Unit 3: Key Elements of a Grant Proposal
As we discussed in Unit 2, you should carefully prepare your grant proposal based on the guidance, instructions, and requirements outlined in the RFP. When a grant announcement lacks an accompanying RFP, try to include all of the elements that are part of a well-thought-out proposal. In this unit, we detail the components of a typical grant proposal.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 4 hours.
3.1: Project Name
Keep the name for your funding project simple but descriptive. You do not want to confuse the reviewer with a catchy title that does not connect to your proposal. Being clear and concise is always the best policy.
3.2: Principal Investigator (PI)
First, you need to identify the principal investigator (PI) for your grant project, who is the person who will administer the project and serve as the main contact for the funding agency. The PI is usually the same person who will serve as the project director, project manager, or grant manager.
3.3: Abstracts and Project Descriptions (Executive Summary)
Your abstract is a summary of your project and describes the content of your proposal. Abstracts can be as short as three sentences or as long as two pages, depending on the specifications listed in the RFP. However, most abstracts are two- to three-paragraphs and up to one page in length. Grant funding agencies often display the abstracts for each grant recipient on their website when they announce the winners of a grant round.
The abstract should clearly and briefly describe the needs your project will address (your problem statement), the project objectives, the procedures and methods you will accomplish to meet your goals, a description of the evaluation design, and how much the project will cost. Many grant writers compose the abstract last to ensure it includes everything they want to present.
Keep in mind that your abstract may be the only part of your proposal a grantor reads, so be sure to make a good impression. The abstract should fit within the grant proposal's specified space or word count so the grantor does not cut your narrative off arbitrarily. It should be free of typos and clearly communicate that your project is necessary, well thought-out, and ready to fund.
3.4: Your Cover Letter
Most grant writers include a one-page cover letter – the first thing the funding agency sees when they open the envelope or computer file of your proposal. Your grant proposal cover letter is similar to one you write for a business proposal or to introduce yourself to a potential employer.
While your cover letter includes many of the same components as your abstract, your main objective is to sell your project to the funding agency, rather than simply summarize it. This is your first opportunity to make an impression and connect your project with the mission of the grant-funding agency.
Many grant writers recommend using a standard format. Your cover letter should be brief (up to one page), printed on your organization's letterhead, and signed by the executive director. The first sentence should simply state the amount of funding you are requesting and introduce your project to the funding agency. For example, "[your nonprofit organization] respectfully requests a grant of $50,000 from [the grant funding agency] to fund [the name of your project or program]".
Next, succinctly describe how your project (and your organization) will help further the mission of the granting funding agency. Briefly list the goals of your project – perhaps in bullet form with action words to make them easier to read. Reference any recent connections you have had with the funding agency. If possible, include a sentence or two about your organization's strong track record, ideally with concrete examples of successful past projects.
Thank the program officer for his or her help, for considering your request, and mention that you will follow up in a certain number of days. Be sure to include your contact information so the program officer can get in touch with you if they have any questions.
3.5: Organizational Information or Institutional Narrative
In this section of your grant proposal, you should present additional context about your organization and demonstrate how you share the same mission, goals, and service area as the grant-funding agency. Your goal is to foster a measure of credibility and respect, and show that you understand the community or population where your project will operate. Your organization has the know-how and experience to help the project succeed.
For example, if you are writing a grant for a college, this section should include:
- the organizational or institutional mission of the college;
- service area information, such as the population and whether it is rural, urban, or serves multiple counties;
- demographics of the student population, such as the average age, race, and gender; and
- an overview of core organizational programs or goals, and the project you are requesting funds for.
3.6: Statement of Need
Your statement of need is a critical part of your proposal, and should answer three questions:
- Why is the project needed?
- What problem or challenge will your project attempt to solve?
- How does your project relate to the mission of your organization?
In this section, you should be data-driven and provide as much relevant evidence as you can to support your claims. Demonstrate your knowledge of the problem through citations of appropriate literature and related research. State whether the problem you are trying to solve extends beyond the needs of your local, regional, or national area. You should incorporate two types of evidence to support your project.
- Quantitative Data: Include numerical data and statistics that support your claims and always cite your sources to build credibility with the funding agency. For example, if you are applying for a grant to serve the educational needs of your community, you might include the fact that 47 percent of the adults in your college's service area lack a high school diploma or GED. Cite where you found that information.
- Qualitative Data: You might incorporate a short anecdotal story that demonstrates the need for your project. Make your case personal with quotes from people who express a need for your project or from those who have benefited from similar projects. With qualitative data, it is harder to generalize or provide the same big picture perspective as quantitative data. However, qualitative data offers personal stories that can help your case.
The needs you list become the objectives of your project, and the case you make embodies the foundation of your entire proposal.
3.7: Goals and Objectives
Before you begin to write this section, you should understand the difference between goals and objectives.
Goals reflect the overarching mission the project aims to accomplish. They are conceptual and abstract and provide a view of the project's end result. An example of a goal might be to improve outcomes for students enrolled in developmental education classes.
Objectives are tangible, concrete, specific, realistic, measurable, achievable, and have a time dimension. An example of an objective might be "by Spring 2006, the percentage of students who complete Math 101 with a grade of C or higher will increase from 42 percent to 48 percent".
How you develop and communicate your project's goals and objectives depends on the funder's requirements. These guidelines can help you keep this section simple.
- List only one or two goals per project.
- List three to five objectives per goal. Remember that your project must be realistic. If your project is overly ambitious, the funder will be concerned that you cannot successfully meet your goals and will probably not support your project.
- Keep your evaluation section in mind when you write your objectives.
- Use action verbs when you write goals and objectives. For example, some good descriptive verbs include: provide, increase, change, determine, plan, coordinate, promote, decrease, enable.
3.8: Implementation, Operation, or Management Plan
This section, also called project methods, project design, or strategies, should:
- Describe the methods you will use to meet your project's objectives,
- Detail when you will perform these methods, and
- Identify who will administer them.
Begin writing your plan, or description of activities, by listing your objectives. Then, explain the specific activities that will occur. Many grant writers intermingle the three sections as part of their implementation plan, but you can also list them separately depending on what is requested in the RFP.
Here is a list of things to include:
- Explain how you will implement and complete the activities.
- Detail staff responsibilities.
- Outline the timeframe when activities will occur.
- Describe the management plan. How will you supervise the project within your organization's existing structure?
3.9: Project Timeline
Your timeline should detail the objectives you wish to meet, each activity that will occur to achieve each objective or goal, when each activity will occur, and the person or department responsible for performing the activity.
It is best to provide a visual timeline, such as a chart, to make it easy for grant reviewers to quickly assess and understand what you plan to do.
This chart offers an example of an implementation plan:
Objectives Activities Timeframe Responsible Personnel 1. Increase student retention by implementing case management support for all new students by July 1. Bid on and purchase student advising tracking system Jan. 1 – Feb. 15 – Director of Student Success
– Purchasing Department
Install and test new system Feb. 15 – March 3 – Instructional Technology Department Train faculty and student advisors March 4 – May 15 – Vendor
– Director of Student Success
Pilot summer cohort of allied health students for four-week term May 16 – June 15 – Advisors Allied Health
Review process and make necessary process and system adjustments June 15 – June 30 – Director of Student Success
– Instructional Technology Department Advisors
Begin full system use for all new enrollees July 1 – Advisor
3.10: Budget Summary, Narrative, and Justification
The budget describes your operation's financial plan. It should estimate the income and expenditures of each activity you expect to perform during the grant funding period. Many funders require a justification or explanation for each line item of your budget.
Your budget items must be reasonable and cost-effective. Be realistic since you do not want to cause financial headaches down the road by underestimating your total expenses. Some grant writers compose their budget before the proposal narrative, since knowing your financial requirements can help you formulate your objectives.
Include a budget narrative or justification with your proposal; in the United States, most state or federal agencies require them. For example, your budget may list $405 for mileage expenses. Your justification could state that your project will require 1,000 miles of local travel for the project director, at the cost of $0.405 per mile.
3.11: Project Evaluation
Many projects require you to present an evaluation plan for your program so the funding agency can determine whether your project was successful at the end of the funding cycle and whether you met the goals outlined.
Remember that funding agencies are accountable to their members: taxpayers if a government agency, shareholders of a corporation, and boards of directors if a nonprofit. These grant administrators need to demonstrate they made the right decision when they chose to fund your project, as opposed to another project that would have also supported a worthy cause. Project evaluation is a required element for many federal and state grant programs in the United States. Remember to build the costs for your evaluation into your budget. These results could determine whether your project receives future funding.
Your evaluation section may include two types of project evaluations:
- Formative evaluations are ongoing. These assessments begin during project development and continue throughout the life of the project. They provide constant feedback so you and the grant funder can assess the quality and success of your project activities, and determine whether you need to make changes during the course of the project. These evaluations should be quantifiable, so you can provide comparative feedback and learn whether your changes were successful.
- Summative evaluations assess how well a mature project has met its stated goals. They are sometimes called outcome evaluations. These reports usually examine progress on an annual basis. So for example, for a three-year project, grantees are required to complete annual reports in addition to a full summary at the end of the third year.
Your evaluation methods can be quantitative – statistics that describe whether you have met your objectives – or qualitative, such as interviews, surveys, or focus groups. Evaluations that combine both methods offer a more well-rounded picture of your program's impacts. In your grant proposal, your evaluation section describes how you plan to measure whether you have accomplished each objective of your project.
Your evaluation narrative should answer the following questions.
- When will you conduct the evaluation?
- How will you conduct your evaluation?
- What data will be collected to measure whether you met each specific objective?
- What instruments and methods will you use?
- What will you do with the evaluation results?
- How much will your evaluation cost?
3.12: Project Sustainability
This section of your proposal should describe how your project will be financially sustainable after its funding ends. Your narrative should respond to the following questions.
- How will your project continue after the grant funding ends?
- How will your organization assume any of the financial costs of the project?
- What resources will your organization provide the program after the funding ends? For example, will you provide free rental space, paid or unpaid staff time, operational support, or other types of funding after the grant funds have expired?
- Can you identify an alternative funding source, such as another donor or foundation?
- Will you charge clients a fee for the services you have provided them through the grant program? For example, will you offer a subscription-based service, or will you sell other items the project generates?
3.13: Partnering Organizations
Partnering or collaborating organizations can add a great deal to your project and proposal. Your partners can contribute their ideas, personnel, in-kind contributions, and additional project funding. They can also enhance your proposal's credibility if they have had a positive connection with the funding agency. Some grant-funding agencies require you to include partners to expand the reach of their contribution. Lining up additional partners shows you are organized and that you have external buy-in for your project.
For example, let's say you submit a grant proposal for a project that will teach students how to create alternative energy solutions. Embracing a company or organization that offers solar energy solutions or manufactures wind power turbines could enhance your proposal tremendously. Your partners could serve on your project advisory board, offer ideas on the skills they want their employees to have, or offer internships or apprenticeships to students who graduate from your program. These types of collaborations signal to funders that experts in the field trust your project ideas.
When other partners are involved you should provide specific, detailed information about the role they will serve in your initiative. For example, include a copy of the – a business document that details the scope, monetary and other contributions, and work they will perform. These details will lend further credibility to your agreement and demonstrate that you plan to work together to achieve your project goals.
Funders want to see that partners are truly participating and not just lending their names because they are your friends or have similar interests.
3.14: Outside Letters of Support
If the RFP allows it, a letter of support from an outside organization can help your case. What people or organizations could support your appeal? For example, you could include a kind letter from a previous grant-funding agency that appreciated your hard work or the success your organization had administering a similar project. You could include a letter of support from a local politician who appreciates your work on behalf of the community.
Make sure these letters provide relevant details to enhance your argument that your organization will meet the funding agency's needs. Explain whether your supporting organization will provide financial or in-kind support with specific examples. How can you help your supporters craft their support letter? Perhaps it would be more timely, appropriate, or effective to draft a letter for them to sign?
3.15 Other (Appendices)
If you have space in your proposal and the RFP allows it, here is a list of documentation you might include in an appendix. While this information may not respond directly to the questions in the RFP, it could lend additional credibility and information to your cause. Note that the RFP may require you to provide this information.
- Resumes for the people who will work on the project.
- A list of your organization's board of directors or trustees.
- Financial information for your organization, such as the annual budget or a list of your organization's other funding sources.
- A recent financial statement or audit of your organization.
- Proof of your organization's nonprofit status, such as your U.S. IRS 501(c)(3) letter or recent nonprofit tax return filing (Form 990).
- Your organization's annual report, so funders can see how your project fits into your organization's mission.
Be aware that many funding agencies require applicants to submit grant proposals electronically, which can limit your ability to attach appendices. Online application forms can also physically limit the amount of information you can provide, via character or word limits, which means it is essential to be clear and concise.
3.16: Award Letters and Funding Announcements
Congratulations! You have received an award letter which states the funding agency has approved your application and will support or fund your project! That's terrific!
Pay close attention to this letter. It includes basic information, such as the amount of money the funding agency will provide and the length of the funding period. It should also offer key details about expectations the funding agency has for you, such as your immediate next steps, upcoming deadline dates, and other obligations your organization now has as a grant recipient.
The RFP may have excluded this specific guidance, so pay attention to any additional responsibilities you and your organization may have.
Here is an example of an award letter for a small state grant to a school district. It includes all of the elements we noted above, including several specific guidelines and requirements for the grantee. For example, the grant administrator requests to speak with the grant recipient to discuss the grant's reporting requirements. The grant recipient must also participate in a series of training and networking sessions, administer certain evaluation activities, follow service-learning quality standards, send out a press release to announce their award, and administer two service-learning activities during the upcoming year. Do not jeopardize future funding opportunities by ignoring the obligations the award letter outlines.