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Due to lack of time and/or specific skills, many applicants turn to professional grant writing services. However, you can still successfully write your own with some effort and the use of appropriate resources (many of them free). The section below details essential elements of good grant proposals.
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A good proposal will always reflect the specifications and requirements set out in the grant package. Resist the temptation to assume you know what the grant maker is (or should be) looking for and skim the package – you may miss critical requirements that will automatically and immediately disqualify your application. Always check and double-check to be sure you have provided everything the grantmaker requests – none of it is optional!
Winning proposals do tend to include several very basic sections, each with its own caveats and requirements. They are summarized below:
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Update September 2018 Recently an organization called Grantspace, which is part of the Foundation Center, summarized what they consider to be the five most important aspects of a winning grant proposal. The first, and most commonly cited requirement, is that you must first do your homework. This involves considerable research about the grant maker and their vision and priorities. Next is presenting a relevant problem and proposing a logical solution along with the expected results. Explain who is helped, and why the grant maker should care — based on their vision and goals. Third, all this must be presented in a way that shows the you know very well what you are doing: data should show that you have a clear view of the problem you are addressing and you know how to use grant funds wisely to solve a problem. And of course, your budget should be consistent with your proposal’s story. Lastly, if you need clarification or help understanding a requirement, go ahead and give the grant maker a call rather than just sending an email.
Do you hesitate to try your hand at writing grant proposals because you think you need special technical skills? Actually, the opposite is true! It takes some effort to write a really good grant proposal but if you can write reasonably well then there are tools and techniques you can learn to stand out in a crowd of proposals that have not been as carefully created. Of course, you need to understand you subject thoroughly — and that means not only knowing your goals but also being able to describe them in a way that supports the grantmaker’s vision. Consider layout issues when you are writing — don’t babble on and on about a topic but use bullets and appropriate headers to organize your information.
Each of the critical elements for writing good proposals are summarized below. As you read and learn, remember that they are pertinent not only to applications to specific foundations or agencies, but also to the Common Grant Application. And when you're all done with these sections, consider these extra tips before you submit your proposal:
Some extra tips: It’s easy to get wrapped up in your own work and not see it the way another person would. It’s a great idea when you’ve finished your proposal to have someone who’s opinion you respect - and who is a good writer - proofread your document. You might be surprised what they will find in terms of typos, grammatical errors, or places where you could express yourself succinctly. And they might have some excellent suggestions as well. While you’re at it, be sure to include a list of all the attachments you’re supposed to include so you and your proofreader can be sure they are all there.
Beware of Reviewers' Pet Peeves: In addition to knowing what you should do, here are some quick shots to remind you what to avoid. These are things people who review grants (that is, decide who will win one) get irritated by (and therefore are not likely to award you a grant):
- an application that has nothing to do with the funder's vision and goals;
- too much or too little information that clearly establishes your credibility;
- a budget that is not clearly justified and does not include both revenues and expenses;
- no clear summary of expected results and how they will be measured;
- applications which ignore instructions;
- lack of details about how you will continue after the grant funds are gone; and
- applications that are unnecessarily lengthy.
Remember WHY When writing your grant proposal it is of course critical that you follow all directions to the letter (regardless of your opinion of what’s being required….). At the same time, you may encounter a section that is a bit more “free form” in that it does not lead you step by step and question by question through what information you are to provide. One good rule of thumb is to follow the rule of journalism about answering “who what when where why” to be sure you have all your bases covered. The “Why” could be your toughest question but the one that is probably the most important. Remember, people are considering giving you an outright gift of money — maybe a lot of money — to achieve your goal. They want to be inspired by your plan and to see clearly how your organizations will truly help to transform lives and make the world a better place. Make sure the ways you will do that shine through!
Some of these recommendations may be seem obvious but it’s a good checklist of things to remember when writing your proposal. And without a list it’s easy to get distracted and leave out critical information:
- Talk with your team and be sure that your organization is ready and able to take on the project
- Be sure your key players have all read the grant opportunity materials and fully understand what’s involved
- Review your financials and ensure that you have the basic funds necessary to meet the requirements of carrying out the grant and all reporting requirements
- Discuss your mission and goals and verify that they match those of the grant maker
- Have someone review your written proposal to proofread and confirm that all requested information is provided. You might even have a trusted colleague outside your organization look through it and provide suggestions.
This is the introduction to the proposal, a place to be succinct and to the point. It should state your basic case and provide a summary of the rest of the proposal, including the Statement of Need, the Project description, Budget, and Organizational Information. The Executive Summary is a key opportunity to “sell” the proposal, making sure it reflects a professional approach and capacity for excellence. It is worth considerable time and attention, as a poor Excutive Summary will affect the evaluation of the entire proposal. In fact, if a judging group is pressed for time and overwhelmed with lots of grant proposals to read, a weak Executive Summary could result in your proposal being tossed before the whole thing is even read. This initial summary is for your best stuff: why what you do is important, what you are passionate about, and how this grant will help further the goals of your organization and of the grantmaker. For additional guidance, and particularly for an excellent guide to identifying and communicating what differentiates your organizaton, check out Write Foundaton Grants Fast.
Statement of Need
This element may also be called a Needs Section or Problem Statement. Without being too wordy, you do want to put your proposal in context and provide useful data that will assist the reviewer in considering and justifying a recommendation to award the grant to you. For example, a general statement about the needs of children will not be as useful or compelling as the impact of solid data about dropout rates and income levels in a specific area and how that relates to your proposal. It is particularly important to provide solid data about your target population and the problem being adressed in proposals to the Federal Government and National Foundations. And remember, often a picture is worth a thousand words. Some well-done graphs and tables can communicate a ton of information without boring the reader!
Don't forget the power of stories! Hard data and statistics are important to show the reality of the need you are serving. But they come to life when you relate stories about specific individuals or groups whom your services have helped. Grantmakers are all about transforming lives, and sharing actual experiences can show them you are doing that — and their grants will help you do more.
This is the place to present the proposal in detail. It follows the Executive Summary and the Staement Need quite logically, allowing the reader to see how your program comes into being. It must include specifics regarding your goals and objectives, details on individual expected outcomes, specific dates by which you wish to accomplish your objectives, and how you will evaluate your program. You should also provide details on your target population, proposed activities, program staff and their responsibilities, and any partners you plan to work with. In short, you are presenting what you are going to do, how you are going to do it, and how you will measure and evaluate it on an ongoing basis.
This is the section where you present a well-organized narrative regarding your costs: personnel costs, other costs and funding sources, and any in-kind contributions you expect or have received. It is also important to present your plans for sustainabiliity - i.e., how you plan to fund the program once this particular grant is spent.
Keep in mind that Grant Makers understand money and worthwhile value for money. Be sure to demonstrate that you do too – especially that your cost estimates are accurate and well justified. Grant Makers want to put their money where it will provide the greatest return, so be sure to offer evidence of good fiscal policy and practice. Evidence of your prior successful track record achieving results within budget would be very useful here.
Be sure to constantly tie the costs you present with the return it will generate for that investment — and to treat your discussion of “costs” as “investments.” Readers will only be impressed if you make it clear that you know how to get the most out of every dollar you spend — and they will now if you try to “pad” your budget. It’s also very important that the way you plan to spend your money matches your priorities and your goals.
This is your opportunity to demonstrate the capacity of your organization to successfully implement the proposed program. You will want to inlcude a brief history of your organization, how it is managed and overseen, and a discussion of your main activities, audiences, and services. Definitely share information on successful projects you have delivered. If you do not yet have such a track record then provide information about the experience and successes of your personnel.
The 2nd bookend to your Executive Summary. Provide a clear and succinct summary of all the above. Be sure to include all the main points from other sections. Do not add new information at this point. Keep your summary brief and powerful, creating a final picture for the reviewer.
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