How to Write a Grant Proposal

Grants describe different kinds of financial gifts, ranging from educational scholarships for students to project-based allotments for private farms. This type of funding usually involves money granted for a specific purpose. Unlike a loan, a grant never has to be repaid. Grant funders can include corporations, foundations, nonprofits, and government agencies. Grant recipients consist of individuals, private businesses, nonprofit organizations, local government agencies, and community groups.

Although a grant might sound like “free money,” most grant applications require a significant amount of paperwork and planning with no guarantee of a reward. Even after winning a grant, an organization has to budget significant time and resources for reporting to the grantor and actualizing the project. For this reason, it can be risky for organizations to spend too much energy on this form of fundraising. Instead, charitable organizations typically raise around 70% of their total revenue from individual donors, according to Charity Navigator. Writing for Forbes, Shavonn Richardson, a Forbes Councils Member, advises, “Grants, corporate sponsors, fundraisers, in-kind donations, individual donors and program income can potentially fuel diverse revenue streams.” The most successful nonprofits cultivate diverse revenue streams, rather than relying on grant funding alone.  

In contrast, a small business owner or a student might be able to allocate time to grant writing without incurring any labor costs or costs associated with grant proposal writing. Before pursuing a grant funding strategy, any grant seeking organization should conduct a cost-benefit analysis to see how much time and energy the group can afford to expend on the grant writing process, understanding that time spent on grant applications does not guarantee a financial return. 

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Finding a Great Match

In order to create a successful grant proposal, it’s essential that you find a grant that aligns with your capacities. As an example, imagine a USDA grant that only accepts applications from small businesses. Before you begin your application, you would need to confirm that your business qualifies as a small business. If it does, you would need to register your business with the System of Awards Management (SAM) and, then receive a Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) number. When you assess the timeline for the grant, you must evaluate the time frame for all of the grant deadlines, and you should also take into account the time you’ll need to register your business to ensure eligibility. Keep in mind, none of this has anything to do with the writing of the content of the proposal. Be sure to read the requirements for any grant carefully, as the funding agency may need you to meet detailed criteria before you begin your application. 

Next, a grantor must be aligned with your organizational goals in order to be a good match. In other words, if a foundation asks for grant applications that aim to serve children, you must present a program that will benefit children. Imagine that you have a program that provides free lunches to the elderly, veterans, and children. Don’t be surprised when the foundation doesn’t select your proposal. An effective grant proposal highlights the areas of alignment between a grantee and grantor, then suggests a plan with a limited scope that fits entirely within both organizations’ missions. 

So, in the scenario above, an applicant would have much more luck by writing a streamlined proposal about a program designed to deliver free lunches to 100 children per week. If your organization wants to fund a program that benefits multiple stakeholders (children, the elderly, and veterans), you would be better off applying to a different grant. As you look through the grant opportunities on a website such as GrantWatch, try to find grants that match your  programs and mission.

Some grants have specific requirements, such as matching funds, board member contributions, and restrictions on overhead costs. Be sure to read through the rules carefully before beginning your application. As an example, if a grant does not cover operating expenses, you’ll need to ensure that the organization can afford to pay the bills throughout the duration of the project. Assuming the grantor approves the project, you’ve promised to deliver on the promises in your proposal. Make sure that you can fulfill those commitments. 

Parts of a Grant Proposal

Obviously, each grant application is different. You’ll notice that the process varies considerably, depending on whether you’re applying for a $250 scholarship or a multi-million dollar government grant. Still, many grant applications contain the following sections. Familiarize yourself with the vocabulary below to improve your chances of winning a grant.

Cover Letter

Your cover letter provides the decision maker with an introduction to your project and organization. Address your cover letter to an individual person, for example, the executive director of the foundation. Try to make a good first impression with the grantmaker by writing with clear language with no errors. Use business letter formatting. In your letter, summarize the content of your proposal, the mission of your organization, and the desired outcome of the program. 

Executive Summary

Look at the short descriptions of the previous grants the funder has awarded. Model your executive summary on these templates. This document, which should be less than a page in length, needs to inform the grantor what you’ll be recommending in the proposal. You should describe the project timeline, budget, and the population that the organization plans to serve. 

Need Statement

In a need statement, the grant writer uses evidence to establish the justification for the project or organization. Compared to other possible uses for the grant funds, describe why your plan is timely, important, and necessary. Tell a story with data. What would happen if no solution were implemented? Why is your organization well-suited to solve the problem?

Goals and Objectives

Goals describe the overarching accomplishments that you want to achieve with the funding. Objectives refer to specific outcomes that contribute to the goal. Objectives should be SMART, which stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. As an example of a SMART objective, you might aim to feed pre-packed lunches to 100 children per week by the end of the first month of food service. When you meet the objective, you show that you’re working towards the goal of reducing food insecurity in your community. Some grantors prefer an application with SMART goals, as well. 

Description of Proposed Project

Although the title of this section may vary from one grant application to the next, at some point in your application, you’ll need to describe the program design. This can include methods and strategies, steps and procedures, and even a visual timeline. Using the SMART objectives as a guide, describe how you would use the money within the time allotted. It can be helpful to describe how and when you plan to roll out different parts of the project and when you expect to accomplish objectives. 

Evaluation Criteria

Will you use an outside evaluator? Do you plan to collect surveys from participants? How do you plan to share the results of your program with the grantor? In this section, you need to describe an objective and transparent process for evaluating your own success. By developing evaluation criteria, you help the grantmaker feel more confident that they will “get something” for their money. In other words, even if your project does not accomplish its goals, grantors should feel confident that you will be able to provide them with important learnings to guide their spending in the future. You may think of evaluation documents as “deliverables” that you will owe your grantor to summarize progress. 

Project Budget

Take a look at the budgets from successful grant applications. You’ll notice that the most compelling applications have detailed budgets. Be sure to factor in any project costs associated with program staffing, evaluation, program materials, and marketing. Remember, if you forget to include any essential costs, you will not have the opportunity to request more money later. Those additional costs will probably have come out of your organization’s general budget, since you’ve promised to complete the project as described in the proposal. 

Information About Your Organization

Explain the hard work you do, the populations you serve, and the history of your organization. Share any important awards and accomplishments. Include your organization’s mission. After reading this section, the grantor should understand that your organization is trustworthy. Also, you should establish yourself as well-qualified to address the problem identified in the “need statement.” Furthermore, make sure that the alignment between the grantor’s mission and your organization’s mission is clear. 


In some grant applications, you’ll need to describe the methodology you plan to use in order to get information about your program to the relevant communities you hope to serve. After the completion of the program, the grantor may also expect you to disseminate information about the program’s success. Describe any strategies or partners that you plan to use for marketing. 

Sustainability Plan

Many grantors ask for supplementary materials to describe sources for matching funding, or they may ask for a plan to fund the program beyond the term of the grant. By presenting a sustainable plan, you assure the grantor that their dollars will continue to have an impact even after the initial funds have been spent.

Letters of Support

Many winning grant proposals include letters of support from relevant businesses, politicians, funders, and community members. Although most grant applications do not require these, letters of support may sway a grantor to choose your proposal in the event of a tough decision between applicants. Collecting testimonials from community stakeholders may also strengthen your case. Don’t assume that a grantor knows how important your organization is to your community. In all likelihood, you will need to convey this to a reader through thoughtful letters of support. 

Submitting the Application

Be sure to read all the instructions for submitting the application. In some cases, grantors do not accept unsolicited proposals. If this is the case, you will need to write a letter of inquiry (a combination of a cover letter and an executive summary) in order to qualify to receive a request for proposal (RFP). Applicants who do not follow instructions are often disqualified, so pay close attention to the prerequisites for consideration. Submit your proposal on time in the proper format.

Before you begin your application, take a look at examples of successful grant proposals. Model your application after proposals that have received funding in the past, and be sure to budget enough time to complete each step of the proposal with care. By following this advice, you may be able to qualify for “free money” in the form of grants.