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How to Write an Effective Grant Proposal

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By Korrin Bishop

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Published April 9, 2021
Reading Time: 5 minutes

In 2020, nonprofits raised around 20% of their income from grants. Grant funds from foundations, government entities, and corporations help nonprofits diversify their income streams. While you can use several marketing elements from your individual donor campaigns in your grant applications, creating effective proposals requires some additional considerations.

Below, we’ll cover nine best practices and tips on how to write a winning grant proposal.

1. Leverage Language and Formatting From Past Grants

When it comes to writing a grant proposal, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel each time you apply. Many grant applications will ask similar questions, such as what programs or materials you need funding for and why, how your nonprofit makes an impact in the community, and how you’ll measure success if selected for the award.

As you develop language for different funding priorities, organize it into folders by topic to make it easy to pull for additional grant applications. Pay particular attention to language and materials from past grants you’ve been awarded, and highlight them as best practice templates for future applications. 

For example, if you’re a literary nonprofit, you may have the following budget priorities you’re looking to cover with grant funds:

  • Honorariums to pay authors for participating in your reading series
  • Costs to contract for website development services
  • Scholarship funding for two spots in your annual writing workshop

As you develop materials for each of these funding areas, you can save them in three separate folders: Honorariums, Website, Scholarships.

In addition, make sure your grant team has easy, centralized access to basic marketing and branding language for your nonprofit. This ensures they know the standard tone, messaging, and writing style for your nonprofit when developing grant proposals.

2. Keep Commonly Asked-For Documents Organized

In addition to specific grant questions, many applications will ask for other documents related to your nonprofit. Store these all in a centralized location so your grant team can easily access them and attach them to proposals.

These materials often include:

  • Board of directors list, including names, short bios, term lengths, and contact info
  • Most recent Form 990
  • 501(c)(3) letter of determination
  • Organizational chart
  • Updated nonprofit bylaws
  • Mission statement
  • Contact information
  • Employer identification number
  • Detailed organizational budget
  • Letters of support

3. Follow Instructions Carefully

Keep in mind when you’re writing your grant proposal that small details can play a big role in final decisions, especially when competing against many other grant applications. Make sure to follow instructions carefully. 

In particular, keep an eye out for the following:

  • Meeting the grant deadline, including time zone differences and whether applications need to be postmarked or received by a certain date
  • Keeping within word limits for any narrative questions
  • Ensuring you include all requested attachments
  • Addressing the application to the correct contact
  • Updating any past funder names if reusing past grant language

Before completing your grant proposal, also check the instructions to make sure you meet all of the funder’s qualifications, as well as to see if there are any pre-application requirements. Some grants may require you to attend a webinar before submitting an application, meet with a grant team representative for screening, or send a letter of inquiry to be invited to then formally apply.

4. Answer Questions Directly

Whenever you respond to a narrative question in a grant application, re-read it and ask: Did I answer the question? It can be easy to focus on highlighting all of the things that make your nonprofit great and forget to actually answer a specific question.

As you think about how to write your grant proposal, let your nonprofit’s work shine, but also be direct with your responses. Make sure your answer is clear and upfront rather than hidden within extra language. Your first few sentences should reply to the question. Include any supporting information after that direct initial response.

5. Demonstrate Impact With Data and Examples

In 2020, only 32% of foundations provided grants for general operating expenses. Most grantmakers want to fund specific projects and costs, so ensure you’re tailoring your grant proposal message to those needs by using effective storytelling.

Show, don’t tell, why your nonprofit is the best applicant for the grant funds. This means instead of saying in your grant proposal that you’d make a great recipient, show that you would be by detailing past data that demonstrates your performance or sharing stories of individuals who have benefited from your services.

For example, if you’re a food bank, saying you’ll use the funder’s money to end local hunger isn’t as powerful as telling them how last year, you were able to prevent hunger for 500 children and their families. You could also include a quote from one of those families about what the support meant to them and what they were able to achieve personally as a result.

As you demonstrate past performance, also explain how you’ll continue to measure progress going forward. This shows the grantmaker you already have plans to make the largest impact possible with their funding and that you’ll use and track the award responsibly.

6. Tailor Language to Meet the Mission of the Funder

Once you’ve submitted a few grant proposals, it’s likely you’ll be pulling language from past grants to respond to new ones. However, always re-read your responses and consider how you can tweak language to align your project with the funder’s mission and branding.

For example, if a funder has a particular focus on improving diversity, equity, and inclusion within the arts, update your grant language to highlight how your project works toward that goal, too. Pick stories and data from your work that demonstrate how your mission will also help their mission.

7. Have Another Set of Eyes

The editing process is critical for grant proposals. Your full development team should be aware of which organizations you’re applying to, what funding priorities you’re targeting, and how you’re framing your messaging to these external entities.

Make sure to have at least one other person on your team review drafts before they’re sent. This can help catch details you may have missed, such as updating contact names from past application language. It also serves as a check that the grant is on brand with your nonprofit’s current messaging.

8. Consider Taking a Class to Practice

Once you get into the flow of writing grant proposals and applications, you’ll have solid templates from which to pull. However, if you’re new to grant writing, it can be helpful to take a class on this unique writing style. 

Classes can also be helpful for seasoned grant writers looking for tips on how to make their applications stand out more.

Several local colleges and professional development centers offer these types of courses. Many online organizations also provide learning options, such as:

9. Use Resources to Improve Your Writing

Knowing how to write grant proposals requires a command of clear, direct language. Depending on your writing background, it can be a difficult style to learn. There are many resources available to help improve your writing and cut superfluous language.

Some resources to consider include:

  • Grammarly, a software that checks for spelling and grammar, as well as style and tone
  • Plain Language Action and Information Network, a federal initiative with resources to make communications, specifically those from the government, easier for the public to read, understand, and use
  • Hemingway Editor, an app that scores the readability of documents and offers suggestions for improvement
  • Grammar Girl, a podcast and blog with quick tips to answer all of your grammar-related questions

Write an Effective Grant Proposal

From clear writing to effective storytelling, grant proposals require special considerations to ensure they stand out to the funder. Use these tips to engage your development team in effective grant writing to fund your next project.


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