Nonprofit grant writing essentials and here’s what major foundations look for

September 18, 2019 - 22 minutes read

“That proposal is probably going to be rejected.”

Tough, but true.

A hard part of writing nonprofit grant proposals is that the success rate for winning grants is only 10% to 20%.

If you do not watch out, the grant proposal you are laboring over can very well end up in that trash bucket there!

Now let me tell you a secret:

Faithfully following the grant proposal guidelines alone will not win you the grant.

It is a good start, yes. But you need more.

A winning proposal stands out from the rest. It decides for the reviewer and makes him pick your project. If all you are doing is sticking to the grant guidelines, then your proposal is just one more to add to the pile.

Writing nonprofit grant proposal to pass the barrier means being aware of certain unsaid clues too. That is where this post will help.

I will take you through the unspoken needs and norms as well as the explicit rules and criteria of the review process so that your proposal has a higher chance of winning.

Writing a nonprofit grant proposal that wins

Here is a typical cycle of a grant application:

Pic courtesy: The Writing Center

What should jump out at you right now, is that the grant application process is not a linear one, but cyclical. It continues even after the grant is awarded (to make way for future donations).

This cyclical aspect of the process should reflect in your writing. That is, you should articulate the immediate impact of the project. Explain how sustainable it is and also the kind of long term impact it can build.

This detailed write up also educates the funders to the problems unique to your community. So, the next time you approach them for a grant (maybe for the same project), it can get funded easier.

Now, let’s talk about the overt criteria that you can follow for your grant process.

Step 1. Identify needs and focus

Every successful grant proposal stems from a substantial project that genuinely helps the community. To develop such a project, you first need to identify the gaps that exist currently in the community.

Such an exercise, called the community needs assessment program, is done using outreach strategies.

The outreach strategy should tell you:

  1. What are the current problems within the community
  2. Which one should you focus on immediately
  3. How can your nonprofit solve that problem

Based on your findings, you will develop a project plan. This project plan will give you a clear idea of the costs involved and the funds you need to accomplish the goal.

For instance, you would find that you can get better results if you can increase the efficiency of your team. In such a case, you will apply for a capacity-building grant.

Or, from the project plan, you can see that the software you use needs an upgrade – in which case, you can apply for an IT grant.

This first step helps you identify which nonprofit grants to apply for and how much money to ask.

Related reading > Here’s a complete list of types of nonprofit grants

Step 2. Grant Prospect research

Not all grant makers will fund your project. This is especially true if you are applying for an offbeat grant (like say an operating grant).

So it is crucial to research the grant-making organizations and understand:

  1. What are the kind of projects they have funded in the past? – It will tell you if your project is likely to get funded.
  2. What are the grant makers’ funding priorities? – It will tell you if your project is in line with the mission of the funding organization. If it is not, then your proposal will get rejected.
  3. How much money have they given away last year? Are they planning to stick to the same number or give more this year? – This will give you an idea of how much money the organization can bestow you.
  4. What are the grant guidelines? – Do they need a letter of intent and proposal solicited afterward? Or are they open to you directly approaching them with a grant? – It will tell you whether to start with a Letter of Inquiry or a letter proposal or the actual proposal.

If you are planning to approach the Nestle Foundation for a grant, then this is what would jump out at you:

brief-letter-grants

So you would first work on a letter of intent and if that succeeds, then write the complete proposal.

Similarly, the guidelines for each grant (sometimes within the same Foundation) can vastly differ from each other. Sticking to these guidelines will ensure that your proposal is not rejected outright.

“You don’t want to be the guy whose proposal was rejected because they didn’t use the correct font that the Foundation specified.”

Ava Rosenblatt, Grant Manager

Quick fact: The most common reasons for grants to get rejected are due to improper prospect research. The organizations find that the proposal is outside its funding priorities. Or the nonprofit’s proposal does not adhere to the grant guidelines. So do not skip this step!

Step 3. Writing the grant proposal

Once you get the all-clear to submit a proposal from the Foundation, the actual writing work starts. You can get help from a professional grant writer if you think your nonprofit does not have the bandwidth and skill set to take this up.

What is included while writing nonprofit grant proposal varies. Here are a few general elements that are seen in every grant:

grant-proposal-sections
Pic Courtesy: Balance SMB

Let us quickly see how best to write each of these elements for your proposal.

Cover Letter

A cover letter is the first thing the funding Foundation going to read about you. So having a sloppy cover letter would be a big turn off (that is, it will drastically impair your chances of winning the grant.)

A good cover letter identifies your organization, introduces the project, and also states the amount of money you are requesting. Remember to include the name and contact details of the person within your nonprofit with whom they can get in touch with later.

To ensure that your cover letter makes a good first impression, always address it to a particular person in the Foundation (Eg. Dear Ms./Mrs./Dr. Smith). The prospect research you have already done would come in handy here.

Keep it brief, professional and end with a salutation (like ‘yours sincerely’). More importantly, don’t try to write a story or be ‘different’ in your tone. It would probably get rejected.

Pro tip: Expert grant writers suggest that you write the cover letter last – after you have finished the whole proposal. Doing so would give you a better idea of what to say in the cover letter.

Executive Summary

It is a concise explanation of the community problem and your potential solution. It should give a complete picture to the reader on how your organization can help the community.

A grant maker reads this document right before the actual proposal. So, it is important that you make it as interesting and engaging as possible.

Pro tip: Check the funders’ guidelines to see how long the executive summary has to be. If the length is explicitly stated, do not exceed it (try to be as close to it as possible. As a rule of thumb, this section is not more than 3 or 4 pages long.

The needs statement

Remember the findings of your needs assessment that we spoke about? This is where you tell your funders about that.

needs-statement

A needs statement (also called problem statement) conveys the urgency of the problem you have identified within the society. It motivates the reader to address the problem and tells him why he should care.

To convey your point better, do not shy away from using data and statistics. The numbers should support your point, be objective, and still convey how huge the problem statement is.

Here is an example needs statement as given by the grant makers United Way:

needs-statement-example

Notice how each the grant writer has clearly articulated 4 different aspects that affect the problem statement (an increase in teen pregnancy). For each point, the writer has used numbers to support his stance.

Also, he ends with the crucial role his nonprofit plays in ending the problem. This tells the reader why they should fund this organization over others.

Pro tip: A good needs statement is written for the intellect and emotions. It should engage the reader, contain hard data, and also a logical argument to make your case.

Goals and Objectives

Once the reader is convinced about the problem, he wants to know the solution you can bring about. The goals and objectives section help with that.

Goals are what your project (or your nonprofit) can accomplish. Objectives are the measurable changes and impact you can expect.

Eg. Your goal can be making clean water accessible to all remote areas in a community. The measurable objectives can be how many taps, or pipes you installed, how many wells you helped resuscitate or even how many locals attended your awareness rally.

If your project has several goals, remember to link each objective back to the goal.

Pro tip: Make your objectives as specific as possible. “Who are directly benefited from this project? What is the time frame of the project? What metrics are you going to measure and how?” are all questions the goals and objectives should answer.

Methods, strategies or program design

In this section, you walk your reader through exactly how you plan to achieve the goals. So you give a detailed description of your methodologies, how you will carry out the program and who will do it.

For, eg. Explain each activity you have planned and the outcome you can generate. Are you having a rally? A seminar? An awareness program? Who is the target audience for it, and how will it bring you closer to your objective?

Be upfront about any hurdles or roadblocks you expect. Tell your readers how you plan to overcome these hurdles and what skillsets your nonprofit has to tackle these challenges.

Pro tip: The program budget is sometimes included in this section. Please go back to the grant guidelines to see where you are asked to put it. If the grant makers want it in a separate section, then you will include it later.

Evaluation section

Funders want to fund projects that have an impact. Regardless of how urgent the problem is, if they do not believe that your project can make an impact, they will not fund you.

That is why it is essential to explain how they can evaluate and measure your efforts. In this section, you are giving the funders a means to calculate the difference your project (and their money) can bring about.

The measurement tools can be data collection, client satisfaction surveys, or even social impact indicators.

Pro tip: Measurement and evaluation should relate to the objectives of the program plan and funding request.

Other funding or sustainability

No program or project can be dependent on a single source of income. Foundations look for organizations that have diversified their funds because:

  • Already having an existing grant or other sources of funding is a sign of dependability. It works as social proof and increases the faith of the grant-making organization in your nonprofit.
  • Less dependency on a single grant means longer sustainability of the project. That is, your program will not sink if the major income dries up. So the grant-making organization can confidently choose to invest in your program.

Pro tip: Now would also be a good time to mention any collaborations or partnerships you plan to undertake. This shows that you have a larger skill set at your disposal. As always refer to the grant guidelines before including this section.

Information about your organization

Talk about the qualification, history, and your organizational background and make a solid case for why you are best equipped to deal with this problem. This section should make a case as to why the grant-making organization can trust your nonprofit to carry out the project.

To describe your organization’s ability to do the work proposed include the mission statement, organizational goals, EIN number and summary of key personnel qualifications.

Make sure you give details on past projects you have handled and the kind of impact you have created. This overview of your track record is quite critical because it adds credence to your nonprofit. It also is the best way to convince the grant-making organization that you can deliver on the project.

Pro tip: Even if you already have a relationship with the grant-making Foundation, don’t scrimp on this section. Talking about your organizational history is absolutely necessary.

Project Budget

Here is what the Kellogg Foundation expects in its ‘Budget’ section:

kellogg-foundation-budget-section-requirement

As you can see, not only are you expected to give a list of the expenses you would incur, but also a means to track those expenses and manage it.

So when you mention the salaries and benefits (for your employees), supplies, transportation, technology, and administrative expenses that you can incur for this project. Devise a separate reporting of operational, administrative, and direct costs against the budget.

Pro tip: This is also the section where you can talk about income. Earned income from your nonprofit’s investments and also donation income (individual and other contributions) can be mentioned.

Bonus – Attachments?

Attachments are supportive documents to the statements you have made. The reviewers would want to look at:

  • IRS letter of determination; letter from the New Mexico Attorney General; letter from Registrar of Charitable Organizations;
  • Most recent IRS 990
  • List of Board Members and affiliations
  • Current Financial Statements
  • Audited financial statements
  • Anti Discrimination Policy (if any)
  • Letters of Support (if needed)

Remember that some of these documents are purely optional, while others are necessary. Check your grant guidelines to see which ones are required from you.

Pro tip: In case of online grant applications, have the attachments ready (in the requested format) before beginning the application process.

What makes a successful grant proposal?

Like I mentioned at the beginning of my post, if you follow these guidelines to the letter, all you are doing is not being rejected outright.

A successful grant proposal goes one step further. At every section, it does three important things:

  • It convinces the grant makers about the merit of the project and the impact you can create.
  • It conveys a sense of urgency and importance to the reviewer.
  • Most importantly, it establishes beyond doubt that your organization is the best suited to carry out the project.

Obviously achieving all these three objectives is not as easy. Sound context, engaging writing, and clarity about your project are all critical in achieving this goal.

On a brighter note

Here is the aggregate fiscal data of all the foundations in the U.S till 2015.  Notice the amount of total giving stated here.

fiscal-data-foundations

By 2018, the total giving by foundations had increased to $75.86 billion – marked spike from the previous years.

So an increased grant giving will definitely mean more chances for getting your proposal approved.

Also, not to be a downer, but notice that rejection is an accepted part of the nonprofit grant writing process.

A rejected proposal does not mean that your life-work has no merit. It simply means that the organization is not capable of supporting you.

So you either look for alternate funding sources or see how you can tweak this proposal to improve it for next time.

All the best! Happy writing!

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