How to Write a Grant: A Comprehensive Step-by-Step Guide

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Published:

August 14, 2022

Last Updated:

October 26, 2023

Obtaining a grant for a project you are passionate about can be very rewarding, but grant writing can be a difficult, complex, and long process.

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.

Main Insights for Writing Grants

If you only have a couple minutes to spare, here’s what you need to know about writing effective grants.

In this comprehensive guide, you will not only learn what a grant proposal is and how to write one, but you’ll also walk away with:

  • A list of key components to include in your grant
  • Where and how to find the best grant opportunities
  • A step-by-step outline for writing your proposal
  • Extra tips to make your grant proposal stand out

Let’s get started!

What Is a Grant Proposal?

Let’s begin with the basics: What is a grant proposal?

There are billions of dollars currently being awarded through grants each year in the U.S. to nonprofit organizations. This funding usually comes from government agencies, for-profit corporations, and foundations.

To win this funding, a nonprofit has to submit a grant proposal, which is essentially a case for support that outlines why your organization deserves the grant and how you would use the funding to advance your charitable mission.


A grant proposal is almost always a written document, but sometimes opportunities will allow you to submit the proposal as a video or other alternative media formats. Ultimately, a grant proposal should outline your strategic plan for how you will address an identified need with the grant funding. 

For example, if you run a nonprofit food bank and you have a project in mind that will increase your capacity to serve more people in your local community, you could create a grant proposal that includes:

  • the identified need (i.e., food insecurity in your community)
  • 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

Overall, learning how to write an effective grant proposal means knowing how to organize a detailed, comprehensive, and persuasive document. This is because the ultimate goal of a grant proposal is to convince the funder you are the right choice for their grant monies.

We will continue to explore the fundamentals of a grant proposal in the following sections, 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.

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Why Is It Important to Know How to Write a Grant?

As noted above, billions of dollars are awarded through grants every year.

Nonprofits rely on fundraising to operate, and grants can be a great way to raise money for your organization.

Though they vary in size, it’s not uncommon for grants to be for tens of thousands of dollars, which could possibly cover a nonprofit’s entire new program. You can also develop long-term relationships with grant funders, which might allow you to secure more funding in the future.

Grant funding can help your nonprofit diversify its revenue streams so that it's not just relying on the same individual donors each year.


Key Example to Learn From:
The Lutheran Braille Workers had a handleful of donors supporting them each year. To hedge against risk, they diversified their funding sources by finding grants they were competitive for, but had never pursued. This helped them find new sources of funding for their work.

So while grants are critical to fundraising, knowing how to write a grant proposal can make or break your chances of obtaining funding for your project.

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What Are the Key Components to Include When Writing a Grant?

Every grant application will look different, which is why you should always read the guidelines of a grant to make sure you understand how to organize and frame your grant proposal.

We suggest first building an outline with each section and then filling in the blanks—if you hit each proposal element one by one, it should make the process less intimidating.

With that being said, there are some key components that should be included in almost every grant proposal. Below, we have listed the main elements you should include in a grant proposal and tips to help you successfully develop each one.

Provide a Brief Overview of the Proposal


The proposal summary (sometimes called an executive summary or an abstract) should provide a brief overview of your entire proposal.

The key word here is brief—this overview should describe the most important features of your proposal in as few sentences as possible (maybe just a paragraph or two). This summary should explain who you are, the purpose of your proposal, the need you’re fulfilling, and your expected outcomes. 

Essentially, someone should be able to read your proposal summary and understand the main idea of your entire proposal without having to read the rest of the document.

Understanding the Organization's History and Mission


Your grant proposal should also include information related to your organization’s history and mission.

That is, what does your organization do and why? A grant funder might not be familiar with your nonprofit, so it’s important to provide them with some organizational context.

This is also where you can highlight your organization’s expertise and past accomplishments. That way, the funder can clearly see why your nonprofit is deserving of grant funding.

Assessing Organizational Capacity


You will also need to provide details on how your organization will actually complete the project or program you are proposing.

Do you have the right amount of staff to work fully on the project? Can you meet the timeframe documented by the funder? This is where you show the funder you have the organizational capacity to use to grant funds purposefully and responsibly.

Identifying Needs and Problem Statement


One of the most important sections of a grant proposal is the needs and problem statement. This is where you will give the specifics about why your community has a problem, what their needs are, and how you will solve them.

You should definitely include some research here on the background of the problem. Data and statistics are a great way to show the magnitude and urgency of the need you are aiming to meet.

Crafting a Comprehensive Program/Project Plan


Every grant proposal will include a section where you explain what your organization is planning to accomplish with the grant money.

This is where you develop your comprehensive program or project plan, which will describe how you will meet or solve for a specific need in your community.

When drafting this section, think of the 5 W’s and H that are used in journalism:

  • Who will complete what
  • When will they do their work
  • Why are they the best fit
  • How will they achieve results

You should provide enough detail here about the specific activities of your project. This is also where you will discuss any partnerships with other entities that may help complete the project in a timely manner.

For more grant narrative tips, check out this guide.

Defining Clear Goals, Objectives, and Expected Outcomes


The most effective grant proposals have clear goals, objectives, and expected outcomes.

Consider using the “SMART” acronym to ensure your goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound.

  • What are the Specifics of your activities?
  • How will you Measure the achievements?
  • Is your project even Achievable?
  • Is it Relevant to your mission?
  • Can you meet the funder’s Timeline?

If you cannot answer yes to the SMART acronym bullets above, you may not want to answer the funder’s grant request.

Developing an Evaluation Plan for Assessment


You know what objectives you want to achieve, so now you can discuss how you will evaluate your proposed project or program.

This is one of the most important sections of your proposal because you are letting the funder know how you will evaluate success.

An evaluation plan is important to funders because it shows them your commitment to achieving impact and measurable change with the grant funder.

In addition, an evaluation plan will also help you determine what worked, what did not work, and how you can improve your project in the future.

Budgeting for Your Grant Proposal


Almost all grants will require a proposal budget.

You will need to detail your expenses to illustrate that you can realistically address the need and problem at hand.

This section should not be estimated; instead, you need to specify both the direct and indirect expenses of your proposed project.

Everything from staff and operational costs, promotion materials and supplies, and even rent and travel costs should be accounted for so that the funder knows you can work within the budget.

Ensuring Sustained Impact and Long-term Success


Your grant proposal cannot be short-sighted. It needs to focus on the long-term successes, implications, and impact of your project.

Ensuring that your grant proposal has a sustainable impact and long-term success is key. This is also the section where you should discuss any collaborations or ongoing support that the project will have to sustain itself well into the future.

Where Can You Find the Best Grant Opportunities?

Finding the best grant opportunities can be a laborious process on its own. Yes, you can find grants through a Google search, but that is a lengthy and time-consuming process.

Thankfully, there are dedicated grant databases available online that you can search through to find funding opportunities that align with your nonprofit’s mission and needs.


Instrumentl’s Comprehensive 990 Finder


Instrumentl’s Comprehensive 990 Finder
is the most comprehensive source of funders for nonprofits and provides deep funder insights that can make finding grants much faster.

This tool has data from more than 270,000 private foundations, along with information on corporate and government funders. Instrumentl’s 990 snapshots make it easy for nonprofits to search for funders by location, focus area, and more.

Instrumentl’s Comprehensive 990 Finder


For an in-depth resource into finding grants and then tailoring your proposals to them, check out our free comprehensive guide to mastering grants.

Save Time Finding Good-fit Grants


Instrumentl also has a database of active grants that you can search through with filters to help you find active funding opportunities for your organization.

Instrumentl Active Grants Database


For example, Hamna Khuld, a grant writer for Oasis–A Haven for Women and Children, saved 83% of her time using Instrumentl to vet funders that aligned with her nonprofit’s mission and funding needs.

And Daniel Jenkins, President of Lutheran Braille Workers, was submitting three to six grant applications per year before signing up for Instrumentl. Now they are submitting two per month using Instrumentl’s key features.

Using a dedicated grants database makes finding grants and good-fit funders much easier and more efficient.

Step-by-Step Outline For Writing Your Grant Proposal

Now that you understand the purpose of each section of a grant and where to find them, the following guide is a step-by-step outline that you can use to write your own grant proposal.

This is a good place to start with a boilerplate proposal, 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.

Proposal Summary


As noted above, you will first start with your proposal summary, which 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).

History/Mission


This section introduces your organization and its mission. 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 so that it illustrates a strong fit with the funder’s mission and needs.‍

Length: 1 paragraph.

Organizational Capacity


Your organizational capacity is the section where you highlight your accomplishments. You should also detail why you are a strong candidate for funding and 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.

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.

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 also 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.

Goals, Objectives, and Outcomes


Metrics are critical for grant proposals. Therefore, this category of your grant functions as a high-level overview of what you seek to accomplish in your project. Remember what we mentioned earlier: a good rule to follow here is to make your goals, objectives, and outcomes SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound.

Length: 1-2 paragraphs, or a bulleted outline list of 3-5 goals with corresponding objectives and outcomes.

Evaluation Plan


The evaluation section 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.

Budget


The budget section is often intimidating to individuals who 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.

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.

You can accomplish this section 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.

Tips for Making Your Grant Proposal Shine

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.

Never Stop Learning: Dive into Instrumentl’s Wealth of Webinars

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 resources to help you continue learning how to write a grant successfully.

A Glimpse Into Instrumentl’s Educational Resources


Instrumentl is your one-stop-shop for all things grant writing.

Whether you’re interested in grant writing classes, webinars, or guides, our resources can help you become a grant writing pro.

Here’s just a glimpse of some of our top resources:

We hope you find our educational resources useful when learning how to write a grant and beyond.

Why Continuous Learning Matters


Continuing learning is essential for nonprofit professionals.

The fundraising and grant writing world is constantly changing. Continuous learning ensures you will stay up-to-date with the latest trends, strategies, and funding opportunities.

One of the best ways to invest in continual learning is to learn from and network with other nonprofit professionals. We offer numerous live grant writing classes hosted by expert grant writers that you can sign up for here.

Wrapping Up: The Art and Science of Successful 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!

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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