How to Apply for Grants
Before You Write The Proposal
Before attempting to raise money through grants, it is important to understand what type of organization you are and the nature of your work. Not every funding source is an appropriate fit for every organization. Knowing your organizational identity will help you avoid wasting time pursuing funders that are unlikely to support you.
Consider the following factors about your organization:
- Mission and areas of work
- Capacity to deliver programs or services
- Management experience and staff expertise
- Board member relationships and connections
If your nonprofit is a small, grassroots organization with limited capacity, you are unlikely to secure a large foundation or government grant. Instead, you might consider a local community foundation that provides smaller grants. Similarly, if your nonprofit is working to improve health access to the poor, applying for a grant at a foundation that focuses on college readiness for high school students is likely a bad fit.
Know the Funders
Once you have assessed your organization, you need to get to know your funders. (If you are new to nonprofit fundraising and grants, check out our article How Nonprofits Raise Money.) There are several different types of grant funders. Each funder has different priorities and application requirements.
Government grants are typically announced publicly through notices of funding availability (NOFAs), requests for proposals (RFPs), or funding opportunity announcements (FOAs). Government grants, whether from the federal, state, or local governments, generally require more paperwork and reporting.
Foundations vary considerably in terms of size and structure. There are family foundations that may not employ any staff and have family members make all of the funding decisions. There are national and international foundations with professional staff and billion dollar endowments that award hundreds of millions of dollars worth of grants each year. And everything in between. Many foundations are also nonprofits, with their own mission, strategies and funding priorities.
Corporate foundations are independent entities created by businesses. Their funding priorities are usually linked to the sponsoring business' line of work (e.g. a bank may create a corporate foundation that supports community development projects).
Federated funds, like United Way, raise money from individuals and businesses and then distribute those funds to a broad range of nonprofits. Donors can often choose from a list of organizations where to direct their donations.
Financial institutions use administered charitable trusts to award funding. Proposals to a trust held at a financial institution often are made in the same way as proposals to foundations.
To determine whether a specific funder is the right fit for your organization, review their website and any other publicly available information. What are their funding priorities? What other organizations and projects have they funded in the past? Use resources like Candid (formerly the Foundation Center), The Grantsmanship Center, and Grants.gov (for federal government grants) to search for grants and funding opportunities. Utilize your board members, local library, local grantmakers' organizations, and regional foundation directories to identify other potential funders.
Know the Funding Requirements
It is critical that you read the entire grant application package and understand all of the funding requirements. Grant application packages vary widely according to funder. Some may be extremely long and detailed (e.g. 100+ pages for some federal grants), while others may be as short as a single page. Whatever you do, read the full grant application package carefully and consider these questions:
- Is my organization eligible to apply for this grant?
- Does my project idea match the funding priorities of the grantmaker?
- What projects has the grantmaker funded recently?
- What are the budget limits for the grant?
- Would portion of my expenses would the grant cover?
To stay organized, make a list of all of the documents you will need to submit. You may need to include a letter of inquiry / intent (LOI), proposal narrative, budget, appendices, and other documents. Then as you read the grant application package, create an outline of each required section. Most grants will require you to include sections like these:
- Executive Summary
- Background of the Organization
- Problem Statement / Statement of Need
- Project / Program Description
- Goals and objectives
- Program activities
- Evaluation Plan
- Budget / Budget Narrative
- Supporting Materials
Note any specific formatting requirements and, most importantly, the deadline for submission. To stay organized, use MonkeyPod's Grant Tracker App to track all of your documents, tasks, and deadlines for each grant that you're applying to.
Writing The Proposal
Each grant proposal should be tailored to the specific funder and funding opportunity. To begin writing your proposal, use your outline as a guide. Stay on track and improve the readability of your proposal by making each topic in the outline into a section header or subhead. Use professional language, spell and grammar check your writing, use the active voice, and avoid exaggeration when describing your organization and programs. Don't editorialize by including personal opinions or value judgments.
When writing the problem statement / statement of need section, use facts and data to identify and document the specific problem that your program will address. If you need to describe a target population, consider including demographic data and trends, as well as comparative statistics for additional context. Supplementing statistics with qualitative data, in the form of storytelling or anecdotes, can be a powerful way to illustrate the problem you are attempting to solve.
Goals and Objectives
Funders have become increasingly concerned about the impact of their grants. Funders want to know what you will achieve if they give you money. That is why it is so important to clearly state your goals and objectives. Whereas goals typically communicate broader intentions (e.g. improve access to healthcare in a specific community), objectives communicate specific outcomes that will be achieved (e.g. at least 70% of program participants will utilize case management services). Use the SMART criteria (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time Bound) to ensure that your objectives are clear.
The program description is the most substantive part of your proposal. It should effectively communicate how your program will address the problem that you identified and documented earlier. In addition to aligning with the funder's priorities, your program description should include all of the specific details that pertain to implementation. What is your timeline? Will you need to hire additional staff? What are staff duties and responsibilities? How will you recruit program participants? How will you market the program? What challenges do you foresee? How will you overcome those challenges? Your program description is your opportunity to show the funder that you have thought through all of the important components of your program and have planned accordingly.
How will you know if your program is accomplishing your goals and objectives? Evaluation. An evaluation plan should explain what information you are going to collect, how you are going to collect it, and how it will be analyzed to assess impact. You should consider using process evaluations and outcomes evaluations in your evaluation plan. Process evaluations assess how well the program is running. Are services being delivered as on time? Are program participants satisfied with the services? Outcomes evaluations measure program effectiveness and tie directly to your objectives. Is the program impacting the target population in the desired way? Evaluation plans can vary significantly in terms of complexity. Some nonprofits even build into their grant proposals funds for external consultants to carry out the evaluation plan.
The budget is your opportunity to explain to the funder what everything in your program will cost. This section includes the specific justification for how much money you are asking for. What staff are required to do the job? How much will staff be paid? Will you need to purchase or produce materials? Will you need to rent space? Will you be hiring an external consultant for program evaluation? Will costs will be associated with program participants? Your budget must communicate exactly how you will spend the money if you receive the grant. If you need to estimate costs, make a calculation based on reasonable estimates and show your work. Explain why your estimates are in fact reasonable. And remember to make sure that your budget is consistent with the rest of your program description and proposal.
Submitting The Proposal
Before finally submitting the proposal, review the application requirements one final time and compare them to your proposal. Have you included and addressed all required sections? Is your formatting correct? Did you stick to the specified page limit? Are the sections of your proposal consistent with one another? Once you feel like you have checked all the boxes, submit your application to the funder making sure that you follow their required submission process. And don't want until the last minute to submit your application. Online application systems can go down resulting in a missed deadline and weeks of wasted work.
Applying for grants can certainly feel overwhelming. If you or your nonprofit are new to applying for grants, start small and focus on finding the right funder and opportunity that align with your organization. Break the process down into steps and pay attention to the details. And use helpful tools like MonkeyPod's Grant Tracker App to stay organized and put together your best work. With the right preparation and a strong proposal, you will be winning your first grant in no time.