How to Write a Winning Grant Proposal

Image shows three people looking at a white board with a list on it. Text reads: "The most common sections of grant proposals: 1) cover letter 2) executive summary 3) need statement 4) methods, strategies, or program design 6) evaluation section 7) other funding or sustainability 8) information about your organization 9) project budget"

Image by Maddy Price © The Balance 2019

Although grant proposals are far from a slam dunk or an answer to a funding emergency, they do have a role to play in supporting most charities. How much depends on your overall goals and existing basket of income.

Some charities rely heavily on grants; others do not at all. Most charities try not to rely totally on grants simply because they are time-bound and limited in scope. Also, applying for grants requires expertise and time.

Grants, to be successful, should be part of your overall fundraising plan, have a calendar, and a dedicated grant writer, either on staff or contracted.

Grants come from a variety of sources such as a foundation, a corporation or a government agency, but most require similar information. There are also at least three different types of proposals, ranging from a letter to a full-blown proposal.

Here are the most common sections of grant proposals, and the information you should include. Even if the proposal you write is not the standard proposal, you will likely need much of the information that does make up the full proposal, but in an abbreviated form.  

Cover Letter

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Although you will write your cover letter last, don't give it short shrift. Think of it as the front porch of your grant proposal. How the funder feels about your nonprofit depends on this first impression.

You'll want to address your letter to a particular person, briefly state what your proposal asks for, and summarize your program. Keep in mind that this will be your first opportunity to connect with the people who can fund your grant. Make them care about your mission.

Executive Summary

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The executive summary comes after your cover letter. It helps the grantor to understand at a glance what you are asking. The summary can be as short as a couple of sentences, but no longer than one page. Aim to be complete but brief. The summary gives a taste of the proposal to come and should entice the reader to keep going. 

Need Statement

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The statement of need is the meat of your grant proposal. You must convince the funder that what you propose to do is essential and that your organization is the right one to do it.

Never assume that the reader of your summary knows much of anything about the issue. Use your expertise to explain it, but make it simple to understand.

Don't fall victim to the curse of knowledge. Remember what it's like to be a novice and write your need statement accordingly. Explain why the issue is essential, and what research you did to learn about possible solutions.

Goals and Objectives

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Your goals and objectives explain what your organization plans to do about the problem. State what you hope to accomplish with the project (goals) and spell out the specific results (objectives) you expect to achieve. Think of goals as general outcomes and objectives as the particular steps you'll take to get to those outcomes. Brush up on SMART objectives.

Methods, Strategies or Program Design

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Walk the grantor through exactly HOW you will achieve the goals and objectives you've set out earlier. You may be required to provide a logic model in this section which explains graphically just how the parts of your proposal work together to achieve what you hope to accomplish. Be as detailed as you can with a timeline and specifics about who will do what and when.

Evaluation Section

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How will you assess your program's accomplishments? Funders want to know that their dollars had an impact. So decide now how you will evaluate the outcomes of your project.

Include what records you will keep or data you will collect, and how you will use that data. If the data collection costs money, be sure to include that cost in your budget. Many organizations hire an outside evaluator to get an objective assessment.

Other Funding or Sustainability

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Have you received funding from other sources? Or have you asked other sources? Most funders, such as foundations, do not wish to be the sole source of support for a project. Be sure to mention in-kind contributions you expect, such as meeting space or equipment. Is this a pilot project with a limited timeline? Or will it go into the future? If so, how do you plan to keep funding it? Is it sustainable over the long haul?

Information About Your Organization

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In a few paragraphs explain why the funder can trust you to use its funds responsibly and efficiently. Give a short history of your organization, state your mission, the population you serve and provide an overview of your track record. Describe or list your programs.

Be complete in this part of your proposal even if you know the funder or have gotten grants from this organization before. Never take for granted that the person reading this proposal knows your history.

Project Budget

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How much will your project cost? Attach a short budget showing expected expenses and income. The expenses portion should include personnel costs, direct project costs, and administrative or overhead expenses. Income should include earned income and contributed income such as donations.

Additional Materials

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Funders are likely to want to see the following:

  • IRS letter proving that your organization is tax-exempt.
  • List of your board of directors and their affiliations.
  • A budget for your current fiscal year.
  • The budget for your next fiscal year if you are within a few months of that new year.

Putting it All Together

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If you're submitting a proposal by mail, put everything together with your cover sheet and a cover letter.

You may need to have your CEO and the Board President sign the cover sheet or letter. You do not need a fancy binder, but it should all be neatly typed and free of errors. Online grant applications have become quite popular with many funders. But take equal care with those as well.

The most comprehensive collection of grant samples may be at Grants Space by Candid. It has downloadable sample grant proposals, cover letters and more.