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Writing an Effective Grant Proposal

When looking for grants, find a problem your group can solve and develop a project to meet that need.

By University Alliance
Writing an Effective Grant Proposal

Grant writing can seem like a daunting undertaking, but it is a skill anyone can learn. Once you know the basics, you can work on ways to improve your grant-writing skills. 

Some nonprofit leaders may come to the organization with strong backgrounds and knowledge in fields such as business, social work or psychology but need to learn about how nonprofits function. This includes grant writing, said Mark C. Germano, an instructor for Nonprofit Executive Programs at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business and expert in grant strategies.

“They understand specific areas, but they don't understand when they get to the executive director or the CEO, president level, about fundraising, about how you write a grant,” Germano said. 

Preparing a Successful Grant Proposal

The specifics of every grant application are different, but they do share some basic principles – and most award committees will ask for some of the same information. Before you begin writing, it’s important to carefully review the application requirements and guidelines, which must be followed in order for your proposal to be considered. Skipping a page or paragraph could mean missing vital instructions and oversights that eliminate your proposal from consideration. 

Three Levels of Grant Proposals

  • The first level of grant proposals is a letter of inquiry, which serves as an introduction to your project and a way to gauge interest from the funding committee. If committee members want additional information, they will respond with a request for a more in-depth proposal. 
  • The second type, a letter proposal, is ideal for grant foundations that prefer concise proposals. They are typically three to five pages that include a description of the project, information about the organization and an outline of the project’s objectives and evaluation methods. They also include a request for a specific amount of funding. 
  • Long proposals are the most common. These seven- to 10-page documents provide greater detail about the organization, the project, the needs and the outcomes. They typically include a cover letter and appendices, as well. 

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The Components of a Good Grant Proposal

It’s usually best to have a specific, well-planned project in mind for a grant proposal. For example, a food bank might reach out for funding for a major expansion, while a recreation group might ask for help building a forest trail. Keep the project in mind as you prepare these basic components of a good grant proposal:

The Need: Establish the need and desire for the project. Demonstrate how residents and community members will benefit and the impact if the project is not funded and the need is not addressed.

  • The Objectives: What are the desired outcomes? Define the goals and state how you will measure whether you’ve achieved them.
  • The Plan: How are you going to proceed with the project? Describe the ways you will achieve the objectives.
  • Establish Credibility: Share your organization’s history, its success record and why you’re the right fit for the project.
  • Describe Your Capacity: The committee needs to understand that your organization is prepared for the project, with adequate, trained staff and a supportive board and community. Describe how you will complete the project within the timeframe.
  • Evaluate Success: Describe how you will evaluate that the objectives have been reached, whether by the number of people served, the problems that have been fixed or other benchmarks.
  • The Budget: Include a detailed budget of expenses and as well as whether other sources of revenue are anticipated.
  • The Future: Describe the long-term view. Is the project self-sustaining? Does it need continuous funds or is it a one-time undertaking? 

Write More Successful Grant Proposals

In an effort to win grants, some organizations make the mistake of seeking out funding sources, then developing projects and writing grant proposals to fit the criteria. You’ll be more successful if you first develop projects that benefit the people you serve and align with your mission, and then seek funding to support them. 

Not every grant proposal will be funded. Foundations often receive multiple deserving proposals that match their priorities but the need exceeds available funds. 

And sometimes, personal and professional connections can influence grant awards, according to  Marc Hardy, Ph.D., director of Nonprofit Executive Programs at the University of Notre Dame. 

“When you're talking about grant proposal writing, it is very much relationship oriented. Funders want to know what kind of social return they will get on their investment (Social ROI). That's not necessarily a big issue in the for-profit world because the bottom line is proof of ROI. So, we in the nonprofit sector are measured very differently because our ROI is more difficult to assess,” Dr. Hardy said. 

You may not be able to control everything that influences grant decisions but you can give your proposal the best chances of approval by clearly communicating your organization’s mission, the need for the project and your passion for what you are trying to accomplish. 

Winning proposals depend on your ability to make a compelling case for funding and for the committee to clearly envision what you’re working toward. Your proposal should give the grant committee confidence that the investment will produce a good return.

Category: Nonprofit Leadership