Grant Writing for Newbies, Pt. 5: How to Cite Your Grant Application’s (Many) Sources

In the dozens of grant solicitations I’ve read and responded to, I have never seen the following sentence:

“Cite all sources in MLA/APA/Chicago/AP style.”

Although I’ve never seen an RFA that requests a particular citation style, I have seen many which explicitly state that you must cite all of your sources.

You may ask yourself: “But what if a particular RFA doesn’t say that I have to cite my sources? Is it time to go bananas, throwing all citations to the wind as I roll—carefree—along the highway of zero accountability??”


No, even if the RFA doesn’t tell you to cite your sources, you must absolutely cite every single piece of information in the grant that is not coming directly from your nonprofit.

You may ask yourself: “OK, but the RFA doesn’t tell me what citation style to use! What do I do? I need guidelines!”


I felt exactly the same way at first. I just wanted the application instructions to give me clear guidance, such as: “Explain the need in the community. Cite all sources in APA style with a reference list attached.”

Recently, however, I’ve come to see the lack of clear direction for the citation style as, well, slightly liberating. If I’m writing a 1,000-character needs statement, I can (and should) choose to truncate my citations to save valuable space for all of the narrative I’m going to cram in. I’m not going to include a full APA citation with its long, tedious Digital Object Identifier (DOI). (If you don’t know what a DOI is, just know that it isn’t important for grants.)

Here’s what to do:

audience-auditorium-business-758976.jpgConsider your audience. If you’re writing an application to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), use loose APA style for your citations. The reviewers will be familiar with this style as it is widely used in the fields of human services, psychology, and social work.

When I have control over the format of the grant narrative, such as in a Word Document that will ultimately be converted to a PDF, I use footnotes (taking care to abbreviate as much as possible).

Footnote Examples:

  1. Census Bureau. 2012-16 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.
  2. Felitti, V.J., et al. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse & household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. Amer. Journ. Prev. Med., 14(4): 245-58.


When I don’t have control over the format, such as in a web form that just lets me copy/paste the final narrative in, I use modified in-text citations. The important thing to remember about these in-text citations is that there will be no Works Cited/References List page. Therefore, you need to include just enough information in the in-text citation to tell the reader where you got the information.

In-Text Examples:

  • Text text text (2012-16 American Community Survey [ACS]). Text text text (2012-16 ACS).
  • Text text (Felitti et al., “Relationship of childhood abuse & household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults”). Text text (Felitti et al.)


Any other ideas for grant citation goodness?


Grant Writing for Newbies, Part 4: Representing Community Need

The Statement of Need is often the first component of the grant application. The prompt will be something like this:

Describe the population the proposed project will serve. Document the extent of community need for the proposed project or service. Cite all sources.

This is your opportunity to tell your story, and make a strong case for the importance of your project to the community you will serve.

Examples of data you might include in the Needs Statement:

  • Demographic information about the target population (e.g., age, sex, ethnicity, income level, educational attainment, housing characteristics, primary industries)
  • Geographic profile of the target community: Is your area of focus isolated from key resources because of its remote, rural location? What are the transportation options available to residents? Is transportation reliable and accessible for low-income residents?
  • Environmental characteristics: Is the target area highly polluted? Are sufficient resources devoted to alleviating pollution? (If not, your project plan should describe how you will address this need.)

Great sources for some of the above data:

What are your favorite sources of data for the Needs Statement?

Grant Writing for Newbies, Part 3: How Do I Start Applying for Grants?

(Part 1 & Part 2 of this guide)

Before I started working on grants, the process of creating a proposal seemed like some kind of impenetrable alchemy marked only by acronyms (RFP, FOA, LOI, RFA, NOFA, and the list goes on). If you haven’t already, see Part 2 of this guide: my overview of nonprofit acronyms.

Fotunately, the following basic grantseeking map applies to a wide variety of grant projects. As a nonprofit planning to apply for a grant, follow these basic steps:

1) Clearly identify your project and determine your funding needs.


The most important step in the process is figuring out what exactly you need the money for. What are you going to use the grant to accomplish? Don’t make the mistake of finding a funding source’s Request for Proposals (RFP) and designing a project only to get the grant. Your project should be something that meets a true need in your community and furthers your nonprofit’s mission.

If your mission is to enhance the wellbeing of low-income families by providing free assistance to small businesses, it wouldn’t make sense for you to apply for a grant to teach toddlers how to swim. While that project might meet a need in the community, it doesn’t align with your mission. Applying for grants that don’t fit your organization’s goals takes resources away from your true purpose.

Stick to applying for projects for which you have both appropriate expertise and an interest in sustaining for a significant amount of time.
Litmus test: If you aren’t sure if a project you’re developing fits with your mission, ask yourself, “Would we be planning to do this if it weren’t for this funding opportunity?” If the answer is no, don’t apply for the grant.

2) Research potential funders whose goals align with those of your project.


  • Google is helpful for very general searches for both foundations and government agencies offering grants. After Google returns a broad list of options (for example, a search for “Minneapolis” and “grants” returns the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Minneapolis Foundation), you can further investigate each possible funder to determine its criteria and priorities for funding.
  • is the holy grail of federal grant announcements. Individual states have their own websites for state-specific funding opportunities.
  • Foundation Center lets you search for private foundations. When researching a private foundation, get a copy of its public Form 990 (a tax return, which lists its grantees). Find foundations whose 990s show grants to nonprofits similar to your own.

3) Contact the funder to determine if your goals are truly in alignment and receive clarification on the application process.


Make sure to read the RFP thoroughly first!

4) Develop and refine a detailed project plan (a.k.a. the grant application).


The great thing about grant applications is that they are detailed maps of your project. If funded, the grant application will be your guide to complete the project activities and achieve your goals.

5) Submit the application. If funded, collect detailed project data for reports to the funder (and for your nonprofit’s own improvement). If your project is not funded, contact the funding source for feedback.


An unsuccessful grant application is never a total loss. Every proposal is a learning opportunity. Feedback from grant reviewers (whether they are government peer reviewers or officers of a private foundation) is incredibly valuable information that should inform your future applications to the funding source. It is therefore completely appropriate to contact the funder to ask for specific feedback on your application.

Some funding sources will automatically send you feedback on your proposal once the successful applicants have been announced. These are often government agencies, which announce awardees because grants funded with public money are public information. The Administration for Community Living, for instance, is wonderfully transparent with feedback, and will likely send you a grid outlining each section of your proposal (Needs Statement, Budget, and so on) with individual reviewers’ pros and cons for each area.

For private funders, you may need to reach out to the program officer you’ve been in communication with in order to receive specific feedback on your unsuccessful application. Wait until you receive the rejection, and then politely inquire about feedback.

Grant Writing for Newbies, Part 2: Nonprofit Alphabet Soup

  • AFP – Association of Fundraising Professionals (a group for Grant Writers, Directors of Development, and other advancement employees)
  • CBO – Community-Based Organization (a nongovernmental nonprofit agency eligible to apply for grants)
  • CDBG – Community Development Block Grant (these grants are typically awarded annually by cities across the country)
  • CFRE – Certified Fundraising Executive (a certification for development employees)
  • DAF – Donor-Advised Fund (an account into which individuals make charitable contributions and receive instant tax benefits; over time, the donor suggests potential grantees)
  • FBO – Faith-Based Organization (e.g., a church)
  • FOA – Funding Opportunity Announcement (essentially the same as an RFA; see below)
  • GPC – Grant Professional Certified (another certification for fundraisers)
  • LOC – Letter of Commitment (a letter signed by one of your partners in a grant application; outlines the partner’s role if the grant is awarded)
  • LOI – Letter of Intent (some funders require you to send them this before they invite you to submit a full grant application; it is essentially the Reader’s Digest version of your proposed project)
  • LOS – Letter of Support (a letter from another agency or person expressing enthusiasm for your grant application)
  • MOU – Memorandum of Understanding (a formal agreement between two parties)
  • NOFA – Notice of Funding Availability (essentially the same as an RFA; see below)
  • NOFO – Notice of Funding Opportunity (essentially the same as an RFA; see below)
  • PD – Project Director (an employee of your organization in charge of the day-to-day management of a grant, should it be awarded)
  • RFA – Request for Applications (funding sources release this document to request proposals from grantseekers; it outlines the requirements of all proposals)
  • RFP – Request for Proposals (essentially the same as an RFA)

Grant Writing for Newbies, Part 1: What is Grant Writing?

Q: OK, what is grant writing?

Long before I started working on grants, I would occasionally hear of the nebulous field of “grant writing.” I thought it meant, basically, writing checks to nonprofits. I imagined a “grant writer” from a big foundation writing a check and a contract for a nonprofit and calling that a grant. Naturally, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

“Grant writing” is actually a bit of a misnomer (for more information and a snazzy pie chart, see: Most of Grant Writing Is Not Writing: My Process). Perhaps a more accurate term would be “grant application writing” or “grant project development.” Essentially, grant writing is a nonprofit’s process of designing, revising, and proposing a future project to a funder.

Some examples of grant applications include:

  • A project to teach local children to swim (funding would be used to hire a full-time instructor and rent pool space at a gym)
  • A project to spay and neuter local cats (funding would be used to pay a veterinarian)
  • A project to improve literacy rates in Oregon (we’re asking for funding to pay teachers to work with children at local community centers and after-school programs)

It’s important to note that grant applications are definitely not always for new projects. Many nonprofits ask for funding to maintain or expand existing programs that have a track record of success.

Q: Who can apply for grants?

In almost every case, applicants for U.S. grants are required to be 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit organizations.

See you in Part 2!

A Grant Writer’s Tale: Learning Not to Bombard Funders with Tragedy

Step into my mind:

1: OK, grant proposals don’t fund themselves. To the Needs Statement: let’s see what the Annie E. Casey Foundation has to say about this.

2: Statistics, data, information! What a fantastic way to represent the needs of my current census-designated place! Funders, can you believe that 98% of homes in my city are not weatherized, 12% of women are below the poverty line, and 78% of cats can’t use treadmills?

3: Can I include infographics?

4: I am definitely including infographics.

5: I am now using the term “Data Visualization” in regular conversation.

6: I have a Tableau account, and I update it regularly. I dream of including pie charts in all grant applications.

7: I have to paint the grittiest, most data-ridden picture there is, because don’t funders want to see that your nonprofit is meeting a dire need? There’s no room for subtlety, is there?

8: Or is too much tragedy without clear, promptly presented solutions just a statistically significant bummer to most donors/people?

So that’s where I am right now. I’ve been learning to pull back from burying people in data, especially multiple devastating facts one after another. When I need to do this, I make sure to present a solution, to explain how my nonprofit can fix the problems. What I’ve realized is that compassion fatigue is not a character flaw, but a fact of life that nonprofiteers need to combat gently.

Most of Grant Writing Is Not Writing: My Process

The term “grant writing” is a bit of a misnomer, as it makes the process of developing a grant application sound limited to typing up a draft. In reality, crafting a grant proposal is a complex process that involves many steps before real writing takes place.

Here’s my process:

Continue reading “Most of Grant Writing Is Not Writing: My Process”