Grant proposals require clarity, logic, details

Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Writing applications for grants has become a strategic task that requires understanding funders and making a clear and compelling case, supported by evidence, that the program or project the grant will fund will be effective in addressing a particular problem or need.

It also requires that nonprofits understand and develop relationships with their funders.

That is the advice of Althea Gonzalez, North Carolina program manager for Hispanics in Philanthropy, and Melissa Le Roy, executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council, who led a workshop Sept. 22 in Greensboro at the annual conference of the N.C. Center for Nonprofits on writing proposals for grants.

Relationships and alignment

While living individuals accounted for 73 percent of the more than $290 billion in charitable giving in the U.S. in 2010, and bequests accounted for another 8 percent, foundations provided only 14 percent and corporations provided only 5 percent, according to Giving USA.

So nonprofits looking for grants need to find the right funder from among private foundations, public foundations and government, Gonzalez said.

And finding the right funder is “all about relationships and alignment,” she said, including a match between the nonprofit and the funder, between the project to be funded and the funder’s investment goals, and between the nonprofit’s staff and the funder’s staff or board.

Nonprofits need to do their homework to find those alignments, she said, starting with research about funders and their funding priorities and guidelines.

Nonprofits also need to look into the type of grant they need, whether for a program or for planning, capital and operating needs, as well as the organization’s actual financial needs, including how much it needs and for what purpose.

And nonprofits need to develop long-term connections with funders and their program officers and board members.

Instead of a “beggar relationship,” a nonprofit through a grant application should be developing a “partnership,” Gonzalez said.

“They need you as much as you need them,” she said. “Applying as a partner is better than as a co-dependent.”

Proposal sections

Grant applications typically consist of standard sections, Le Roy said, including a cover letter; executive summary; statement of need; explanation of goals and objectives; explanation of the method that will be used to achieve the goals and objectives; explanation of how the nonprofit will evaluate the effectiveness of the program; explanation of how the nonprofit will sustain the program financially; organizational information; and a program budget.

Here are the basic elements of a grant application, according to Gonzalez and Le Roy.

Cover letter

The cover letter for a grant proposal typically is the final part of the proposal to be written, should be brief, preferably no more than one page, should get to the point quickly, and should not repeat information contained in the proposal itself.

It also should show the funder that the nonprofit understands the funder’s guidelines and that the proposal meets those guidelines.

Executive summary

The executive summary of a grant application invites the reader of the proposal to read further and captures the essence of what a nonprofit is seeking.

The summary should identify the organization and its mission; include the title, purpose and target population of the project to be funded; persuade the grant reviewer the proposed program is important; and make sure the reviewer understands the need for the program and the results it would produce.

The summary should emphasize key points that are important to the funder, be no longer than one page, not introduce new information that is not included in the full proposal, and not include expert opinions.

Need statement

The proposal itself begins with a statement of the need for the funding.

The need should be related to the nonprofit’s mission and should focus on the people the nonprofit serves rather than the needs of the nonprofit.

The need can be backed up by expert opinion, evidence, facts and trends, and should be directly related to the nonprofit’s ability to respond to it.

The statement should be “short, sweet, simple,” should avoid jargon, acronyms and abbreviations, and can use statistics and data that are relevant and support the need for the funding.

Goals and objectives

The goals and objectives section describes what the nonprofit aims to accomplish with the project to be funded and spells out specific results or outcomes it plans to accomplish.

The goals and objectives section should be tied directly to the need statement and should include all relevant groups, agencies and clients the nonprofit serves in its target population.

The nonprofit also should not confuse the outcomes or objectives of the project to be funded with the method it plans to use to achieve those outcomes or objectives.

If the nonprofit has not figured out how it will measure each objective, it is not an objective and will need to be changed.

The goals and objectives also should be attainable: Funders want to make investments that will be successful, so it is better to “under-promise and over-deliver.”

A nonprofit should set a goal only if it has proof the project will work.


This section walks the funder through the methods the nonprofit will use to achieve the goals and objectives of the project.

It should include the rationale for choosing the methods; spell out any phases in the activities of the project; identify who will perform project activities, as well as who the project will serve and how they will be selected; and should be written as if the reader knows nothing about the nonprofit or the proposed program.

This section likely will take more time to write than any other section in the proposal.


This section explains how the nonprofit will assess the project’s accomplishments, including the records the nonprofit will keep or the data it will collect, and how it will use that data.

Key questions this section should answer include what the nonprofit will know after the evaluation that it did not know before, and how the nonprofit’s clients and community will be better off as a result of its programs or services.

Funders want to know what a nonprofit has learned as a result of projects they fund, and whether it is a “learning organization.”


Funders typically do not want to be the sole source of support for a project, so the application should identify funds committed to the project from other funders, and whether the nonprofit has asked other funders for support, including in-kind contributions.

This section also should say whether the project is a pilot with a limited time-line and, if it will continue in the future, and how the nonprofit plans to fund and sustain it over the long-term.

Organizational information

The nonprofit should explain in a few paragraphs what it does and why the funder can trust it to use the requested funds responsibly and effectively.

The section should include a short history of the organization and state its mission, the population it serves, and an overview of its track record in advancng its mission.

And it should describe or list its programs.

This section should be complete even if the nonprofit knows the funder or has received grants from it in the past.


This section should spell out how much the project will cost, and should include a short budget showing expected expenses and income.

The expenses portion should include personnel expenses, direct project expenses, and administrative or overhead expenses.

The budget also should include the costs of measuring and evaluating the results, including the cost of staff time and evaluation or measurement software that will be needed.

Income should include earned and contributed income.

The budget should be aligned with every section of the proposal.

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