News and Information about the nonprofit sector in Massachusetts. Check back frequently to keep informed.
December 3, 2021
Grants: An Insider's Tips for Your Proposal
By Caroline Herbert

It's amazing how some organizations always nab those grants and others are left empty handed. There are reasons for winners and losers and it has everything to do with the strength of a proposal.

It's not only about writing, but also managing the proposal process, which includes planning, research, writing, and communicating with prospective donors.

Start by thinking about the purpose of the proposal document. The purpose is to convince the funder that your project addresses a specific need or issue they care about. It should also assure the funder that your organization has the competencies and capacities in place to do the work.

In very concrete terms, you're telling the foundation how you propose to spend its money. Many grant writers make the mistake of focusing on the prose and leaving the budget until last. In fact, the detailed budget you send with the proposal is often one of the first proposal sections the program officer will examine.

Consider the program officer's role, which is to find promising projects that most closely match the goals and priorities of the foundation, and then make the case to colleagues and, ultimately, to the foundation's board of directors. Think about how you can make the program officer's job easier. Will this information help make your case? To quote one grantmaker in the Foundation Center's Guide to Proposal Writing, 5th edition, by Jane C. Geever, "Proposal writers should avoid 'fluff,' repeatedly stating in general terms how important the program is without providing details to back up the claim."

In addition, remember that program officers are inundated with requests. To make your proposal stand out, the answer is not flashy graphics or color, which can make the program officer think you're all "style" and no "substance." Instead, clearly and concisely focus on three questions:
  • What are you going to do;
  • Who will benefit; and,
  • Why is it important.

Finding the Right Fit

The good news is that the number one reason proposals are turned down is that the "fit" isn't right, and you have control over this. It sounds simple, but do your homework and apply only when you fit the funder's guidelines.

Of course, guidelines might not always be clear, or you may want to check in with the funder to see if you're on the right track. It is often well worth your time to pick up the telephone and succinctly present your project, rather than sending a "cold" proposal. It goes without saying that you make this call only after you've done your research, and only if the grantmaker accepts calls.

While each funder might have a preferred proposal format, they are all looking for effective programs backed by strong organizations. Program officers have described to The Foundation Center what they want to see in proposals:
  • The nonprofit should be very clear about the dollars they need from us, the purpose for which funds are needed, and the time period in which the funds will be used.
  • A compelling need statement followed by a clear program response with measurable outputs and outcomes.
When crafting a compelling need statement, make the data as relevant and local as possible. The funder wants to see where its dollars will have an impact. For example, if your project is to launch a new community garden project, which of the following two sentences is a more powerful opening?
  1. Policymakers and citizens around the globe are debating the best response to the challenge of combating greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the environment.
  2. A child living in Ward 7 must travel several miles outside the boundaries of her neighborhood before she will see a garden, park, or any green space.
The second sentence is much more immediate and draws the reader into your world. Beginning a proposal with generalizations about the problem is a wasted opportunity. The grantmaker might not turn the page if the specific problem you want to address is unclear. Take the reader through a logical sequence, telling the story of what you will accomplish with the grant.

Funders want details on how you plan to sustain the project after their grant money has run out. They want to know who else is supporting the project now, other funders you are approaching, and your plan for raising money in the long run. Although many foundations are looking for innovative, new program ideas, they could be hesitant to take a risk on an unknown entity.

The sustainability section of your proposal is your chance to demonstrate that you have a fiscally viable project and organization.

Keep these tips in mind, and never lose sight of your long-range goal: developing partnerships with foundations to solve problems in your community and make the world a better place.

Republished with permission from NPT Weekly, a publication of The NonProfit Times. For a free subscription, click here. Caroline Herbert is the senior training coordinator at The Foundation Center's Washington, D.C., library/learning center.
SUBSCRIBE FREE – Keep current with the Wednesday Report emailed to you free each week. Click here.
Got news, advice, resources? Send it to