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Volume 14, No. 4 • June 2000
• How-To •
Communicating Well: 
Lessons in Writing Good Grant Proposals
by Jack Smith

This article is based on an experience I had last year as a member of a grant proposal review team for a state library commission’s grant program. I am a professional grant writer who was also a library board member. I am always looking for new insights into the grant-writing process, and I was curious to read grant proposals from librarians.

I manage a small consulting firm that writes grant proposals for nonprofit agencies. I also teach writing skills courses for state governments, and teach grant writing across the U.S. I have noticed that very few librarians ever attend my grant-writing courses, and that the library education industry has limited grant-writing course offerings.

In my time as a library board member and chair of the board development committee, I noticed a reluctance on the part of libraries to submit competitive grant proposals, even though they performed public services and programming that were clearly eligible for many sources of foundation and government funding.

In 1998 I was selected as an advocacy-mentor for “Libraries for the Future,” a national initiative to increase the capacity of public libraries across the U.S. As a result, I have taught fundraising and advocacy workshops to library groups in Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Kentucky. I felt that reading the grant proposals would help me to teach the library audiences to understand how to market themselves and how they can raise funds.

With my perspective as an experienced grant-writing professional and my experience as a proposal reviewer, I believe I can fairly comment on the grant-writing skills of the library community. I want to offer some inside information on how to communicate better in order to improve your grant proposals and thereby increase your chances of getting the funding you need.

What You Shouldn’t Do When You Are Writing a Grant Proposal
There are many pitfalls that threaten inexperienced grant writers. But don’t fear: Having even a little basic knowledge can greatly increase your chances of success. Study these lessons:

To understand the grant selection process for most government organizations, you need to analyze the scoring and the dynamics of group processes. In my case, there were five members on our proposal review team, which was weighted with professional librarians. We reviewed materials individually and then spent a full day jointly assessing them. We all tended to advocate for certain things and I think we all had our little “pet peeves” that influenced our scoring. Basically, as a group, we had to develop a list of top grantees and then see how far we could go down the list with the total grant monies we had to give.

Libraries that had a history of collaborating with their townspeople and other resources got points for their efforts, but many examples of collaboration seemed new to the libraries and seemed as if they only happened because of the RFP (request for proposal) requirements. Therefore, the grant was driving the development process rather than the libraries’ development process leading to the need for a grant. These sorts of new collaboration efforts showed a lack of long-term organizational planning.

Most of the proposals asked for nearly the maximum grant amount. The proposals that came in substantially under the maximum grant amount were looked at more favorably, especially if they were able to generate funding from other sources to supplement the library commission grant. It also helped us to fund a greater number of proposals.

The writing skills were not as strong as I would have expected from librarians, so it really stood out when I saw a proposal with strong, clear, and concise writing. Proposals that appeared to be written by committees also gave us negative feelings because the writing seemed disjointed, with different formats and writing styles.

For me, it was interesting to see the inability of the libraries to tout the expertise and skills of their key people. In my nonprofit world, people tend to brag a bit more about their abilities. Proposals usually include biographical descriptions and resumes for key individuals. Several of the library proposals I read did not include any descriptions or resumes of the people who would work on the proposed projects.

Everyone on my committee was disturbed by one situation where one of the most well-written proposals was missing two pages that counted for a percentage of the total score. We all tried to find ways to justify increasing the score, but there was no rational way to do it. The lesson here is that you need to do all things well; you cannot have one major fault in any section.

What You Should Do When You Are Writing a Grant Proposal
From this library-grant-evaluating experience, I can also share some things that impressed the review team. Work this information into your proposals to score more points:

Several proposals expressed a “can-do attitude” and the enthusiasm to pull off any project. These libraries had strong board involvement, a history of successful fundraising, plenty of customer survey results, and a long-range planning process. (The opposite of these was the proposals that sounded “whiny,” stressing their negative situations and the bad things that had happened to their library.)

Seeing surveys of library patrons was very helpful. In addition, reports from library usage tracking software were very useful in understanding and documenting library needs. I was impressed by the in-depth analysis of library collections and operations. (But one bad thing about this complex analysis was that other parts of the same proposals did not have that same level of presentation or analysis, and therefore seemed carelessly done in comparison.)

It’s Not Really Funny, But ...
There is usually some humor in the proposal review process, often unintended. The funniest one in this instance was when I was reading the proposal from a small rural library in a summer vacation area. The proposal contained pictures of this terribly overcrowded library. To justify funding, the proposal needed to state the collection-weeding policy to prove the library really needed the grant. This proposal writer completely missed the point, and lowered her score when she stated that the library has a policy against weeding books from its collection because patrons had often commented “they see books here that they never see anywhere else.”

Score Higher Than Your Competition to Win the Money
My insights on library grant writing reflect the thinking of most other professional grant writers. Grant writing is a very competitive game and you need to find every possible advantage because you will need all the points you can get. Most of all, you need to constantly analyze and assess the many different factors the grant reviewers will use in scoring your grant proposal. Every point counts.

Jack Smith is a management consultant and trainer with over 12 years’ experience working with public agencies. He regularly conducts training at state and local nonprofit agencies, as well as at universities and colleges. Smith is a past member of the Board of Trustees of the Portland (Maine) Public Library (1995–1999), and chair of the board development committee. He has a master of public administration degree from the University of Maine. His e-mail address is

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