How to Write a Winning Grant Proposal in 11 Steps

From Cover Letter to Budget

Although grant proposals are far from a slam dunk or an answer to a funding emergency, they do have a role to play in supporting most charities.

Grants, to be successful, should be part of your overall fundraising plan, have their own calendar, and a dedicated grant writer, either on staff or contracted.

Grants come from a variety of sources such as a foundation, a corporation or a government agency, but most require similar information. There are also at least three different types of proposals, ranging from a letter to a full-blown proposal.

Here are the most common sections of grant proposals, and the information you should include. Even if the proposal you write is not the standard proposal, you will likely need much of the information that does make up the full proposal, but in an abbreviated form.  

Cover Letter

Group of nonprofit staff writing a grant proposal.
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Although you will write your cover letter last, don't give it short shrift. Think of it as the front porch of your grant proposal. How the funder feels about your nonprofit depends on this first impression.

You'll want to address your letter to a particular person, briefly state what your proposal asks for, and summarize your program.

Keep in mind that this will be your first opportunity to connect with the people who can fund your grant.  Make them care about your mission. More

Executive Summary

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The summary comes after your cover letter. It helps the grantor to understand at a glance what you are asking. 

The summary can be as short as a couple of sentences, but no longer than one page. Aim to be complete but brief. The summary gives a taste of the proposal to come. It should entice the reader to keep going.  More

Need Statement

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The statement of need is the meat of your grant proposal. You must convince the funder that what you propose to do is important and that your organization is the right one to do it.

Never assume that the reader of your summary knows much of anything about the issue. Use your expertise to explain it, but make it simple to understand.  

Don't fall victim to the curse of knowledge. Remember what it's like to be a novice and write your need statement accordingly.   

Explain why the issue is important, and what research you did to learn about possible solutions. More

Goals and Objectives

Grant writers figuring out the goals for their proposal.
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Your goals and objectives explain what your organization plans to do about the problem.

State what you hope to accomplish with the project (goals) and spell out the specific results (objectives) you expect to achieve.

Think of goals as general outcomes and objectives as the specific steps you'll take to get to those outcomes. Brush up on SMART objectives. More

Methods, Strategies or Program Design

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Walk the grantor through exactly HOW you will achieve the goals and objectives you've set out earlier. You may be required to provide a logic model in this section which explains graphically just how the parts of your proposal work together to achieve what you hope to accomplish.

Be as detailed as you can with a timeline and specifics about who will do what and when. More

Evaluation Section

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How will you assess your program's accomplishments? Funders want to know that their dollars did some good.

So decide now how you will evaluate the impact of your project. Include what records you will keep or data you will collect, and how you will use that data.

If the data collection costs money, be sure to include that cost in your budget. Many organizations hire an outside evaluator to get an objective assessment. More

Other Funding or Sustainability

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Have you received dedicated funds from other sources? Or have you asked other sources?

Most funders do not wish to be the sole source of support for a project. Be sure to mention in-kind contributions you expect, such as meeting space or equipment.

Is this a pilot project with a limited timeline? Or will it go into the future? If so, how do you plan to fund it? Is it sustainable over the long haul? More

Information About Your Organization

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In a few paragraphs explain why the funder can trust you to use its funds responsibly and efficiently.

Give a short history of your organization, state your mission, the population you serve and provide an overview of your track record. Describe or list your programs.

Be complete in this part of your proposal even if you know the funder or have gotten grants from this organization before. Never take for granted that the person reading this proposal knows your history. More

Project Budget

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How much will your project cost?

Attach a short budget showing expected expenses and income. The expenses portion should include personnel costs, direct project costs, and administrative or overhead expenses. Income should include earned income and contributed income such as donations. More

Additional Materials

Documents for a grant proposal.
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Funders are likely to want to see the following:

  • IRS letter proving that your organization is tax-exempt.
  • List of your board of directors and their affiliations.
  • A budget for your current fiscal year.
  • The budget for your next fiscal year if you are within a few months of that new year.

Putting it All Together

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If you're submitting a proposal by mail, put everything together with your cover sheet and a cover letter.

You may need to have your CEO and the Board President sign the cover sheet or letter. You do not need a fancy binder, but it should all be neatly typed and free of errors.

Online grant applications have become quite popular with many funders. If you submit an online grant application, read these tips for doing it right.

Many readers ask where they can find examples of grant proposals. 

We have samples of proposal sections scattered throughout this article. Plus we recommend several books that have samples as well.

The most comprehensive collection of grant samples may be the Foundation Center's Guide to Winning Proposals. It has 35 grant proposals that were funded. Each sample includes a critique. 

The Foundation Center also has an online collection of sample grants, letter proposals, and letters of inquiry submitted by its users on the Sample Documents page of its website.