by Matthew Chase

Given how many social programs and community organizations are already feeling the hurt of deep budget cuts and decreasing institutional support, grants are becoming more and more essential to their survival. Yet the grant seeking field is highly competitive with scarce funding opportunities and an abundance of competing applicants. A well-written grant proposal can make the difference in successfully receiving the financial support necessary to continue providing and even developing services and programs for disadvantaged communities.

Writing a grant proposal is not unlike writing a research proposal, and so it carries many of the hurdles and daunting expectations as a result. I hope that this brief overview to the structure of proposal writing will break down the essentials of the process and ultimately dismantle (to some extent) the anxieties of having to write one. This information is grounded in my own education as well as professional experience in grant writing for a nonprofit group. It could be used as a template to adapt your proposal to a given funder’s specifications.


The narrative is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects to the proposal writing. It is both science and storytelling as you craft a concise and persuasive appeal of the program for which you are seeking funding. Most funders will provide their own criteria of what should be included in the narrative, some being strict and others being more flexible and broad. It is extremely important to adapt their criteria into the overall structure of the narrative. See if the funder requires specific writing parameters such as page length, font style and size, margins, etc. Answer any questions they ask directly. Don’t fluff up the writing with emotional and poetic language. Use their language and terminology as much as possible instead.

While the narrative may vary depending on the funder’s requirements, there are a few common and key elements to a great narrative.

  1. Describe the program/project you want funded. Who makes up the target population, what need is the program designed to address, what services are being delivered to meet that need, and the history and mission of the organization that you represent. Discuss any partnerships that your organization has made with other organizations/institutions, and point to any special accomplishments made by your organization.
  2. Provide current data and research to support both the importance of the need being addressed as well as the potential effectiveness of the program to be funded. If your program has yet to be implemented, then offer models of similar programs that do have evidence to support their success. Assume your funder knows nothing about the problem or your solution, and walk them through the step-by-step process of how your program is intended to help the target population.
  3. Relate how the program and your organization meet the mission and goals of the funder.
  4. Introduce the leadership of the grant project team and organization. Provide their academic and professional credentials. All of which will further add to the credibility of the proposal.

Project Budget

The budget is strongly tied to what you write in the narrative. You don’t want to ask for funding for a resource that you didn’t discuss in the project. On the other hand, you also don’t want to omit something from the budget when it is discussed in the narrative. Rather, there is a balance that needs to be struck in the amount of funding requested. It might seem incredibly tempting to ask for more financial support than you require, forcing the program to extend beyond the organization’s core mission and goals. The funder may also read the proposal as greedy, and your organization loses credibility as a result.

At the same time, too many organizations request an amount well below what their program actually needs, in the vain hope of appearing more competitively valuable. Even if you win the grant, you are ultimately stuck with the underfunding while still having to achieve the results that you articulated to the funder. Credibility is lost yet again, severely hurting future opportunities in seeking grants.

In the end, you want to be as specific as possible in addition to requesting a reasonable amount of financial support in relation to the program being proposed. Once you submit the budget, the likelihood of being able to change it later is slim. So make it count.

As for the actual budget writing, the criteria may again vary depending on specifications by the funder. However, there are three common areas to be addressed in the budget section of the proposal.

  • Proposed Project Budget Expenses. List the resources and services that will be funded by the grant as well as their individual and total costs. Be specific and reasonable. Project evaluation costs can also be added to this subsection.
  • Additional Funding Sources. Identify any and all funding sources that you are currently seeking and/or have been committed with by other funders. Specify the amount of their contributions.
  • In-Kind Contributions. Similar to the additional funding sources, this subsection should identify any and all non-monetary resources being sought or committed to the program by outside organizations. Specify the nature and quantity of these contributions.

Goals, Objectives, and Measures

While the narrative articulates the why and what of the proposal, the goals as well as their underlying objectives and measures determine the how. Sadly, evaluation is an often neglected aspect to the grant writing process. You may have the best of intentions with the proposed program, but unless you can substantially validate whether it is meeting the needs you identified, then the funder understandably cannot commit to such an investment.

Goals represent the broad statements of the kind of impact or outcome the program will deliver. Ground your goals in the needs you discussed in the narrative. They are ultimately difficult, if not impossible to assess by themselves. Instead, the quality of a goal relies primarily on the quality of its objectives.

Objectives compose the measurable components of a goal. To best represent the performance of a program in pursuit of its goals, the objectives should be written under the “SMART” philosophy which stands for:

  • Specific. Clearly define the observable results of the project.
  • Measurable. State the objective in assessment terms to be evaluated against a standard. Terms could include quantity, costs, percentages, quality, etc.
  • Achievable. Ensure that the objective can be met within the available time frame and resources.
  • Relevant. The objective must link back to the narrative’s needs assessment and the organization’s mission.
  • Time-oriented. Identify the deadline(s) and/or milestones of the objective.

Objective writing should also be followed with what measurements and assessments will be used to evaluate the project’s performance in relation to its objectives. Assessment tools can vary depending on the given objective, but they can include everything from participant interviews and focus groups to surveys to scoring data. As always, be specific and comprehensive.

Other Supporting Documents

It is extremely essential that you include any additional documents being requested from the funder as to have any real chance at a successful application. Some typical materials and documentation required from funders also include:

  • IRS 501(c)(3) letter and other tax exemption letters
  • List of Board of Directors
  • Annual Financial Report
  • Balance Sheet and Income Statement
  • Cover Letter

Great Websites for Grant Seekers to Get Started