Grant Writing Basics, 11 Things You Need to Know

There are many grant writing courses available as well as many resources for grant writing. In this article, we'll discuss grant writing basics and tips for becoming a grant writer. We'll walk through some grant writing best practices and help you understand what to know at various stages of the grant writing process.

These tips will help increase your understanding of grant writing for nonprofits and improve your odds of success. If you're new to grant writing or are looking for ways to improve this skillset, then continue reading.

What are the Basics of Grant Writing?

The goal of grant writing is to secure funding for your organization through grants, often awarded for a specific project or program. A key part of grant writing basics is the ability to demonstrate your passion for the work of your nonprofit and to share that passion with the grantmaker.

Grantmakers want to know that they are making a difference with their funds, so it’s important to show them the impact that your work will have.

Almost any grant writing course that you find will tell you that grant writing is a form of storytelling. Think of it like selling your nonprofit and the project that you have planned to someone who has no knowledge of your organization.

Even if you are applying to a funder that you have a relationship with, there are likely people on the review committee that have little or no knowledge of your nonprofit and your work.

When it comes to the actual grant application, it is also important to review all the funder’s requirements and guidelines so that you make sure to meet their expectations.

You do not want your application eliminated due to a simple error that could have been avoided. We will elaborate on the importance of each of these aspects throughout the remainder of this article.

What are the Most Common Sections of Grant Proposals?

Another important aspect of grant writing basics is knowing the commonly requested information included in most grant proposals. Although many funders have different application processes, the key parts of these applications are generally similar. Here are five typical “sections” that are included in most grant proposals.

Organization Background

You need to include your nonprofit’s mission within the organization background section as it should align with your proposed project. The background section should also include a brief history of your nonprofit and list any accomplishments that may relate to your proposed project.

You may describe your staff and their qualifications within this section, or that may be included in the project description. Overall, make sure you demonstrate why your particular nonprofit is best suited to complete your project.

Project Description/Summary

Many grantmakers ask for you to include a brief description or summary of your project. There may be a word or character limit on this section, so make sure to keep it brief.

You will be able to elaborate on the details of your project in the proposal narrative section.

You may include a description of the need that your project serves in this section and then expand on it within the project narrative.

Project Narrative

The project narrative section is your chance to demonstrate to the funder that you have thought through all aspects of your project. Within the project narrative, you will break down exactly what activities will take place within your project. Make sure to also include who your project will serve.

This section may also include a timeline for your project and details on the staff that will be involved in it. Including a story can help the grantmaker relate to your project and your intended impact on your community.

Citing data or results from similar projects can also help the grantmaker understand why you see your project as important and necessary.

Budget

The budget may be its own section or may be included within the project narrative. You need to make sure to include all funding sources such as volunteer hours, in-kind donations, sponsorships, and other grants.

Make sure that you have done your research and estimate realistic costs for your project. Keep in mind that you will also have to report your expenses, explain differences when compared to your original budget, and then return any funds that you do not spend.

Intended Results and Evaluation

Results and evaluation have become increasingly important to funders in recent years as they want to make sure they are getting the most “bang for their buck”. Also keep in mind that many grantmakers donate funds because they (or the benefactor that created the fund) want to see an impact on the community they serve.

In this section, you must outline clear results that you plan to see from your project. Results could include demographics of program participants, survey results, participant counts, or other data that is applicable to your project.

Because results are so important to grantmakers, they will also likely ask about your plans for evaluating these results. Evaluation methods could include distributing surveys, measuring program attendance, tracking demographics, etc. Instrumental has some good resources on different evaluation methods here.

For more insight on the different sections of grant proposals, you can review the RFP for the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Climate Change and Human Health Seed Grants as an example. Instrumentl also has some great information about what makes a good grant proposal, including some proposal templates available here.

Grants Writing Basics: What to Know Before You Begin Writing

If you have ever taken a grant writing course or have prior knowledge of grant writing for nonprofits, then you know that preparation is key. Below are five things you should know before you begin writing a grant proposal.

Instrumentl also has tools to help you prepare for grant writing and we will highlight a few specific ones within our list.

1. Funding Priorities

Before you begin writing a grant proposal to a specific funder, you need to know their funding priorities. Part of grant writing 101 is making sure that the priorities of the funder align with the mission of your nonprofit and your specific project.

If your proposed project and the grantmaker’s priorities are not in alignment, then your application will not be competitive. Below is a screenshot from the Lawrence Foundation website listing out some of their main funding priorities.

Here the grantmaker includes their priorities in their grant guidelines, but you can also find similar information through other sources such as annual reports or press releases from the grantmaker. Funding priorities will change over time, so it is important to make sure you have the most current information.

2. Application Process

To help make sure that you have all the necessary information and documents required for grant writing, you need to understand the application process of the grantmaker. While much of the information requested may be similar across funders, each grantmaker will have a specific application process.

The types of documents you may need could include your 990, your 501(c)3 status letter, your organization budget, and your strategic plan. You may also need resumes for your staff and letters of support from partners if applicable to your proposed project.

The RFP overview feature within Instrumentl can help you learn more about this process. Check out the screenshot below to get a glimpse of the type of information provided with this tool.

3. Grant History of the Funder

One important aspect of grant writing preparation is evaluating the grant history of the funder. Finding out which organizations have previously received funding from that specific grantmaker can tell you whether or not the grantmaker has funded work similar to your proposed project.

You can use the Past Grantees feature within Instrumentl to gain insight into which nonprofits and projects a specific grantmaker has previously funded. Here is a screenshot of this feature filtered for projects in Ohio.

4. Your Project

Because your grant application is your chance to “sell” your project to the grantmaker, you need to know exactly why you need the funding before you begin writing your proposal. Grantmakers review many applications and will be able to tell if you have not fully thought through all aspects of your project.

Describing your project will also require making sure the project clearly aligns with the mission and strategic vision of your nonprofit. You can reference our blog post about grant narratives for more insight on your project description.

5. Project Budget

You need to know the amount of funding that you need for your project and make sure that you have researched accurate pricing for the items included in your project budget. Grantmakers may not know the specifics of your work, but they will be able to tell how prepared you are based on the details of your budget.

You also need to make sure you can spend the funds that you request. You will have to return funds that you do not spend and this could impact your relationship with the grantmaker.

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Grants Writing Basics: What to Know During the Process

Once you have identified a grant prospect that is a good fit for your nonprofit, there are a few things to keep in mind while completing your application. We have included three items that we feel cover the most important tips for writing a good grant application.

1. Write Clearly and Keep it Concise

Although quite a bit of information will go into your grant application, it is important to be concise and write in a way that is easy to understand. Keep in mind that those who read your application may have no prior knowledge of your nonprofit or even the type of work that you do.

You also want to tell your story in a concise way so that you do not lose the attention of the reviewers. Keep things brief so that the application flows well and is easy to read.

For example, if you are describing a particular family you could write “the family includes a mom, dad, and two children aged 7 and 9” instead of “there is a mother named Georgia, a father named Tom, a seven year old boy name Stepehen, a 9 year old boy named James, and two dogs who all live in one household as a family.”

2. Understand Application Questions

While we mentioned requirements earlier, here we are referring to the specific questions asked within the application itself. Read the application prompts or questions carefully and do your best to answer exactly what they are asking.

For example, if the prompt is titled “Project Description” it may also have additional information such as “include a description of the community need and how your project meets this need”. In this case, you may write something along the lines of “the community need is…” and then describe the need.

Following the description of the need, you would write “Our (title of your project) will meet this need by…”.

3. Spelling and Grammar

Although a key aspect of grant writing is storytelling, you also need to submit a well-written document. Grammatical and spelling errors are an easy way to lose points during the review process of your grant application.

Ask your colleagues or even a contact from another nonprofit to proofread your application. Extra sets of eyes are always good and will help you catch errors.

Editing can help you see how the application reads and determine if things need to be explained differently or more clearly. You can also utilize free tools such as Grammarly or GrammarCheck.me to easily proofread your own writing.

Grants Writing Basics: What to Know After Submitting Your Proposal

So you have found a good match and completed an application for a particular grant, what happens next?

Here are three things to keep in mind once you have submitted your grant proposal.

1. Be Patient

It often takes 60 days or more to hear back from a funder. Most funders will include an estimated timeline on their website or within their RFP, but patience is key.

If you have not received any information from the funder within the estimated timeline, it is acceptable to reach out to the appropriate contact at the funder to check-in. Following up will demonstrate that you know the timeline and have a strong interest in working with the funder.

2. Don’t Start Your Project

While some funders may allow you to cover expenses that you incur before the grant timeline begins, most will only cover the expenses during the grant period. Make sure that you wait to start your project until you know whether or not you have been awarded funds.

3. Continue Seeking Other Funding Sources

You can keep researching other funding options while you wait for a response to an application. You may not need to complete another application, but having other options ready never hurts.

Instrumentl makes it easy to research multiple funders for one project through features such as intelligent matching. Once you have entered your project, the software will help you easily identify good matches to support your work.

Wrapping Things Up: 11 Things to Know About Grant Writing Basics

Grant writing for nonprofits can seem daunting, but the insights we have shared in this article can help guide you through the process. Researching funding priorities and past grants of a specific grantmaker will help you match your nonprofit and your project with a potential funder.

To make sure things align well, you will also need to know your project and understand why you need the funding. Because grant writing can be very time consuming, it is important to do your research, identify good prospects, and plan ahead before you begin writing a grant application.

Following the advice that we have provided in this article should help increase your odds of success and you can learn much more about grant writing through our blog here.

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