BTF Opens Its Archives: Grant Writing Tips from a Pro – Rutgers University’s Sue Davies

In addition to other fundraising techniques, non-profit organizations should always consider applying for grants, especially when planning a specific project.  Though the application process will differ from foundation to foundation, there are many grant writing strategies to keep in mind when writing a grant.  Several years ago, Sue Davies, an expert in the field, agreed to share her insight and grant writing tips with our readers.  We thought it was worth another review today.   Thank you, Sue!

About Sue Davies

Sue Davies has raised more than $30 million dollars over the past 20 years from individuals as well as foundation, corporate and government sources. Currently, she is the Associate Vice President for Major Gifts at RutgersUniversity. At Rutgers, she supervises a team of 11 Directors of Development at schools and institutes throughout the University. In addition, Ms. Davies has held fundraising positions at the American Cancer Society, BarnardCollege, the New York Academy of Sciences, MercyCollege and elsewhere.

Ms. Davies also serves as an Adjunct Professor at New York University (NYU) where she teaches courses in grant writing and government fundraising. She has presented trainings at: Do Something, the FoundationCenter, Marymount College, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYCDHMH), the Nonprofit Success Forum and elsewhere. Over the course of her career, she has been a grant writing consultant for numerous organizations, including the: NYCDHMH, Lymphatic Research Foundation, New York Academy of Sciences, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and others. Moreover, she serves on the Board of Directors of Women in Development, a membership organization of 800 women development professionals in New York City.

BTF: What are the benefits of using a professional grant writer?

Sue Davies: Hiring a professional grant writer as a consultant can be helpful when a nonprofit is beginning to do approach foundation, corporate and government sources. Professional grant writers know the “lay of the land” and can provide direction to an organization that it new to the grant writing process.

BTF: Many volunteer-run non-profits cannot afford professional grant writing help.  Are there any free resources for people to improve grant writing skills?

SD: The Foundation Center ( and its cooperating libraries are an important resource for all nonprofits. These libraries maintain extensive databases on foundations, corporations and other matters pertaining to fundraising. They also offer courses on researching foundations and writing proposal. Access to the library’s collection and databases and many of the courses are free onsite. There is a charge for online access to the databases as well as for some of the courses. Guidestar ( also provides free access to 990s (tax returns) for nonprofit organizations, including foundations.

BTF: What planning should be done prior to starting the grant-writing process? What type of information should the grant writer look for when conducting preliminary research about the grant making organization?  Is it helpful to research the organizations and projects that have received grants from the grant making organization previously? 

SD: The grant writer should be looking to make a match between an important priority of the organization and a giving interest of the foundation. Preliminary research should start with the foundation directory which gives a good synopsis of a foundation’s interests as well as a thorough reading of the foundation’s website (if there is one). It can be important to see the actual grants that a foundation has awarded, but that does not determine future giving.

The grant writer should then work with the leadership of the organizations to identify a program or project that seems to fit within the foundation’s interests. Once this has been done, I always recommend that the organizations call the foundation to see if it is possible to speak or meet with the program officer. If it is possible to have a conversation with the foundation, then I would recommend letting the program officer know that you have reviewed the available information and to ask some specific questions pertaining to the foundation and the program area that is being pursued.

BTF: What are the necessary skills to write a successful grant?  Is there a certain writing style that should be used when writing a grant? 

SD: First of all, a good match with the foundation’s interests and the nonprofit’s priorities is required. After that, comes the writing. The writing should be clear and in the active voice. The proposal should answer the question: why should this foundation fund this organization for this project at this time. Jargon should be avoided and every effort should be made to write the grant so that someone that does not know the organization and its work can understand the proposal.

BTF: What information must always be provided in a grant request?  Is there any information that should not be included?

SD: If the foundation does not have a specific application form, I would recommend following some version of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers (NYRAG) common application form which can be found at (

BTF: Organizations often apply for several grants for the same project.  What is the benefit of submitting multiple grants?  If applying for several grants, how important is it to tailor a grant request to each funding organizations?

SD: I always recommend that a proposal be submitted to more than one funder as it does increase the chance of the project getting funded. The proposal, however, must be tailored to each funder.

BTF: What are the most common mistakes people make when writing grants?  How can they be avoided?

SD: The most common errors that I see in my student’s writing are: 1) assuming that the reader already knows about the organization and program area; 2) illogical arguments; 3) jargon, jargon and more jargon; and 4) whining or overstating that the sky is falling in. Lastly, many grants are not proofread, resulting in numerous typos and other problems that really distract the reader and undermine the effort to obtain funding. Many of these problems will come to light if you have one or more people that are not familiar with your organization or project read the proposal before it is submitted.

BTF: What are the three most important things to keep in mind when writing a grant?

SD: First, foundations are people, so relationship building is key. Second, partnerships advance both organizations’ missions, so make sure to approach funders that share goals with your organization. Thirdly, you will receive more rejections than approvals—don’t forget that you can build a relationship off of a rejection and that re-applications can be successful.

If you are a grant writer and have other tips or advice, we would love to hear from you!

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