How to Write a Grant Proposal Part II: What Will You Need to Prepare?

The last post on grant writing introduced five steps to prepare a grant application, which are: 1) find potential funders (generate a list through research); 2) check the eligibility guidelines (i.e., can you apply?); 3) review proposal guidelines (do you have the resources to apply?); 4) write the proposal (multiple drafts, multiple reviews); and 5) submit the proposal (check submission guidelines, submit early).  

This post will take a closer look at the application process and the standard sections you are likely to encounter, so you'll know what to expect. As you review these standard pieces, you may find you have some of the information and text already on hand or that it will be relatively easy to pull it together.

Standard Grant Proposal Sections

One way to get an idea of the standard proposal pieces is to look at common grant applications. While there is no universally accepted application format across all grantmakers, some grantmakers have agreed to accept a shared (or common) application to save applicants' time. Common applications are often specific to a particular geographic region.

Within the U.S., some examples of common applications include:

If you review a few of these standard applications, you'll start to see similarities in the types of information the applications collect and the questions they ask. Before you begin to search for grant opportunities, consider writing responses to application questions that frequently appear, such as those listed below. The more you can prepare in advance for these common application elements, the better positioned you'll be to respond quickly to new funding opportunities as they come up.

Common Questions Included in Applications for Foundation Grants

  • Organizational Information

    • Brief description of the organization (background, goals, current programs)

    • Purpose and services of organization

    • Organization's mission statement

    • Challenges and opportunities facing the organization next 3-5 years

    • What is the organization's planning process and what is the current focus of planning efforts?

    • Current activities, recent accomplishments, and future plans

    • Geographic area served and number of persons served annually

    • Number of employees (full and part-time)

    • Number of volunteers

    • Ethnic and gender representation on staff and in population served

    • Organization's total budget

    • Organization's fiscal year

    • Name of executive director

    • Role of organization's board of directors (financial and programmatic oversight and fundraising responsibilities)

  • Project Information

    • Description of project (goals, objectives, activities, expected outcomes, timeframe, description of need)

    • List of key individuals involved in the project (include summaries of qualifications and/or CVs)

    • List of potential collaborators and their expected contributions

    • Describe evaluation plans, including how success will be defined and measured

    • Describe how evaluation results will influence program planning

    • List similar projects, if any, and explain how your project differs

    • Estimated project costs (total) and the amount requested from the specific funder

    • Description of how beneficiaries of the project will be involved in the project's development and implementation

    • Strategies for funding the project beyond the grant period

    • How will project results be disseminated?

Outline of a U.S. Government Agency Application

Applications for U.S. government agency grants share similarities with foundation grant applications, but government grant applications are usually more complex and require a narrative proposal instead of an application form. Additionally, there can be significant differences when it comes to the presentation of the budget.

An application to a foundation might request a simple budget that will fit on one page and consist of a few key line items such as personnel, equipment, printing, and travel.  A budget to a foundation may allow you to put a lump sum for travel that is inclusive of transportation, accommodation costs, and per diem and not require you to break it down further. In contrast, a government grant application may call for a detailed budget and request that you indicate the number of trips anticipated during the project's life and breakdown travel costs by destination and into categories such as flights and hotel charges.

Foundation applications and government grant applications can also differ in the amount of supporting information required. To illustrate, let's take a look at an opportunity (RFA-674-16-000001) released by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on November 12, 2015. The title of the RFA is "Lesotho HIV Care and Treatment Services." Applications are due January 8, 2015, which gives applicants eight weeks to prepare their response.

USAID requests that proposals include the following elements, all of which are pretty standard. (Note: The outline below lists the major proposal elements only, with brief summaries of what should be included as part of each one. In the RFA, USAID's description of what the technical proposal should cover is five pages long and provides significantly more detail.)

  • Cover page

    • Program Title

    • Notice of Funding Opportunity (NFO) reference number

    • Name of organization proposed as prime partner or names of the consortium involved in the proposed program

    • Any partnerships

    • Name of the proposed award Chief of Party and his/her institutional affiliation

    • Name of primary contact person (name, title, organization, mailing address, telephone number, email address)

    • Name of alternate contact person (name, title, organization, mailing address, telephone number, email address)

  • Table of contents

  • Program Abstract/Executive Summary (2 pages, not included in the proposal page limit of 30 pages)

    • Summary of key elements of technical strategy, management approach, implementation plan, expected results, and Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) plan.

  • Technical application body (30-page limit)

    • Detailed description of the proposed technical strategy and approach, including evidence of effectiveness such as references.

    • Must comprehensively show how the applicant will achieve the objectives outlined in the program description over the five year-project (USAID has named five objectives for the project).

  • M&E Plan (4 pages or fewer)

    • Describe how the program will measure PEPFAR standard indicators, propose supplemental indicators and targets, and outline an approach for developing an M&E plan.

    • Demonstrate applicant's ability to reach stated project objectives within the required time of performance (including a rapid launch of project activities) through the inclusion of illustrative timelines.

    • Identify expected interim and final results of the project and a plan for collecting baseline and follow-on data.

    • Explain how the proposed M&E activities will integrate with and support building local capacity for one M&E system for evidence-based decision making.

  • Management & Staffing

    • Summary description of roles, responsibilities, and qualifications of all key personnel, local and expat

    • CVs of key staff, not to exceed 3 pages each

    • Letters of commitment from all key personnel

    • Description of how the project will be managed, including how potential problems will be addressed

    • Description of the organizational structure of the entire team, including partners and home office

    • Description of each staff member's role, technical expertise, and estimated time on the project

    • If the applicant intends to use sub-recipients, a description of what the subs will perform, and whether this is a new or existing relationship. MOUs with each sub must be included in the annex.

  • Institutional Capacity and Past Performance

    • Description of organizational knowledge, capability, experience, and past performance managing similar projects and experience collaborating with donors and host-country governments

    • Description of organizational knowledge, capability, experience, and past performance of other proposed team members in managing similar projects

  • Environmental Compliance (Compliance of proposed activities with Regulation 216 is required)

  • Annex

    • Resumes of key personnel

    • Letters of commitments from personnel or partners

    • Proposed teaming arrangements

    • Past performance and personnel references

    • Letters of recommendation

    • Awards

    • Testimonials

The list above is the outline for the technical proposal only. In addition, the RFA includes detailed instructions for the cost application which is submitted under separate cover.

As you can see, although the structure of the USAID request is different than the common applications referenced above for foundations, many of the questions and requests for information are similar. Foundations want to know who will be leading a project, so does the USAID. The foundation applications request information on how the project will be evaluated, which USAID does as well, and both types of applications request information on past performance. The USAID application requires a more detailed response, but there is certainly overlap between the two application formats. Given that the average foundation award (in the U.S.) is about $30,000 and the USAID example above is for an award amount of $62,000,000, the additional level of detail required for the USAID opportunity doesn't seem unreasonable.

Prepare for Your Next Grant Proposal by Writing Standard Sections in Advance

Since the ingredient list for a grant proposal is fairly standard regardless of whether you are applying for foundation funding or government funding, you can confidently prepare some material in advance knowing that it will get used. While you will not be able to anticipate all of the questions because some will be very specific to the funder or the opportunity, there are plenty of pieces you can start to assemble. For example, preparing a two-page history of your organization and creating a list of your organization's accomplishments are good places to start.

While you work on summarizing your organization's experience and prepare other standard pieces like staff resumes, you can also look for potential funding opportunities using your prospect research skills.  At first you may spend more time creating background materials than conducting prospect research, but eventually, you'll have the background materials collected and can transition to spending more of your time looking for funding opportunities. Additionally, periodically, you'll want to review the materials you've prepared to make sure they are still current.