Executive Summary: How to Write it for Your Grant

The executive summary (sometimes called a project summary or abstract) is the first piece of the grant application that reviewers will read.

Writing an executive summary is a concise, objective synopsis of your proposed grant application – who you are, what you do, and what you want to do. It should be persuasive and energizing, responsive to the funding opportunity and the funder's mission statement.

This post will discuss why executive summaries are important, how to write an effective executive summary step-by-step, what to include and what to avoid while writing, and an example of an executive summary.

Why are Executive Summaries Important?

Importantance of Executive Summaries

The executive summary will be read by every reviewer and by funding agency staff members. Moreover, this is the first piece of the grant application reviewers will read, and it will set the tone for the rest of the application.

The executive summary should follow the logical flow of the main points in your proposal and outline the logic of the expanded work. With this in mind, the executive summary is an annotation of the proposal and is not a suitable avenue for critical analysis or sweeping allegations.

You should be clear and coherent throughout the brief abstract and explain the essentials of the project correctly and succinctly.

Grant reviewers read hundreds of grant applications per week. To float to the top of the pile, your executive summary should make the reader instantly energized about reading the rest of your application.

You should immediately communicate the urgent need and convince the reviewer your proposed project is critical to the very nature of the funder's mission statement.

Picture this. A grant reviewer sits at their desk, blurry-eyed, on their 4th cup of coffee. They pick up the 73rd application of the week—your application—and begin to read.

First, they notice a direct and awe-inspiring title that makes them sit up straighter in their chair.

Next, as they begin to read through the executive summary, they put down their coffee and begin to read faster and faster—holding the application tighter in their hands.

As they reach the final sentence of the executive summary, the reviewer stands up and runs screaming down the hall, "BOSS, YOU NEED TO READ THIS!"—leaving everyone in the office curious about your project.

This is your goal. Your proposal summary must be so breathtakingly amazing that the reviewer remembers you out of 2,000 other applicants and risks screaming through the office to get to their boss' desk.

How to Write an Executive Summary Step-by-Step

How to Write an Executive Summary Step-by-Step

So, how do you go about writing a breathtaking executive summary?

You write your application first. Yes, that's right. It is best to hold off on writing an executive summary until the very end—writing the executive summary is the last thing you do before grant submission.

Why?

The executive summary demands a compelling storyline, comprehensive evidence, and objective brevity that can be hard to achieve. It also holds an added layer of pressure to get it just right.

Thus, it is best to wait to write the executive summary until the very end because you will have a more complete picture of your project, your objectives, and the overall tone and expectations of the proposal.

Your executive summary should outline your grant application—the executive summary should mirror the headings and outline of your proposal in a way that sets the reader up for the main points of the proposal and focuses on the solutions you bring to the table.

Save yourself the time spent redrafting and leave yourself plenty of time in the end to write your executive summary.

There are four main areas of your executive summary to consider:

Project Purpose and Statement of Need

  • This section should convince readers of the urgent need for your project in 2-4 sentences (or ~20-25% of total word count).
  • It should clearly define the problem and contain facts or statistics about its magnitude, followed by a statement about why the project is necessary (e.g., what knowledge gap it fills).
  • Finally, this section should conclude with a single sentence clearly stating the purpose of the project. Much of this information can be found in the background and purpose sections of a well-constructed grant application.

Organizational Background

  • This section should clearly tell readers about your organization and how/where your project will be conducted in 1-2 sentences (or ~10-15% of total word count). 
  • It should include a high-level description of your organization, relevant project personnel, and demonstrated history of organizational fiscal and project management success.

Goals and Measurable Objectives

  • This section should clearly tell readers about your project design, time period, and measurable objectives in 2-3 sentences (or ~10-15% of total word count). 
  • Include a sentence on how your project will meet the urgent need.
  • Explain how your business came up with the proposed course of action, how you will evaluate, measure, and report project outcomes, and any sustainability measures that you have put in place.
  • Most of this information can be found in the methods sections of a well-constructed grant application.

Budget

  • This section should provide details of the project budget in 1-2 sentences (or ~10-15% of the total word count).
  • The first sentence should state the projected cost of the project. Make sure the cost given is reflected down to the penny in the budget section of your grant proposal.
  • Then, briefly outline how the budget was created to add a measure of legitimacy.

Expected Outcomes and Positive Impact

  • Summarize the goals of your project and include a statement about the broader implications for your customers, the target population, and/or society in 3-4 sentences (or ~35-40% of total word count).
  • This section should immediately address how the funder's mission statement is addressed through your grant application.
  • Use keywords from the funding opportunity announcement within your executive summary. Oftentimes a reviewer is looking for an exact word or phrase—make the reviewer's job easier by including word-for-word snippets from the funding announcement within your executive summary.
  • It should ultimately link back to statements made in the background/purpose section. Avoid making broad statements not supported by data.
  • Finish by discussing the positive impact of your proposed work and how the expected outcomes will advance your business and the funder's mission.

What to Make Sure to Include in Your Executive Summary

What to Make Sure to Include in Your Executive Summary

Be sure to read all of the instructions for your proposal summary. This usually includes an application guide which can be generic, and any funder-specific or funding announcement-specific instructions.

Your good idea will not be funded if you do not follow the directions.

Note the formatting specifications. Understand the mechanics of the proposal. Knowing what forms to fill out and how to fill them out correctly by fully understanding the purpose each form serves in achieving the agency's mission is integral to your success.

In addition to following the instructions for the executive summary, here are a few additional items you should include in your executive summary:

The keys to an effective executive summary include:

  • Immediately establish the relevance of your application to the sponsor's mission.
  • Introduce the gap in knowledge base/unmet need that will drive your application. Describe the objective of this application, what it seeks to accomplish, which must be to either fill the gap or meet that need that you delineated in the first paragraph.
  • Discuss your central hypothesis and link it to the objectives.
  • Write the first few lines on your expected outcomes. These are the payoff items the funding agency can expect if they fund your application. Ensure that you have at least one significant expected outcome for each of your objectives. There must be a clear linkage back to the objective that produced them.
  • Summarize how you will engage customers and stakeholders in your project.
  • Describe how your project plan is responsive to the specific funding opportunity and its relevance to the mission of the funding agency.
  • You need to write the final few general closing lines about the positive impact of your proposed project. Summarize the overall impact of the expected outcomes that, collectively, will advance your business/field/urgent need vertically, as well as contribute to the mission of the funding agency and the funding opportunity that you are targeting.

The funding announcement or notice of funding opportunity often expresses the inspiration of the funding agency, defines the final selection process, and highlights those areas in which they are most interested in funding.

The best way to win a grant is to understand the motivation and process driving the selection decision.

Knowing as much as possible about why and how businesses are chosen over others makes it easier to craft a successful application. Check out this workshop by Maryn Boess on how to ask for funder feedback effectively to better understand grantmaker processes.

Now that we know what to include, let's look at what you should leave out of your executive summary.

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What to Leave Out of Your Executive Summary

What to Leave Out of Your Executive Summary

Grant writing is similar to writing a short story. You need a compelling plot that has supporting details along the way and brings the reader to a clear and vivid conclusion.

Write in simple, declarative sentences and avoid complex, compound sentences in your proposal summary.

The project executive summary should not:

  • Oftentimes funding agencies will publish snippets of the executive summary once the project has been funded on the funder's website. Consider that your closest competitors may be able to read the summary prior to project completion. Sensitive or confidential information should not be included for this reason. 
  • The executive summary should be written in lay language to allow the general public to understand your project without reviewing the full application.

The executive summary is not a suitable avenue for critical analysis or sweeping allegations. You should be clear and coherent throughout and explain only the essentials of the project.

Grant Proposal Executive Summary Tips to Follow

Grant Proposal Executive Summary Tips

In summary, you want the reviewer to enjoy reading your executive summary. An effective executive summary should mirror the headings and outline of your full grant proposal in a way that sets the reader up for the main points of the project and focuses on the solutions you bring to the table.

Here are the industry's best tips on writing a grant proposal executive summary:

  • Why is this project relevant to the sponsor's mission? How is your project responsive to the specific funding opportunity and to the mission of the funding agency?
  • What is the gap in knowledge/unmet need that drives your grant application?
  • What does your organization do? What is its mission and background?
  • Why is your organization uniquely positioned to solve this problem/meet this urgent need?
  • What are the specific objectives of this application? What does it seek to accomplish—(hint, it must be to either fill the gap or meet that need that you delineated in the first paragraph!)?
  • What is the proposed project? What will it accomplish?
  • What are your expected outcomes, and how will you measure them? What are the payoff items the funding agency can expect if they fund your application? 
  • How will you engage customers and stakeholders in your project?
  • What is the positive impact of your proposed project? What is the general impact of the expected outcomes that, collectively, will meet the urgent need and contribute to the mission of the funding agency?

The keys to an effective executive summary include crafting a meaningful and compelling executive summary. Remember to focus on your solution to the problem more than the problems themselves!

Example of an Executive Summary 

Executive Summary Example

The Parkville Junior Center is the largest junior center in Platte County and serves more than 150 adolescents each day through a wide variety of programs. Our mission is to help adolescents improve and maintain a healthy and independent routine and to maximize their quality of life.

It was established as a 501(c)(3) organization in 1994 by a group of six high schoolers ages 16 to 18 who wanted to create a place with events and support services that would accommodate the specific needs of high schoolers.

The Junior Center addresses the health, social, recreational, and logistical needs of the adolescent population in three cities.

We are mindful of the changing demographics in our junior center's service area and are committed to growing and adapting our junior center to meet the emerging needs.

The After-School Community Outreach Pilot Project will provide comprehensive access to health and social services to the adolescents in the minority communities served by our center.

Program objectives include increasing by 50% the number of monolingual Spanish-speaking adolescents who access center services for the first time within the grant period; connecting with a minimum of 50 Latino adolescents in our new tutoring class; and increasing our referrals of Latino adolescents from community clinics to partnering nonprofits by 50% within the grant period.

After completing the pilot phase, we are committed to introducing access to the other center programs.

The Center plays a dynamic role in the lives of adolescents in Platte City, Parkville, Lee’s Summit, and Olathe as evidenced by our 92% approval rating from our clients in 2018. These four cities account for 40.8% of Platte County's total adolescent population (5.2% total population of the county).

Our service area has a rapidly growing adolescent population that has doubled since 2000 and is expected to double again over the next decade.

Nearly 10% of our adolescents are living below the federal poverty line, and it is estimated that cumulatively, Latino adolescents--both bilingual and monolingual--make up an ever-growing segment of total adolescent population in our service area.

The total cost of implementation of our After-School Community Outreach Pilot Project is $150,000. Of this amount, $75,000 has already been committed from both county and city governments and other funders.

Your investment of $75,000 will secure the total funding needed to fully implement this pilot project. We are eager about the prospect of partnering with you.

Thank you for considering our request.

Wrapping Things Up: How to Write an Executive Summary for Your Grant Proposal

How to Write an Executive Summary for Your Grant Proposal

An executive summary should identify all of the critical points in each section of your larger grant proposal. This is just a highlight summary of the key points that you know are important to the funding agency.

Be consistent and do not introduce any new information that has not already appeared in some part of your larger proposal.

Remember, the executive summary will be read by every reviewer and by funding agency staff members and, this is the first piece of the grant application that reviewers will read.

Your executive summary should be so breathtakingly amazing the reviewer remembers you out of 2,000 other applicants and risks screaming through the office to get to their boss' desk.

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