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How to Write a Grant Proposal

Aside from how to engage grantors, probably no question is more common in grant-seeking than how to actually write a stellar grant proposal. 

And, as with everything in the world of grants, “It depends.” 

Ask Two Key Questions Before Writing the Proposal

 It’s been said that “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” You’ll save yourself a lot of time and effort if you prepare well – especially in grant writing. Before sitting down to assemble the different elements of your proposal, you’ll want to prepare by answering two key questions.

#1 – Which grant are you applying for? (Know your audience.)

If you are simply writing a grant proposal without an audience, STOP. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. There is no such thing as a “generic grant proposal.” If someone is trying to tell you that you can copy and paste a list of foundation names onto one single proposal and send it out multiple times, they’re wrong. This is your signal to either run screaming for the hills or politely thank the person and move on (depending on your general mood).  

Instead of the “spray and pray” approach, get to know each individual funder. Do they accept unsolicited applications? Who have they granted to in the past? Do they have a website? What are their interests and priorities? Do you know anything about their reviewing system (i.e., do they want a Letter of Inquiry first? Full proposal?). The answers to these questions will allow you to craft a proposal that is the appropriate length and touches on points that are most relevant to establishing a partnership

#2 – What difference does your organization make? (Know thyself.)

At first glance, this may seem almost too basic a question.  However, the fundamental reason that a foundation invests and continues to invest in an organization is the impact they have in the world. If you can’t answer this question, STOP. Then, take all the time you need to understand exactly what you do and why it matters. 

A tried and tested rule for this is to start by taking your mission statement or elevator pitch and asking the question “Why does it matter?” 3-5 times.  This will eventually lead you to your raison d’être (your organization’s main purpose for existence) and why anyone else should care about what you are doing.

Once you know who you are and who you’re writing to then your cover letter, executive summary, and full details about your programs and organization will become clearer and much more compelling.
So, let’s begin! 

Ordering the Sections of Your Grant Proposal

Just as you prepared to construct your grant proposal by asking some fundamental questions, you should prepare the order in which you will write the different sections of your proposal. This is one of the most important tips I’ve used – if you do things in the right order, a proposal falls into place with less effort.

Step 1: Start with your outcomes.

Whatever project you’re thinking of presenting to a new funder, it has to have SMART outcomes. I’ve seen this acronym vary depending on who uses it, so here’s my take on it:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Aggressive
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

Some people will say “Achievable” and “Relevant” for the A and the R. I don’t like that for two reasons – 1) it loses the tension between pushing yourself (i.e., not the same old same old) and what’s realistically possible. 2) Relevance is something that’s only definable when comparing it to other things. So, the idea that one outcome can be relevant is a little off. Relevant to what? The rest of the proposal. But you haven’t written that yet, so how can you know?

Ultimately, the most important thing in this SMART set of criteria is MEASURABLE. If you can’t measure it, you can’t report on it. And if you can’t report on it, STOP and do not write another line until you know that you’ll be able to.

Once your outcomes are chosen by selecting what you measure (or can easily start to measure), you can move on to:

Step 2: Crafting your Needs Statement. 

You just went over some deep thought about what you’re measuring. Imagine that you’ve achieved it! You’re at the end of the project and the outcomes you listed have all been attained.  

Now, look back at the situation BEFORE those outcomes were achieved. What’s different? What problem, situation, or condition has been eliminated or changed for the better? 

Write those down for each outcome. When you’re done moving through each outcome, take all those “We were living/doing/existing with XYZ and now we aren’t.” and read through them consecutively.  This is the tactic you will want to take when writing about the need for your program.

Pro Tip #3 – It’s not YOUR need. Don’t tell a funder that your organization needs X, Y, and Z. 

Your need isn’t more money or something having to do with your organization. The need is present among those you serve and you’re helping meet that need. I always imagine the people that my clients are serving. What do THEY need? And “Why does it matter?”  By going through these exercises, your goal is to eliminate many common mistakes when crafting a proposal. 

Now that you know what you’re going to achieve, what problem it solves, and why it matters, you can move forward.

Step 3: Create a logic model to define how you will actually achieve those outcomes. 

A logic model, very simply (because there are a wide variety of models!) contains inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impact.  By understanding the inputs, activities, and outputs, you’ll be able to see just how each piece of your project fits together. And, as a happy result, you’ll  be able to more concisely present what you’ll do and how it will lead to the impact you (and the funder) desire. While there are several options to use when preparing the order and flow of any proposal, here’s what I would suggest:

  1. Executive Summary
  2. Statement of the Problem
  3. Statement of the Solution
  4. Timeline
  5. Outcomes / Impact Measurement (Actual or Anticipated)
  6. Budget
  7. Partnerships
  8. Ancillary Documents / Attachments

While there are never any guarantees in life, grants, or any type of fundraising, having a clear and concise proposal that is well-organized will certainly help you to stand out if your project is reviewed.

Let’s talk about how you can maximize your grant revenue – just contact us here to start the conversation!

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