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10 Tips for Writing a Winning Grant

Your nonprofit may rely on grants to support meaningful programs or day-to-day operations. But applying for grants can be both time-intensive and intimidating.

With this in mind, we put together some tips for how to write a grant proposal for nonprofit organizations! We enlisted the grant-writing expertise of Kate Frost, Resource Development Director at Children First/Communities in Schools of Buncombe County (Children First/CIS). This North Carolina nonprofit makes sure students have the tools they need to succeed in school and empowers the community to be advocates for children and their families.

Prepare Your Boilerplate Text

For many nonprofits, July marks the beginning of the fiscal year. To prepare for the rest of the year of grant writing, Kate suggests updating and refreshing your nonprofit’s boilerplate text on an annual basis. Grant proposal deadlines are always looming, so preparing as much of your written materials as possible is a great way to ensure you don’t feel rushed later on. The new fiscal year is also an apt time to review your organization’s mission, programs, and needs. Have 100-word blurbs about each of your programs at hand so that they’re ready to drop into a proposal. Make sure this material is updated on your website, too!

Read and Reread the Grant Applications

You may have to apply to a few grants simultaneously. Make sure you read every application carefully. Highlight all the questions you must answer for each application. Funders will be clear about what they will and will not fund. For example, many grants don’t cover general operating expenses, so make sure you’re not asking for that in your letter, which can result in immediate rejection. Don’t be afraid to speak to foundations beforehand and inquire about their funding opportunities.

Note: If you do find a grant that awards general operating costs, don’t restrict yourself. You are responsible for allocating funds based on the requests made in your proposal, so if a grant is willing to fund staff salaries, for example, communicate this need clearly.

Start with a Summary

Before composing your winning proposal, summarize your nonprofit’s needs in one paragraph:

  • Define your organization. Don’t assume the funder knows about your nonprofit.
  • Explain what your project is, including a brief plan of action.
  • State how much you’re asking for.
  • Specify what the money will be used for.

Most grants have a 2,000-word limit. (Some may even restrict you to 500 words.) By outlining the most important elements of your proposal, you’ll be able to organize your letter concisely, without the flowery filler language. We composed a sample summary, using the bulleted prompts above, to help guide your proposal:

Enrich After School (EAS) provides more than 40 at-risk children with holistic after-school and emergency care, free of charge for families. School buses do not operate during after-school hours; 1 in 3 parents in Summit County struggle to transport children between home and school. EAS hopes to alleviate the stress of those parents who do not have regular access to transportation. $50,000 will cover the cost of a new, safe 12-passenger van and one year of fuel. We will maintain detailed records of mileage, fuel costs, and number of children transported.

Master the Mission Statement

Mission statements should be front and center on your website, business cards, and funding proposals. Donors, volunteers, and supporters alike will look toward this statement to inform their decision-making. Plus, nearly every grant proposal requires a mission statement.

You probably already have a mission statement, but don’t be afraid to work with your Board to refresh it this year! This statement is part of your branding and should always represent the language of your organization. The best mission statement focuses on your purpose (the “why”) in just a sentence or two, while placing your organization in a wider social context.

Use short, snappy language and active verbs. For example, instead of writing “We are an organization that provides assistance to children so that they can reach their full potential,” try “We help children reach their full potential.” Active, easy-to-read writing ensures your purpose stands out.

Check out this article for some fresh examples.

State the Problem the Grant Will Address

What problems does your organization work to address? Let funders know that your community has a real need for your programs (and thus, their funding). Here is a great example from Children First/CIS’ website:

“46% of Buncombe County children still live in poor or near-poor homes, a major risk factor for negative educational, health, and economic outcomes in the future.” (Children First/Communities In Schools Buncombe County)

Share Your Impact

Discuss the community your organization serves and how many people you impacted last year. This information provides funders with evidence that you’re constantly working to uphold your mission. You can use your volunteer management software to help measure this impact, in both hours and number of volunteers, for each opportunity you share with the community. Here’s an example from Children First/CIS:

“Last year, Children First/CIS advocated for 100% of the children in our community, and provided direct services to 7% of K-6th grade children in Buncombe County.” (Children First/Communities In Schools Buncombe County)

Note: Percentages are a great way to portray impact, especially when you’re competing with larger organizations. Percentages show your organization’s effectiveness specific to your community and are slightly more detailed than simple output statistics (see below).

Visualize Successes: Output vs. Outcome

Successful nonprofits manage and communicate their outputs and outcomes. Kate referred to the following example to help us visualize this concept:

McDonalds sells 33 million hamburgers per day. Five Guys sells 350,000 burgers per day. Can you determine the quality of a hamburger based on this data alone?

Of course not! To measure the success of either company only on outputs, or hamburgers sold, would be inaccurate. When it comes to your nonprofit, an output may be number of classes, individuals served, or grants funded. Output data is important to have to plan for resource allocation. However, understanding and communicating your nonprofit’s intended outcomes, or quality of impact is just as vital. Good volunteer-management software generates reports on the number of volunteers and hours. By quantifying the collective contributions of community members, you can show funders the value of your cause and how their dollars will help the community you serve. Think about what a successful program looks like: How will the lives of those in the community improve? How will I measure this success?

When communicating intended outcomes in your proposal, it’s not enough to write, “This grant will help our community.” You’ll need to be specific about the quality and sustainability of the program you hope to fund, and how the grant will help to achieve those outcomes.

Communicate Action

Break down the steps, or the list of actions, you plan on taking to achieve a program’s specific purpose. Include a timeline showing when you plan to accomplish each step. You’re more likely to persuade funders with an actionable plan rather than generalized promises.

Outline Money Matters

Once you’ve given funders a sense of your program, you’ll need to talk money. Communicate where each awarded dollar will end up. Foundations will hold you accountable for the allocation of the grant, and you’ll have to provide the necessary expense reports at the end of the year. You’ll want to be both transparent and specific in your proposal. (For example, how much will two new laptops for your after-school tutoring program cost?)

Get Your Data Together

The awarding foundation will likely ask your nonprofit to track certain data, such as volunteer hours or the number of students that were tutored per week. You can document your outputs using volunteer management software.

You’ll also want to establish a system to measure outcomes. So if you run an after-school program, you may have to check in with teachers to discuss a student’s performance over time. Set benchmarks, check in throughout the year, and keep your staff and volunteers in the loop. Funders will measure your intended outcomes against actual outcomes. Kate reminds us that “funders are real people,” so gathering and sharing stories of your program’s successes can also help you to win the hearts of future funders.

In Conclusion

By taking time at the beginning of the fiscal year to strategize, prepare your written materials, and review the previous year’s data, you’re less likely to feel overwhelmed by those impending deadlines. Compile your successful grant applications and keep the material and language that have worked in the past. Finally, write in a way that feels authentic (sans the jargon) so funders understand what’s important: the amazing work you do!

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