Is your nonprofit organization applying for structured external funding for the first time?
The competition can be fierce for nonprofit grants offered by governmental agencies, private foundations, and other grant-giving bodies, but following a number of best practices for grant writing will set you far ahead of the pack from the get-go!
Maybe you’ve already read our comprehensive guide to nonprofit grant writing. If not, we definitely recommend starting your grant writing research there. When an organization is new to the process of finding and applying for this kind of special funding, it’s important to understand the process as a whole before jumping into composing individual sections of a grant proposal.
Once you and your grant writing team are ready to begin, we’ve simplified the process by creating this handy grant proposal template!
Here we’ll cover the 8 essential sections that should be included in most types of nonprofit grant applications:
- Cover letter
- Executive summary
- Statement of need
- Goals and objectives
- Methods and strategies
- Plan of evaluation
- Budget information
- Organizational background
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all, fill-in-the-blank solution for nonprofit grant proposals, but familiarizing your team with these core sections and their purposes can streamline the entire grant writing process for your organization.
Writing your application clearly and boldly is one of our top tips for getting started with grant writing, and now’s the time to do just that. We created this guide to help nonprofits focus on the quality of their grant writing by taking care of the structure for them. Read on to learn more about what any effective grant proposal should include!
1. Cover letter
Like with any type of major application, it’s important to introduce yourself and your proposal to whoever will be making the crucial decisions. The full explanations will come later.
Think college, postgrad, or job applications! As in those, it’s essential that you use the cover letter of your grant proposal to make a great first impression. Here’s what a great cover letter should accomplish:
- Briefly describe your organization and its mission.
- Very loosely explain your plans and how the grant will fit in.
- Connect the funder’s interests and requirements with your plans.
- Clearly state the positive impact your program will have.
- Convey your passion for your proposed project.
One smart technique is to wait to write your cover letter until you’ve completed the entire grant proposal. This will allow you to more accurately and creatively reflect back on your plans as a whole. Address your cover letter and grant proposal directly to the grant’s program officer.
The biggest challenge of a cover letter is keeping it very brief. It’s tempting to include too much information at this stage, but a cover letter should be no longer than one page. You might want to look through some fundraising letter templates for some inspiration. Here’s an example of how you might begin:
2. Executive summary
For this next section, take a page from the business world. Executive summaries are useful tools for very quickly explaining the key points and potential impact of a business decision.
Your executive summary is especially important because there’s a chance a busy grant program officer will read it first and then choose whether or not to read the entire proposal. Foremost, your executive summary needs to convince the funder of three main points:
- That your proposed program is necessary and important to your community.
- That your organization has the background and expertise to accomplish your plans.
- That your proposed plans are connected and relevant to the funder’s interests.
An executive summary can be particularly challenging to write because it must be extremely concise but informative. Here are the key points to focus on:
- Your nonprofit’s mission and the specific purpose of your programming
- The exact need or issue your project will address
- The impact and results of your programming
- How you’ll measure your project’s success
- Your organization’s specific competencies
- Your proposal’s projected cost and any other funding sources
An executive summary differs from a cover letter in both length and level of detail. Your executive summary should be 4 to 6 paragraphs long and contain some specific details on your plans, structure, and budget. For maximum impact, compose your executive summary with formatted bullet points to reduce the appearance of large blocks of text, or consider using an infographic to illustrate the issue your project will address.
3. Statement of need
In this section you’ll offer a much more detailed explanation of the issue your proposed programming will address. You’ve already used your cover letter and executive summary to give the funder a sense of your identity and your plans, now’s the time to pinpoint your program’s purpose and urgency.
What is the problem in your community that your program will solve or address? If you can’t answer this question in one straightforward sentence, you should rethink your proposal now before continuing with the grant writing process.
You must convince the grant program officer that your proposed program will solve a problem or positively impact your community in quantifiable ways. Otherwise, your project looks like a very poor investment. Focus on clearly explaining the issue that drives your programming, and follow these best practices for a statement of need:
- Convey a sense of urgency but not of pessimism. The problem must be urgent but solvable.
- Provide some community history. The funder needs some context to fully understand the issue at hand.
- Use some authoritative statistics. Compile the statistics and research you use in your fundraising campaigns.
- Include photos or infographics. When appropriate and relevant, visual materials can be extremely effective.
- Keep it brief. A statement of need should be about one page long.
Remember, a clearly defined problem is a solvable problem. An unclear or vague problem is not.
The challenge of a statement of need is to strike the perfect balance. Convey the importance or necessity of your project, but also fill your funder with optimism that your program will solve a serious problem or address an urgent need.
4. Goals and objectives
Next, more fully describe the exact outcomes of your proposed project once it receives funding and can be implemented.
Be sure to reference your statement of need as you explain your goals and objectives to ensure continuity and relevance between these two sections. One smart strategy for this section is to break it down into subsections of individual goals, then think of each subsection as a funnel. Describe one of your proposed program’s goals, which is broad or abstract, then narrow it down into one or more specific, detailed objectives.
Structuring this section of your grant application in this way will communicate to your funder that your organization fully understands its goals and can create realistic, actionable plans. Here are some tips for ensuring your goals and objectives will reassure the grant program officer of your abilities:
- Directly tie your goals to your statement of need.
- Think of objectives as results of actions, not as actions themselves.
- Provide quantifiable goals or budgets for objectives when possible.
- Objectives should be realistic, specific, and time-bound.
- Keep this section to one or two pages, depending on how you choose to format it.
An objective is a tangible result of the steps you take to reach your more intangible goal. Let your goal illustrate your vision, and use your objectives to explain what that looks like at ground level. Here’s a fairly basic example:
5. Methods and strategies
In the previous sections of your grant proposal you’ve already addressed the who, what, and why of your plans. The methods and strategies section is where you’ll more fully explain the how of your proposed programming.
This section is essentially the heart of your grant proposal. The earlier parts should have effectively gripped the reader’s attention, so your methods and strategies can afford to be the longest section, usually several pages. Focus on offering a full explanation, not on keeping it brief.
You’ll need to provide detailed information about your exact plans, steps, and strategies for each stage of your program and how you’ll implement them. Follow these best practices to ensure your explanations are convincing:
- Fully model your program with explanations, visuals, and any other tools that might help.
- Who will be involved in each step of your plan? Explain their roles.
- Describe any partnerships that come into play during your programming plan.
- List and explain any digital tools or platforms you’ll use during the program.
- Continually relate your methods, strategies, and steps back to your specific goals and objectives.
- Describe how you’ll keep donors and stakeholders involved and up-to-date.
- Anticipate some possible problems, and provide concrete alternate strategies for accomplishing your objectives.
Remember, this section contains the tangible plan that you’re asking the grant program officer to fund. It can be useful to think of your methods and strategies as a high-stakes sales pitch because that’s effectively what it is. Depending on the exact nature of your proposal’s goals, you might choose to format this section as either a chronological description of your program or as subsections for each of your objectives.
Your previous sections have introduced your ideas, explained their necessity, and hooked the reader’s attention, so now is the time to show them that your organization has a fully-realized, realistic, actionable plan ready to go! Here’s a simplified example of methods that will support a specific objective:
6. Plan of evaluation
Although it might not be the longest or most emotionally engaging section of your grant proposal, your plan of evaluation is certainly one of the most important.
That’s because this is the section in which you should most explicitly address the specific grant requirements that the funder has established for eligibility.
Your plan of evaluation should set some concrete, quantifiable goalposts for measuring your program’s success. These should be definitely be established for the end objectives of your plan but also at periodic points during its implementation. For instance, you can set some final engagement numbers and statistics to reach, but be sure to set specific engagement numbers and goals for every event you host during the entire length of the initiative, too.
Ask yourself, how will my team measure our progress? What will define success for our proposed programming?
A strong plan of evaluation section will accomplish several important tasks at once:
- Help your team to establish a concrete plan and schedule of evaluation if it hasn’t yet done so.
- Provide the funding body a means by which to judge the success of your project.
- Assures good stewardship and efficient use of grant funds.
- Offers accountability as a sign of respect to the source of the grant.
Plus, a strong plan of evaluation will become a great guiding document for your team to follow once you begin to implement your funded program. If your plans fail to meet the concrete thresholds for success that you’ve established, you can use your full evaluation plans to identify the problem areas and quickly adjust strategies.
7. Budget information
This is another extremely important section for assuring the funder that your proposed program is both actionable and sustainable.
Read through your entire methods and strategies section again, noting each individual instance in which your organization will need to expend resources. These will likely include:
- Personnel and travel costs
- Fringe benefits for staff
- Equipment and supplies costs
- Indirect or overhead costs
- ‘Market value’ of in-kind contributions
(Be sure to research all the specific requirements of the grant application before creating a detailed budget, since some grant programs require more information, like detailed overhead costs, than others.)
Creating an organized and well-formatted budget will make it much easier for the grant program officer to judge the financial sustainability of your proposal.
Be sure to provide descriptions, explanations, and hard numbers for any other funding sources that your organization will rely on to accomplish your program’s objectives. It’s often a good idea to include a brief overview or breakdown of your normal or operational funding sources, as well.
Create a prospective budget in your CRM software so that you can directly draw from your existing financial trends and donor data. Here’s an example:
8. Organizational background
In the final section of your grant proposal, provide the reader with some more comprehensive information about your organization.
It’s important to give the funder a fuller sense of your organization’s identity and history that they might not have received across the rest of the grant proposal. Understanding how your proposed program fits into the broader context of your growth, mission, and past work could become a deciding factor in the grant program officer’s final decision, especially if there are several highly relevant proposals in consideration.
Include the following information in this section:
- A brief history of the organization’s founding and evolution
- A detailed list of your nonprofit’s past major projects and initiatives
- Short biographies of the organization’s leaders and key staff
- More info on the figures who will be directly involved with the proposed program
Since the grant program officer has already committed to reading your entire proposal at this point, it can be useful to humanize your staff with some personal information and background. Plus, highlighting your team’s competence can convince them to support your proposal.
Help the funder to think of your organization as team of individuals coming together to accomplish an important project and better their community!
Never be intimidated by a grant proposal! Grant writing can be a challenge, but starting early, building a team, and working on a section at a time will go a long way to making the process flow smoother and result in a more cohesive and effective application.
With some careful planning and hard work, your nonprofit organization can find major funding to support your mission and reach more of your constituents than ever. Never jump into grant writing without some preparing yourself, though, especially if you’re new to grant writing.
- Our comprehensive Nonprofit Grant Writing Guide. Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with the sections of the grant application itself, review all the steps of the grant writing process.
- Getting Started with Grants: 5 Grant Writing Tips for Nonprofits. Check out our top 5 tips for streamlining your next grant application and writing an effective proposal!
- Top Volunteer Grant Companies from 360MatchPro. Volunteer grants represent another major (but underutilized) source of potential funding for nonprofits with active volunteer programs.
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