What is a Grant Proposal: Grant Writing 101

As a nonprofit organization, you are familiar with the role of grant funding in your operations. However, receiving grant funding is something that continues to elude even the most veteran of grant writers more often than one might think. The best tactic for seeing award letters in your inbox is understanding what a grant proposal really is.

This article will give you a great start at understanding what a grant proposal is, it will cover the common sections of a proposal, and it will showcase a few samples to get your writing off on a solid path.

If you are ready to dig into proposal writing, keep reading!

What is a Grant Proposal?

Before you start researching funding opportunities, you should know what a grant proposal is. A grant proposal is a document outlining a project or program with the intent to justify your need for support and map out your plan of action against that need.

This document will make the case that you have a compelling need for funding and that you are uniquely positioned to utilize those requested funds to realize positive outcomes.

What are the Most Common Sections of a Grant Proposal?

Writing a grant proposal may seem overwhelming or complicated. There is also a lot riding on writing the proposal well. However, if you divide a grant proposal into its most common sections, it gives you the opportunity to write in shorter spurts.

Thinking of the proposal as a sum of its parts gives you smaller benchmarks to write toward. The following is a list of the most common sections of a grant proposal and things to keep in mind as you write.

Executive Summary

Grant proposals typically lead with an executive summary; however, you may want to write this section last. Just as its title suggests, this is a summary of your proposal.

An executive summary is your first impression, high-level overview of your project. Whether the funder finds your project in alignment and interesting may lie in only reading your executive summary.

Writing the remainder of your proposal first makes the most sense. You are more likely to accurately and succinctly summarize your proposal after you have already written the other sections.

Needs Statement

A needs statement is what really drives the entirety of your proposal. This is the section that will lead your narrative outlining why you have submitted your funding request. Your needs statement should outline the fundamental problem or gap that exists that you are uniquely qualified to solve with the requested support.

A needs statement is a statement, so think in terms of writing a few sentences, not multiple paragraphs. Finally, your needs statement should align with the goal or intent of the funding opportunity as presented by the grantmaker.

Need to see more specifics on what a needs statement is and how to write one? You can dive deeper in our post on how to write a needs statement here.

Goals and Objectives

The intent of a proposal is to very clearly articulate your plan of action if you were to be awarded funding. The goals and objectives portion of your proposal is where your reviewers will be able to better understand your intended outcomes.

One highly-regarded strategy for writing goals is to follow the SMART framework. In this framework, goals should be: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. The University of California put out a paper detailing how to write SMART goals. You may want to check it out if this sounds unfamiliar to you.

After outlining your project goals, you will also be presenting your aligned objectives. Think of your objectives as your action steps for achieving your goals. The goals are the end outcomes and your objectives break down how you are going to get there.

Check out the Instrumentl Partner Webinar with Dr. Beverly Browning (Dr. Bev), author of Grant Writing for Dummies, to learn more about goals and objectives.

Method and Strategies

While the objectives outline action steps to meet goals, you will still need to describe your method and strategies for taking these action steps.

If your proposal is a funnel, the goals are the widest part of that funnel. As you become more specific, you describe your objectives. Carrying down further in specificity, you will provide the method and strategies you intend to use to achieve the objectives.

The method section is where you will really tell the reviewer how you intend to meet the stated need at the outset of your proposal. This is your plan of action. Your strategies will tell how you will execute your methodology.

Some proposals use these two terms interchangeably or ask for one or the other. They both speak to how you intend to act on solving the problem you outlined in your need statement.

Evaluation

Grant reviewers want to know how you (and they) will know you have hit the goals of your proposed project. Proposals should have an evaluation section that tells exactly how and when achievement will be measured. This evaluation should tie back to the stated project goals.

If you intend to utilize specific tools or rubrics to measure your project, call those out specifically and include them if the page count and appendice rules allow.

Information About Your Organization

When you write a proposal, you need to describe who you are for your reviewers. This isn’t the place to narrate your organization’s entire history and daily work efforts. Rather, briefly provide the most important details about your nonprofit that are connected to your current funding request.

Some details you may want to include in the information about your organization section:

  • Full, legal name of your organization
  • Legal status, such as 501c(3)
  • Location of your headquarters, as many grants prioritize funding for certain regions
  • Your mission statement
  • Who you typically serve, detailing your target audience further helps to align your proposal with the stated mission and goals of the funding organization

Project Budget

It is expected that in a request for funding you would want to include how you propose that funding will be spent. Your proposal should include a section dedicated to your project budget.

Often, your project budget section will have two parts.

Budget Spreadsheet- A budget template resembles a standard spreadsheet. Unless the application specifies exactly what they want to see in your budget, there are innumerable ways to craft your budget. Most commonly, budgets are built on categories of spending. Some of the most common categories are:

  • Salaries and wages
  • Benefits- this is always a separate line as it requires separate accounting codes
  • Travel
  • Equipment
  • Supplies
  • Nonconsumable
  • Software
  • Computer/Hardware

If you want to have a visual starting point to draft your own proposal budget, we wrote a blog that provides more insight on the proposal budget and budget templates as a starting point.

Budget Narrative- In a budget narrative, you will describe the elements of your project that the funds will support. This is not a time for descriptive or superfluous language. It is a place to articulate your budget items a bit more specifically than a line item or budget category allows. The budget narrative should directly correlate with the budget table you included.

One method for writing a budget narrative is to write in sections that align with each of your budget categories. Call out your categories and describe in more detail what each category will entail at the individual activity level. A budget narrative is an opportunity to have the typical budget spreadsheet expanded for more meaning and understanding of your project.

Common Types of Grant Proposals

A grant proposal is a relatively universal way to access support funding. The format is basically the same whether the proposal is solicited via an application process, a request for proposals, or as a communication tool between a single organization and potential funder.

Capital Grants

It is challenging to build in capital expenditures to a nonprofit budget. Margins are tight and funds tend to be short in accomplishing all that you set out to do. The inability to set aside large amounts of money for capital projects means that nonprofits often rely on capital grants to fund capital projects.

Capital grants are a relatively common type of grant proposal due to the pressing need for capital funding options. Capital projects tend to have big price tags.

Coinciding with capital grant proposals, nonprofit organizations often engage in capital campaigns. These campaigns provide opportunities for stakeholders to contribute their support for these large-scale projects. Additionally, a capital campaign can help address any match that may be required by the grantmaker.

We will discuss matching grants in more detail in another section.

Program / Project Grants

The most common grant proposal is one requesting support for a program or project. In a program grant, the funds will be used for a specific purpose referenced in the grant proposal. These proposals typically articulate a funding need that is somewhat entirely encompassed by the grant funds requested.

These proposals request funds that will not be used outside of the project presented. No ongoing overhead is typically included in a program/project proposal. Think of these funds as stand alone. While the grant funding is available, the project can be completed. Without the grant, the work would tend to cease to exist.

Many program or project grant applications will ask that you speak to your ability to sustain the program beyond the term of the grant. So, although it is common to request funds for a project that otherwise couldn’t exist, keep in mind ways you might be able to sustain outcomes you realize during the funding period.

General Operating Grants

While capital and project grants have tangible and exact intended uses of funds, there is often a need for less specific funding to support ongoing operations. This is what is called an operating grant.

In the past few years, grantmakers have expanded their funding scope to include more operating grant opportunities. These grants have historically been less represented as it is hard for a foundation to attach their mission to something as ambiguous as ongoing operation efforts for a nonprofit.

Matching / In-Kind Grants

In order to stretch their resources, grantmakers will often offer matching or in-kind grant opportunities.

These grants require funding from the applicant. They will specify where these match funds can come from. This is an important detail to pay attention to, as some matching grants allow you to use other grant funds for your match while some require these to come from your general operating budget.

Each grant will specify the required match amount. As an example, if you were applying for a $100,000 grant that required a 20% match, you would be asked to contribute $20,000 to the project.

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Tips for Writing Grant Proposals in Different Fields

As a nonprofit, you know that not all industries function exactly the same. Similarly, not all fields approach grant funds the same way. There are three main sources for grant funding:

  • Local, state, and federal governments
  • Private businesses and corporations
  • Foundations

You can utilize Instrumentl’s funder search capabilities to identify grants provided by each of these different funding sources.

Within each of those main funding sources, there are also different fields of focus. Different fields may have slightly different expectations for what should be included in a grant proposal. We have put together a list of some of the more common fields open for grant funding and specific tips on writing for each of them.

Research Grants

Most of our innovative and cutting edge discoveries have been found under grant funded programs. Research grants are quite common in the science, technology, and medical fields. At times, these grants are highly-competitive and can result in large multi-year contracts.

So, how do you get awarded a research grant?

There are some key strategies for getting research funded. Here are our top five:

  1. Follow guidelines- Requests for proposals in research will almost certainly specify what should be presented and how you should submit your documents. Always follow these guidelines closely. If templates are provided, use the templates.
  1. Be specific- Before submitting a research grant proposal, make sure you are abundantly clear on what your funding request entails. It is common that the funding request covers only specific elements of a research project, not all associated costs of your time or other auxiliary expenses. Keep the proposal as focused on the research as possible.
  1. Use clear language- Your reviewers may not be as read in your field as you are, so avoid unexplained or unnecessary jargon. You also will have space constraints and word counts to contend with; keep your language clear and succinct.
  1. Ask questions- There is a level of formality in the research industry that may have you feeling as though reaching out is not an option. It is. Feel comfortable reaching out to points of contact to ask clarifying questions as needed.
  1. Use rejection as a learning tool- Research grants are limited against an endless pool of viable research requests. Know that you will be rejected. Consider tip #4 after rejection and reach out for feedback or critique of your own submission. Revise and resubmit at the next opportunity.

Community Grants

Another common grant field is in the community and youth program industry. There are many grants available for things like after school programs and family support. Some things to think about as you consider applying for community grants:

  • Location matters- Community grants are intended for the community. Be watchful of grants that specify location. Sometimes, in larger areas, this can get as specific as neighborhoods within a city. More commonly, these grants cover a city, region, or state.
  • Mission- Reviewers of community grants will want to see that your project request aligns with their mission. The funds for community programs tend to be specific to targeted audiences, so ensure your own nonprofit mission and work matches what is being asked for.
  • Differentiate yourself- There may be many organizations that can meet the need put out by the grantmaker or foundation. When you write your proposal, focus on how you stand out and what makes you different. Be sure to articulate how you are uniquely capable of delivering powerful results.

Health-related Grants

Our final example of field-specific grants you might see is in the health sector. Health-related grants are definitely common. You may have even seen reference to health grants throughout your life as major medical crises transpire across the globe.

The real key in ascertaining funding for health related research, projects, or programs is in your ability to identify the need. Use data and statistics to back up your claim. An example of a health-related needs statement might be:

According to {National Center}, over 60% of Our County residents do not have access to a health care provider that practices within 60 miles of their residence. This lack of immediate access results in 40% less frequency of visits for preventative care than shown in similar counties.

We covered the importance of a needs statement earlier in this article. In this field of grants, it is essential to nail that section.

Helpful Additional Resources for Preparing Grant Proposals

Preparing and writing grant proposals is a lengthy and time consuming process. Spending time familiarizing yourself with as much of the grant cycle, proposal structure, and application process as possible will help you start with confidence.

There are many ways to increase your understanding of grant proposal writing. Here are some of our favorite resources for preparing grant proposals:

  • Blogs - Just like the one you are reading, blogs are a great source of information and support to help you prepare to write grant proposals. We encourage you to look back through our blog posts to find relevant articles about each of the sections of the grant proposal as well as tips and tricks on writing a proposal.
  • Podcasts - If you don’t have a ton of time to read articles or look through proposal templates, you can still familiarize yourself with grant proposals through podcasts. We curated a list of the best grant writing podcasts to shorten your time searching for the right one to listen to. 
  • Peer networks - Find other people who are writing grant proposals and share in the effort. Having peers to review your writing, give suggestions, and provide support during moments of writer's block can be more valuable than any technical aid available. 

Sample Grant Proposals to Check Out

Now that you have a general idea of how to write a grant proposal, you can check out our previous blog for a complete list of successful grant proposals. Below are three examples of successful proposals and why we think they are worth reviewing:

Example 1

Kurzweil Education Systems- This grant proposal example is one worth sharing repeatedly. It outlines a successful grant example while also explaining each section as you go. This example serves to both support your growing knowledge and understanding of proposal structure as well as giving sample language for each section.

The Kurzweil document provides samples of more than just the proposal. You will also be able to read an example cover letter, cover page, and a sample letter format for foundation funding requests.

Example 2

Boys and Girls Club of America- Youth and community based grants are a very common request in the nonprofit sector. The Boys and Girls Club of America provided a great sample proposal resource to consider if you are looking for funding.

This particular resource can be used in two different ways. For those within the Boys and Girls Club nonprofit umbrella, this template serves as a document almost read to submit for funding requests. For those outside the BGCA enterprise, you can read and glean key structure and content details from a successful proposal.

This sample proposal also points out another tip in proposal writing: You should utilize any templates or forms provided by the grantmaker or foundation.

While standardized documents are not always required when provided, using provided forms allows reviewers to more easily read your proposal. The familiar format means they can skip to making meaning of your request rather than figuring out where the pertinent information lives in an unfamiliar document.

Example 3

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease- This example includes multiple successful proposals in the same space. NIAD offers many examples of successful grant applications at their grant application landing page.

When organizations and agencies offer grant funding, their hope is to find the most compelling and beneficial uses for those funds possible. To that end, it is in their best interest to share what those kinds of programs have looked like before.

For those looking to write grant proposals in the science and research sector, this resource is beneficial to read and explore similar successful project proposals.

Wrapping Things Up: What is a Grant Proposal?

Grant proposals can feel daunting. After reading this article, you should be able to feel more confident that you know what a grant proposal is.

You should also be able to identify the most common sections of a grant proposal, find sample proposals, and have a few tips for writing across a variety of fields.

You should be set to start drafting your first grant proposal. If you would like more support across all aspects of your grant finding, writing, and tracking processes, visit Instrumentl and sign up for a 14-day free trial.

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