Seven Characteristics of Successful Grant Writers

Panic is often the first reaction I hear from grant writers who have not fully developed their ideas, do not have an understanding of what exactly is needed from each person on their team, and who are writing at the last minute. On the other hand, I hear cautious optimism from people who are ready to submit a proposal that is their best product. From my many years of grant writing experience, I have recognized that successful grant writers all exhibit the same key behaviors:

  1. Begin early – In many cases this could mean starting about nine months before the submission deadline. There are many phases prior to the final proposal submission, and it is difficult to assess ahead of time how long each of these will take. Therefore, it is wise to allow extra time for completion of the proposal.
  1. Understand that grant writing is a team effort – Getting buy-in from all who will be involved in the various phases of the proposal is the very first step that needs to be taken. An initial meeting to determine the commitment, expertise, and division of labor will start the process. Once the overall structure is delineated, systematic follow-up sessions should occur.
  1. Research the situation that requires an intervention – A thorough literature review of the existing problem is necessary in order to understand the intervention that will be the ultimate purpose of the grant. Once the specifics on what is working and what is not in the field are laid out, the need for the proposal becomes very clear.
  1. Address the innovation gap – In almost all cases, donors are looking for innovative approaches that will solve an existing problem or contribute to advancement in the field. Innovative models that will improve the field emerge from preliminary data, pilot studies, and extensive research.
  1. Comprehend that simplicity equals complexity understood – A grant is a business plan that is linear and methodically developed. The more the grant requester understands what he/she is asking of the donor, the easier it will be to write the proposal in a way that can be easily understood by the reviewers.
  1. Know the culture and language of the donor – Speaking the language of the donor and navigating their culture with ease will win the confidence of the reviewers by ensuring that the proposal addresses what they want to fund and how the request aligns with their mission and vision.
  1. Take their audience with them – Understanding who will review the proposal is a key characteristic of every successful grant writer. Thus, they write for their audience – the reviewers. It also goes without saying that the review criteria used to score proposals must be understood.┬áIf writing to a foundation, this approach may not be possible in all cases; however, speaking with the donor’s program officer will provide useful insight.

Upon submission, the components of a winning grant proposal will be: an excellent idea that needs to be implemented for change to occur, focusing or narrowing the request to what is realistic and doable, innovation, extensive preliminary work, and strong teams.

Mathilda Harris

Over the past 18 years, she has written grants, conducted capital campaigns, developed strategic plans for grant procurement, and assisted individuals and institutions to write winning proposals for various donors.

4 comments on “Seven Characteristics of Successful Grant Writers

  1. Thanks for the above information because its real useful to a proposal developer but I need more highlight on how can someone develop a proposal when he /she wants a Grant to stop open defection in a certain communties

    1. Like all grant funding possibilities, you need to do a search on to see what federal grants are available for that topic. You might also do a search on for a foundation that would fund that topic. State funds may also be available.

  2. Hello,

    Thanks for your inquiry. Our “Essentials of Proposal Writing” webinar is a comprehensive one-day live online training that covers all grant writing. We discuss the entire grant process from the idea inception, all the way to the final submission and the review process for all federal and foundation donors. This is a great training for beginners. The next session is on March 21st. Please click the link below for more details:

    Thank you,
    Andrey Strakhov

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