Grant Writing Tips for Libraries

By Sarah Keister Armstrong

Libraries of all types are looking to diversify their revenue sources, and grant writing is an oft-cited option for securing funding. But how can you – perhaps a grant writing novice with many other tasks on your plate – best prepare to methodically and effectively seek grant funding for your library?

A few simple tips can help you improve your library’s grant writing process and secure grant funding that makes sense for your organization.

Before you start:

1. Make sure your library is ready to apply for grants.

Grant writing – and grant management, if your application is successful – takes time. Do not expect the process to be an easy fix to fill a gap in your operating budget or add a boost of capital funding. No matter the quality of your grant applications, awards will not be given to weak programs or superfluous asks.

Ask yourself these questions and answer them honestly before diving into the grant writing process:

  • Does your program or service have a demonstrated track record of success? If it’s a new offering, can you clearly show rationale for its existence?
  • Has your library developed a thoughtful way to track its progress toward goals and improve its programs based on data?
  • Do you have the internal capacity to manage any grants that your organization may be awarded? Securing grant funding takes more than just writing an application. It also requires you to prove your ability to manage a grant from start to finish.

2. Apply for grants that align with your mission and what your library is doing, not the other way around.

“That sounds like something we could do…” This common refrain is a crux of many grant writers, especially those struggling to align available funding opportunities with what their organization would like to do or with audiences their library would like to target. Perhaps a funder only supports literacy programs for school-age children, which doesn’t quite match up with your goal of increasing your work with three- to five-year-olds. Should you change your program? Or find a different funding opportunity?

Repeatedly adjusting your work – or audiences, data collection tools, or staffing structures – to fit into the boxes defined by potential funders not only can complicate grant management, but also can diminish the effectiveness of the work you already do.

While you write your grant application:

3. Concisely communicate why your library matters to those you serve.

At a time when competition for corporate, foundation, and government grant funding is significant, it is easy to fall into a pattern of using your narrative to promote your library and the great benefits it is offering. However, it is essential that grant writers go beyond simple self-promotion and make the connection between an identified need, how your library is directly addressing that need, and why your library has the capacity to sustain its work in doing so.

4. Different funders require different narratives.

Just as you would not send the same cover letter to several prospective employers, you should not submit the same grant application to multiple funders. Of course, it’s likely that there will be sections and components of your applications that look the same. However, when discussing the needs your programs are meeting or how your organization’s work relates to the funder’s priorities, do not copy and paste the same responses every time.

Successful grant applications are ones that conscientiously communicate how a library’s work aligns with the funder’s mission, illustrate the library’s proven success in doing this type of work, and explain why a grant award will increase the organization’s capacity to continue to meet identified needs.

Explain why being a school, academic, public, or special library is important. Why is this particular funding opportunity of interest to you, and how can you connect what your library does with the funder’s priorities?

After receiving a funding decision:

5. Follow up and ask for feedback.

Do not shy away from negative reviews! If you hear from a funder, and it is not the news you were hoping for, respectfully ask for feedback. Great funders usually will provide thoughtful suggestions that will only help you improve for the next go-around. It is possible that your application was very close to meeting the funder’s criteria for award, and it is equally valuable to know if the funder is not a good fit to pursue in the future.

Happy writing!