Written by: Michelle Kokolis, Program Manager at the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center

Many of us have been there. The Request for Proposals (RFP) drops and immediately the wheels start turning. Do we have a project that fits? If not, can we develop one? Can we do the work for the amount of money available? Do we have the time to write a proposal? The questions never end, and all too often, we fall down the rabbit hole of chasing money. When working with small communities, and sometimes even larger ones, the most common thing we hear is that communities don’t apply for as many grants as they should. There are three common reasons:

  1. We don’t have enough time to read the RFP, yet alone write the proposal;
  2. We read the RFP and started to write, but realized we were in over our heads and didn’t understand all the requirements; and
  3. We don’t know who to partner with.

This is often followed by the question, “How do we know if the grant is a good fit for us?” Read on for 5 tips to streamline and increase your success with the grant writing process.


Evaluate the Basic Requirements

Avoid the tendency to dive into an application before evaluating the opportunity to see if it is a good fit. More often than not, jumping in before evaluating results in wasted time and frustration. So how do you know if an opportunity is a good fit? Before diving into the details of what is most likely 20+ pages of questions and requirements, start by looking at two key items:

  1. Are we a qualified applicant? If not, can we work with a partner (e.g., local non-profit) who is?
  2. When are proposals due?

Aside from determining if you are a qualified applicant, the proposal deadline may be the most important thing to consider. It isn’t just about whether or not there is time to write the proposal, you also have to consider whether there is time to gather all the required documentation, secure any required approvals from your town council or other governing body, line up partners, obtain letters of support, and then complete all of the other steps that result in a compelling, well-written proposal.

After determining that the timeline is achievable, other important things to consider are:

  1. What is the return on investment? In other words, is the amount of time and effort that goes into writing a proposal worth it for the amount of funding available?
  2. Do we have the capacity? This means thinking about not only the capacity and skills required to write the proposal, but also the capacity to manage the grant and complete the project if funded.


Is Our Project a Good Fit?

If you qualify and feel you have ample time, capacity, and return on investment, the next step is a thorough read of the RFP to determine if you have a project or project idea that meets the criteria outlined in the announcement. If you try to shoehorn a project into an RFP where it doesn’t solidly fit, chances are it will show. Most RFPs have several project categories, each with specific requirements. It is important to carefully review these requirements, ensuring that your project checks all of the required boxes. For example, implementation projects often have specific requirements pertaining to mapping, nutrient reduction calculations, land owner agreements, and permitting. Some may even require a pre-application site visit with the funder. Paying close attention to these details is time well spent.


Do We Need a Partner(s)?

Next, consider partners. If a collaboration is needed to meet a requirement or strengthen the project, reach out early in the proposal development process. You need to ensure that partners can work within the existing timeline to provide any information and letters of support.

Questions to consider about partnerships include:

  1. Can we do the work in-house, or do we need a partner with a specific skill set (i.e. designer, engineer, etc.)?
  2. We aren’t eligible applicants, but 501(c)(3) organizations are. Can we work with a non-profit partner in order to submit an application?
  3. Will a contractor be required, and if so, are bids required? If yes, will this impact our ability to complete the application on time?
  4. Do we have an existing partner that we can turn to, or do we need to identify someone new?

It is also important to review the narrative questions to make sure you can address them. Perhaps some of the questions are more appropriate for a partner to address. Are evaluation criteria included in the RFP?  If yes, pay close attention to the scoring system, ensuring that the most effort is given to the sections with the highest scoring potential.


Reach Out to the Funder

As you review the RFP, make two lists – one containing the required information and documentation, and one containing any questions you have. If you don’t think you can meet all of the requirements, stop and reconsider whether you want to move ahead with a proposal. If you decide to proceed, the next step is setting up a call with the project manager listed in the RFP to discuss your project idea and list of questions. Do not underestimate the importance of this step. Some RFPs require this step while others do not. Even if this is not required, it is highly recommended. Funders want to hear from potential applicants. This conversation allows them the opportunity to provide valuable input and suggestions for your proposal.

The bottom line is there is no worse feeling than exerting all the effort required to write a proposal only to find out in the end that your partners can’t come through or that your project doesn’t qualify. Remember, there is no harm in passing on an opportunity. Chasing funding just because it is available isn’t usually a good thing.


Moving Forward With A Proposal (insert paper clip art in this section)

If you decide to move forward with a proposal, here are some tips for setting yourself up for success:


  1. Clearly establish a project team and project lead.
  2. If applicable, establish a point of contact with each partner.
  3. Clearly identify the information required from partners.
  4. Delegate tasks to team members. When possible, these tasks should relate to members’ strengths. In other words, a field technician may be better suited to develop text related to the methodology rather than put together a budget.
  5. Set deadlines and check-ins with your internal project team and partners throughout the application period.
  6. Set your final due date to be several days prior to the required submission date. This allows wiggle room for final edits or receiving last minute letters of support.
  7. Do not wait until the final hour on the last day to submit. Many on-line systems become bogged down with last minute submissions. Submit your proposal early to avoid potential website issues.