Grant Applications
last updated April 12, 2011

Before preparing a grant application, it is important to determine first whether the funder will accept unsolicited applications, or requires instead a letter of inquiry. Letters of inquiry can save both funder and applicant time and effort. If the funder is interested in the project described in the letter of inquiry, it can request a full application.


If possible, it can be helpful to obtain copies of proposals from applicants who were successful in obtaining a grant from that funder before drafting a proposal. TGCI offers a database of grant proposal abstracts that were awarded funds by the United States government.

The application, unless otherwise specified, should be accompanied by a cover letter that introduces the applicant and the project. The cover letter should make a specific request, explain the proposal's relationship to the funder's guidelines, mention any prior contact or relationship with the funder, describe the contents of the proposal package, briefly describe, in two to three sentences, the project proposed, and request a meeting or offer to provide additional information. Include in the letter the name and phone number of a contact person.

The cover letter is often followed by a cover page identifying funder and applicant ("proposal to" and "submitted by" lines) and containing a specific title. The table of contents should follow the cover page. The proposal should follow the table of contents, and include as its first section an executive summary.

The executive summary (or "project summary") provides the reader with an overview of the need for the project (and the research conducted to ascertain that need), the project (how the project will address the need and its specific objectives), and the funding request. A brief statement of the organization's mission and history (i.e., the credibility and competence of the applicant) should also be included. Generally, it is most useful to prepare this summary after the proposal itself is completed.

It may be possible to combine the executive summary and the cover letter into one document. In this case, the grantseeker might expand the cover letter to two to three paragraphs and eliminate the executive summary. Because funders may separate the cover letter from the main proposal during the review process, it may not be advised to put vital information solely in the cover letter.

The body of the proposal should be based on initial research and contain the following sections: needs assessment (what is the need? is it unmet or inadequately met? how was that need determined?), description of the project (how will this project address the need? without being critical of competing projects, how will this project address the need differently or better than other efforts?), specific goals and objectives of the project, methodology and timetable, and monitoring and evaluation plans. The grantseeker can also discuss, if applicable, the extent to which the project is being carried out in partnership with another organization, and the responsibilities of each organization.

Where such information is available, it can be very useful to back up the needs assessment with concrete data and to make the needs assessment as concrete as possible. Grantseekers should try to avoid statements such as "little is known about" and focus on the consequences of the information gap. From Writing Winning Grant Proposals Step by Step: Wirth Practice Exercises and Sample Models for NGOs in the Baltics Seeking U.S. and Western European Grants 23. The Foundation Center's Proposal Writing Short Course provides an excellent discussion and many examples of how to create specific and measurable objectives and methods.

A grant application should emphasize those aspects of the project that connect to the funder's objectives. This connection to the funder's goals is, as Judith Prebyl explains in more detail in The Body, Heart and Soul of Grantwriting, the "soul" of a winning grant.

Finally, the grant proposal should discuss other and future funding as well as any other commitments that may have been made to a project. Funders are often more willing to fund a project if they know they are not the only source of financial support. The Paladin Group recommends listing funders that have been approached for funding with the amounts requested. The applicant might also discuss what would happen when funding ceases—i.e., what efforts will be made to make the project sustainable over time. As the Foundation Center explains in its Proposal Writing Short Course, funders want potential grantees "to prove either that your project is finite (with start-up and ending dates); or that it is capacity building (that it will contribute to the future self-sufficiency of your organization and/or enable it to expand services that might be revenue generating); or that it will make your organization attractive to other funders in the future."

Grant applications require a budget, and funders will scrutinize the budget carefully. According to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, some of the questions funders might ask about a budget include:

  • Can the job be accomplished with this budget?
  • Are the costs reasonable for the market—or too high or low?
  • Is the budget consistent with proposed activities?
  • Is there sufficient budget detail and explanation?

The budget should be as specific as possible and include line-items for personnel, administrative (the cost of managing the grant), contingency (costs that change over time), and overhead (the cost of the organization's space and resources) costs. The budget should include both new costs that will be incurred, and ongoing costs that will be allocated to the project. Adequate research can help ensure that costs are realistic. The budget should also reflect any in-kind or financial contributions to the project (categorized as received, committed, or pending, as necessary), as well as volunteer time donated.

A budget narrative is simply a description of aspects of the budget that may be questionable or might not be clear from the budget itself. For example, the budget narrative might describe the way in which the value of in-kind and volunteer contributions is calculated.

The applicant should keep track of how the final amounts included in the budget are determined. It may be necessary to later break down or revise individual line-items. It may be useful here to briefly describe or mention the organization's financial management procedures.

The Foundation Center offers an excellent tutorial on program budget planning. The Nonprofit Guides provides a sample project budget.

Finally, the proposal should also include a description of the organization and its mission, staff, history, and achievements or recognitions (particularly in areas related to the grant proposal). The proposal should convey to the funder that the organization is capable of implementing the project, and that the project fits within the organization's mission. If the organization is relatively new, it may be wise to apply together with a more established organization and then sub-contract to implement a part of the project. From Writing Winning Grant Proposals Step by Step: Wirth Practice Exercises and Sample Models for NGOs in the Baltics Seeking U.S. and Western European Grants 22.

Supporting materials and attachments—if such are both allowed by the funder and relevant—should be included in the form of an appendix that is stapled separately from the proposal (funders may separate the proposal from the appendix for circulation). Potential appendices might include: organizational chart, certification of the organization's legal status, list of board members, job descriptions, CVs of staff or consultants who will work on the project, letters of support, statistics, evaluation instruments, newspaper articles, and price quotes. From Writing Winning Grant Proposals Step by Step: Wirth Practice Exercises and Sample Models for NGOs in the Baltics Seeking U.S. and Western European Grants 26. Suzanne E. Coffman, after surveying funders on what they look for in a proposal, recommends against sending actual physical items such as books or videos, but rather attaching a list of such items that describes how the items may be obtained. The Foundation Center's Online Orientation to the Grantseeking Process recommends attaching a copy of the organization's most recent budget.

Chad T. Green and Yvette Castro-Green describe a number of additional helpful tips for grantwriting, including:

  • When appropriate, the applicant should try to use the format used by the funder in its materials. As Green and Castro-Green explain, "[a] familiar report is a friendly report."
  • Emphasis should be conveyed with bold type, which is easier to read than underlining or italicizing.
  • The application should have no more than three levels of headers, to ensure that the reader does not lose track of the proposal's organization.
  • Linking words can be used to that show time and sequence of events or activities (then, next, second, at last); explain (more precisely, in addition, moreover); and compare or contrast (however, despite, contrary to, although, while, unless).
  • The application should have margins that allow the reader to hold the proposal without covering any of the text.
  • Pages should be numbered.
  • The length of sentences should be limited to fifteen words or less, if possible.
  • The applicant should use action verbs and avoid the passive voice.
  • The application should be double-spaced (unless the guidelines provide otherwise). Lists can be used to avoid "white space," which can make a document easier to read.

From Writing Winning Grant Proposals Step by Step: Wirth Practice Exercises and Sample Models for NGOs in the Baltics Seeking U.S. and Western European Grants 51-53.

Finally, the application should be proofread and spellchecked. It may be useful to ask a number of people to read the application, particularly people who are not familiar with the project, since they may be able to better identify areas in which the proposal is unclear.

Non-Profit Guides provides a collection of grant documents, including a sample inquiry letter, grant proposal, cover letter, operating budget, and executive summary. This site also contains a helpful list of guiding principles for grantseekers, including the most important messages to convey to a funder. The Foundation Center also offers examples of every kind of proposal document, from entire grant proposals to cover letters to gift acknowledgement letters. CD Publications offers a helpful Grantseeker's Checklist.

The Minnesota Council on Foundations's Writing a Successful Grant Proposal is an excellent, in-depth discussion of topics to cover in a grant proposal. This website also provides useful illustrations of how the basic grant proposal framework can be altered to fit a request for general operating support or for small-project funding. The United States government also offers a helpful description of the grant writing process. This description is geared for applicants to federal agencies, but many of the tips apply equally well in other contexts.

Adapted from The Foundation Center, J.C. Downing Foundation's General Guidance, the Minnesota Council on Foundations's Grantseeking Basics, and the European Foundation Centre's Project Proposal Basics.