Writing grant proposals is a critical business skill. Healthcare organizations seek funding for research and new initiatives. Academics pursue grant-funded investments for laboratory projects. And nonprofit organizations go after grants to help bolster the work they do to accomplish their mission.
Each year, companies and nonprofits send thousands of grant proposals to private foundations and public institutions, hoping to secure funding for their target initiatives. These grants can range from a few hundred dollars to multiple millions. Many proposals will come back unfunded while others will form the start of a long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationship between the grantee and the funder.
What makes the difference between a grant proposal that gets funded and one that doesn’t? And how can you prepare to be a successful grant writer?
What Is a Grant Proposal?
It may seem like a grant proposal is simply a request for money to an institutional donor. At one level, it is. A closer look, however, reveals that a grant proposal is a much more complex document than that. Barbara Floersch, Executive Director of The Grantsmanship Center said, “A grant proposal is actually a call to action. It’s a request that a funder join the nonprofit as a partner in achieving specific results. At its best, a grant proposal is a cogent, persuasive, well-supported argument for change.”
While each funder releases its own guidelines or Requests for Proposals (RFPs), the general components of a grant proposal do not change much from funder to funder. In a typical grant proposal, you would include the following:
Introduce your organization
Taking anywhere from a paragraph to a few pages, you need to present a short, engaging snapshot of the applicant organization emphasizing its key focus, purpose, benefits, mission and vision. If you work with a larger organization, you can use this section to expose grantors to information they may not already know. If you are writing for a small company, it’s a great place to present yourself accurately and compellingly for the first time to a potential donor. Let’s say you’re trying to secure funds to buy e-readers for an urban elementary school. In this section, you would introduce the school, state how long it has existed, where it is, how many students it serves and what its stated vision and mission are.
State the need
In this section, establish the social, technological or healthcare problem you are addressing. It’s your opportunity to demonstrate that the need is legitimate and significant and that it aligns with the donor organization’s philanthropic interests. To continue the urban school example, the statement of need could show area-wide poverty statistics, the general lack of funds to purchase the e-readers through normal channels and data showing the value that e-readers bring to the school and the students.
Goals and objectives
Here is where you state what the applicant organization wants to accomplish. Unless specifically requested to do so by the funder, you should not use this section to talk about the organization’s overall goals and objectives. Instead, write about the objectives and goals of the specific project for which you seek funding. In the case of the urban school, the goals and objectives section helps the funder understand that they are not just buying educational goodies for kids but that their contribution is part of a comprehensive literacy program that includes reading fluency and comprehension goals with milestones along the way.
Methods and strategies
Once you establish the goal, show how your organization will accomplish it. Larger funders may demand a full logic model in which you have to create a chart showing the organization’s an organization’s goals, projects, programs, activities, and operations. In other cases, the proposal simply needs to explain the steps an organization will take to reach its objectives. In the urban school example, you could include the process for sourcing, pricing, and acquiring the e-readers, but the proposal would also need to show how the e-readers reinforce the methods and strategies the school is using to achieve its literacy goals and objectives.
Monitoring and evaluation
This section may be the key differentiator between the proposal’s success and failure. Funders like to know that a project has regular oversight and that program leaders will subject it to rigorous formal evaluations. For larger, more complex projects, you could hire an external consultant to handle this portion. For a small project, such as the urban school example, simply showing aggregated student test results can be an effective evaluation tool. For that to work, however, you would need to show students’ improvement on test scores after implementing the e-readers vis-a-vis their scores when using paper books.
In this portion of the proposal, share the biographies of two or three of the organization’s leaders along with the people responsible for the project. Often, you can use a pre-written biography for the CEO or other executive, but for project personnel, you may need to create something new. In the case of the urban school, the application would likely include biographies of the principal, the instructional coordinator and the literacy specialist.
According to nonprofit experts at Monster, “A well-prepared budget justifies all expenses and is consistent with the proposal narrative.” Typically, the program manager will complete the budget, but you as the grant writer will need to format it according to the funder’s guidelines. For many grants, you will also need to create a budget narrative that explains and defends each line item. In the case of a small proposal like the e-reader project, the budget would probably show the entire income and expense breakdown of the literacy program with the e-readers as one line. That approach helps the funder contextualize its role in the overall project.
Some foundations or government agencies expect applicants to include additional forms such as an IRS tax exemption letter, a list of the board of directors and a full organizational budget.
How To Write a Successful Proposal
Getting a grant proposal approved, in most cases, is a matter of lining up the right project with the right funder and presenting it in an emotionally compelling yet logical way.
1. Do your research
After taking time to review all potential funders, submit the project to the most likely source of funding first. Make sure you employ data-based facts, verifiable numbers and accurate stories in the text. While the proposal needs to be emotional, it cannot rely on emotion alone to secure funding.
2. Follow the guidelines
Many funders sort through their applicants first by seeing who followed the guidelines and who didn’t. Simply by sticking to a funder’s requests, your organization can often move to the second round of consideration.
3. Write simply
The funder is probably not an expert in every area of the arts, social change, humanitarian relief, economic development, education, technology and healthcare even if it supports projects in all those verticals. To be successful, learn when to use insider jargon and when to leave it out.
4. Employ feedback
Most funders are surprisingly willing to share their reasons for declining a grant proposal. When you hear the same reason more than once, it’s a good chance for you to improve as a grant writer.
5. Be persistent
Sometimes, well-written proposals that align perfectly with a funder’s guidelines don’t get funded. There just isn’t enough money to go around, and many foundations don’t give until they have seen multiple requests from the same applicant. Sticking with your project is a hallmark of the successful grant writer.
Why Grant Proposals Get Denied
A funder can deny a proposal for any reason, but most grant proposals get rejected because they do not match the funder’s goals and strategies. If a donor agency says it does not accept unsolicited proposals, for instance, then you can expect an unsolicited proposal to get rejected. Many applicants submit grants that simply do not align with what the donor agency wishes to accomplish. A careful review of the donor’s website, funding guidelines, and RFP can save you time, money, and frustration.
Many other proposals get tossed because the project doesn’t make sense to the funder. If you cannot provide a logical, simple and tightly written proposal, your team has not thought through the project well enough yet. Collaborating with the whole team to be sure the proposal contains no gaps in logic or potential pitfalls is part of how to write a grant proposal.
Some proposals don’t make it because errors in math, grammar or spelling make your application appear sloppy or unprepared, causing the funder to pass on what might have been a great concept. You can avoid this problem by hiring an editor or at least getting a coworker to check the math and proofread the text before sending the document into the world.
Of course, this is just an overview of one of the topics you’ll learn while studying for an MBA. As a student in CUNE’s MBA program you can learn the elements of grant writing in courses such as organizational resource management. By combining coursework in ethics, accounting, management and program development, our program will equip you to be a future leader who can secure funding for nonprofit.
Our MBA curriculum is specifically designed to have immediate real-world application, which means you can take what you learn in class and immediately apply it to your job. Evening courses also let you advance your education without taking time away from your current job.