6 Secrets to Winning in the Grant and Funding Game

Grants, Funding and Finding the Money You Need: A 2018 Guide

By: Bethany D. Merillat, MS, M.Ed.

Published: January 31, 2018

Finding funding can be challenging. Just ask Christopher Columbus! The adventure-seeking Italian best known for discovering the New World was turned down by the kings of Portugal, France and England, along with a vast number of other less illustrious backers, before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain agreed to finance his trip (1).

Steve Jobs had to sell his Volkswagen microbus (and his friend Steve Wozniak sold his Hewlett-Packard calculator) (2) to generate the $1,350 they needed to get Apple up and running, and J.K. Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers before her book was eventually accepted for publication by Bloomsbury (3).

What do a renowned explorer, founder of one of the most successful companies in history, and an author who has sold more than 400 million books worldwide and was named the highest paid author in the world by Forbes magazine in 2017 (raking in more than $95 million a year)(4), have in common? They all needed funding to succeed and had to be dogged in their pursuit to obtain the phenomenal success they later enjoyed.

In the engineering world, things are not much different. If anything, finding funding is becoming more and more competitive as the number of road, bridge and public works projects needing money continues to rise, and funding either stays the same or dwindles.

That does not mean all hope is lost. There are a number of concrete steps you can use to take advantage of the existing funding that is out there, and insider knowledge you can leverage to your advantage. Having worked in the grant world, and engineering grant world specifically, I know it is challenging, but I also know it is possible to find money and get your project completed within your time-frame.

Here are six actionable steps YOU can take which will significantly increase your chance for success, and save you time and headaches no matter what grant you are applying for!

1. Pre-Grant: Know Your Grants!

Grants and deadlines come and go constantly. Some require extensive pre-approval, letters of recommendations, and other prerequisites to be met before you can even apply. Start keeping a database of grants you find that are of interest to you and keep up to date on the deadlines and if they received funding for the next year. This will ensure you will have adequate time to complete the grant once you have a job in mind.

4. Be a Copy Cat

There are times to be original, and there are times to follow the leaders, and in grant writing, you need to do both. First and foremost, look at winning grants from years past. Many websites and organizations publish these online, or will send them to you upon request. Take some time to read one over – what did they do well? Remember, you are submitting a grant to the same organization so if they liked this grant, odds are, if yours is similar, it can at least be competitive. At the same time, you need to stand out as well. Make sure you do your research so as to impress the person/organization reading it and show that you put as much time into writing the grant as they will take in reviewing it (this should be a LOT).

2. Define WHAT you want the money for ahead of time

Most grants you will apply for want to know, down to the last detail, the specifics of the project, the timeline, the budget, etc. Make sure you know all of this before you even start looking for grants, as it will help you narrow your search and ensure you have all the parts in place you need when you are ready to apply.

5. Get Help

No man (or woman) is an island, and the grant writing process can be complex. Even if you feel confident tackling it on your own (such as for a small local grant), collaborate. You will generate more ideas, and get powerful feedback. It also never hurts to have another person checking for typos!

3. Reach Out

One of the biggest reasons non-profits and government grant officials tell me people fail to receive a grant is because they do not follow the instructions. If you have a question, ask! Non-profits, grant administrators, and people working with funding don’t want to waste their time any more than you do. If you contact them ahead of time BEFORE beginning a grant, they can tell you if you might be a good candidate, and save you weeks, or potentially months of planning and preparation if ultimately your job does not fit the grant.

6. Beat the Deadline

If you are a procrastinator, make sure you give yourself a deadline well before the posted due date. If the grant is more complex, set up a timeline, when the letter of interest is due, when the proposal is due, and when any other accompanying information needs to be submitted. If you have trouble remembering, set up alerts through your phone or calendar. After putting in hours of work, don’t let all your hard efforts go to waste because you misjudged the amount of time it would take.

Grant writing is not easy. I won’t pretend that it’s a piece of cake. But with proper planning, attention to detail, and collaboration, anyone can be a successful grant writer – regardless of their background.

That being said, sometimes you just don’t have time. Grants require a lot of effort devoted to them if they are to be successful, and full-time workers cannot just stop what they are doing and focus solely on a grant.

If that is the case, do a simple cost-benefit analysis. Would reaching out to a grant advisor or grant specialist save you time and result in more money in the long run?  Better yet, what about writing a small grant to PAY for you to hire a grant specialist? These are often much less involved than the huge government grants and can offer a substantial amount of funding (just keep in mind that their availability may differ based on the project you are working on).

Whatever you do, just remember that funding is limited and so is the time of the people administering the money. Treat them well, and give them respect by submitting an outstanding proposal to show that you value their time and want to collaborate with them.

After that, you just need to be persistent. As the successful fundees in the beginning of this paper found, “If plan A doesn’t work, the alphabet has 25 more letters – 204 if you’re in Japan! (Claire Cook).”


  1. Mach, A. (2011, October 10). Christopher Columbus: Five things you thought you knew about the explorer. Retrieved from https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2011/1010/Christopher-Columbus-Five-things-you-thought-you-knew-about-the-explorer/MYTH-Queen-Isabella-of-Spain-sold-the-crown-jewels-to-pay-for-Columbus-s-voyage
  2. Entrepreneur Staff. (2011, August 25). Steve Jobs: An Extraordinary Career. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/197538
  3. Flood, A. (2015, March 24). JK Rowling says she received ‘loads?’ of rejections before Harry Potter success. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/24/jk-rowling-tells-fans-twitter-loads-rejections-before-harry-potter-success
  4. BBC News. (2017, August 4). JK Rowling world’s highest-earning author by Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-40825498


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