Grant Writing for Nonprofit Organizations

Many nonprofit organizations rely on donations and gifts from supporters to maintain their organizations. Often organizations turn to grant writing to seek additional funding for their programs. Grant writing is the process of locating and obtaining funds. With endless search results available on the Internet, finding a grant isn’t hard. However, in order to write a successful proposal you need to know what to put into the proposal and how to write well.


There is grant money for every purpose. Money can be obtained from the government in the form of federal or local grants. They are usually awarded to organizations, institutions and state and local government who are planning on doing a big project that will benefit a population or community. There are strict rules to follow when rewarded a government grant, which if not followed can result in severe penalty. Another type of grant can come from foundations set up by an individual, family or corporation.  Before applying for a grant, you must have a need or a problem that needs to be solved. The award usually specifies specific requirements….They want to know how you are going to use the money to support a mission or goal.


It’s important to make sure your goals are in line with the grant maker’s mission. Don’t force the fit …. For example, you should never replace an old program with a new one just to appeal to a donor. Instead, look at your current program from a donor’s perspective and highlight the program’s strengths in a way that will capture  attention. A good organization is mission-driven, not grant- driven.


Once you have determined that your organization is eligible for a specific grant, you should apply. Grant writing isn’t as simple as filling out an application to request funds. It requires a detailed description of your organization and how you plan to use the funds to meet certain objectives.


Fancy words and lengthy description won’t help you. You want to write in such a way that the grantor can’t say no. Take this story for example found in “Writing for a Good Cause-The Complete Guide to Crafting Proposals and Other Persuasive Pieces for Nonprofits,” by Joseph Barbato and Danielle S. Furlich.


Your’e walking down the street in your neighborhood when you meet a group of children with a pile of lumber next to a large tree.


“We want to build a tree house so all of the kids on the block have a place to meet,” one says. “Danny’s dad says he’ll help us build it, and Mr. McDonagh gave us lumber, and Mrs. Smith said we could borrow the tools out of her shed as long as we’re careful. All we need is nails, screws, and bolts and we can begin building!”


Will you refuse them the $20 for hardware? Of course not.


The problem is clearly outlined and the solution is so easy and logical. Your proposal needs to be this clear and concise.


Here is an all-purpose outline taken from “Writing for a Good Cause,” to follow when writing a proposal. This outline covers everything you’ll need in a formal proposal. You may not use all of the sections depending on who the donor is. Pick and choose which sections meet the grantor’s requirements.


  1. Cover Letter (required)
  2. Cover Sheet (optional
  3. Table of Contents (optional)
  4. Executive Summary (required)
  5. Introduction (required)
  6. Problem Statement (required)
  7. Program/Project Description
    1. Statement of Goals/Objectives (required)
    2. Methods (required)
    3. Evaluations ( sometimes optional but worth having)
    4. Future Funding (optional)
  1. Conclusion (required)
  2. Budget (required)
  3. Appendices
    1. Longer Background Narrative (optional)
    2. Credentials of Key Leaders (optional)
    3. List of Trustees and Their Affiliations (optional)
    4. Strategic Plan, Press Coverage, Letters of Support (optional)
    5. 501(c)(3) Tax Exemption Notification (optional)
    6. Audited Financial Statements and/or Annual Report (optional)
    7. Maps, Photographs, or Charts (optional)


The Cover Letter (Required)


The cover letter should be one to two pages signed by a senior-ranking official in your organization. The cover letter lets the reader know if the proposal is worth reading. It’s also a place to get personal and tie your proposal to current events in the community.


Here are a few things to remember:

    • Make sure that any vital information that is in your cover letter is somewhere in the proposal because often the proposal is copied for several readers without the cover letter attached.
    • Mention the amount you are requesting.
    • Mention what the money will be used for.
    • Mention how they can get in touch with you.
    • Let the recipient know when you will next be in touch.


The Cover Sheet (Optional)


This is the cover of the proposal. It is optional but it lends an air of formality so you decide if you need it. It usually has the name of the organization to which the proposal is being sent, the title of the project or program, the name of your organization, and the date. You can also include your agency’s phone number and address for convenience to the reader.


Table of Contents (Optional)


Include a table of contents if your proposal is more than seven pages or has a lot of appendices.


    • Number your pages.
    • Double-check your table of contents against the actual page numbers.


Executive Summary (Required)


The executive summary is usually the shortest, but the most important part of your proposal. It’s where readers decide whether to throw your proposal in the garbage or keep reading. It should never be more than one page and must include the problem you want to address, your proposed solution, and how much money you’re requesting. The amount you’re requesting should be in the first paragraph. You must hit the topics that will interest the reader. Put the most effort into this summary.


The Introduction (Required)


Sometimes this is referred to as the “Background” or “Organizational History.” In one to two pages you should describe who you are and why you are qualified to do the work.  The introduction will often include the number of employees, the number of offices, the number of clients, and the size of the annual budget. It will also reference partnerships, letters of support, media references and other attachments that outline your credibility.


This is an opportunity to list your organization’s strengths and successes. Don’t ruin it by giving your entire history and listing all of your programs.


The Problem Statement (Required)


This is also known as the “Needs Statement.” It is usually a one half to one page description of the specific problem your organization wants to address. Your agency’s lack of funding should not be the problem. Don’t appear needy.


Discuss the problem in a way that will interest the reader. Cite facts and statistics your group has discovered through research. It’s good to use a story or quote people who are experiencing the problem directly, but don’t go overboard because many of the readers know the issues as well as you do. Provide enough information to demonstrate that your organization understands the problem and can solve it effectively.


Program/Project Description


This is the meat of your proposal. This is where you say what you plan to do to address the problem. It is broken up into four parts: goals and objectives, methods, evaluation, and future funding.


Goals and Objectives (required)

Goals are often a one-sentence description of how things will be different if the project is successful and how you plan to reach that outcome. The objectives are specific and measurable. Use numbers. Objectives are often listed in a bulleted format.


Methods (required)

This is the who, what, where, how and why that describes how you will achieve your goals and objectives. If your program is long and complex include a timeline or a work plan that outlines the tasks. You must be specific in this section about what you plan to do. Research and interviews are important to describe your methods. Pursue people who will be involved with your program and ask them what they plan to do with the proposed money.


To decide what details to include, you have to think what information will persuade this donor about your program. Avoid unnecessary detail. Be selective and tell the reader specifically what you plan to do. If you feel like the reader needs more detail include it in the appendix.


Another tip, make sure your methods section matches your budget.


Evaluation (optional)

This section describes how you will determine whether the program was effective. Evaluation can be done internally, but if it’s a big project you may want to hire an outside agency. Be sure to list who is doing the evaluation.  It’s beneficial for you to come up with the evaluation criteria because if you don’t the founder will, and the criteria might be something you aren’t prepared for.


Your evaluation should be a checklist that shows how you met the goals and objectives you set. The evaluation can simply be questions that you will answer once the project is over or the grant money has been spent.


Future Funding (optional)

If applicable, discuss other resources for this project and how you will meet the needs of the project beyond the period of the grant. This section will show that you’ve given serious thought to the program and want to make it work long term.


Conclusion (Required)


This is where you ask for the money. You can also describe recognition of the donor if there is going to be any. Then you end with a last sentence or two about how the project and grantmaker’s involvement will make a difference. You want to make the donors feel good about this decision. You’ve given the donors all the reasons why and how. Now remind them how important they are to the cause.


Budget (Required)


Many foundations begin by reading the budget page so make it easy to read and understand. The person who writes the budget may be you or whoever has the time and knowledge. If someone else writes it, read over it carefully. If something is added to the budget that wasn’t listed in your methods, go back and fill it in.


Here are some items to consider including:


    • Personnel. If you have to hire additional staff for the project include their salary. If your existing staff is devoting more than 50 percent of their time to the project, include half of their salary as project expense.
    • Benefits. Some budgets break out benefits as a separate line item for salaries. Unless specifically requested, don’t list every benefit and its cost.
    • Consultants and Contract Service. Get an estimate from consultants of how much their services will cost.
    • General Overhead/Operating Costs. Include things like rent, utilities, telephone service, postage, copying costs, insurance, office supplies, bookkeeping, janitorial service, and landscaping.
    • Equipment. If you are going to buy new equipment for this project, get an estimate . Be sure to include installation, service and future upgrades
    • Travel. If travel is required, list an estimate of how much will be spent on airfare, meals, lodging, tips and mileage reimbursement.



Make sure you double-check your numbers and that they add up and match your text. If it helps, place your budget, your timeline and your text side by side and compare numbers.


Appendices (Optional)


This is where you include information that you know the reader will be interested in but wasn’t appropriate to fit into the proposal.

You can include:

    • a list of board members
    • articles about your nonprofit organization
    • 501(c)(3) tax-exemption notification
    • audited financial statements for the last fiscal year
    • maps of the area you work in
    • charts and graphs
    • photographs


Following this format will help you achieve the appropriate format for a grant proposal.


Here are a few tips to remember when writing your proposal.


  1. Follow the grantor’s guidelines. Answer every question.
  2. Be brief. Sometimes one or two sentences are all you need to get your point across.
  3. Organize your thoughts. Writing forces you to think. Determine what to include and in what order.
  4. Use stories and quotes appropriately. Don’t start out with a heart-wrenching story about horrible disadvantaged children who overcame their struggles. Instead include a clean, concise description of what the program offers.
  5. Avoid jargon. If you must use a technical term or acronym, make sure you define it. Use short words over long words. For example, use the word “use” vs “ utilized.” Write so that both a professional and the average person can understand.
  6. Be realistic. When writing objectives, keep in mind that you and your staff are going to have to live up to these promises.
  7. Be positive. Focus on your organization’s strengths. Don’t play the victim.
  8. Ask for money three times. A lot of people forget to ask. Ask in the cover letter, executive summary and conclusion. Make sure you ask for a specific amount, never “whatever you can spare.”
  9. Avoid cookie-cutter proposals. It’s okay to cut and paste key sections, but don’t merely change the name and address and send the same proposal to 40  potential funders.
  10. Proofread. Typos and inconsistencies reflect poorly on your organization and can cause your proposal to be turned down.


Too often writers think a grant is just a matter of filling out an application. In order to be a successful grant writer who wins, you need to have excellent writing skills and know the appropriate format for a proposal.


There are many books and free resources to writing a good proposal. Here is a list of the ones I found most helpful:



Tips from a Professional 

Rebecca Valdez, the founder of Youth with a Vision, has been writing grants for 14 years to go toward the mission of increasing the educational, economical and social accomplishments of at-risk youth living in the Denver area. Youth with a Vision has helped 8,720 teens through one-on-one mentoring and after-school programs.

Since 1998 Youth WAV has received $3.5 million in grants. In order to find grants, Valdez subscribes to the Colorado Community Resource Center catalog. She said a lot of research goes into finding a grant, adding you want to choose something you can potentially win. “We stay away from federal grants because we can’t compete,” says Valdez.

She begins her search by grouping all grants into categories that fit with her organization. She advises that you should research potential donors to see which organizations they’ve funded and how much they’ve given.

Out of the 150 grants she applies for each year she expects to receive about 10 percent. Some agencies will accept a common grant application and letter of intent or cover letter while others want a full grant proposal. Valdez estimates it takes 60 to 90 hours to write a full proposal for the first time. She says when they reapply the following year it only takes between 25 to 30 hours to revise and personalize the proposal.

When asked how she learned how to write grant proposals, Valdez said, “I learned by doing research and by trial and error. Some foundations are very picky. One mistake I made when reapplying for a grant was sending the application in two days before year end. They denied me for not following the guidelines.”

Valdez has found the best way to get funding is through networking. She contacts foundations, store managers and corporations to see if they would be interested in donating to her organization. Fourteen years ago she wrote a two-page letter to Philip Anchutz, who Forbes Magazine ranks the 34th richest person in the U.S., asking for a donation of $15,000. “He sent us a check for $25,000 and has done so for the past 14 years,” she says.

There is money available. You just have to do your research and apply, Valdez says. By networking and establishing yourself, foundations will want to know what amazing things your program is doing to inspire people to support your program, she concludes.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s