Too often grant proposals begin with some variation of “we want money because we’re a good cause and, since you’re good guys too, naturally this will be a match made in heaven.”
There’s nothing natural about this request.
In fact, it’s a version of “Alice in Wonderland Through the Looking Glass” thinking.
To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat speaking to Alice: If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.
In fact, Alice tells the Cat she just wants to get “somewhere.” Could this, perhaps, be like you just wanting to bring in ‘some’ money to balance your budget? Hmnn… The Cat tells Alice “Oh, you’re sure to do that. If you only walk long enough.”
Most funders reading your proposal will not want to read long enough. In fact, if you’re not clear on your destination from the get-go, they’re likely to abandon you before you get there. If you get there. In other words, wherever you end up, you won’t arrive there together.
And that’s the point of a grant proposal, right?
You seek a partnership… a travelling companion… an investor who cares about the outcome.
Where you’re Going… How you’re Going There… and How Much it Will Cost
Right from the get-go, this is what funders need to hear from you.
No beating around the bush.
Get right to the point with the specifics.
If the funder must read through several paragraphs – or pages – before it’s clear how much money you’re requesting and what, specifically, you intend to use it for, they’ll be in a ticked-off frame of mind as they read your proposal.
The 6-step formula I’m about to share is one I learned when I first entered this business decades ago.
I’ve used it successfully for hundreds (probably thousands) of proposals over the years for a range of different charities. It’s seldom let me down.
No, not every proposal got funded. But probably about 75% did.
Sure, it wasn’t just what was written.
Grant Writing Pre-Conditions
Before you sit down to write, consider these pre-conditions to assuring a positive outcome. This article is primarily about helping you to write a winning proposal. But it’s important to mention the fact even the best writer in the world can’t make a chicken out of a fish. Or a pig more attractive by applying lipstick. You get the idea.
Sit down with your executive management and/or program staff and flesh out where you stand. Are you being asked to raise funds for a half-baked idea? Put yourself in the funder’s shoes and ask the questions you think they’d ask. Let your program staff know this is part of your job.
TRUE STORY: I was once asked how I, a development staffer, could possibly write a grant proposal since I wasn’t a program staffer. I responded this was precisely the reason I was the perfect person for the task. Because I wasn’t steeped in the program, I could ask the questions someone else who wasn’t steeped in the program (aka the funder) would be likely to ask. In this way we could strengthen the proposal in advance of pitching it to someone outside our organization. Someone who needed to be persuaded this was not only a pressing problem and viable solution, but that we were the best positioned to address the problem. It worked!
Besides writing, grant seeking success also depends on a variety of other factors, including:
- Reputation: Your nonprofit’s reputation in the community.
- Research: How well you did your research in matching your needs to the funder’s areas of interest.
- Pre-Suasion: How well you greased the wheels by first talking to the funder, sending a letter of inquiry, finding a senior manager, program director, board member, donor or volunteer to advocate on your behalf.
- Plan for Success: How well-conceived the plan you are proposing is (even the best prose won’t fix a shaky plan for how you’ll address the need you’re highlighting).
As the grant writer, you’ll have some input into all the pre-conditions to grant success (all of which is the topic for a separate article). For now, let’s assume you’ve got a great plan to pitch and you’re ready to put virtual pen to paper.
Easy as 1-2-3-4-5-6! How to Write a Grant Proposal
This formula works well both for Letters of Intent (LOI) and for fuller proposals. Of course, you’ll need to adhere to the funder’s guidelines as well.
- If they ask for a two-page LOI, then each of these six sections will be about a paragraph long.
- If you have freer reign, you can write as much as you need under each section to make your point.
- If they have additional sections (e.g., they want a section describing how you’ll ultimately fund this program without their support; they want a list of key staff bios and credentials; they want an overall background statement outlining your mission and history; they want to know who will be in charge of operating the program; they ask about your diversity policy, etc.) then you’ll need to add those. Sometimes you can accomplish this by simply including insert materials like an annual report, newsletter or simple FAQ about your organization. This is helpful because they won’t dilute the clear, succinct message of your proposal.
Generally, less is more.
If you make your proposal easy to read and understand, you’re more likely to get passed along to the next level. If it’s too much work to read your proposal, the person doing the reading may simply decide to pass.
It’s all in the details.
Unlike a fundraising appeal targeting individual donors, you can’t simply tell stories and omit the financial specifics. You need a clear fundraising request, a project cost, and a budget with explicit line items.
Don’t forget to tell a story however.
Stories are much easier for readers to grasp than a long litany of data points. So while data demonstrating the scope of the problem you’re addressing is important, so is a personal story that turns that data into compelling, approachable narrative. Often the best place to put this is in the “need” section.
TRUE STORY: One of the first grant proposals I ever wrote was seeking funding for a new boiler for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I did all the research on the boiler specs and cost, of course. But I began with a story about why having reliable heat was especially important for musicians. You see pianists and violinists, among others, use their hands a lot. They must be warm and limber in order for them to play well. Often they’d go into the bathroom to run their hands under hot water prior to a class, rehearsal or performance. But we no longer had hot water much of the time. The musicians couldn’t play! I told the story of one student who quit mid-way through a dress rehearsal because his fingers were too stiff.
Okay, back to the nitty gritty.
Why six sections? Using headings and subheadings makes your proposal easier to digest.
Organizing your thoughts helps the reader to organize their thoughts as well. After they read each section, you want them to be thinking “Got it.” “Makes sense.” “Interesting.” “Hmmn… I didn’t know that.” As they move from section to section, you draw them deeper into your case for support until they get to the point where they’re eager to help. Or at least intrigued enough to want to hear more.
1. Statement of Request
This is your thesis where you lay out the entire reason you’re writing.
We are endeavoring to right X wrong (or create X opportunity)…so are requesting $Y amount… to be applied specifically for Z purpose.
Your ‘Statement of Request’ looks something like this:
The XYZ Foundation has been a long-time supporter of our Holiday Food Program, for which we are extremely grateful. At this time we are requesting a grant of $20,000 for 2022-2023 to pay for the direct cost of food to provide special holiday food packages and prepared meals for elderly, children, and families in our local community who are ill, isolated or struggling to maintain self-sufficiency.
This is where you tell a little bit about your successful history.
It may include information that establishes your good reputation and/or your achievement in addressing this and related problems. It can be as little as a paragraph noting your year of founding, size, geographic scope, program range, governance and community support. Or it can be several paragraphs, or even pages, outlining successful services related to the one you are proposing.
For example, were you proposing a new shelter for moms and kids escaping domestic violence, you might add bulleted paragraphs about the associated services your agency already has – upon which these moms and kids would likely draw (e.g., food vouchers, emergency loans, assistance applying for government support, counseling, job assistance, after-school care, peer support, etc.).
Your ‘Background Section’ looks something like this:
For over 150 years, XYZ charity has been reaching out to those in our community who are most vulnerable. In the current uncertain climate, with social distancing, increasing costs, and decreasing accessibility of food and transportation, coupled with growing unemployment and insecurity, it is more important than ever that we provide food to those in need. By galvanizing volunteers to assemble and deliver packages of traditional holiday foods and prepared meals, the Holiday Food Program also reminds isolated seniors, families, and individuals of our community’s support during what could otherwise be exceptionally lonely times of the year.
You can also add “For more background, please see the XYZ material included with this proposal.”
3. Need in the Community
This is where you get specific about the need you plan to address.
Data and research is helpful here, as it shows you know what you’re talking about and the need is real. It’s not just your opinion.
Your ‘Need in the Community Section’ looks something like this:
Research tells us 20% of our local population lives on or below the poverty level. Many more are struggling to get by at income levels just above this. A significant number of these poor are elderly or living in single parent families; many of them are children. Our community also includes many poor immigrants, seniors and adults with mental or physical disabilities. The marginal poor include those who may be working and are just managing to get by, but are one “event” away from crisis. In the current depressed economy there are more people asking for help—including working people who have never before had to ask for this kind of assistance.
While organizations like our local Food Bank work to alleviate hunger throughout the year, as do we through our own Food Pantry program, there is no one else in the community targeting the specific needs of people who are alone for holidays. [Here is where you might add a story. Perhaps a specific person whose life was made infinitely better due to the kindness of a stranger and the delivery of a familiar holiday food offering.]
Within our current caseload we have identified over 1,000 individuals who live alone, have no close family members, and who will be completely alone for holidays. We have identified an additional 4,000 members of families who will not be able to afford traditional holiday foods. As has been true in past years, XYZ will continue to involve the entire community in gathering donations, creating cards, decorating and assembling food gift bags, and paying friendly visits to deliver them to homebound clients.
4. How You Address the Need
This is where you outline your step-by-step plan to address the need you’ve described.
Whatever you can include to demonstrate this is a workable solution, do so. Perhaps you’ve already had success with this program and are asking for an extension or expansion. Or perhaps organizations in other parts of the country have had success with this model. If so, describe how this solution has worked in the past.
Your ‘How You Address the Need Section’ looks something like this:
We anticipate creating and delivering approximately 5,000 bags of holiday food for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Easter and Passover in the coming year. Populations reached include seniors in assisted living facilities as well as seniors in their own homes, immigrants, veterans, individuals with chronic illnesses or disabilities, and other individuals and families who might otherwise be isolated or unable to join in holiday celebrations. As you are aware, in the past XYZ also hosted communal holiday gatherings at our offices and other community locations for specific, particularly isolated client populations. Until communal celebrations are again feasible, particularly for vulnerable populations, we are committed to deliver holiday meals to 1,000 people living alone.
To meet the need we will recruit and coordinate volunteers to assist with food sourcing, cooking, package assembly and delivery. Strict protocols will be put in place to assure the health and safety of all participating volunteers and meal recipients.
This is the heart of your request as it outlines what your plan costs and how you anticipate funding it.
Your budget also gives your potential funder an idea of where their support fits into the big picture. Are you asking them to fund the entire thing? Are there other foundations who’ve already agreed to sign on, or who you’re simultaneously approaching? Funders do talk to each other, so transparency is important.
Don’t forget to include a percentage for overhead. No program runs itself, and funders understand this. Without salaries and infrastructure you’ll fall flat on your feet.
And try to make your income and expenses balance.
A sample, simple budget looks something like this:
Funder to whom you’re applying
Other funders to whom you’ve applied/grant status
Other funders to whom you’re applying
Other contribution income you’ll apply to this project
Volunteer coordinator .XX FTE
Volunteer coordinator .XX FTE
Program supervision .XX FTE
Other program expenses
Administrative overhead (includes a percentage of staff salaries & benefits for finance and administration, development and marketing, facilities, information systems; insurance; payroll processing fees; annual audit fees; credit card processing fees; organization dues; and professional consultant fees)
6. How You (the funder) Can Help
This is a summary that restates what you laid out in your Statement of Request.
It reminds the funder what, specifically, you’ll use their grant for should it be awarded. And it also places their assistance within the context of your other programs and services and broader mission. It’s not a bad place to also mention how this aligns with their values and/or stated funding priorities.
Your concluding section looks something like this:
XYZ Foundation funds are requested to help underwrite the direct costs of food for home-delivered food gift packages as well as nutritious holiday meals for the most isolated and vulnerable individuals. Other program costs include salaries for the Volunteer Coordinators who recruit, train, and organize the multitude of volunteers who make this program possible. Your grant will make a tremendous difference in the health and well-being of neighbors who rely on our communal support to keep their bodies fed, their minds engaged and their spirits lifted.
Remember: the more specific you are, the better.
Succinctness matters too. Unless they ask for a term paper (some government proposals are like this), don’t give them one.
Just explain, as directly as possible, why you need the funds and how you’ll use them responsibly.
TRUE STORY: Imagine your kid asks you for money. You’re likely to ask them what they need it for. “I just need it” is probably not going to cut it. You’ll want to know not just the need, but how they’re planning to spend the money responsibly to address this need. After all, you’re not a bottomless pit!
When my son used to ask for an increase in his allowance, I asked him to present me with a budget showing how he intended to spend the money. Worked like a charm – for both of us. I didn’t feel he’d be blowing the money on useless stuff, and he thought things through carefully to present a strong case for support. Win/win.
Don’t make funder prospects ferret out the potential value in associating themselves with your nonprofit.
If you do the work for them, they’re likely to return the favor.
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