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Heather Stombaugh

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Five Lesser-Known Sources Every Grant Writer Should Use

Grant writers are, for the most part, voracious readers. Many of us regularly read the Chronicle of Philanthropy and CharityChannel articles (thank you). Some of us read the Journal of the Grant Professionals Association, GPA Strategy Papers, blogs by other grant writers and development professionals, books on grant writing, and e-newsletters galore. As professionals, we’re duty-bound to continuous education, especially those of us who have secured a coveted GPC or CFRE credential. Reading from these sources makes us and our profession stronger.

But grant writers are also mavens of qualitative and quantifiable evidence, and thankfully we’re blessed with more sources than my seven-year-old son has Hot Wheels. The philanthropic and nonprofit worlds are dynamic, and it’s incumbent upon us to explore all the high-quality sources available to us through government entities, books, grey/white sources, and (my personal favorite) peer-reviewed literature.

Government Entities

Grant writers use evidences from government entities frequently. We analyze, talk about, and sometimes even attend training sessions on how to use the websites of the Census Bureau, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes on Minority Health and Health Disparities, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Here are a handful of the less commonly referenced sources that can be invaluable to grant professionals.

  • Area Health Resources Files ( are “a family of health data resource products that draw from an extensive county-level database assembled annually from  over 50 sources.”
  • Clinical Trails ( offers “ a registry and results database of publicly and privately supported clinical studies of human participants conducted around the world.”
  • The Government Printing Office ( is “the Federal Government’s official, digital, secure resource for producing, procuring, cataloging, indexing, authenticating, disseminating, and preserving the official information products of the U.S. Government.”
  • The National Guideline Clearing House ( is “a public resource for evidence-based clinical practice guidelines.”
  • The Occupational Outlook Handbook ( is “ a publication of the   United States Department of Labor 's  Bureau of Labor Statistics   that includes information about the nature of work, working conditions, training and education, earnings, and job outlook for hundreds of different occupations.”
  • The USA Government site ( will help you expand your use of government sources. Visit for an A-Z listing of all government agencies.

White/Grey Sources

White papers, grey papers, and other digital research references are sources that are not peer-reviewed or controlled by publishing houses. Corporations, academic institutions, and major grant makers publish “grey lit” in a variety of forms. (Governments reports can technically be classified in this category, but it’s a big enough source to discussed separately.) Grey lit commonly includes: white papers, technical reports, fact sheets, committee reports, business documents, conference proceedings, working papers, newsletters, and unpublished works.

I’d like to add a cautionary note. Grant writers need to remember the factors we must consider when evaluating the quality of any source: accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency, coverage, and relevancy. Grant writers may find the following list of reputable white/grey sources useful in developing statements of need for proposals (if you don’t use these excellent sites already).


Here, I’m not talking about grant writing, prospecting, or management books. Instead, think about subject matter books on prison life and homelessness, on gardening and vermicomposting, on immigration and human trafficking, and so on. I encourage you to think about how you can translate what you read in your daily life as evidence that will enhance your grant writing.

Example #1

After a recent presentation for a Habitat for Humanity affiliate, the executive director handed me the book, A Simple, Decent Place to Live, by Millard Fuller. It’s a seminal piece of literature in the Habitat canon, one that sadly I have not yet read. As I’m working on new fundraising messaging for this affiliate, the insights I gained from this book will have the potential to yield significant financial results for the organization.

Example #2

In the early 2000s when I worked in HIV/AIDS, I read Love, Medicine, and Miracles, by Dr. Bernie Siegel. It covers the stories of people who use guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, humor, and other complementary forms of medicine to heal themselves. It had a profound effect on me because shortly after I read the book my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and found its messages a solace.

However, the book’s utility goes beyond the personal. Drawn from the peer-reviewed literature to construct a compelling narrative, its research base is a warehouse of information. The field of complementary/alternative medicine has advanced considerably with studies funded by the National Cancer Institutes and others since its publication in 1986. When I began working with a cancer support services organization in 2011, I reflected on my memory of the book to create emotionally compelling messages. I also used contemporary research findings to support my case.

Example #3

This is possibly the strangest one that I will offer for your consideration, but hear me out. I have a mini-farm, and I like to vermicompost (or use worms for composting). There’s a great book called, Worms Eat My Garbage, by Mary Appelhof. This book taught me everything I needed to know to keep my worms healthy, happy, and producing the best soil additive possible for free.

I bought it solely for personal use two years ago, but in 2013 I used it for a nonprofit client who had created an amazing greenhouse at its center for people with disabilities. Their greenhouse had everything a gardener like me could ever want, so much so I started taking notes. When we talked about compost, they had standard concerns about outdoor piles—the smell, the pests, etc. I mentioned vermicomposting as an option and gave him the name of the book.

Based on our conversation, the organization solicited and secured a donor to sponsor vermicomposters. That’s not only better for their clients in terms of management, but it will keep their greenhouse producing and smelling great all winter long.

I’m sure you have similar stories (and I’d love to hear them). And it all stems from my local library card, access to online bookstores, and friends who pass along good books. If like me you’re a total geek for this sort of thing, peruse the Library of Congress website on your lunch hour or day off—just set a timer.

Peer-Reviewed Literature

If you are not already familiar with it, get to know the PubMed site of the National Library of Medicine. It contains peer-reviewed papers (and white/grey sources) on health of course. But it is important to note that they also have resources on human services, social work, substance abuse, mental health, education, health promotion, public health, and homelessness. Frankly, just about anything related to health, human services, and education nonprofits - which represent the largest proportion of all nonprofits—is available here . Certainly, there are other useful databases for literature searching, but PubMed is free and contains links to free articles from some of the best journals on the planet, such as the Journal of the American Medical Association and New England Journal of Medicine.

So why should a grant writer care? In the medical literature alone, there are thousands of peer-reviewed articles published every month. PubMed and databases like it are goldmines for finding information pertaining to “best practice,” “leading edge,” “evidence-based,” and “insert additional grant writing buzzword here”—all of which will make your need statements sing.

PubMed is easy to use (just type keywords into the search bar on the main page), and the librarians in their call center are phenomenally helpful. They even offer a tutorial.


I have had the pleasure of knowing Rebecca Daniels, MLS, a medical librarian, as a friend and colleague for more than a decade. She is a font of information, and I owe her much for her training and literature search assistance over the years when I worked in research, as well as her help with these lists. I mention her both as a public shout out of gratitude and to guide you, dear reader, to possibly the best resource on this list: your local librarian.

There are amazing library scientists all over the country, and they’re waiting to help you. As I mentioned above, the National Library of Medicine librarians are exceptionally helpful and provide sound guidance. Plus, librarians know how to acquire those obscure articles you can’t get your fingers on.

So find a librarian to befriend. Take your librarian out for sushi (nods sagely to Becki) and pick his or her brain for the evidence you seek. I assure you, your librarian will know where to find it.

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