Affordable Tools Every Grant Writer Should Have

To assemble a grant proposal, even if your organization is small and most grant applications you submit are short, you'll still need some tools to organize the process, communicate with colleagues, and package and submit the proposal. The tools below are ones you should consider adding to your toolkit. They range from those that are necessary, to ones that are important, to finally a couple that are rarely needed but are good to have on hand. Many of the tools have free options so regardless of your budget size, you should be able to afford everything you need to prepare and submit a proposal.

Tier 1: The "Must Haves"

The tools under this first tier are ones that are pretty much non-negotiable when it comes to preparing proposals. The tools cover word processing, online storage, document sharing/collaboration, and PDF creation and editing.

Adobe Acrobat  ($14.99 USD/mo. billed annually at $179.88 USD/year)

Being able to create and edit PDFs (aka Portable Document Format) is essential for grant proposal writers and managers. Among the things you can do with Adobe Acrobat includes converting other files types (Word, Excel, PowerPoints, images) to PDFs; the ability to combine various file types into a single PDF file, and edit PDFs created from converted files or scanned documents. While there is a subscription cost associated with Adobe Acrobat, it's worth the investment. Word documents can be unstable. Unless the funder explicitly asks for an application to be submitted as a Word document, you should submit as a PDF to ensure that what you intend the funder to see is actually what they'll see. 

In a PDF, text boxes and images will stay put and you don't have to worry about track changes showing up.

With Word files, unless you remember to accept all the track changes, when you send a Word file there's a risk not only that the track changes will still be in the document, but also, when the funder opens the file for the first time, the track changes may be the first thing the funder sees. Forgetting to remove track changes from a document is easy to do. Making it a habit to submit all grant proposals as PDFs adds a layer of protection, ensuring that you don't share more than you intend. An additional plus with using Adobe Acrobat is that PDFs have a more polished look than Word documents and will make your application look more professional. 

Other useful features that are part of Adobe Acrobat  include the ability to convert Adobe Acrobat files into other file types such as Word. This feature can be helpful when you are collaborating with others and receive something such as an organizational chart as a PDF file and need to make changes to it. Wth Adobe Acrobat, you'll be able to convert the PDF into a Word document, make your edits, and then convert it back to PDF for inclusion in the proposal. If the application requires signatures, you can add them using Adobe Acrobat's document signing tool. 

Adobe Acrobat Pro DC has the added benefit of being a Cloud-based option so you can access your documents across devices. 

Microsoft Office (Microsoft for Nonprofit plans; Office 365 Home, $99.99 USD/annually for 5 PCs or Macs, 5 tablets, and 5 phones)

Most large nonprofit organizations will provide employees with a computer for work purposes that already has Microsoft Office installed.  If your nonprofit does not already use Microsoft products, you should consider applying for Microsoft's software donation program which allows nonprofits located globally to apply for free access to Microsoft Office programs including full versions of Word and Excel. In addition, donated software includes SharePoint sites, 1T of storage per user, and the ability to hold unlimited HD video and web conferencing. If your organization does not qualify for the donated software program, or if your organization wants the option to use Microsoft tools and features not included in the free package, you can explore one of the paid nonprofit plans. Microsoft offers a range of packages that vary in price from $2 USD/mo. per user to $10 USD/mo. per user. 

Why use Microsoft Office over free options such as Google Docs (for document creation) and Google Hangouts (for video)? While Google offers similar features for creating and storing documents and holding video conferences, Microsoft is the standard software used across government agencies, small and large businesses and corporations, and nonprofits. Most of us first learned how to create electronic files using Microsoft programs. When you're working on a proposal and collaborating with other nonprofits and possibly external consultants, you want everything to be seamless as possible. One way to minimize potential technology issues is to use software that most people are familiar with and comfortable using. While similar, Google Docs and Microsoft Word are different. There will be a learning curve for anyone moving from Word to Google Docs. Every proposal is going to have its curve balls, its unexpected, last-minute crises. By choosing to go with Microsoft products, you'll be eliminating an area that could cause problems.

Perhaps the most important reason to use Word over other word processing options is that the majority of donors require grant applications to be submitted as Word documents. In fact, if you submit to a grant proposal to a U.S. government agency, the agency may even specify which version of Word is permissible.

If you are using Microsoft at work, you'll want it on your home computer too. Most of us need to work from home during the evenings and weekends at least occasionally, and that's especially true during a grant writing period. Purchasing Office 365 Home allows you to work from home more easily, reducing the potential for last-minute problems when you're making final edits and submitting a grant proposal over the weekend.

Collaborative Work Spaces: Microsoft SharePoint or other Shared Workspace

To make collaboration on a proposal easier, it's important to store proposal drafts somewhere, either on an intranet or a Cloud-based storage site, that's accessible to all proposal team members. For proposal teams that include telecommuters or external partners, a Cloud-based system is the way to go.

SharePoint is included as part of the nonprofit bundle offered by Microsoft. If your nonprofit doesn't use Microsoft Office 365 yet, access to SharePoint is one more reason to consider getting it. SharePoint is an online workspace that provides a central place to store documents, communicate with team members, and create proposal planning tools such as a proposal calendar and task list. It's also possible to create and edit Word and Excel documents from within SharePoint.

SharePoint works best for internal teams where everyone already has access to the organization's intranet.  To give SharePoint site access to individuals outside of your organization, you will need to assign them a temporary user account. You can limit the account permissions so external users can access only the proposal SharePoint site (not you entire intranet) or even just a single document. 

Depending on the organization, assigning user accounts can take a few hours to a few days. To make sure that external partners have access to the SharePoint site early in the proposal process, you'll want to request the accounts as soon as possible. Although getting accounts established for external collaborators can be a little bit of a hassle, if your organization already uses SharePoint, it's a solid choice for proposal team collaboration and document sharing. SharePoint isn't the most intuitive platform. If you do decide to use it, it's advisable to learn about its main features prior to the beginning of the proposal process. 

If you don't have access to SharePoint, you can use Google Docs to store, share, and collaborate on proposal documents. An advantage of Google Docs over SharePoint is that it is free. Additionally, you don't have to have a Google account to access and collaborate on a document. However, not everyone is familiar with Google Docs so there will be, just like with SharePoint, a bit of a learning curve. If you know in advance that you'll be using Google Docs as your shared workspace, you'll want to give your team members a heads up so they can begin to acquaint themselves with how it works and set up a Google account if they choose.

If you intend to use external, Cloud-based storage option like Google Docs, check with your organization's IT staff first to make sure it is allowable under your organization's security policies. 

Tier 2: The "Good to Haves"

The tools in this second tier are ones that are useful to have but are not essential. Some of the tools, such as the Web-based communication system Skype, will be most useful for you if you are working with a proposal team whose members are based in multiple locations. The online note taking tools Evernote and OneNote are helpful, but they're not essential to have if you use other systems (including SharePoint) to store proposal-related documents.

Digital Notebooks: Evernote/OneNote

When you are starting a grant proposal, you'll probably need to complete some level of background research. You may need to research a geographic area, the names of organizations conducting projects in a particular community, or organizations/companies working in technical areas relevant to the proposal. If you don't know the donor well, you may also need to do background research on the donor's interests and funding history so you can write a proposal targeted to its interests. Your research may involve preparing or saving Word documents, PDFs, and webpages. In the digital age, digital content requires electronic storage options. A useful storage option is a digital notebook system where you can collect ideas and documents and share the results of your research with other team members.

Two digital notebook options are Evernote or Microsoft OneNote. Evernote and OneNote are more similar than they are different.. Both are digital notebooks that allow you to save notes, webpages, photos, and documents as well as voice recordings. Both allow syncing of notes across multiple devices. They both allow sharing of notes. They do the same things, just a little differently.

OneNote is integrated into Microsoft Office. If you have Microsoft Office at work, OneNote is probably already on your computer and ready to use. With OneNote there's no new software to download if you're a Microsoft Office user and you won't need to create another account as OneNote works with your existing Microsoft account.

Evernote has the same functionality as OneNote but it will require you to set up a new account. As a third-party offering, before you store any work-related materials to Evernote you should confirm that it is okay to do so under your organization's IT security policies. The issue with using third-party applications is that if something were to happen to you--let's say you're out sick for a long period--no one at the organization would be able to access your work-related files. Because of these security issues, it's possible that OneNote may be your only option for a digital notebook at work. Since OneNote is part of Microsoft Office, your organization's IT staff will be able to administer the account and ensure its security.

Which one is better? Since the functionality is very similar, it comes down to user preference. For many users, Evernote will feel more intuitive than OneNote. On the other hand, OneNote seamlessly integrates with Outlook and other Microsoft products. If you are already using Outlook and OneDrive, OneNote will bring a new level of functionality to your work within the Microsoft environment. The other advantage of OneNote is that it's free with your Microsoft Office license. While Evernote offer a free basic account for its digital notebook, you'll need to pay $69.99/year to get the premium  version of Evernote that has all of the features that are standard in OneNote.

Web Conferencing: Skype or Google Hangouts

If your organization has a lot of telecommuters and regularly works with external consultants or partners, or if you frequently travel for work, you'll want a Skype account or something similar such as Google Hangouts. Skype, another member of the Microsoft family, allows you to make free calls to other Skype users, hold group video calls, instant message other users, and screen share. You can also call landlines and mobile phones via Skype at affordable rates. If you have a business or nonprofit account with Microsoft, you'll have access to Skype through your work account login.

If your organization does not have Office 365, you could consider setting up a personal Skype account to make work-related audio and video calls. If you don't use Microsoft products, you can find similar features, including the ability to do group video calls and screen sharing, with Google Hangouts. Like Skype, with Google Hangouts you can call other Google Hangout users for free and call landlines and mobile phones at reasonable rates.

While similar, an advantage of Skype over Google Hangouts is how easy it is to set up a Skype meeting if you have an Outlook account. To do this, all you need to do is click "Skype Meeting" on the top menu bar when you are scheduling the meeting and Outlook will embed a unique Skype link into the email invitation. When it comes time for the meeting, meeting attendees click the Skype link in the invitation to join the call. Once the Skye call begins, attendees are able to share their screens and use instant messaging during the call to distribute documents or hold side conversations.

Sometimes the easiest way to bring people together and reduce potential technology mishaps is to set up a regular conference call using a landline. If your organization does not have a conference call service through a traditional telecommunications carrier such as AT&T, is worth exploring. After signing up for an account, you receive a unique conference line number and pin that you can use for conference calls. In addition to standard audio calls, also offers video conferences and online meetings. Most of the service's features are free but some features, such as reserving an 800-number, are premium offerings and require a subscription. can be used internationally and offers local dial-in numbers for 58 countries. is something every nonprofit should know about it. One of the best things about it is that it allows every individual in your organization to set up her own dedicated conference line, which means an end to sharing conference lines and worrying about your colleagues dialing into your conference call if you should go over time.

Tier 3: The "Nice to Haves"

Even in today's increasingly digital world, occasionally you have to deal with paper. Fortunately, for those (few) times when you need to scan and then send a document by email or fax, you can turn to your smartphone for help. There are smartphone apps that make owning a separate scanner or fax machine obsolete.


An inexpensive option for scanning documents is to use your phone to scan the documents and send them via email from your phone. While you can use your phone's camera to take photos of documents, you'll get higher quality results by using a dedicated app for the purpose such as TurboScan. With TurboScan, which costs about $3 USD and works with iPhones and Android, you have the option of taking a single photo or having the app take three consecutive photos, which it then merges into a higher quality image. From the app, you can email the document to yourself or to someone else as an image file or a PDF. The app will also store a copy of the document for you. Since a phone app is a third party application, it's best to use it sparingly for business purposes. However in a pinch, or if your office cannot afford to purchase a scanner, an app on your phone can get the job done. To learn more about TurboScan's features, Engadget has a short article that explains what it does.

Fax options 

Even less likely to be used these days than a scanner is a fax machine. Still, you may run into situations where you need to fax documents..If you are outside of the office and need to fax a document, or if your office does not want to purchase a fax machine, using your phone to fax a document is the solution. There are several apps to chose from. For suggestions on which app to choose, this article on is a nice roundup of what is out there. It reviews apps that can be used with iPhones, Android, and Windows phones. Faxing from your phone isn't free, but it's very affordable (you can fax a document for less than $1 USD) and far more affordable than purchasing a fax machine for the rare times you'll need one.