The Nonprofit Grant Writing Guide: How to Apply for Funding

The Nonprofit Grant Writing Guide: How to Apply for Funding

Grant writing is one of the most challenging but rewarding parts of working in the nonprofit world. Governmental bodies, endowments, and other grant-giving foundations regularly offer substantial packages of financial support for nonprofit organizations to complete projects or initiatives that align with their priorities and goals.

Practically every nonprofit organization operates on a very tight budget, so the opportunity to pursue new projects with full or major backing from external sources is extremely enticing.

If your organization has never written a grant proposal before, or if you just need a refresher, be sure to do some research. After familiarizing yourself with the steps outlined here, be sure to read our extra grant writing tips for even more guidance on best practices for writing grant proposals.

Competition for major grants can be intimidating, but understanding the grant writing process and approaching it with the right mindset will go a long way to boosting your application’s odds for success! Explore this guide to nonprofit grant writing for an overview of the entire process, plus some helpful tips and resources, too. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. Understanding grant writing
  2. First steps for grant writing
  3. Finding nonprofit grant opportunities
  4. Building a grant writing team
  5. Building your nonprofit’s case for support
  6. Refining your grant writing strategy
  7. Completing your grant application

Grants can make a major difference in your organization’s bottom line, so always approach the grant writing process with a relaxed but deliberate mindset. Grant writing might feel overwhelming at times, especially for smaller nonprofits, but understanding the whole process and breaking it down into sections is a great strategy for success.

Use this article as a handy reference to guide your grant writing process and to make sure your team doesn’t lose sight of the big picture. Let’s get started!

1. Understanding grant writing

Grant proposals might rank among the most important documents you ever create for your organization. A grant that supports a major new project can represent the beginning of a new phase of growth for your nonprofit, attracting increased attention and new donors.

Before diving any deeper, be sure to download our grant proposal template and follow along step-by-step. This way you’ll get the whole picture of how each step and component of the grant writing process fits together.

What do grant funding distributors look for in applicants? Grant-giving bodies use submitted grant proposals to determine where and how to distribute their available funds. Generally speaking, ideal grant candidates are characterized by:

  • Clearly definable and relevant missions
  • Driven by specific project goals and plans
  • Sustainable financial and operational structures
  • Modern fundraising tools and methods
  • Histories of successful projects and initiatives
  • Strong relationships with community and peers

This essentially means that your organization should already have a general idea for your next major project in mind before pursuing a specific grant or beginning your grant application. Let your nonprofit’s mission guide your process. Here are some strong examples that are specific and actionable but also still flexible and open to possibility:

Use your mission statement to guide your grant writing development process.

The specific parameters of the grant program will certainly guide the development of your project’s goals and processes, but never plan a project entirely to suit a grant you hope to receive. Follow your mission and remain true to your organization’s own goals; find a funding body whose priorities align with your own, and your nonprofit’s passion will shine through in your proposal.

2. First steps for grant writing

Be sure that you understand all the components that are typically required in a nonprofit grant proposal. Grant writing requires dedication and focus because you need to craft a persuasive case for support for your project.

You can find more complete explanations of each section in our proposal template, but here are the basic components usually required in a grant application:

  • Cover letter
  • Executive summary
  • Statement of need
  • Goals and objectives
  • Methods and strategies
  • Plan of evaluation
  • Budget projections
  • Organization information

(Additional elements that some, but not all, grant-giving foundations or groups might require in proposals include an initial letter of intent and letters of support from other stakeholders.)

As you can tell from this list, grant writing requires you to already understand your project’s core goals before you ever think about submitting a completed proposal! Even if you’re unsure of your exact engagement methods or marketing strategies, it’s always a good idea to start any new project by clearly defining your goals.

What specific issue are you trying to address? What positive, quantifiable benefits can your project create for your community? How many people do you want to engage?

Using your concrete goals and your nonprofit’s overarching mission, now you can begin to identify more specific strategies, tools, and stakeholders that could be involved in your project.

Grant writing isn’t a casual chore; it takes considerable planning and vision! Laying out these goals now, though, will make the rest of the grant writing process considerably smoother.

3. Finding nonprofit grant opportunities

Once you use your organization’s driving mission to identify the core goals and nature of your next project that needs funding, begin searching for grant opportunities.

The great benefit of allowing your goals to guide your grant search is that the grants you identify as worth pursuing will already be fairly aligned with your own mission. By investing your time and effort in these opportunities (rather than larger grants less directly relevant to your mission), you drastically increase your odds of success.

These are the most common sources for nonprofit grants:

  • Federal, state, and local governments
  • Large organizations and endowments
  • Private grant-giving foundations

Find some government and state-level databases to begin your search. is a great starting point. This comprehensive database compiles all available federal grants and lets you filter by source, grant category, and types of eligible organizations. Even if you don’t find a federal grant appropriate to your exact mission, this database will give you a great idea of the kinds of opportunities available: is a great resource for finding and researching nonprofit grant opportunities.

Alternatively, if you’re looking for grants to help you promote your nonprofit. Google offers AdWords grants, which are in-kind donations of $10,000 in monthly AdWords funding. Your nonprofit can use the grant put your ads at the top of search queries to attract more supporters. For more information on how this works and how to apply for a Google AdWords grant, check out Double the Donation’s article.

Once you find a grant to pursue, research its source. If it’s an endowment or foundation, identifying its giving history, leadership, and mission can help you better tailor your strategy for making your case for support. 

Also, if you have specific questions about a grant or would like more context, it can sometimes be a good idea to reach out to the grant program officer. Briefly discussing your vision and determining how well it aligns with that of the grant source can provide extremely useful insights at this early stage in the grant writing process, but be sure to check first. Some foundations specifically ask applicants not to contact the grant program officer. 

4. Building a grant writing team

Strong grant writing requires multiple perspectives. This ensures your programming plans, language, and data will be their most persuasive and well-reasoned. It’s almost never a good idea to write a grant application alone.

Your nonprofit’s grant writing team should be involved in brainstorming the exact programming and engagement strategies to propose as well as in the actual writing itself. A reliable grant writing team will consist of:

  • The nonprofit’s executive leadership (at least for oversight)
  • At least one board member, possibly more
  • Staff members familiar with project planning
  • Volunteers who can offer unique perspectives on engagement

Keep the team to five or six members at a maximum. Too many voices can create distractions, reduce focus, and slow the entire grant writing process. Instead, form a small team and familiarize each member with some best practices for effective grant writing.

Most importantly, make including several diverse perspectives on the operations of your nonprofit a priority when building your grant writing team. Unique insights on the planning process, fundraising, and ground-level engagement will strengthen your appeal, creating a more robust and flexible plan.

Plus, an effective grant writing team will ensure that your project goals and strategies remain fully actionable and properly scaled to the value and scope of the grant.

5. Building your nonprofit’s case for support.

Think of grant writing as simply pitching your idea. Build a strong case for support, explaining why your plans are both meaningful and achievable. The point of your proposal is to convince an agency or foundation that your organization is a responsible steward of funds, driven by an actionable mission, and engaged with supporters in impactful ways.

Your organization’s passion for its mission is certainly half of the equation here, but data is very often the deciding factor for grant-giving bodies that receive tons of applications from passionate nonprofits around the country. Depending on the focus and scope of your project, you should consider collecting and analyzing all kinds of data, like:

  • Your own fundraising and engagement statistics
  • Analytics from your membership program CRM
  • Your nonprofit’s finances and financial trends
  • Sociological or economic data about the problem your project addresses
  • Any other data that illustrates your work and community

The best case for support involves providing concrete background and statistics. Here’s an example of the level of specificity you should pursue in the statement of need section of your grant application:

Providing statistics and concrete goals is a best practice for grant writing.

The best investment your organization can make in its current and future grant writing efforts is to establish clear data reporting protocols across all aspects of your operations. Your fundraising, accounting, marketing, and management should all cleanly and automatically report data to a central system or database! This best practice makes the grant writing process easier for two reasons:

  1. Organized, accessible data makes it easier to support any claims about your work and past successes.
  2. Big picture data allows you to make the insightful connections that could win you the grant.

Be sure to research and collect any other data relevant to the root issues driving your project’s mission and affecting your community. Balancing your passionate emotional appeal with concrete plans and data, describing the specific fundraising tools and engagement methods that have brought your nonprofit success in the past.

6. Refining your grant writing strategy

Once you and your grant writing team have identified your goals, found an appropriate grant to pursue, and brainstormed some programming to propose, you’re ready to actually begin writing. Compose the grant application in sections to streamline the process.

Remember that your strategy will adapt and change across the entire grant writing process. Beginning and completing your grant application without changing your programming plans or adjusting your goals at all typically means that your strategy could stand to be strengthened.

This is another reason why building an effective grant writing team is a best practice. Teams often propose more unique programs to be funded. Plus, composing your application in sections and establishing a system of peer review is an excellent way to identify issues in both your rationale and the writing itself, revealing any weak links that require additional attention.

One effective way to ensure your grant proposal remains focused is to identify and remember the different ways in which your proposed project will provide a return on investment:

  • Literal return on investment: Use your grant application to prove that your project will reach a quantifiable threshold of success, like a specific engagement rate.
  • Community return on investment: Use your proposal to explain the less tangible but still substantial positive impact your project will have on your community.

Another key strategy for keeping your grant writing strategy flexible is to field thoughts from your stakeholders. What kinds of projects do your volunteers, donors, constituents, and members think would be perfect for your organization to undertake? Your organization’s leadership will need to approve your final proposal draft anyway, so invite them to provide thoughts or feedback at several specific points of the grant writing process. They could quickly recognize weaknesses or opportunities that your team missed.

7. Completing your grant application

Your team may have decided to approach the grant writing process in any number of ways.

Most commonly, grant writing teams assign individual members specific sections of the application to complete, then work on them in a collaborative online document. This a great approach to grant writing, since it keeps your draft organized and all your resources easily accessible

Plus, this will enable your team to establish an effective peer review system. Make sure that each section is reviewed individually and in the context of the sections before and after it, then make sure the entire grant proposal is reviewed multiple times, as well. When reviewing individual sections or your completed grant application, look out for:

  • Any grammatical or spelling mistakes
  • Unclear, vague, or ineffective language
  • Unsupported claims or statements
  • Any missing steps or data points
  • Repetitive or drawn-out explanations

Familiarizing your team with some best practices for grant writing beforehand will help reduce the need for extensive structural adjustments to the proposal itself. Keep the grant proposal’s language clear, bold, and concise!

Once the team is pleased with the application and your nonprofit’s leadership signs off, it’s time to confirm one last time that every required section or piece of material is included. Depending on the grant’s source, you may need to either submit your application electronically or through the mail, so be sure to check well in advance of the due date.

Grant applications are often hefty documents, so leave your team plenty of time to perfect your formatting and get it printed if necessary!

If you’re preparing to start the grant writing process for your nonprofit organization, we wish you the best of luck! Grant writing is certainly a challenge, but the rewards can be immense. Plus, effective grant writing is a learned skill that you can practice and continually improve.

You’ve already started off on the right foot by reading these essential steps for writing a winning nonprofit grant proposal, but be sure to do as much research as you can. Check out these additional grant writing and fundraising resources that you might find helpful:

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