Best Practices for Writing an Executive Summary

Why the Executive Summary is Important

The executive summary is a concise overview of the proposal that should touch on all of the key themes of greatest interest to the funder.  In some cases, the executive summary may be the only section of the proposal some evaluators will read. Even when evaluators read the entire proposal, the executive summary plays an important role by preparing them for what they'll read in the pages that follow. If the executive summary is well written, evaluators will approach your proposal with an open mind. If the executive summary is poorly written, the evaluator may begin reading the proposal with a negative bias that will be difficult to overcome unless the rest of your proposal is exceptionally well written. 

Some of the choices you'll need to consider around the crafting of an executive summary include when to write it, what content to include, and how to work within page limits for maximum impact. 

I. Timing: Deciding When to Draft the Executive Summary

There are two schools of thought regarding when to draft a proposal's executive summary. Some proposal writers believe it is best to write the executive summary first, before any of other proposal section, while others believe it is best to write the executive summary last. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

Writing the Executive Summary First

The thinking behind writing the executive summary first is that the executive summary, which is usually no more than two pages, can be an easy way to jump start the proposal writing process. Since the executive summary is short, you don't need to add a lot of detail. You're essentially writing an overview of the proposed project and highlighting the key areas or "hot buttons" of most interest to the funder. 

Writing the executive summary first can be a “quick win” and provide momentum to the proposal writing process.

If you write the executive summary first, you'll want to review it carefully after you finish writing the proposal to make sure the text is still relevant and accurate. During your review, you may see places where your executive summary is too general and could benefit from the addition of details from the newly finalized proposal.

Writing the Executive Summary Last

While writing an executive summary first has many advantages, there are several reasons why you might want to write the executive summary last. One of the benefits of writing the executive summary last relates to sequencing: If the proposal hasn't been written yet, it's difficult to write a summary of it!

Writing the executive summary as the last step in the proposal process helps ensure that the summary reflects the key points from your proposal.

The golden rule is that an executive summary should only include information presented elsewhere in the proposal. In other words, the executive summary should reference topics covered in detail in the body proposal. A topic shouldn't appear exclusively in the executive summary.  

When to Use Each Approach

When to Write the Executive Summary First

Starting the proposal process by writing the executive summary first can be helpful when you are stuck and don't know how or where to begin. Maybe you know what you want to write, but you are having difficulty getting the words out.  Or perhaps the challenge isn't the writing process, but lack of clarity on what you want to do and how you'll do it. 

In the first situation, if you are overwhelmed with the idea of writing a proposal, beginning with the executive summary can help launch the writing process through tackling a short, doable assignment.

In the second situation, if you are not clear on what you want to propose to the funder, starting with the executive summary can serve as a brainstorming activity to help you "back into"  the the project's design. The executive summary is a place where you can sketch out the project at a high level, and that high-level view can serve as a catalyst to help you think through the details.

When to Write the Executive Summary Last

If you draft the executive summary last, you'll have the benefit of being able to refer to a fully designed project. Having a complete draft of the proposal in front of you makes it easier to identify the proposal content that is most strategic and should be highlighted. In contrast, when you write the executive summary first, you may find yourself writing in fairly general terms because you will not have had time to refine your strategy.

Another advantage of writing the summary last is that you will have had more time to review and absorb the contents of solicitation. For a simple funding opportunity you may not need that extra time, but for more complex funding opportunities, the additional time to familiarize yourself with the solicitation can be very useful. Sometimes it takes a few read-throughs of the funding opportunity announcement before you spot all the key words and themes you should be addressing in your proposal. For example, if the funder stresses the importance of project management throughout the solicitation, you'll want to reference your organization's project management experience in the executive summary.

II. Content: What to Include in the Executive Summary

The contents of your executive summary will be driven primarily by the proposal solicitation.

If the solicitation includes evaluation criteria, you'll want to keep the criteria in mind as you write the executive summary. For example, if the solicitation states that the personnel section is weighted more heavily than past experience, you would want to dedicate more attention in the executive summary to the qualifications of your proposed project staff than to your organization's past performance on similar projects.

Whatever the solicitation emphasizes--the funder's "hot button" topics and keywords--your executive summary should also emphasize. However, you'll still want to be sure that every point you make in the executive summary is covered within the body of the proposal. The executive summary is not the place to go into detail about what your project will accomplish or how you'll manage the project.  The executive summary is about quality, not depth of information.

In addition to covering the areas you know the funder is interested in based on the evaluation criteria or the funder's programmatic interests, you'll also want to include information that highlights your organization's relevant strengths. It's important to note that organizational strengths are more about what you can do and less about who you are. Just as your proposal should answer the question of how your organization can meet a need or interest of the funder, your executive summary should highlight your organization's unique capacity to get work done and fulfill the funder's goals.

III. Approach: Tips for Writing an Executive Summary

After making the decision to write the executive summary first or last, you're faced with how to use your 1-2 pages of space to greatest effect. Below are a few tips that can help you maximize the use of space and increase the impact of your executive summary:

  • Use text boxes: Text boxes (also known as call-out boxes) can be a useful way to draw the reader's attention to information. Sometimes text boxes can be used to save space if the funder allows you to use a smaller font size for text boxes and tables (body text is commonly 12 pt Times New Roman, text boxes and graphics are often allowed to go down to 9 pt). However, because an executive summary is short, use text boxes judiciously.  One or two small text boxes per page is probably enough.
  • Introduce your team: If your proposed project or activity involves other organizations, it's a good idea to introduce them in the executive summary along with a short description of each partner organization's role on the project. Partner lists are a good option for a text box, particuarly if you can condense the text by using a smaller font size.
  • Add a graphic: Graphics add visual interest and can also save space. You might be able to design a graphic that communicates in a single small image what it would take a paragraph or two to explain. One graphic you might want to consider using in your executive summary is a map of where your project will take place.
  • Answer the question "why you": Answering the question of why the funder should fund your proposal is an important part of the executive summary. In fact, this may be the most important thing to cover. Addressing the "why you" is not about how great your organization is, or how long you've been around, it's about stating clearly and directly what you and your partners bring to the table and how you can help the funder accomplish its goals. By the time the reader finishes the executive summary, you want them to be convinced that your organization knows the issues and can deliver results.