded statistics or other authoritative sources. Miner and Miner (n.d.) note that “the need should reflect the sponsor’s view of the world” (p. 29). 
  • Specify the details of a proactive dissemination plan such as tentative journal and article titles and submission dates. Briefly describe the website announcement that would be linked on the library’s home page. As for speaking engagements, include tentative titles and dates for those presentations, and the locations and names of the events (Miner and Miner, n.d., p.8). The more proactive dissemination tactics can be combined with the publication of in-house promotional items such as brochures, newsletters, flyers, or bookmarks.

Establishing Credibility

During the writing phase, serious consideration should be given to how the reviewers may perceive the overall credibility of the proposal, the project idea, and all persons involved in the project. Credibility is conveyed in many ways, some of which include:

  • Writing excellently in clear, succinct language, using high impact words that express enthusiasm in a proactive tone (Bayan, 2003). 
  • Conveying an understanding of the grantor’s charitable values, mission, priorities and preferences, and how those things parallel one’s institutional mission, vision, and goals in addition to the needs, goals, objectives, and outcomes of the grant project.
  • Noting professional involvement that would directly affect the grant project or the library’s attempts at meeting the compelling needs of a particular target group.
  • Discussing weaknesses (or strengths) of the library and how those things have impacted the target group.
  • Describing a compelling need based on well written, concise, factual data rather than circular reasoning (New and Quick, 2003).
  • Compiling a well researched, carefully planned, realistic budget that is not under- or over -inflated.
  • Including well written and thoughtfully assembled attachments, if such documents are welcome by the funder.
  • Mentioning any volunteers or key personnel (and their credentials and expertise) who would assist with implementing the project at no cost.
  • Involving representatives from the target group in the planning of a project that is intended to address their particular needs.
  • Expressing genuine concern for the welfare of the target group.

Post-Writing Activities

Many foundations and especially governing agencies encourage applicants to submit proposals electronically. Others prefer air mail. In those latter cases, some post-writing considerations that should be taken into account include the quality of paper; the quality of the envelopes and labels; and the choice of staples or paper clips (depending on the funder’s preference). Miner and Griffith (1993) suggest that “[proposals] be mailed in manila envelopes large enough to accommodate [them] without having to fold or bend [them]” (p. 135).  It is important to mail proposals via an overnight courier service such as FedEx or UPS. Get the tracking number. By carefully packaging their proposals, librarians indicate that they care enough about their projects to invest some money so as to ensure that their parcels arrive before the due date.  

It’s Funded!

If the proposal is funded, then the grant team and the library director need to be notified as soon as possible and depending on the project, a meeting may need to be called (Miller, 2002, p. 137).  Shortly after the award letter is received, phone the grantor to express thanks and appreciation for the award. Follow up by promptly sending a thank you note on the library’s letterhead with the signatures of the library director and the grant team members. In the note, invite the grantor’s representatives for a site visit (Hall and Howlett, 2003, 45). One could also include newspaper clippings (Abshire, 2002), copies of the webpage announcement of the award, or brochures, for example, to demonstrate that the grant is being disseminated as planned and to express gratitude for the award.

It's Not Funded!

When a proposal is declined for funding, it is imperative to contact the grants officer either in writing or by phone, (whichever is the funder’s preferred method of contact) to ascertain why it was rejected. Obtaining this information is critical because it can be advantageous later, should one resubmit the application. Sending a prompt thank you note (even when the proposal is rejected) along with the signatures of the library director and the members of the grant team, fosters goodwill, and often creates a favorable impression upon the funding source (which may prove advantageous later, should the proposal be resubmitted). Sending the note is courteous and indicates goodwill on the part of the applicant. Writing such letters gives many applicants a sense of closure. Thank you notes are usually discouraged by government agencies and are usually welcomed by foundations. However, when in doubt, check the application materials, the funding source’s website, or ask the funding source’s grants officer before sending the note.

It is usually easier to resubmit a proposal to the same funding source than to a different one. This is because a resubmission is usually not as labor intensive as reworking a proposal for a different funder. Furthermore, the chances of obtaining grants are greater on second and third attempts at resubmission. Successful grant writers know this and resubmit their proposals until they receive the award (Evans, 2000).

There are also some other psychological and practical tactics librarians can do to bolster their confidence and to hone their grant-writing skills. First, they should remember that a rejection does not necessarily mean that a proposal or a project idea is poor. Such a punitive outlook will not help them to secure grants for libraries! In fact, good proposals are declined all the time due to lack of funding. In those cases, proposals are more likely to be funded on their second or third attempt if the reviewers’ suggestions are made to the proposal or project. Sometimes, reviewers will note that a proposal received a high score, or a grants officer will relay this information to an applicant when the applicant requests the reviewers’ comments. In such a case, a proposal would probably need only a little tweaking and thus should be resubmitted (Gerding, 2006, p. 148). If however, a proposal receives a mediocre or low score, then the applicant may need to focus on strengthening his (or her) grant-writing skills, and then resubmit; all the while not losing heart.

Another tactic that will help librarians to secure grants is to adapt a more proactive and positive attitude toward developing their grant-writing skills. They can do this by attending grant-writing workshops; reading successful grant applications (Dewey, 1991, p. 59); learning how grant reviewers critique proposals; serving as grant reviewers for foundations or governing agencies; reading the grants literature; and building their own arsenals of knowledge (e.g., personal file boxes comprised of articles, bibliographies, manuals, and the like for future use).  A file box containing grantsmanship literature will come in handy later should one later decide to apply for grant funding. 


It takes time to write grant proposals excellently. Though the reactive approach does indeed work for some applicants, most will be better served by employing a more methodical and proactive approach to grant seeking. By making a deliberate attempt to learn more about proposal writing, librarians will ultimately become stronger applicants and thus will increase their chances of securing grants for their libraries. This is why grant writing is so important because with the aid of additional dollars, librarians will have an even greater impact on their communities. Never despair. Never give up. 

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” –
Henry David Thoreau



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