I am the type of person whose brain is constantly thinking, even in my sleep. The harder the problem, the more likely I am to have several nights of sleep interrupted by fragments of thought my brain is trying to work through. Two weeks ago, this was my situation. I was preparing to submit a grant to a funder on the cutting edge of the equity discussion. As a significant funder with a large corpus, the Health Forward Foundation is leading by example and investing in organizations that otherwise might be overlooked by other foundations. My client serves a population not in Kansas City, Missouri proper, but one whose challenges mirrored those living in the middle of the city: high unemployment, low-paying jobs for those who are employed, high mobility for families struggling to pay their rent, and families in and out of homelessness when ends did not always meet. Families struggle with the trauma common to multi-generational poverty. Children struggle with adverse childhood experiences. But there are no mental health resources located in the community, and this is what my grant was trying to address. The grant had been drafted for over a week when the demonstrations against systemic racism began. As I watched, listened, read, and thought, this grant proposal started to bother me. Had I truly reflected the need of the population and the context of the situation? How had I described the population who would receive these services – as those in need or those with a need? Were we truly putting forth the best portrayal of the client organizations we serve? Were we showing the strengths of the clients they serve? Were we doing anything to push back against systemic racism?

With quick turnarounds and tight deadlines, grant writers can often overlook the importance of tying the numbers in the budget to the activities of the project. While funders give us many opportunities to do this, they often cite the absence of this connection as one of their biggest critiques of grant proposals. I’ve heard it mentioned time after time in funder panels, trainings, and in direct feedback from funders. As you begin a grant proposal and rally the project team, encourage them to have a “budget first” mindset. The budget, after all, is the primary driver of what the grant is all about. When the budget is the last thing on the list to complete, this typically sets off a chain reaction of making last minute edits to the proposal narrative, budget narrative, timeline, etc. This is when the connection between the budget and the project itself can get lost. The two key places where grant writers can be sure to show this connection are the budget narrative and the proposal narrative.

Grant proposals consist of a variety of components depending on each grant’s requirements. Most require some form of a budget, whether that is a simple project budget or a complex organizational budget, or both. Some will also include a budget narrative or justification and any number of other attachments. But in any grant proposal, the narrative is where you will likely spend most of your time. Fortunately, the proposal’s narrative is the fun part! This is where you get to put your storytelling skills to work. So how do you get started? Much like an author would begin a novel, start with an outline.