How to Write a Grant Proposal

If you are new to grant writing, your first question is likely to be: How Do I Write a Grant Proposal?

At its core, writing a grant proposal comes down to five steps. Each of the five steps is described briefly below. If you are interested in reading more, you'll find links to earlier posts that describe the steps in detail.

Five Steps to Prepare a Grant Proposal

  1. Find a funder that funds the type of work you do in the geographic location where you do it. Your first step is to come up with a list of potential funders (foundations, corporate funders, government agencies) that fund the work you do (or want to do) and where you do it (i.e., region, country, state, city). To find potential funders, you'll have to do some research, preferably by using a funder database. If you cannot afford a subscription to a premium funder database such as the Foundation Center's Directory Online, one option is to subscribe to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which comes with access to the funder database GrantStation. GrantStation lists US-based and international funders. You can also use a search engine such as Google but the results will be less targeted.

  2. Read the eligibility guidelines carefully to make sure your organization is eligible to apply. All funders have eligibility guidelines that limit who can apply. In the US, a common eligibility guideline is that applicant organizations must have nonprofit status. Eligibility guidelines may limit applications to organizations based in specific countries or cities or that have a specific religious affiliation or public status (such as a government-run institution). As soon as you spot a funder that funds the type of work you do, read the eligibility guidelines carefully and highlight any restrictions. You don't want to spend time preparing a proposal only to find out that the funder will not accept your application.

  3. Review the proposal requirements. After you determine that your organization is eligible to apply, your next step is to make sure you have the resources to prepare the application. If the proposal is complicated (usually the larger the grant size, the more complicated the application), you'll need an experienced team to prepare a competitive proposal. For example, you might have to recruit technical experts and experienced finance professionals. If you do not have a team in place at the time you spot the opportunity, it may be best to let the opportunity go and focus instead on building a strong proposal team. While you build your team, you can look for grant opportunities that have a simpler application process such as requiring only a bottom-line, single-figure budget and a brief project description. Applying for a grant you have no chance of winning is not a good use of your limited resources.

  4. Write the proposal/complete the application. If the funder funds the type of work you do in the geographic location where you do it, and your organization meets all of the other eligibility requirements—and you have a team of qualified staff able to work on the proposal—then you are ready to start writing. Although the term "grant writer" suggests that one person is responsible for writing the grant proposal, this is not the case. A grant proposal requires input from many people. One person may be responsible for coordinating the proposal's development (usually referred to as the proposal manager), but many people contribute to the writing of the proposal. Most funders provide an application form or proposal outline for you to follow, so you'll rarely have to come up with the structure on your own. With the application or outline in hand, your task comes down to addressing—concisely but in detail—all of the funder's stated and implied guidelines and questions. It is helpful to create a table to track each of the proposal elements and how and where you have responded to them in the proposal. Not only will creating such a table provide reassurance that you've addressed everything you need to, but it will also help your colleagues who are reviewing your drafts do their job. The proposal reviewers are central members of the proposal team. They are individuals who have not been directly engaged in writing the proposal but who are in a position to evaluate the responsiveness of the proposal to the requirements. Although you don't have to do it this way, it is useful to have proposal reviewed multiple times instead of waiting until you think you have the "final" draft. By reviewing the proposal as you go along, you'll catch problems early enough to address them.

  5. Submit the application. Submitting the application means more than just emailing the final copy of the proposal to the funder. It also includes the steps you should take before and after submitting the application. Before you submit the proposal, you'll want to go back to the funding opportunity announcement and review what it says to confirm how the proposal should be submitted and what the deadline is. As part of packaging the proposal for submission, you'll need to assemble all of the pieces, including the main body of the proposal, the cover sheet, the attachments/supporting materials, and the budget. You'll want to review the formatting instructions for the proposal to make sure that you have complied with all of the requirements (e.g., using the correct font and margin sizes). You'll also want to check things like whether the pages, figures, and text boxes and have been numbered correctly. Everything should be checked and rechecked, preferably by more than one person. Unless the funder states otherwise, if it is an electronic submission, the final draft of the proposal should be converted to a PDF. A PDF document is more stable than a Word document and with a PDF you run less risk of unintended markups appearing (something that can happen with track changes in Word). If you need to submit your application as a hard copy, send the proposal using a reliable service like FedEx or DHL so that you can track the package. Last but not least, mail the proposal several days early so that if it gets lost in the mail, you'll have time to send a second copy and still meet the deadline.

Three Things to Keep in Mind When Writing a Proposal

Here are three additional tips for the proposal writing process:

  • Be responsive to the proposal guidelines. If the funder presents a defined a scope of work (SOW) in the funding opportunity announcement, regardless of what the SOW includes (or doesn't), or whether you agree or disagree with the approach, accept the scope as-is. Do not use the proposal as an opportunity to create (in your eyes) a better scope of work. Even if you think the funder has asked the wrong questions or proposed ineffective solutions, accept the funder's vision. If you think the proposed SOW doesn't makes sense and won't work, you always have the option not to apply. However, if you do decide to apply, you have to accept the funder's terms and understand that you may not be able to influence the funder to do things differently should you receive the award. Once the project begins, and if issues with the project's implementation do emerge, the funder may be open to discussing changes based on your feedback. It isn't completely out of the question that you'll be able to shape the SOW. You may be able to, just not at the proposal stage.

  • Show, don't tell. One of the principles of good writing is to "show, not tell." In other words, don't just say what you will do through a series of bullet points outlining facts. Other organizations may have staff with similar skills as your organization's. What is it about your organization that makes it particularly well suited for this opportunity? To do the show-not-tell process effectively, you'll need to demonstrate what your organization can offer. One way to do this is by providing examples from past projects and how you approached problems and delivered a solution. Through past accomplishments, you can show the funder that your organization delivers results and reveal how your organization thinks about and tackles project issues. While other organizations may boast similar capacity, every organization has a different personality—a signature way of working—and that is what you'll want to show the funder. Funders want to fund organizations that get work done, but they also want to work with organizations they think will be easy to work with. Revealing your organization's personality or culture is a way to demonstrate compatibility.

  • Write with the funder's interests in mind. The funder wants to partner with an organization that can deliver results on time and on budget. You don't need to tell your organization's full history of accomplishments in the proposal. You don't need to use lots of adjectives to describe the quality of your skills or services. Going back to the idea of "show, don't tell," it isn't your job to tell the funder you how great your organization is. You want the funder to come to this conclusion on its own after it has read your proposal. Focus on what the funder wants and write the proposal in a way that convinces the funder that you understand its interests and deliver results. The key word to keep in mind when writing a proposal is "responsive." Be responsive to the funder, both in how you prepare the proposal and in what you say.

For more information on what it takes to prepare a proposal, see the next post, How to Write a Grant Proposal Part II: What Will You Need to Prepare? for a list of common proposal sections and required information.