The Nine Key Elements of Successful Proposals

By Jay Katz


Opening up a grant award letter is one of the most exciting responsibilities in the life of a nonprofit executive!  It means that a foundation or corporation has recognized the strength of your organization's proposal and is confident that you can carry out the proposed activities.  A grant award is a sign of trust and respect.  It is the end result of your ability to build relationships with grantors, your skill in identifying a key community need and your vision in meeting that need with a powerful program.

In my experience, I have found that the actual grant application is only one piece of a big puzzle. Organizations that are visible in the community and whose success is widely acknowledged by their peers and other community leaders have an easier time winning grants than lesser-known nonprofits.  The challenge for many nonprofits without this level of recognition is opening new doors and establishing themselves as a valuable and key community resource. 

As noted in the preceding article, "The Eight-Step Approach to Grantseeking," most of the important steps to receiving a grant take place long before the proposal is submitted. Organizations that have successfully taken these steps-including a handful of start-up organizations-still thrive today.  Other groups that did not reach out to other organizations, build community networks or establish relationships within the philanthropic community, now are defunct.  Your challenge is to create bridges for sustenance and survival. 

Create an Annual Grant Acquisition Plan

Grant awards are a significant piece in your fundraising puzzle, but there are limitations and challenges.  Because most foundations will not designate grants for general operating support, most nonprofit groups request funding for specific programs.  Foundations and corporations are becoming more and more interested in being identified with successful initiatives. 

If you are seeking funding for a new program, be sure that you have developed service delivery strategies and target outcomes.  Can you demonstrate that this program is the next logical step in your organization's evolution and that you have consulted with board members, other volunteers and clients in developing your plan? 

Miles Wilson, vice president for grants and programs at the Greater Cincinnati Community Foundation, places a priority on the planning process in reviewing a grant application:   "It is always reassuring when a proposal fits into an organization's strategic plan and mission," he says. "I also like to see evidence that the planning process was not just staff driven. Demonstrate that the grant request did not simply fall out of the sky because there was some immediate issue that came about."

Create realistic expectations about how much you plan to raise in foundation grants.  Several new nonprofit organizations that recently obtained tax-exempt status have contacted me with the aim of obtaining unrestricted 100,000 grant awards.  They read through the Iowa Grants Guide or other publications and see that several foundations distribute millions, even tens of millions of dollars.  If only it were that easy!

The dream of receiving unrestricted $100,000 grants contrasts sharply with the reality that most foundations donate amounts in the $5,000 to $30,000 range.  It is rare for a foundation to shoulder the full cost of a particular program, unless the program budget is relatively small.  Also, because most foundations do not renew their grant support for longer than a three-year period, your challenge not only is securing funding, but sustaining programs after grants disappear as well. 

First-time applicants who are strangers to the foundation community face an even more difficult struggle.  Some foundations will automatically turn down requests from new applicants, preferring instead to wait several years before awarding a grant.  One foundation I apply to regularly explicitly states in its guidelines that organizations with less than three years of experience are not eligible for grants.  Young organizations must find ways to "weather the storm" while building up a positive reputation and developing a board of directors comprised of respected individuals within the community. 

Above all else, before you apply for a grant, evaluate whether or not the requirements to obtain funding will support and advance your agency's mission.  Many foundations and corporations and almost all government sources, distribute Requests for Proposals (RFPs) that are designed to address an issue using concepts and strategies developed by the funder.   Sometimes the allure of obtaining a grant award leads nonprofit agencies to adopt a narrowly-focused grant award that is inconsistent with the organization's overall purpose and goals.  Needless to say, accepting this type of grant award can be counterproductive to your agency.

Research Your Audience

The Iowa Grants Guide is an excellent first step for researching foundations that will be interested in receiving a proposal from your organization.  However, it is difficult to fully understand a foundation through a grant listing in a guidebook.  As a second step, request an annual report and proposal guidelines from targeted funding sources.  Keep in mind that many small family foundations do not publish an annual report or guidelines.  Without a personal connection and inside knowledge about their interests, your chances of receiving a grant are slim. 

Most annual reports include a detailed description of the agencies that have received grant funds and greatly clarify specific areas of interest.  Sometimes these reports profile community organizations that have received funding and particularly impressed the grantmaker.  Annual reports usually discuss the history of the foundation or corporation, the values of their founder and overall guiding principles for awarding grants.  Check the report and proposal guidelines to be sure that the funding source you are approaching awards grants within your geographical area and clearly has interests that match your proposed program.  Use your networks to find out more information about a particular funder.  Most likely, one or more of the organizations you work with regularly have received funding from foundations that match your target.

Connecting with Target Funders

Take steps to expand your organization's network and visibility by participating in community-wide and coalition efforts that involve a wide range of partners.  Ask your board members and supporters if they know staff or board members at target foundations and corporations.  Use the Iowa Grants Guide and annual reports to provide them with lists of names of corporate and foundation staff and trustees.  

If possible, meet with target funding sources in advance of submitting a proposal. You can request to meet with a potential funder through a letter or phone conversation.  Unless you have a personal relationship, some of the large foundations will meet with your organization only after a proposal has been submitted.  Without a personal contact, it is unusual for members of small family foundations to meet with your group.  Some larger foundations discourage meetings with their trustees in their proposal guidelines. 

Funders consider a grant award as an investment in your program and a partnership with your organization. This relationship includes your willingness to help the funder learn more about specific issues and strategies that succeed or fail in addressing those issues. 

Grant decision-making frequently hinges on establishing a personal relationship, rather than the strength of your grant proposal.  Most major funders conduct site visits after you submit a proposal to see the human side of your organization and to meet staff, board members and clients.  The impression you make on these visits can make or break your grant proposal. 

Judy Spiegel, senior vice president for programs at the California Community Foundation, says:  "Most foundations don't make decisions solely by what they see on paper."  In some cases, your project may look risky on paper, but you might be able to make the case to a funder that your staff and programs are extraordinary.

Know Your Audience

Before you sit down to develop a proposal, put yourself in the position of foundation staff and trustees.  Large foundations receive one hundred or more proposals each quarter.  Their staffs are charged with narrowing the number of proposals  the trustees ultimately will review.  They have years of experience in cutting through exaggerated claims and recognizing successful approaches.

Funding sources often receive numerous requests that do not match their criteria or interest areas.  Foundation officers constantly express frustration with the number of proposals they see that do not follow the grant application guidelines.  If you do not follow the guideposts established by a funding source, frustrated program officers and staff may quickly discard your proposal.  Don't mess up your chances for funding down the line by improperly submitting a proposal that does not match the interests and requirements of a funder.   The old adage about elephants never forgetting can be just as easily applied to grant reviewers and administrators. 

Mass mailing the same proposal to funders is not only ineffective; it actually has a negative effect on people with whom you may need to work in the future.  Mass proposal mailings are much like the job applicants to your agency who do not come close to matching the requirements of advertised positions and seemingly have not read the employment listing at all.  Like you, foundation and corporate officials spend hours weeding out applicants that do not match their criteria.  They can tell when a proposal is being mass mailed and when it is responding to their specific interests and guidelines.

When preparing to write a proposal, consider the unique perspective of your audience and what will make your application appeal to them.  How will you distinguish your request from the dozens of other requests they will receive?

Recognize that each grantmaking organization is different.  Read the guidelines and annual reports carefully.  Different kinds of funders use different approaches to evaluate your proposal and knowing the different structures of each grantmaking body is important in approaching the funder and preparing a proposal.

Private Foundations.  A small family foundation or trust is usually all-volunteer and typically comprised of family members and friends.  Bear in mind that some of your reviewers will have great difficulty understanding complex terms and intricate strategies.  Keep these applications simple and short!  In professionally staffed foundations, your proposal will be initially screened and then forwarded to the trustees that best match their interests.  Staff at community foundations are usually more accessible and approachable.  They may be willing to discuss your proposal over the phone and provide guidance in preparing an application.  Staff usually prepare packets of information for grant reviewers, who usually have some knowledge basis for the proposals they will be reviewing.  Operating foundations spend their money on providing programs and activities.  If they accept applications, it is generally in response to a Request for Proposals (RFP).

Corporate Foundations and Corporate Giving Programs. Corporate philanthropy is highly motivated by self-interest and usually is administered by public relations staff.  Corporations want to invest their funds with organizations that provide them with opportunities to publicize the grant award and to support a cause that is positively linked to their activities.  Giving is relationship-driven and often decisions are made as a result of a meeting or series of meetings.  While a "cold" proposal to a foundation may have a chance of receiving funding, it rarely succeeds in the corporate world. 

Religious grantmakers are usually mission-oriented and focused on specific causes or issues that the denomination, religious order, or individual church has chosen.  Sometimes large amounts of religious funding is directed toward internal projects operated by a religious group affiliated with the granting institution.  Obtaining sponsorship from a local church or religious institution affiliated with the national religious grantmaking body is crucial.  Some local religious organizations award money to organizations that are focused exclusively on promoting their core beliefs; other local churches and religious groups focus on secular causes that better the community.  Relationships with the religious community and impact of services are very important in religious fundraising. 

Government agencies, in an attempt to be objective, always score the proposal based on a points system.  Federal grant proposals are typically reviewed by committees of agency staff and citizens who reside in a geographic area different than your own.  This means that when you develop a federal proposal, you should assume that reviewers are not familiar with your local service area.  Federal agencies often host bidders' conferences to explain the grant application packet and answer questions.

It is typical for government agencies to provide potential grantees with one hundred-page proposal packets describing the requirements for winning and administering a grant.  Responding to these packets is time-consuming.  In some cases, the work can literally be back-breaking.  One application I prepared weighed 14 pounds!  While local and state proposal requirements typically are easier than those for a federal grant, they also can be complicated.  In some cases, omitting a signature or leaving out a form can cause your proposal to be disqualified.  One of my clients applying for state funding added three paragraphs to an application I had prepared, sending the proposal narrative two paragraphs over the maximum number of pages.  The application was disqualified on that basis. 

Putting the Proposal Together:  Nine Key Elements

General Tips

The process of writing a grant proposal intimidates many people, but developing this request is no more difficult than the previous preparatory steps described above.  The main principles to follow are:

1) Use clear language.

2) Communicate honestly and thoroughly.

3) Do not use jargon, insider language or acronyms.

4) Carefully review the requested information to be sure you've responded to all questions.

Keep in mind that there is no one "right" way to develop a grant proposal.  If your proposal  communicates clearly, fulfills all application guidelines requested by the funder and follows the guideposts for good grantsmanship outlined in this guide, you have done your job!  Beautiful writing is not essential, but straightforward writing is important. Don't use flowery words, slang, or popular coined phrases.  Focus on building a compelling case and backing it up with solid evidence.

Before submitting a major proposal, it is a good idea to ask an experienced and impartial observer to review the document. Because you are so invested in your program and you understand the issues better than anyone, you might leave out key information or not fully explain certain program components.  An outsider to your organization will catch these omissions immediately and can help you develop more comprehensive information for the proposal.

Many foundations provide written summaries of your proposal for their board of trustees.  What you write in your proposal is seen only by the program officers who screen the document for the final decision-makers.


As mentioned above, put yourself in the shoes of the foundation officers who have to read dozens of proposals.  How can you make their job easier?  How can you be sure that relevant information in your proposal is understood and not accidentally overlooked?

I've seen some bad examples of style: proposals that aren't broken into paragraphs, or that have very lengthy paragraphs; proposals that use all capital letters, or that overuse bold text.  Try to create a document that is easy to read and easy on the eyes of the reviewer.  On issues of font size, I will tinker with margins and font size to shorten a proposal to three or four pages, but I do not like to shrink margins smaller than three-quarters-of-an-inch, or font size below 11 points.  I like to make proposal subject headers in a bigger font size, bold and capitalized.  When possible, I like to include white space between questions. 

Presentation of a proposal communicates your organization's professionalism and infuses a sense of legitimacy.  Use bond paper for important proposals and always use professional letterhead for your cover letter.  You might choose to create a proposal cover, with pictures showing your organization's programs in action.  Your proposal also will appear to be more professional when submitted in a folder, separating attachments and the proposal narrative into the two pockets. 

Be careful about using materials that are too glossy and slick; this can potentially make your organization appear to be throwing money around. Some funders discourage bound proposals because they want to disassemble the document and make additional copies.  Most funders discourage the inclusion of videotapes or audiovisual materials, except in some cases for visual or performance artists. 

Though your program may be facing a funding crisis, try not to sound desperate for grant funding.  Desperation shows weakness and instability and likely will turn off reviewers.  Write a grant proposal that is easy to read, honest and responds to all criteria requested by the funder.  Sometimes people exaggerate information because they believe their proposal will be more fundable, but these tactics frequently work against the organization.  People reading proposals know what is real and what is exaggerated. 

Proposal Components

Although the components typically requested by funders are described in this article, the application guidelines of your target funding source always supersede these guideposts.  Read those guidelines very carefully and if you do not understand one of the questions, contact the funder for clarification.  Try to answer funders' questions in the order outlined in their guidelines.  I usually retype each of the questions in bold letters at the beginning of each response.  You'll make the grant reviewers' job much easier and put them in a better mood by following these suggestions! 

Some funders request attachments that are unusual or even bizarre, such as strange mathematical equations, ethnicity of board members, or marketing opportunities for the funder.  Unless you absolutely do not have the information, make every effort to respond to their question or use "due diligence," showing the foundation that you did your best to fulfill their request, but the information simply was not available.

More and more, foundations and corporations want core proposal information to fit between three and four pages.  Foundations that have a research-based approach to awarding grants, or that have trustees from the medical or academic communities, may request longer proposals.  Government proposals invariably are longer.  For smaller foundations, a condensed letter proposal or a one- to two-page summary is typically more appropriate, depending upon their guidelines. 

The Nine Key Elements

1) Abstract/Executive Summary

Most proposals begin with an abstract or executive summary, which briefly summarizes the grant application.  Include key facts that demonstrate need for the program, outline specific activities that will be undertaken and describe outcomes that will be achieved.  Include key elements that you believe make your program extraordinary.  Indicate the amount you are requesting from the funding source and the total cost of the program.  Some funders specifically will state what information they want included in the abstract.

For lengthier proposals with no page limitation, I usually devote a full page to the abstract.  For short proposals (3 to 4 pages), I fold the information into one or two paragraphs.  If there is no room for an abstract, I try to include this synopsis in the cover letter. 

Though the abstract is the first element of the proposal, it is the last piece to be written.  You can restate information from the narrative, condensing language as much as possible.  

2) Organization Background

Most funders request that you include your agency's mission statement, history and summary of programs.  When describing your organization's history, include the date it was founded and key highlights such as the establishment of new programs, milestones achieved, awards received and other related factors.  Try to summarize each of your core programs in one to two paragraphs.  Use this section to establish that your organization has vast experience and expertise in providing services to the target community and population described later in the proposal.  

Funders want to know about the capability of your organization and how the program you have proposed is consistent with the agency's goals and overall programs.  Think of  grantmaking as a process similar to college admissions, where grades are one factor considered in a student's application.  You may have written a wonderful proposal, but the program officer will ask:  "Can we reasonably expect candidates to be successful based on their past experience?"

3) Needs Statement

In my years of reviewing grant applications, this section (also known as needs assessment, problem statement or issues statement)  frequently is the weakest.  Because agency directors are so invested in their programs, they tend to editorialize about the need for the project and what is wrong with society and then close with a broad statement about how fortunate it is that their agency exists.  Again, imagine yourself as the foundation reviewer who is sifting through piles of proposals with similar editorial comments, trying to decipher truth from hyperbole.

You can make their jobs easier by using objective information to verify the need for your programs! Census data, school district test scores, police reports, survey data, research studies and other similar information legitimizes your organization's claim that there is a need.  Information can be obtained from your city's planning office, issue-related research organizations such as Kids Count, local universities and colleges, the business or government section of your local library, newspaper articles and the Internet. 

Statistics that your organization has gathered related to your proposal also are valuable, as long as they are not distorted.  Sometimes quotes from a recognized local or national authority can be used to support your needs statement.


In today's society, many youth are disrespectful and violent.


Washington County high schools experienced their highest suspension rate in 12 years, with an average of 32 suspensions each month.  At one school, more than 1,200 referrals were made for discipline issues in a three-month period (Washington County School District Discipline Report, 1999).

In this section you normally describe the target population your proposal will serve.  Is it single mothers who are in job training programs?  Is it teenagers who are former gang members?  Do you have any data on these sub-groups that supports the need for your program?

The needs statement is the one area of the proposal that should describe the nature of the problem and the difficulties facing the people you serve.  Clearly showing high need is important.  However, even though you sometimes are citing information that evokes images of extreme suffering, try to avoid being negative about the problem.  Funders are looking for solutions and your organization's skill in addressing the need.

4) Program Description

Now that you have defined the need, how does your program propose to respond?  I typically devote the bulk of the proposal to describing the program that is the purpose of the request.

Goals and Objectives

Usually the proposal narrative begins with a description of program goals and objectives.  Each goal should be paired with a related objective and be based on an issue you defined in the needs statement.  Many people-even some grantmakers-think goals and objectives are the same.  But there is a very important distinction between the two.  Goals describe in general terms the intended action and outcomes you hope to accomplish for a specific population.  Objectives are more specific, describing the activity strategy that will accomplish the goal and how many people will be served within a time period.  Because objectives outline what you expect to accomplish, they frequently are used to evaluate your program. 


Goal: To reduce school violence.

Objective: To provide educational workshops at area high schools. 


Goal: To reduce high school suspension rates in Washington County.

Objective: To provide a series of 12 conflict-resolution programs, targeted at 300 high school students who are at-risk for suspension, by May 2001. 


Goal 2: To enlist Washington County high school teachers and counselors in efforts to reduce the number of suspensions.

Objective 2: To provide three conflict resolution and violence de-escalation trainings to 28 Washington County high school teachers and counselors, who will in turn train an additional 84 teachers and counselors.


Once you have established a paired goal and objective, outline the activities that will lead to accomplishing them.  This is where you describe in some detail specific strategies and work plans you will employ.  A question I am often asked is: "How specific should we be in describing the activity?"  I say - as specific as you can be without being too wordy!  Don't use acronyms and terminology that grant reviewers will not understand.  If your program truly is a national model that is being used by other organizations in other locations, clearly document that information.  Many programs claim to be national models and those assertions have watered down the legitimacy of the term.


The Mediation Center will provide several activities to high school students.  We will utilize the Bunning Curriculum and collaborate with CEC practitioners to implement a macro-sensitive format for the subjects.  We hope to work with the school to provide follow-up activities.


The Mediation Center will provide three conflict resolution workshops each quarter, targeting students who have been suspended or identified by teachers and counselors as at-risk for school suspension.  Topics for these 90-minute workshops will include mediation strategies, de-escalating violence and anger management.  Activities will include a negotiation game, situational role play simulations and individual self-assessment exercises.  Three certified facilitators each with 10 or more years of experience will lead groups of high school students.  School counselors will hold three meetings with each student following the workshop to find out what they learned, help students develop a plan to apply their new knowledge and track their progress.   

In addition, seven teachers and counselors from each high school will attend a series of three intensive trainings on reducing conflict and violence within their schools.  These staff members will lead small group trainings for other teachers and counselors.  Workshop topics will include how to de-escalate violence, strategies for reaching out to students who are disruptive in the classroom and appropriate forms of discipline.  Teachers will participate in role play and intervention-based strategies developed by Dr. Harvey Campbell, president of the National Conflict Resolution and Mediation Center.  

This example narrative would continue with a description of the follow-up peer workshops provided by teacher and counselors, along with other appropriate details and strategies.

Be sure that the program activities are linked to your needs statement, goals and objectives. The program activities section is your turn to prove that you are responding to the need and building upon solutions to remedy the problem or issue.  When you finish writing this section, make sure these areas are linked together. 

5) Collaboration

The number of nonprofit organizations is growing each year, with a corresponding rise in the number of proposals submitted to funders.  Building a proposal that legitimately involves other organizations in the service delivery model will help you score points in this competitive environment.

Try to keep in mind the difference between an active collaborative model and a passive one.  Tens of thousands of organizations make referrals to other nonprofit organizations and community agencies.  With some exceptions, this form of collaboration is passive. 

A good example of a strong collaborative model is a human service organization that wants to establish housing for individuals who are mentally ill and recognizes that the agency's strength is providing counseling and case management.  The organization establishes a partnership with a community development corporation that will build and ultimately manage the housing facility.  Funders will appreciate that the organization will not spend hours of time and energy establishing new systems for managing a residential facility, but will focus on providing core services that match the agency's expertise.

6) Evaluation

A good evaluation section demonstrates to the funder that you are willing to be held accountable for activities in the proposal.  A weak evaluation design might communicate that you are not sure that your program will work. 

There are three key types of evaluation. 

1.      A qualitative evaluation demonstrates that your clients are satisfied with the service that was provided and that the program was of high quality.  Client surveys and interviews focused on customer satisfaction can best demonstrate the delivery of quality services. 

2.      A quantitative evaluation demonstrates that you served a targeted number of clients for each service. In the evaluation section, your organization promises to serve a certain number of people during a fixed time period and outlines a system for tracking service numbers.  Sometimes your quantitative evaluation is tied directly into your objectives.

3.      An outcome evaluation demonstrates behavioral and attitudinal changes among the people served.  What outcomes were achieved in the lives of the people who participated in your program?  What outcomes were achieved in regard to the community, specific systems or institutions? Pre- and post-tests are frequently utilized to examine changes in knowledge or attitudes by participants.  In addition, factors such as school grades, test scores, surveys, employment, substance use and other factors are compared before and after the individual entered your program.  The factors that you evaluate are parallel to the issues you identified in the needs statement. 

Showing that your program will spark outcomes perhaps is the most powerful claim you can make in a grant proposal.  Establish outcomes baselines based on your best estimates and try not to inflate your projections.  For outcome evaluations, it is a good idea to use tools that are accepted or known within your service type.  Surveys, test scores, police data and evaluation instruments developed by respected academic institutions are valid tools. 

If the funding amount is substantial, you might want to contract with an independent evaluator.  Using an evaluator outside your agency lends legitimacy to the results and shows a funder your confidence in attaining stated evaluation outcomes.  A small but growing number of funders are requiring independent evaluations and a few even are paying for them.

Examples of Good Evaluation Statements

Qualitative: If the high school students served by the program, 90 percent will express satisfaction with the content presented in the conflict resolution workshops.  An administrative team of counselors and teachers attending the workshops will positively assess the presentations using a five-point evaluation scale that the Washington County School District has developed to rate outside presenters. 

Quantitative:  In the 2000-2001 fiscal year, three hundred students will attend conflict resolution workshops.  In addition, 28 teachers and counselors will attend three workshops and will train an additional 84 school staff members on de-escalating violence and conflict within the classroom.

Outcome: The number of suspensions at Washington County high schools will decrease by 30 percent.  Approximately 60 percent of students who were previously suspended will improve their school attendance or academic performance.

7) Sustainability

Strong organizations develop plans for carrying out a project after initial grant funding expires.  Funders are eager to know that your program will not collapse after their money has been spent.  They also do not want your agency coming back for support year after year, begging for continuation of funding.  Will other sources of support for your agency increase and be in position to absorb costs?

The best approach for a grant application is to designate other matching sources of funding in advance, such as other donors, earned income or special fundraising events. This shows commitment from your agency.  Because foundations typically are willing to support only a percentage of the proposal's costs, your group needs to find matching sources of income.

If your administrative costs are low, include that information in this section.  Also illustrate the different ways that your organization receives funding, such as direct mail, individual donors, special events and planned giving.  Volunteers and in-kind contributions also illustrate your organization's level of community support and your commitment to reducing program costs.  One agency I work with receives more than 10,000 hours of volunteer support, or the equivalent of five full-time staff members.  That kind of information greatly bolsters a grant application.

8) Budget and Budget Narrative

Most funding organizations request a program and overall agency budget.  Be as realistic as possible.  Do not pad your budget or try to hide cost items.  Keep in mind that by the time grant reviewers decide to scrutinize your budget and financial statements, they are likely to be in the final stages of approving the request.  You do not want to risk turning them off with a poorly designed budget. Make sure you cover all your costs with the budget.  Remember that a budget illustrates both income and expenses.  Income is a projection on where funding will come from, or what funding already is in place.

Income Amount
XYZ Foundation Grant Award $25,000
Individual Donors $12,600
In-Kind Contributions $4,800
Pending Grant Requests $20,000
Total Projected Income $62,400

Provide some detail about each of the staff members who will serve on the project.  Specify whether or not staff members are contributing a percentage of their time to the project and calculate the budget for their salaries based on that percentage.  Be specific about your costs for each line item, breaking down cost categories such as office supplies, rent and telephone into a monthly amount.  I like to show the process for calculating each line item in the left column, as follows:

Expense Cost Item Amount
Project Director @ .5 FTE * $40,000 $20,000
Case Managers @1.0 FTE * $25,000 $25,000
Fringe Benefits @ 22% $9,900
Office Supplies @ $200/month $2,400
Staff Transportation @ $0.30/mile * 100 miles $300
Office Rent (in-kind) @ $300/month $3,600
Telephone & Fax Service (in-kind) @ $100/month $1,200
Total Projected Expenses $62,400

In proposals that do not require a budget narrative, I footnote an explanation of unusual expenses at the bottom of the page.  Notice that I also included in-kind contributions as income and expenses.  On the other hand, some funders ask you not to include in-kind contributions in your budget.

Double-check your addition.  From my own personal experience, I can honestly say that minor mathematical errors usually do not cause a grant to be turned down.  However, a proposal that is financially accurate and well organized will make a good impression on a grant reviewer who has been trying to decipher a series of mathematical errors in other proposals.

Lengthier proposals often require a budget narrative.  In this page, explain each cost item in narrative form, describing how you arrived at the total.  If you use a format similar to the one above, the budget narrative simply explains the calculations in paragraph form.  If you are making a multi-year funding request, include budgets and budget narratives, using your best estimates for years two and three. 

9) Cover Letter

Except in rare cases of government grant applications with page limitations, always include a cover letter with your proposal.  The cover letter gives you an opportunity to speak directly and personally to the foundation and re-emphasize key points from the proposal.  You also can include information about trends or special circumstances, or extraordinary examples of people who have benefited from your program.  I try to be creative in the cover letter, to place the funder in the position of a client or beneficiary of the program.

 Imagine you are a single mother who, after a three-year stay on public welfare, recently completed an employment training program and found a job that pays $8 an hour.  You are proud of your accomplishment, but totally unprepared when your landlord raises the rent by $75 a month.

Fortunately, the XYZ organization is there for low-income, single-parent families who are employed and need affordable housing.  We provide 300 apartment units and tie rent payment directly into family income levels.  We are requesting a grant of $25,000 from the ABC Foundation to support costs for our counseling and case management program.

Describe the nature of the proposal and the amount of funding requested as early as possible in the cover letter.  Unless the funder asks you to answer a series of questions in the cover letter, keep it to four or five short paragraphs.

Letter Proposals

Letter proposals are targeted toward corporations and smaller foundations.  They are condensed proposals that include each of the nine elements described above.  Usually, a letter proposal includes a conclusion, summarizing the impact of the program if funded and your thanks to the funder for spending time reviewing the application.  You can include the budget as an attachment or directly in the letter, depending on its length.  Keep letter proposals between two and three pages long.  Because of the audience, be sure that your proposal does not use technical terminology - simplify the language. 



Include a list of key staff members with a short paragraph summarizing the experience of the agency's director, program staff responsible for carrying out responsibilities of the proposed program and any other staff who will be involved in program services or administration.  Reassure the funder that you have qualified staff members who can administer the grant and deliver program services.  One program officer told me:  "When in doubt, I consider the experience and capability of the leadership of the project.  Strong leaders can work through minor glitches along the way when an organization is making a leap into a new program."


Usually you are asked to provide a list of your board of directors, with the affiliations of board members and their contact information.  There are two key reasons for this: funding sources want to see if they know anyone who serves on your board; they want to see the types of people who support your efforts.  Having a lawyer, accountant, businessperson or a respected nonprofit staff person on your board shows strength.  In rare instances, funders may want to contact your board members using the list you provide.

Sometimes they will ask how your board contributes to the organization.  Knowing that your board members are active participants and contribute not only their time but also their money gives a funder more confidence in your organization. 

Financial Statements

Although many foundations request an annual audit from your organization, if your group is small, a less-costly financial review will suffice.  Sometimes nonprofits choose to prepare these statements internally, avoiding the cost of an independent auditor or accountant.  Your agency will appear far more legitimate when you utilize an outside source to review your finances and sometimes funders require it.

Federal Tax Exempt 501(c)(3) Letter

While some government and religious funding sources will accept applications from groups that do not have a tax-exemption, most grants are awarded only to organizations with a 501(c)(3) certification or equivalent. 


Always follow up with key funding sources when your proposal is turned down to find out why the reviewers chose to deny your request, ask how you can strengthen your proposal in the future and to connect with decision-makers.  Some people recommend sending thank you letters to funders who deny your request.  Sending notes, information of interest and event invitations to the funder during the interim period prior to your next application also will help you build a relationship with the funder.

Jay Katz, founder of Grants West, is a professional grant writer with ten years of experience developing winning proposals for nonprofit organizations, school districts and local governments.  To date, he has developed 230 successful proposals, raising $15 million in funding.  Jay can be reached at (303) 477-3225, by e-mail at, or through the Grants West website at

The Larned A. Waterman
Iowa Nonprofit Resource Center
University of Iowa
130 Grand Avenue Court
Iowa City IA 52242-1320
Toll-free: 866-500-8980 Local: 319-335-9765
Fax: 319-335-7614
Contact INRC

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