Earlier this year, I had the chance to work with the State of Illinois on a federal grant application for the delivery of services to high-risk youth experiencing severe behavioral health issues. The grant would have awarded the State $4 million over four years, making it the largest single proposal I had ever written. The 30-page, single-spaced narrative which I was to write would ultimately end up accounting for only one-fifth of a 150-page total submission. We had two months to design the program and submit the application. In early November, nearly eight months after the proposal was submitted, the State received notice that they had been awarded the grant and the program began in earnest.

So what does it take to write and assemble a successful multi-million dollar grant proposal? In this post, we’ll look at what I believe were the key components of our effort.

anatomy of a winning grant application Photo Credit: Florian Klauer

1. Start quick, plan thoroughly.

As soon as the State made the decision to apply, their internal grant writing department reviewed the entire application in detail so they could begin listing and working on every single element of the submission. I would serve as primary writer, but another team would work on securing letters of support, creating the budget, organizing all of the application forms, and scanning and submitting the final document via grants.gov. Like I said, there were 120 other pages of miscellaneous stuff that needed to be prepared and assembled, and the assembly team got started at the same time I started writing the main narrative. The assembly team also created a workplan that listed every single question we were required to respond to, as well as all of the supporting documents and attachments. We would refer to this work plan constantly to make sure nothing was being forgotten.

2. Small Team / Big Team / Small Team

The final program involved 17 partner agencies, some public and some private. Wrangling that many organizations and agendas around a central strategy and program design would have been nearly impossible in just two months, so we employed a small team / big team strategy. The small team, which included me, the operational experts from the State, and the assembly team, did most of the heavy lifting. We designed the program, identified what resources would be needed, and wrote all of the drafts. The big team was brought in initially for a kick-off conference call, and roughly every two weeks we reconvened for a status update. They were shown drafts and given deadlines, but the charge of the small team was to push forward, no matter what responses we received (or didn’t). This approach ensured consistent progress with minimal waiting.

3. What exists already?

While a proposal of this size defies the notion of boilerplate language that I endorse, there was definitely information that could be lifted or adapted from other grants the State had written. The core of the program had to be created from whole cloth, but partner descriptions, staff positions, and several other aspects of the proposal were adapted from already existing documents.

4. Review as you go.

I’m a big fan of “making of” movie special features and especially the concept of pre-visualization, a modern innovation made possible with advances in 3D rendering technology and computer speed. Pre-visualization allows you to create a lower quality rendering of an entire scene to make sure the director is on board with the pacing, lighting, and camera positioning. The grant writing equivalent is the work-in-progress draft. It’s not a full draft, in the sense that many sections haven’t even been started, but it’s enough for someone to get a sense for your direction, structure, and overall organization. It also lets you highlight content sections that you may need help with or additional information. The key with the WIP draft is that everyone knows exactly what purpose it serves. The WIP draft isn’t the time for wordsmithing…that will come later. But the WIP draft is the time for making sure nothing major is being forgotten, and that the overall approach makes sense.

5. Answer everything they ask…exactly where they ask it.

This is one of the key strategies I discuss in our Master Class. We used the requirements listed in the grant request as subsections in our narrative. So if a requirement asked “Describe how you will reach populations X, Y and Z”, we created a narrative subsection entitled “Reaching populations X, Y and Z”. And we answered all of the requirements in the order they were asked, even if the order didn’t make complete sense to us. This is a key strategy with a large grant like this, because many times the grant reviewers will be given a score sheet based on the requirements. So the easier you make it for them to find your response to the requirement, the more likely you are to get a positive score. You simply can’t assume that they’ve read and remembered the rest of the proposal.

6. Live together or die alone.

OK, so I’ve been looking for a good place for a LOST reference. The point is that each member of the small team helped the other members out by overlapping responsibilities. I had people reviewing what I had written, and I helped the assembly team on the day of submission, including hand-numbering all of the pages and double-checking the attachments they had assembled. This cross-pollination of skills and responsibilities meant a fresh set of eyes at every step of the submission process, ensuring that our proposal wouldn’t be automatically rejected because of too many pages, or missing documents, or some other procedural reason. When you get to the end of a two-month, 120-page grant application, you tend to lose the forest for the trees, so having an extra set of eyes is a huge benefit.

7. Don’t underestimate your time

My total time spent on the writing and submission was 51 hours. That’s a lot of time to squeeze into two months, and my responsibility was mostly writing. All told, I wouldn’t be surprised if the total person-time topped out over 80-90 hours.

You may not apply for many multi-million dollar grants, but if you do, hopefully these strategies will give you a foundation for a solid application process. Anyone else have experience with large proposals like this one?



Tim Whitney

About Tim Whitney

Tim is the founder of Greenisland Media, having worked for and with nonprofits for over 18 years in policy, program design, and communication. @greenislandtim