Before you go ahead and dive deep into grant proposal writing, take a moment to ask yourself:
“Does my nonprofit need to be applying for a grant in the first place?”
For many nonprofits, grants are very appealing. They can provide the opportunity for an organization or business to make a significant impact on its community that it would otherwise be unable to fund.
On the other hand, writing effective grant proposals can seem like stepping into a confusing, long labyrinth, and one that comes with many strings attached.
Therefore, it’s important to know if applying to grants is the right decision for funding your nonprofit, amongst many other funding sources at your disposal. And if so, how much energy should you invest in the process?
So, what are Grants?
A grant is a bounty, contribution, gift, or subsidy (in cash or kind) bestowed by a government or other organization (called the grantor) for specified purposes to an eligible recipient (called the grantee).
Grants are usually conditional upon certain qualifications as to the use, maintenance of specified standards, or a proportional contribution by the grantee or other grantor(s).
Grants are typically awarded to nonprofit organizations for a distinct program or purpose. Grantmaker generally focus their “giving” on:
- A specific population (such as children or organizations in New York)
- Certain types of nonprofits (such as animal shelters or environmental groups)
- Particular types of support (such as program development or funding for equipment)
What are the different types of grants?
Grants can provide different types of support for your organization.
- Operating support or unrestricted funding is a grant for day-to-day operating costs. It is used to support the general work of an organization and is not dedicated to a particular purpose or project.
- Capital support is most commonly given for specific capital campaigns. These involve building construction or acquisition, land acquisition, renovations, remodeling, or the rehabilitating of property.
- Program development grants or restricted funding provide funding for a particular purpose or project. This is the most common type of grant funding.
Pro tip: Grant-based funding isn’t sustainable alone. It has to be part of a diversified fundraising plan. Many fundraising experts recommend that no more than 20% of your funding comes from grants. Any more than that and you risk sinking your organization if a key grant falls through.
How do I know if I should apply for a grant? And where can I find them?
Grants are most certainly not the answer to securing funds quickly or in a pinch.
However, they are a great solution for nonprofits looking to raise the funds necessary to carry out carefully planned programs.
Read more about where to find grants for your nonprofit here.
Check out winning grant proposals at Grantspace.
The most common myths about nonprofit grants
1. Foundations and corporations are like Santa Claus.
While there’s indeed a lot of money available to nonprofits out there, over 50 billion dollars to be precise, this money isn’t just sitting there waiting for you to ask for it. You’ll need to put the work in, and the requirements can be demanding.
2. Only big nonprofits can apply.
There are grants out there for all types and sizes of nonprofits. In addition to that, while many grants are project-specific, there are plenty of grants that are unrestricted and can fund some of your operating costs or capital campaigns as well.
3. Grant writing is a mysterious, strange art.
While there’s definitely a lot to learn about how to write excellent, winning grant proposals, it’s also not magic. Once you learn the basics, developing a winning nonprofit grant proposal is quite logical.
How to Write an Effective Grant Proposal
1. Be Prepared
First, create a diversified fundraising plan – where grants are only one of the funding sources.
Take time to analyze if applying for a grant is really the best way to fund the desired project/campaign.
Commit yourself to apply to a grant only if you match all the foundation’s qualifications and you’re willing to research and write tailored applications for each foundation. Also, apply only for the kinds of funding you already identified you are pursuing in your fundraising plan. This will save everyone time and energy.
Additionally, make sure you have the resources and time to research foundations and grant writing opportunities for your organization. Really ask yourself if your organization has the capacity to accomplish what is asked.
Furthermore, find a qualified writer who has experience writing grants, or invest in grant writing training for an existing staff member.
Pro tip: Create a grant calendar that includes all the important dates and deadlines for grants you wish to apply for in the next year or two.
2. Don’t Be Generic
If you want to have any chance at all at getting your grant application approved, you can’t write one generic application and send off duplicates to different foundations. This makes it appear to a reviewer that your application is an afterthought, and that’s not a good thing.
The most essential guidelines of them all: you need to tailor your application to whichever organization you’re submitting it to.
To do that, you’ll need to do some intense research. Carefully examine the call for proposals and the organization’s website. This can help you draw connections that may then aid you in preparing your application.
Grantmakers are usually looking for a specific cause or subject to fund, so always make sure to thoroughly read what the grantmaker is interested in and ensure that it’s relevant to your organization’s mission before applying.
Pro tip: Never compromise your mission or beliefs in order to get any kind of funding.
3. Data Yet Again
Data is what wins grants.
Even if you hire the most experienced grant writer, messy data that are sprinkled throughout the organization will prevent grant-writing from ever even getting started.
If you don’t collect relevant data, as well as manage and update it, there’s not much that can be done.
A warm story might get someone to give you $20 out of their pocket. But a foundation with $50,000 grants can’t give based on heart-warming stories alone.
Successful grant applications are impact-focused. The best grant proposals distill into clear and plain language the need that the grant will address and the unique approach that the organization’s proposed initiative takes to do so.
Pro tip: Search the Internet for previously funded grant applications that have been posted online by organizations that received grant awards. Look at a mixture of grant applications that were funded by the federal government, foundations, and corporations and then learn from them.
1. Review And Get A Fresh Perspective
When we’ve been reading, speaking, living, and breathing our nonprofit – we can become a bit blind to the language we’re using.
Assume that the funder isn’t familiar at all with the work that you do. Write as if the funder will be hearing about your nonprofit for the first time.
Avoid jargon and abbreviations. If you’re struggling to take a step back, it can be helpful to ask for someone who’s less familiar with the work that you do to take a look and give you their feedback (e.g. a friend or a willing acquaintance).
2. Get Clear And Concise
Funders will lose interest if your application is too difficult to understand or takes too much of their time.
No one should be trying to figure out what you’re trying to say or what you’re asking for the money for. Be clear and straightforward in your request.
- Double-check spelling, calculations, and due dates.
- Make sure that all the required forms and necessary attachments are included by checking the submissions package.
- Check that page number and font size requirements are followed and that documents are presented in the order described.
- You may need to have your CEO and the Board President sign the cover sheet or letter.
- Pay attention to character limits.
- Have another staff member review the budget lines.
- Have a clear contact from your organization.
Grant Proposals: The Basics
Before sending over a full, long grant proposal, you’d typically first send a letter of inquiry.
Many trusts and foundations require a letter of inquiry or request of an application prior to submitting your application.
The letter of inquiry serves as an introduction to your project and a way to gauge interest from the funding committee. If they want additional information, they will respond with a request for a more in-depth proposal.
The letter should be no longer than two pages.
In the letter of inquiry, be as specific as possible. Add examples in a concise, succinct manner. Keep language simple and avoid ambiguous or general generic statements.
Following the letter of inquiry, if you’re invited to send a more in-depth proposal, you’d typically send a 7-10-page document providing more information about your organization, the project, the needs, and the outcomes. This proposal typically includes a cover letter and appendices, as well.
Note that some grant foundations prefer a concise proposal of about 3-5 pages instead of this typical longer proposal. This one is sometimes referred to as a letter of proposal.
The Components Of A Good Grant Proposals
Note that different foundations and grantmakers might require a different format. Always carefully read the call for proposals before embarking on the writing process.
Provide a short overview of the entire proposal. Include the funds you’re requesting through the grant, as well as the resources that others will contribute.
2. Introduction to the Applicant
Describe your nonprofit organization and make a case for your credibility. Explain why you can be trusted to steward the funds responsibly. Also share your organization’s history, your success record, and why you’re the right fit for the project.
3. The Need/The Problem
Establish the need for your project. Demonstrate who will benefit and how will they benefit. State the consequences of not funding the project and the needs not being addressed. This should be a factual, well-documented description of the situation. Share about what concerns you and why it matters.
Pro tip: Incorporate a case study of a real beneficiary your organization has served. Show a real need of a real person (of course – change the name for confidentiality reasons). Explain your time frame, and why securing funding is critical now.
4. The Objectives and Outcomes
What are the desired outcomes? Define the goals and state how you will measure whether you’ve achieved them. Lay down the specific, measurable outcomes you expect your project activities to produce. Objectives should be consistent with your statement of need.
5. Program Plan
How are you going to execute the project? Describe the ways in which you will achieve the objectives. What will be your key activities? Provide thorough details about them. Who will do what? When and how will they do it?
6. The Capacity
You also need to explain how your organization is prepared for the project. For example, do you have adequate, trained staff and supportive board and community? Connect this to the time frame – how will you execute your program plan in time?
7. Evaluation Plan
Describe how you’ll evaluate that the objectives have been reached. How will you track and measure whether activities are rolling out as planned? How will you know you’re succeeding and what will tell you that?
Provide a thorough and realistic budget. You must try to include details of expenses as well as other sources of anticipated revenue. For instance, such as by the applicant organization or the resources that other partners will contribute.
9. Sustained Impact
Talk about the long-term. Does your project need continuous funds or is it a one-time undertaking? How will you continue to produce impact beyond the period of grant funding?
Note: Some funders may require that you attach specific documents to your proposals, such as your organization’s 501(c)(3) letter from the Internal Revenue Service, list of your board directors and their affiliations, your current operating budget, or letters from partner organizations.
Over To You
Winning a grant is almost like completing a long-distance run. Many grant applications are rejected the first time.
To be accepted for a grant, it’s often important to have an existing relationship with the grant-giving organization. Like all fundraising, no might mean “no for now” and much of it boils down to relationships.
For that reason, if your grant proposal is rejected, respond graciously. Contact the funder to ask if you might try to submit again with appropriate changes or if they might still be interested later in a different project. However, don’t become a pest or turn sour – don’t burn the bridge!
You may not be able to control everything that influences the decisions of grant-givers. However, you can increase your chances of approval by clearly communicating your organization’s mission and credibility, stating the need for the project and how you’ll be meeting that need, and your passion for what you are trying to accomplish.
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