How to Write a Good Grant Proposal: The Ultimate Guide
The grants process can be extremely competitive. Foundations and other grant makers receive hundreds—sometimes thousands—of proposals for each grant opportunity.
So how do you write a grant proposal that really stands out and wows the evaluators?
In this article, we’ll explore the basics of what your grant proposal needs, tips and tricks to set your proposal apart, and resources you can use to continue building your grant writing skills.
What is a Grant Proposal?
In essence, a grant proposal is a case for support that outlines a project and provides your strategic plan for how you will address an identified need with that project. Most commonly, a grant proposal is a written document, but sometimes opportunities will allow you to submit the proposal as a video or other alternative media formats.
Each time you create a grant proposal, you illustrate how your nonprofit can be the best solution to the need you have identified.
For example, if you have identified a lack of attendance at local museums and you have a project in mind that will increase attendance, your proposal should explain in detail why your project is the best solution to do so, covering areas like:
- the identified need
- how your project will address the need
- the ways your organization is uniquely situated to administer the project
- how you will utilize funds in a fiscally responsible way to administer the project
- how the project ultimately works to solve the identified need
We will explore the fundamentals of a grant proposal in the next section, but if you feel like you’re in a place where you would benefit from an in-depth beginner’s guide to grant proposals, check out: What is a Grant Proposal: Grant Writing 101.
The 9 Essential Components of a Grant Proposal
What makes a grant proposal “good” is its ability to communicate key areas of interest about your project clearly, comprehensively, succinctly, and appealingly.
Simple, right? Don’t worry, we have actionable steps you can take to get to that “good” place.
First and foremost, the key areas of interest that each grant-making organization is looking for are always detailed in the guidelines for the grant opportunity. Every time that you apply for a new grant, you should read the guidelines at least twice to make sure that you understand how to frame your proposal.
A good trick to start your proposal off is to take those guidelines and turn them into an outline in a word processor like Google Docs, so you can literally answer each section of the guidelines one by one.
In terms of making the proposal appealing, don’t be afraid to use some creative writing skills and add some emotion alongside the facts and figures. Your proposal is, in part, the story of who you are as an organization and why your project is so important.
Even though there will be nuances with each grant opportunity, there are frequently commonalities between them. You can use the categories detailed in this next section to develop a “boilerplate” proposal that contains answers to questions commonly asked in grant opportunities.
The Good Grant Proposal Boilerplate Outline
The following guide is an outline for a solid grant proposal that would be about 5-6 pages in length. This is a good place to start with a boilerplate proposal that could be submitted for grant opportunities that are open to the formatting of what type of proposal that you submit.
However, for each of these sections, you should be prepared to cut and lengthen your content as necessary to meet character and/or word counts unique to each opportunity. This is one of the most important aspects of writing your grant proposal. Many funders will not allow you to submit—or will even completely reject—proposals that don’t follow their guidelines.
1. Proposal Summary
A proposal summary should provide a high-level overview of the entirety of your grant proposal. You should briefly cover the most important aspect of each section of the longer proposal, including: history/mission, needs statement, project plan, budget, and evaluation.
Length: 1-2 paragraphs (about ½ page).
This section acts as an introduction to your organization. You should write out your nonprofit’s mission in its entirety, as well as a brief history and major milestones in your organizational timeline.
If you work in many areas, you should hone in on the content that most illustrates your organization’s ability to administer the project that you are writing the grant for.
Length: 1 paragraph.
3. Organizational Capacity
Your organizational capacity is the section wherein you should highlight your accomplishments, and why you are a strong candidate for funding. It should include things like major press highlights and successful similar projects you have administered.
Again, if your work spans a number of areas, you should hone in on the content that most illustrates your organization’s ability to administer the project that you are writing the grant for.
Length: 1 paragraph.
4. Needs/Problem Statement
Your needs statement, also called a problem statement, should outline the data that you have collected that illustrates the need for your program. It should reference both qualitative and quantitative data. You should collect both general data about the area you are serving and data that is specific to your project.
Length: 1-3 paragraphs.
5. Program/Project Plan
The program/project plan should be the core of your proposal. This is where you should explain your methodology, program dosage, and key staff who are involved in its implementation.
You should highlight any key partners who are involved, and how you plan to collaborate with external stakeholders. This is the core of your “pitch” to the grant maker on what they are buying into in supporting your work.
Length: 4-7 paragraphs.
6. Goals, Objectives and Outcomes
Metrics are critical for grant proposals. This category of your grant functions as a high-level overview of what you seek to accomplish in your project. A good rule to follow here is to make your goals, objectives, and outcomes SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic And Time-bound.
Length: 1-2 paragraphs, or a bulleted outline list of 3-5 goals with corresponding objectives and outcomes.
7. Evaluation Plan
Evaluation is a section that is often overlooked when creating grant proposals, but it is one of the areas that grant makers will look at the most closely.
Evaluation should be built into your program operations and timeline and should reflect how you will measure the goals, objectives and outcomes from the previous section. Evaluation plans should detail things like relationships with external auditors, how you will use measurement tools, and how you plan to improve your program based on the data that you gather.
Length: 1-2 paragraphs.
The budget section is often intimidating to folks that are unfamiliar with grant writing, but once you get a hang of it, you will see that it is a natural extension of your project plan. Each part of your project plan should correspond with a portion of your project budget.
Length: The length and detail required for a budget will vary based on each application, but it is a good habit to have a budget overview on file that can be captured in one spreadsheet.
9. Sustained Impact
What is your ultimate vision for what will be accomplished through your project? This is the section where you describe what happens when your project has a successful impact in the target area.
Note that you can accomplish this in collaboration with supporters, and make sure to explain where the grant funder you are applying to fits into that network of support.
Length: 1-2 paragraphs.
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Tips and Tricks to Make Your Grant Proposal Stand Out
Here are a few things that you can do to help take your proposal to the next level and stand out from the crowd:
Read the Directions!
You might remember that we mentioned this once before, but it’s so important it warrants a second section.
The absolute most important thing you can do to make sure your grant proposal is effective is to read through the funding guidelines. The #1 reason why proposals are rejected is because the grant funder’s rules were not followed when the proposal was submitted.
Establish a Realistic and Detailed Project Management Plan for Submission
Writing a grant becomes much simpler when you create a plan for the who, what, when, where, and why of submission. In collaboration with your grants team, game out who is responsible for each task/section of the grant, and decide when the deadline is for that task as you work to your ultimate goal.
Utilize Current Data About Your Programs
The more recent your data is, the more efficient your proposed project looks.
For example, don’t use U.S. Census data from 2010 when there is 2020 U.S. Census data available that is more updated and accurate. This is important to pay attention to when you utilize “boilerplate” or “evergreen” information about your programs—note which sections are dated each time that you submit, and update them with current data.
Research Grant Funders You’re Applying To
Read through the mission and priorities of the grant funding organization you are applying to. You have the best chance of being funded for your project if you can illustrate the alignment between your mission and the mission of the funder you are applying to.
Research Previous Grant Recipients
In addition to researching the grant funding organizations, you can also research the projects that they have funded in the past. By looking to see what trends they have in funding, you can determine if the opportunity would be a good fit for your organization too!
Instrumentl has an awesome feature that allows you to get insights like a grant maker’s giving patterns over multiple years, past grantees by location, openness to new grantees, and average & median grant amounts (see below!).
Find A Good Proofreader
One of the easiest ways to avoid common pitfalls and mistakes in writing your proposal is to find a talented editor to read through your proposal to submit. Grant applications can be very long and complicated, and it can be easy to get lost or drop the ball. A “peer reviewer” can read through your proposal and offer input to make it more readable and clean up any errors you might have missed.
Additional Grant Proposal Resources
There are a ton of guides and supplemental materials available online that can help you transform your next grant proposal from sufficient to truly good. Here are a few recommendations:
19 Tips for Stronger Grant Proposals- an Instrumentl blog post that delves into the 5 Rs of grant writing: readiness, research, relationships, writing, and reporting.
The Common Grant Application Format by Carnegie Mellon- a great place to start in constructing a solid template for a grant proposal. A “common application” is a format for a grant proposal that you can submit to multiple funders at once.
Connecting Smart Project Goals, SMART Objectives, and Grant Research Keywords with Dr. Bev Browning- If you’re wondering how to write your Goals, Objectives and Outcomes section, check out this Instrumentl Partner Webinar led by Grant Professionals Association Approved Trainer, Dr. Beverly Browning.
Tell Stories to Make Your Case for Funding More Compelling by the Grant Professionals Association (GPA)- One of the things that can get your grant proposal to the top of the pile is to incorporate storytelling, to evoke an emotional response from the grant reviewer. This article is a great place to start learning the fundamentals of storytelling in grant writing.
Wrapping Up: Good Grant Proposals
In the competitive grant environment, it is important that each grant proposal is a fine-tuned example of what your nonprofit programs do. If you do your research and give yourself time to plan and write each section of your proposal using the techniques we covered, you will have a quality submission!
A final tip on writing good grant proposals is to always spend some time checking out what is new and improved in the grant writing universe so you can incorporate new techniques into your writing.
The Instrumentl blog is a great bookmark to keep on file so you can continue to learn more about how to write grant proposals. It’s also an awesome tool to use to research grant opportunities and funders to get the ball rolling in identifying where you can submit your good grant proposal.
So congrats on taking this step in your grant writing journey, and good luck with your next step too!