To assemble a grant proposal, you need tools to organize the process, communicate with colleagues, and package and submit the proposal.
The tools listed below are ones you should consider adding to your toolkit. They range from ones that are necessary, to ones that are important, to a couple that are rarely needed but good to have on hand. Several of the tools have free options, so regardless of your budget, you should be able to access 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 proposal writers and managers. With Adobe Pro, you can convert file types such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint to a PDF, combine various file types into a single PDF, and edit PDFs (including scanned documents). While there is a subscription cost associated with Adobe Acrobat, it's worth the investment. Word documents often become unstable over time. Unless the funder explicitly asks for an application to be submitted as a Word document, you should always submit your proposals as PDFs. Not only are PDFs more stable than Word documents, but they also look more polished.
One of the major advantages of submitting a proposal as a PDF is that you don't need to worry about track changes appearing in the submitted copy. 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 and ensures that you don't share more than you intend.
Other useful features of Adobe Pro include the ability to convert PDFs 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. Wth Adobe Pro, you'll be able to convert the PDF into a Word document, make your edits, and then convert it back to a PDF for inclusion in the proposal. If the application requires signatures, you can add them using Adobe's document signing tool.
Adobe Acrobat Pro DC has the added benefit of being a Cloud-based option, allowing you to 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 with Microsoft Office already installed. If your nonprofit does not use Microsoft products, you should consider applying for Microsoft's software donation program. The program allows nonprofits located globally to apply for free access to Microsoft Office programs, including full versions of Word and Excel. In addition, the 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? While Google offers similar features for creating and storing documents, Microsoft is the standard software used across government agencies, small and large businesses, and nonprofits. When you're working on a proposal and collaborating with other nonprofits and external consultants, you want everything to be as 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. By choosing to go with Microsoft products, you'll be eliminating an area that could cause problems.
Perhaps the most important reason to use Microsoft Word over other 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 work from home during the evenings and weekends. This is especially true during a grant writing period. Purchasing Office 365 Home will allow you to work from home more easily. It will give you access to the latest Office products and reduce 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 proposal development a collaborative process, it's important to store the proposal where it can be accessed by all 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 organization isn't using Microsoft Office 365, access to SharePoint is a 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 access to individuals outside of your organization, you will need to assign them a temporary user account. You can limit the account permissions to the proposal site only (i.e., not you entire intranet) or even just a single document.
If your organization already uses SharePoint, it's a solid choice for team collaboration and document sharing. The one caveat to SharePoint is that it is not the most intuitive platform to use. 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 need a Google account to access and collaborate on a document. The downside of Google Docs is that not everyone is familiar with it, 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 proposal team members a heads up so they can begin to familiarize themselves with how it works.
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 useful to have, but not essential. Some of the tools, such as the Web-based communication system Skype, will be most useful if you are working with a proposal team that includes telecommuters.
The online note-taking tools Evernote and OneNote are helpful, but they're not essential if you have other systems in place (including SharePoint) to store proposal-related documents.
When you begin working on a grant proposal, usually it's necessary to complete some level of background research. You may need to research a geographic area, collect the names of organizations conducting projects in a particular community, or learn about the organizations/companies working in technical areas relevant to the proposal. If you don't know the donor well, you may also need to perform background research on the donor's interests and funding history so you can write a proposal targeted to the donor's interests. Your research may involve writing and/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 content 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 part of Microsoft Office. If you have Microsoft Office at work, OneNote is on your computer and ready to use.
If you choose Evernote, you will need to set up an account and either download the application to your computer or use the Web-based version. As a third-party offering, before you store any work-related materials to a personal Evernote account, you should first 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--no one at your organization would be able to access your work-related files.
Which one is better? Since the functionality is very similar, it comes down to user preference. Because of its notebook design, Evernote may 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. Evernote offers a free basic account. However, to access all features, you'll need the premium version, which costs $69.99/year.
Web Conferencing: Skype or Google Hangouts
If your organization has a lot of telecommuters, 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 your organization does not have Office 365, which includes Skype, 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 conference call using a landline. If your organization does not have a conference call service through a traditional carrier such as AT&T, FreeConferenceCalls.com is worth exploring. After signing up for an account, you receive a unique conference line number and pin to use for conference calls. In addition to standard audio calls, FreeConferenceCalls.com 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.
FreeConferenceCalls.com can be used internationally and offers local dial-in numbers for 58 countries. One of the best things about FreeConferenceCalls.com is that it allows every individual in your organization to set up her own dedicated conference line, which avoids the issue of having to share conference lines and worrying that colleagues may dial into your conference call should you 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 times when you need to scan and send a document by email or fax, you can turn to your smartphone for help.
An inexpensive option for scanning documents is to use 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. TurboScan costs about $3 and works with iPhones and Android. From the app, you can email the scanned document 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 like TurboScan can get the job done. To learn more about TurboScan's features, Engadget has a short article that explains what it does.
Even less likely to be used these days than a scanner is a fax machine. Should you run into a situation where you need to fax documents, and you are outside of the office, or if your office does not have 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 geckoandfly.com is a nice roundup of what is out there for iPhones, Android, and Windows phones. In terms of cost, faxing from your phone isn't free, but it's very affordable. You can fax a document for less than $1.