Your grant applications should be structured correctly. Here's how.
Although the terminology associated with grant proposals might change slightly from one industry to another, nearly all grants adhere to a similar structure. If you're ready to get up to speed, here's a crash course on the formal structure of grant proposals.
Letter of inquiry
Who are you and what do you want? How much money, time or other support do you need? Your letter of inquiry (sometimes called a cover letter) should succinctly describe your project in plain language.
- Address donors and participants directly by their name, title or address
- Include an overview of your work and purpose
- Explain if there's a precipitating incident that requires immediate funding or if you're requesting ongoing support
- Keep it short
Begin your grant proposal with a brief summary to describe your request for specific funding, time or other support. Help the selection committee visualize your project by including the following information, if applicable:
- The names of grant recipients
- Information on your organization's credibility
- An assessment of the problem
- Program objectives, methodology and total costs
Does your organization have a track record of success? How are you uniquely suited to address this social issue? Although it's important to highlight any relevant background experience, try to focus on the specific project you're proposing.
Problem or needs statement
Now's the time to dig deep into the specific problem area you're planning to address. Describe community needs, your target population, local partnerships and other support.
Your needs assessment should:
- Define the social issue and needs you're addressing
- Be supported by statistics or other relevant objective research
- Be specific, realistic and free of jargon
- Include data, research or other objective measures to back up your claims
Program description, goals and objectives
This is the meat of your proposal. Depending on the nature of the grant and the donor's expectations, you might detail a chronological timeline from where you are now to where you hope to be, including all the activities and programs planned along the way.
Talk about your big dream. Describe why you selected your particular approach and the overall scope of your work. What do you hope to change, process or produce in your participants' lives? How would you describe your services or interventions? Are they evidence-based? What's the rationale behind them? How will you measure success?
Also explain how you will collaborate with other organizations or make use of existing community resources to better serve your target population.
The program description should be straightforward, flowing organically from problems to outcome objectives. Common objectives include:
- Behavioral: a person taking action or changing a behavior
- Performance: a specific event, or attaining a certain level of proficiency
- Process: the work is the goal in and of itself, such as documenting historical records
- Product: a tangible item, such as a new product or manual
You can use the evaluation section of a grant proposal to describe how progress toward your goals will be measured and assessed. For example, who will do the evaluation? How will that person or team be selected? What are the evaluation criteria? How will data be gathered? What's the plan for modifying evaluation methods, if needed?
In many cases, though, evaluation details are shared only after a grant has been awarded.
How will you pay for everything you want to do? Be clear about your financial needs and how you'll work proactively to meet them. Most organizations need two kinds of financial help: capital campaigns and ongoing operational support. For which are you raising money right now? Provide a thorough financial plan that details how you plan to keep the lights on both now and in the future.
Develop a realistic budget, including expected in-kind contributions. Divide your budget into direct and indirect costs:
- Direct costs: examples include the personnel, equipment and supplies needed for the work you're proposing
- Indirect costs: examples include building maintenance, insurance and garbage pick-up
Make sure the details in your budget are easy to read and understand. Include column headings and double-check your math. Attach appendices with additional information, if needed.
Use the appendices for items such as:
- Your organizational chart
- List of board members
- List of advisory board members (if any)
- Letters of endorsement or support from other community organizations, clients and/or donors
Demonstrating a wide range of constituent support can bolster any grant proposal.
Purdue Online Writing Lab: Introduction to grant writing by Dennis Koyama and Stacy Nall (2015)
eCivis: Federal vs. foundation funding — embrace them both by Sherie Sanders (2016)
Grant Training Center: 10 errors that will disqualify your grant by Mathilda Harris (2015)
Nonprofit Information: The dos and don'ts of grant writing by Megan Hill (2013)
Indiana University: The dos and don'ts of successful grant-writing
GrantSpace: What should be included in a letter of inquiry?
National Institutes of Health: Grants & Funding: Develop your budget (2016)
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Developing and writing grant proposals
The Balance: How to prepare a grant proposal budget for a nonprofit by Heidi J. Kramer (2016)
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Grant proposals (or give me the money!)