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From boring to brilliant: Using data for maximum impact

This is part two of Carolyn Owen's series on gathering and using data for grant proposals. Read part 1 here.

Data is a vital part of your grant application. It’s the link that turns a bunch of random declarations about the issue your nonprofit is addressing into a statement with weight and relevance. Data can illustrate the scope of the problem, the need for your program, and why it will be successful.

So how do you intertwine data in the proposal so that it supports and amplifies your cause rather than obfuscate it? Although I would not claim to be an expert, I’m happy to share what I’ve learned in close to 15 years of researching and compiling grant proposals.

Remember the data should be:

  • Recent, within the past 2 years if possible
  • As local as possible, relating to the community, city or state where your program is located
  • From a recognized, reputable source - a federal agency, well respected research group such as Annie Casey Foundation, or peer journal
  • Related to the need to be addressed by your program.

Begin by thinking about what you are addressing specific to this application. Start with the need and then find data to support your argument. For example, I recently wrote a grant that addressed childhood obesity. There is a wealth of information about this problem so finding recent data was easy. The funder was well versed in the issue, so my difficulty was how to present data so it supported the cause without “preaching to the choir.” In my example, it has been well established that childhood obesity is a problem; there isn’t a need to belabor that point or include a bunch of data to support that. A sentence or two reiterating that fact is sufficient. This is where local data is important – find data to demonstrate why this is a particularly pressing issue in your area. Are childhood obesity rates higher? Are there several risk factors prevalent?


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Use data that supports your specific ask and intervention or proposed program. Stay focused on supporting your program with the data rather than including tons of studies to give your proposal weight. It won’t, you will simply frustrate and confuse the reviewers. Again, using my example you could include data that shows how childhood obesity is linked to future health issues, or how physical activity has a positive effect on childhood obesity. You get the idea.

Use recent data if possible but if you find a study that is very relevant to your cause, or you cannot find any recent data, make exceptions. Older data is preferable to none.

You can use data to illustrate the past success of your program, reference other programs that have used your proposed model with success, or use data to support the intervention you are proposing.

Data don’ts:

  • Don’t include it for smoke and mirrors. More data doesn’t mean your proposal will be stronger.
  • Don’t forget to make the link between your need, program, etc. and the data; is it clear that it is related to and supports the program you are proposing?
  • Don’t use long sections of studies, edit it down to the pertinent points you need to support your proposal.
  • Don’t forget to include citations, either after the statement or as footnotes at the end.Here is a link to the University of Wisconsin Superior citation help list, including a link to the Purdue Owl, an excellent resource for all types of writing.

Finally, don't forget that the best grant proposals are a mixture of concrete data from reputable sources and examples from your organization's programming showcasing the impact you could be (or already are) making. Good luck in your grant search and proposal writing endeavors!

Carolyn Owens has 15 years of experience in grant writing and program development. She loves helping nonprofits attain their goals and brings the same determination and drive to grant writing that she uses when competing in triathlons.


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