15 Key Components of a Winning Grant Proposal

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May 8, 2022

Last Updated:

November 20, 2023

Grant writing can seem like a daunting task, and it’s easy to feel unsure about how to write a successful proposal. That’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive guide to help you!

In this article, we will share:

  • The components of a good grant proposal
  • How the different components are typically organized
  • What makes a successful proposal
  • An essential grant proposal checklist

Understanding each of these components of a grant proposal will help make the proposal writing process easier and increase your grant writing success.

Let’s get started!

10 Best Lessons from 10 Grant Writing Experts

How Are Grant Proposals Typically Structured?

So what does a grant proposal look like?

Most grant proposals are structured with general information coming first and more detailed facts coming later in the proposal.

While they vary, grant proposals typically follow this structure:

  • Project Title
  • Project Summary
  • Organization Background
  • Needs Statement
  • Project Narrative/Description
  • Budget and Budget Narrative
  • Goals and Objectives (evaluation plan may be included here or be a separate section)
  • Sustainability Plan

Many grantmakers also now use online portals for you to fill out your proposal. If this is the case, We recommend that you write out the different elements of your proposal in a Word document first for easier editing.

Pro Tip: Many of these online systems will have character/word limits for each question. You will need to make each of your responses fit within these limits.

If the grantmaker does not use an online application portal, they will usually provide a detailed Request for Proposal (RFP) that outlines how to organize your grant proposal. The RFP will detail page limits, specific sections, additional attachments, etc.

Here is an example RFP from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Student Science Enrichment Program that you can use for reference.

The 10 Nonnegotiable Components of Great Grant Proposals

Every grant proposal will be different in some ways. Each funder is unique and will have a specific set of guidelines that determine the specific format and direction of each grant proposal.

That being said, there are 10 non-negotiable components of great grant proposals that almost every single award-winning grant will include.

1. Executive Summary

First things first, a successful grant proposal will start out with an executive summary.

The goal of the executive summary is to immediately catch the reader’s attention and provide a brief overview of your proposal and why your organization deserves to be funded.

It can be incredibly challenging to summarize complex projects, programs, challenges, and societal problems, all while being concise and compelling.

Waiting to write your executive summary until the rest of your proposal is complete will help you be able to succinctly summarize the grant proposal in a way that compels and engages the reader.

2. Statement of Need

As noted above, the statement of need is vital to answering exactly why a program or organization deserves funding.

The most effective statements of need will convey urgency and communicate (with research!) how a need or issue is unmet in a specific community.

In the statement of need, you could cite reports, stories, studies, or data that gives context to the need and illustrates its severity.

3. Project Description

The project description is the core of the grant proposal.

The project description is where you explain your proposed project and detail its goals, projected results, and anticipated challenges.

This is the section where you can dive into the specifics of your project or program, including:

  • Your project timeline
  • A description of essential program activities
  • Anticipated challenges
  • Projected results

The project description is the heart of your proposal, so it’s important that you spend ample time developing it.

4. Goals and Objectives

While sometimes embedded in the project description, grant proposals will include a section for project goals and objectives. Regardless of the specific formatting, this is a core component of any successful proposal.

The goals and objectives section is where you get to detail to funders what you plan to accomplish with their grant funding.

A great rule of thumb for goal and objective setting is to adhere to SMART goal principles. SMART is an acronym that stands for:

  • Specific,
  • Measurable,
  • Achievable,
  • Relevant, and
  • Time-Limited.

For more insight on crafting compelling goals and objectives, check out this SMART goals workshop.

5. Budget

Including a project budget is a requirement for almost every single grant proposal.

Grantmakers expect you to be transparent and communicate openly about how funds will be spent if you receive the grant.

As with all other vital elements of a grant proposal, the budget can be different depending on the type of proposal, the funder’s guidelines and requirements, and the project or organization requesting funding.

For example, a general operating grant might require an overall organizational budget while a program or project grant will require a detailed budget specifically for the program in question.

A well-crafted grant budget illustrates transparency and also demonstrates that the project is well-thought-out.

6. Evaluation Plan

Hand in hand with program goals and objectives is a plan for evaluation.

An evaluation plan shows the funders that you are committed to measuring the impact or achieved outcomes of your proposed project.

Developing an evaluation plan communicates to funders that your organization is invested in the success of your programming and that you are willing to iterate and adapt based on feedback and results.

The method of evaluation will really depend on the specific program and grant guidelines, but you can check out this how-to evaluation guide for more insight.

7. Organizational Background

In addition to detailed information about the project, you will also want to provide an overview and background of your nonprofit organization in your proposal.

An organizational overview helps to familiarize grant funders with your nonprofit and connect them to your mission and vision.

The organizational background typically includes:

  • Brief organizational history
  • Mission statement
  • Organization structure
  • Organization values

For example, check out the language Women Employed uses on their website to provide a comprehensive background of the organization. Their “About Us” page helps new donors, supporters, and other stakeholders learn about their nonprofit and its impact.

Women Employed

8. Sustainability Plan

It is important to develop and communicate a plan for sustainability in your grant proposal.

A sustainability plan shows funders that your program or project will be viable even after the grant period has ended.

Funders want to know that they are investing in projects that will have a lasting impact in their communities. Make sure you can communicate to funders how you plan to keep your proposed project sustainable so that your organization can serve people for many years into the future.

Your sustainability plan will look different depending on the goals and objectives of your project, the type of work your nonprofit does, and the grant’s guidelines.

9. Partnerships and Collaborations

If your nonprofit has partnerships and collaborators for your proposed project, you should definitely include these in your grant proposal.

Partnerships indicate to funders that there are other entities that are invested in the success of your project and/or are integral to carrying out the project’s activities.

Examples of partnerships or collaborations could be:

  • Government agencies
  • Corporations
  • Private or family foundations
  • Community centers
  • Other nonprofits

Make sure to highlight which partnerships are most integral to the grant proposal and its success.

10. Appendices and Supporting Documents

Last but not least is the inclusion of appendices and supporting documents.

This will vary depending on the requirements of the specific grant. For example, a very complex federal grant will likely have lengthy appendices with several auxiliary documents and citations.

Other grant proposals will ask for very specific supporting documents, such as:

Some grant proposals allow for extra components to supplement the required sections of the proposal. We will dive into additional components that will help your proposal stand out in the next section.

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3 Extra Components to Make Your Grant Application Stand Out

There are several additions you can make to a grant proposal to help it really stand out to funders. Most grant opportunities are very competitive so it’s important to present the most comprehensive and engaging proposal you can.

The following are extra components of a grant proposal that will help you really catch the eye of your reviewer!


Testimonials or first-person participant stories are an incredibly effective way to illustrate the impact and efficacy of your program.

While numerical data is important to funders, stories and personal accounts are what tie everything together and really connect the funders to your mission.

While a funder can understand that your program has a major impact on the community, if you serve 500 people a year, they will better understand the depth and importance of your work through individual stories.

For some powerful examples, visit Habitat for Humanity’s website and review their most recent annual report. Throughout the report, they utilize participant testimonies to underscore the critical need for housing across the globe.

Habitat for Humanity

When using first-person accounts, always make certain to obtain participants’ full consent to publish their stories, names, and any other identifiable information. Their dignity and privacy should be protected and respected.

Multimedia Elements

Multimedia elements, particularly videos or photos, can be great additions to a grant proposal to strengthen it.

Multimedia gives funders the opportunity to truly see where their dollars will be going and how they will make an impact.

If possible, within the guidelines and required formatting, embedding multimedia elements into a grant proposal can help break up dense paragraphs, making the document more readable and more engaging for readers.

Detailed Risk Assessment

Every nonprofit has its challenges and needs to be prepared for emerging risks or crises.

The best way to prepare for these challenges is by developing a comprehensive risk assessment. A risk assessment identifies potential issues that may occur, the likelihood that they may occur, and how the nonprofit will respond if they do.

This would be an appropriate addition to a grant proposal for major projects such as a significant capital project or government partnership. It would not necessarily be appropriate to include a detailed risk assessment for a small, one-time project grant.

Work with your team to identify when a risk assessment is appropriate.

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Optional Components to Include

At the end of the day, every grant proposal will be unique based on:

  • Your organization and the type of work it does
  • The intent of the project that requires funding
  • And any requirements and guidelines from the grantmaking organization.

The following are two optional components that could further strengthen your grant proposal.

1. Pilot Project Results

Programs just beginning and that are in the experimental stages are known as pilot programs
. Pilot programs are a perfect way to try out innovative processes and strategies on a trial basis.

Because pilot projects are consistently iterating based on feedback, assessments, and analysis, their results are not as cut and dry as a typical program with a proven track record.

That being said, reporting even small achievements and progress can give the funders a snapshot of where the program could be headed and encourage them to continue funding it to support the project over the long term.

2. Supplementary Research

Evidence is vital to the strength of a grant proposal

While including information from reputable studies, reports, and articles is crucial to the development of a successful proposal, you do not want to bog down the core sections of the grant proposal with detailed research and auxiliary information.

However, including supplement research in the appendices or at the tail end of the grant proposal can help undergird what you have already established in the previous sections.

Essential Grant Checklist to Outline Winning Proposals

To review, we are going to leave you with an essential grant checklist to outline a winning proposal.

As a reminder, the nonnegotiable components of a grant proposal are:

  • Executive Summary
  • Statement of Need
  • Project Description
  • Goals and Objectives
  • Budget
  • Evaluation Plan
  • Organizational Plan
  • Sustainability Plan
  • Partnerships and Collaborations
  • Appendices and Supporting Documents

The extra components to make your proposal really stand out:

  • Testimonials
  • Multimedia Elements
  • Detailed Risk Assessment

And optional components to include depending on the intended objectives for your project:

  • Pilot Project Results
  • Supplementary Research

To continue learning how to write a winning grant application, learn how to mine a funder’s insights using their 990 forms. This skill will give you an edge in making your application stand out.

Instrumentl team

Instrumentl team

Instrumentl is the all-in-one grant management tool for nonprofits and consultants who want to find and win more grants without the stress of juggling grant work through disparate tools and sticky notes.

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