Proposal Writing Short Course
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Learn the key components of a proposal to a foundation. This text-only tutorial is available in English, French, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.
For those new to proposal writing, this tutorial will cover:
- How the proposal fits into the overall grantseeking process
- What to include in a standard proposal to a foundation
- Tips for making each section of your proposal stronger
- What funders expect to see in your proposal and attachments
- Tips for communicating with funders during the grant process
- Additional resources on proposal writing, including sample proposals
- Gathering Background Information
- Components of a Proposal
- Executive Summary
- Statement of Need
- Project Description
- Organizational Information
- Letter Proposal
- What Happens Next?
- Additional Resources
The subject of this short course is proposal writing. But the proposal does not stand alone. It must be part of a process of planning and of research on, outreach to, and cultivation of potential foundation and corporate donors.
This process is grounded in the conviction that a partnership should develop between the nonprofit and the donor. When you spend a great deal of your time seeking money, it is hard to remember that it can also be difficult to give money away. In fact, the dollars contributed by a foundation or corporation have no value until they are attached to solid programs in the nonprofit sector.
This truly is an ideal partnership. The nonprofits have the ideas and the capacity to solve problems, but no dollars with which to implement them. The foundations and corporations have the financial resources but not the other resources needed to create programs. Bring the two together effectively, and the result is a dynamic collaboration.
You need to follow a step-by-step process in the search for private dollars. It takes time and persistence to succeed. After you have written a proposal, it could take as long as a year to obtain the funds needed to carry it out. And even a perfectly written proposal submitted to the right prospect might be rejected for any number of reasons.
Raising funds is an investment in the future. Your aim should be to build a network of foundation and corporate funders, many of which give small gifts on a fairly steady basis and a few of which give large, periodic grants. By doggedly pursuing the various steps of the process, each year you can retain most of your regular supporters and strike a balance with the comings and goings of larger donors.
The recommended process is not a formula to be rigidly adhered to. It is a suggested approach that can be adapted to fit the needs of any nonprofit and the peculiarities of each situation. Fundraising is an art as well as a science. You must bring your own creativity to it and remain flexible.
The first thing you will need to do in writing your proposal is to gather the documentation for it. You will require background documentation in three areas: concept, program, and expenses.
If all of this information is not readily available to you, determine who will help you gather each type of information. If you are part of a small nonprofit with no staff, a knowledgeable board member will be the logical choice. If you are in a larger agency, there should be program and financial support staff who can help you. Once you know with whom to talk, identify the questions to ask.
This data-gathering process makes the actual writing much easier. And by involving other stakeholders in the process, it also helps key people within your agency seriously consider the project's value to the organization.
It is important that you have a good sense of how the project fits with the philosophy and mission of your agency. The need that the proposal is addressing must also be documented. These concepts must be well-articulated in the proposal. Funders want to know that a project reinforces the overall direction of an organization, and they may need to be convinced that the case for the project is compelling. You should collect background data on your organization and on the need to be addressed so that your arguments are well-documented.
Here is a check list of the program information you require:
- the nature of the project and how it will be conducted;
- the timetable for the project;
- the anticipated outcomes and how best to evaluate the results; and
- staffing and volunteer needs, including deployment of existing staff and new hires.
You will not be able to pin down all the expenses associated with the project until the program details and timing have been worked out. Thus, the main financial data gathering takes place after the narrative part of the master proposal has been written. However, at this stage you do need to sketch out the broad outlines of the budget to be sure that the costs are in reasonable proportion to the outcomes you anticipate. If it appears that the costs will be prohibitive, even with a foundation grant, you should then scale back your plans or adjust them to remove the least cost-effective expenditures.
Executive Summary: 1 page
umbrella statement of your case and summary of the entire proposal
Statement of Need: 2 pages
why this project is necessary
Project Description: 3 pages
nuts and bolts of how the project will be implemented and evaluated
Budget: 1 page
financial description of the project plus explanatory notes
Organization Information: 1 page
history and governing structure of the nonprofit; its primary activities, audiences, and services
Conclusion: 2 paragraphs
summary of the proposal's main points
This first page of the proposal is the most important section of the entire document. Here you will provide the reader with a snapshot of what is to follow. Specifically, it summarizes all of the key information and is a sales document designed to convince the reader that this project should be considered for support. Be certain to include:
A brief statement of the problem or need your agency has recognized and is prepared to address (one or two paragraphs).
A short description of the project, including what will take place and how many people will benefit from the program, how and where it will operate, for how long, and who will staff it (one or two paragraphs).
An explanation of the amount of grant money required for the project and what your plans are for funding it in the future (one paragraph).
Organization and its expertise
A brief statement of the history, purpose, and activities of your agency, emphasizing its capacity to carry out this proposal (one paragraph).
If the grants decision-maker reads beyond the executive summary, you have successfully piqued his or her interest. Your next task is to build on this initial interest in your project by enabling the funder to understand the problem that the project will remedy.
The statement of need will enable the reader to learn more about the issues. It presents the facts and evidence that support the need for the project and establishes that your nonprofit understands the problems and therefore can reasonably address them. The information used to support the case can come from authorities in the field, as well as from your agency's own experience.
You want the need section to be succinct, yet persuasive. Like a good debater, you must assemble all the arguments. Then present them in a logical sequence that will readily convince the reader of their importance. As you marshal your arguments, consider the following six points.
First, decide which facts or statistics best support the project. Be sure the data you present are accurate. There are few things more embarrassing than to have the funder tell you that your information is out of date or incorrect. Information that is too generic or broad will not help you develop a winning argument for your project. Information that does not relate to your organization or the project you are presenting will cause the funder to question the entire proposal. There also should be a balance between the information presented and the scale of the program.
Second, give the reader hope. The picture you paint should not be so grim that the solution appears hopeless. The funder will wonder whether an investment in your solution would be worthwhile. Here's an example of a solid statement of need: "Breast cancer kills. But statistics prove that regular check-ups catch most breast cancer in the early stages, reducing the likelihood of death. Hence, a program to encourage preventive check-ups will reduce the risk of death due to breast cancer." Avoid overstatement and overly emotional appeals.
Third, decide if you want to put your project forward as a model. This approach could expand the base of potential funders. But serving as a model works only for certain types of projects. Don't try to make this argument if it doesn't really fit. Funders may well expect your agency to follow through with a replication plan if you present your project as a model.
If the decision about a model is affirmative, you should document how the problem you are addressing occurs in other communities. Be sure to explain how your solution could be a solution for others as well.
Fourth, determine whether it is reasonable to portray the need as acute. You are asking the funder to pay more attention to your proposal because either the problem you address is worse than others or the solution you propose makes more sense than others. Here is an example of a balanced but weighty statement: "Drug abuse is a national problem. Each day, children all over the country die from drug overdose. In the South Bronx the problem is worse. More children die here than any place else. It is an epidemic. Hence, our drug prevention program is needed more in the South Bronx than in any other part of the city."
Fifth, decide whether you can demonstrate that your program addresses the need differently or better than other projects that preceded it. It is often difficult to describe the need for your project without being critical of the competition. But you must be careful to do so. Being critical of other nonprofits will not be well received by the funder. It may cause the funder to look more carefully at your own project to see why you felt you had to build your case by demeaning others. The funder may have invested in these other projects or may begin to consider them, now that you have brought them to the funder's attention.
If possible, you should make it clear that you are cognizant of, and on good terms with, others doing work in your field. Keep in mind that today's funders are very interested in collaboration. They may even ask why you are not collaborating with those you view as key competitors. So at the least you need to describe how your work complements, but does not duplicate, the work of others.
Sixth, avoid circular reasoning. In circular reasoning, you present the absence of your solution as the actual problem. Then your solution is offered as the way to solve the problem. For example, the circular reasoning for building a community swimming pool might go like this: "The problem is that we have no pool in our community. Building a pool will solve the problem." A more persuasive case would cite what a pool has meant to a neighboring community, permitting it to offer recreation, exercise, and physical therapy programs. The statement might refer to a survey that underscores the target audience's planned usage of the facility and conclude with the connection between the proposed usage and potential benefits to enhance life in the community for audiences the funder cares about.
The statement of need does not have to be long and involved. Short, concise information captures the reader's attention.
This section of your proposal should have five subsections: objectives, methods, staffing/administration, evaluation, and sustainability. Together, objectives and methods dictate staffing and administrative requirements. They then become the focus of the evaluation to assess the results of the project. The project's sustainability flows directly from its success, hence its ability to attract other support. Taken together, the five subsections present an interlocking picture of the total project.
Objectives are the measurable outcomes of the program. They define your methods. Your objectives must be tangible, specific, concrete, measurable, and achievable in a specified time period. Grantseekers often confuse objectives with goals, which are conceptual and more abstract. For the purpose of illustration, here is the goal of a project with a subsidiary objective:
Goal: Our after-school program will help children read better.
Objective: Our after-school remedial education program will assist 50 children in improving their reading scores by one grade level as demonstrated by standardized reading tests administered after participating in the program for six months.
The goal in this case is abstract (improving reading) while the objective is much more specific. It is achievable in the short term (six months) and measurable (improving 50 children's reading scores by one grade level).
With competition for dollars so great, well-articulated objectives are increasingly critical to a proposal's success.
Using a different example, there are at least four types of objectives:
Behavioral: A human action is anticipated.
Example: Fifty of the 70 children participating will learn to swim.
Performance: A specific time frame within which a behavior will occur, at an expected proficiency level, is expected.
Example: Fifty of the 70 children will learn to swim within six months and will pass a basic swimming proficiency test administered by a Red Cross-certified lifeguard.
Process: The manner in which something occurs is an end in itself.
Example: We will document the teaching methods utilized, identifying those with the greatest success.
Product: A tangible item results.
Example: A manual will be created to be used in teaching swimming to this age and proficiency group in the future.
In any given proposal, you will find yourself setting forth one or more of these types of objectives, depending on the nature of your project. Be certain to present the objectives very clearly. Make sure that they do not become lost in verbiage and that they stand out on the page. You might, for example, use numbers, bullets, or indentations to denote the objectives in the text. Above all, be realistic in setting objectives. Don't promise what you can't deliver. Remember, the funder will want to be told in the final report that the project actually accomplished these objectives.
By means of the objectives, you have explained to the funder what will be achieved by the project. The methods section describes the specific activities that will take place to achieve the objectives. It might be helpful to divide our discussion of methods into the following: how, when, and why.
How: This is the detailed description of what will occur from the time the project begins until it is completed. Your methods should match the previously stated objectives.
When: The methods section should present the order and timing for the tasks. It might make sense to provide a timetable so that the grants decision-maker does not have to map out the sequencing on his or her own. The timetable tells the reader "when" and provides another summary of the project that supports the rest of the methods section.
Why: You may need to defend your chosen methods, especially if they are new or unorthodox. Why will the planned work most effectively lead to the outcomes you anticipate? You can answer this question in a number of ways, including using expert testimony and examples of other projects that work.
The methods section enables the reader to visualize the implementation of the project. It should convince the reader that your agency knows what it is doing, thereby establishing its credibility.
In describing the methods, you will have mentioned staffing for the project. You now need to devote a few sentences to discussing the number of staff, their qualifications, and specific assignments. Details about individual staff members involved in the project can be included either as part of this section or in the appendix, depending on the length and importance of this information.
"Staffing" may refer to volunteers or to consultants, as well as to paid staff. Most proposal writers do not develop staffing sections for projects that are primarily volunteer run. Describing tasks that volunteers will undertake, however, can be most helpful to the proposal reader. Such information underscores the value added by the volunteers as well as the cost-effectiveness of the project.
For a project with paid staff, be certain to describe which staff will work full time and which will work part time on the project. Identify staff already employed by your nonprofit and those to be recruited specifically for the project. How will you free up the time of an already fully deployed individual?
Salary and project costs are affected by the qualifications of the staff. Delineate the practical experience you require for key staff, as well as level of expertise and educational background. If an individual has already been selected to direct the program, summarize his or her credentials and include a brief biographical sketch in the appendix. A strong project director can help influence a grant decision.
Describe for the reader your plans for administering the project. This is especially important in a large operation, if more than one agency is collaborating on the project, or if you are using a fiscal agent. It needs to be crystal clear who is responsible for financial management, project outcomes, and reporting.
An evaluation plan should not be considered only after the project is over; it should be built into the project. Including an evaluation plan in your proposal indicates that you take your objectives seriously and want to know how well you have achieved them. Evaluation is also a sound management tool. Like strategic planning, it helps a nonprofit refine and improve its program. An evaluation can often be the best means for others to learn from your experience in conducting the project.
There are several types of formal evaluation. One measures the product; others analyze the process and/or strategies you've adopted. Most seek to determine the impact on the audiences you serve and the measurable outcomes of your grant project. Either or both might be appropriate to your project. The approach you choose will depend on the nature of the project and its objectives. Whatever form your evaluation takes, you will need to describe the manner in which evaluation information will be collected and how the data will be analyzed.
Most sound evaluation plans include both qualitative and quantitative data. You should also present your plan for how the evaluation and its results will be reported and the audience to which it will be directed. For example, it might be used internally or be shared with the funder, or it might deserve a wider audience. A funder might even have an opinion about the scope of this dissemination. Many funders also have suggestions about who should conduct the evaluation, whether it be your own program staff or outside consultants. Some funders allow for the inclusion of the cost of evaluation as part of the project budget.
A clear message from grantmakers today is that grantseekers will be expected to demonstrate in very concrete ways the long-term financial viability of the project to be funded and of the nonprofit organization itself.
It stands to reason that most grantmakers will not want to take on a permanent funding commitment to a particular agency. Rather, funders will want you 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 agency and/or enable it to expand services that might generate revenue); or that it will make your organization attractive to other funders in the future. Evidence of fiscal sustainability is a highly sought-after characteristic of the successful grant proposal.
It behooves you to be very specific about current and projected funding streams, both earned income and fundraising, and about the base of financial support for your nonprofit. Here is an area where it is important to have backup figures and prognostications at the ready, in case a prospective funder asks for these, even though you are unlikely to include this information in the actual grant proposal. Some grantmakers, of course, will want to know who else will be receiving a copy of this same proposal. You should not be shy about sharing this information with the funder.
The budget for your proposal may be as simple as a one-page statement of projected revenue and expenses. Or your proposal may require a more complex presentation, perhaps including a page on projected support and notes explaining various items of expense or of revenue.
As you prepare to assemble the budget, go back through the proposal narrative and make a list of all personnel and nonpersonnel items related to the operation of the project. Be sure that you list not only new costs that will be incurred if the project is funded but also any ongoing expenses for items that will be allocated to the project. Then get the relevant costs from the person in your agency who is responsible for keeping the books. You may need to estimate the proportions of your agency's ongoing expenses that should be charged to the project and any new costs, such as salaries for project personnel not yet hired. Put the costs you have identified next to each item on your list.
Your list of budget items and the calculations you have done to arrive at a dollar figure for each item should be summarized on worksheets. You should keep these to remind yourself how the numbers were derived. These worksheets can be useful as you continue to develop the proposal and discuss it with funders; they are also a valuable tool for monitoring the project once it is under way and for reporting after completion of the grant.
A portion of a worksheet for a year-long project might look like this:
With your worksheets in hand, you are ready to prepare the expense budget. For most projects, costs should be grouped into subcategories, selected to reflect the critical areas of expense. All significant costs should be broken out within the subcategories, but small ones can be combined on one line. You might divide your expense budget into personnel and nonpersonnel costs; your personnel subcategories might include salaries, benefits, and consultants. Subcategories under nonpersonnel costs might include travel, equipment, and printing, for example, with a dollar figure attached to each line. Overhead, or indirect costs, is important to include because projects do not exist in isolation. Funders may have policies regarding the percentage of overhead they will allow in a project budget, if they allow it at all.
For the typical project, no support and revenue statement is necessary. The expense budget represents the amount of grant support required. But if grant support has already been awarded to the project, or if you expect project activities to generate income, a support and revenue statement is the place to provide this information.
In itemizing grant support, make note of any earmarked grants; this will suggest how new grants may be allocated. The total grant support already committed should then be deducted from the "Total Expenses" line on the expense budget to give you the "Amount to Be Raised" or the "Balance Requested."
Any earned income anticipated should be estimated on the support and revenue statement. For instance, if you expect 50 people to attend your performance on each of the four nights, it is given at $10 a ticket, and if you hope that 20 of them will buy the $5 souvenir book each night, you would show two lines of income, "Ticket Sales" at $2,000 and "Souvenir Book Sales" at $400. As with the expense budget, you should keep backup worksheets for the support and revenue statement to remind yourself of the assumptions you have made.
A narrative portion of the budget is used to explain any unusual line items in the budget and is not always needed. If costs are straightforward and the numbers tell the story clearly, explanations are redundant.
If you decide a budget narrative is needed, you can structure it in one of two ways. You can create "Notes to the Budget," with footnote-style numbers on the line items in the budget keyed to numbered explanations. If an extensive or more general explanation is required, you can structure the budget narrative as straight text. Remember though, the basic narrative about the project and your organization belongs elsewhere in the proposal, not in the budget narrative.
Normally a resume of your nonprofit organization should come at the end of your proposal. Your natural inclination may be to put this information up front in the document. But it is usually better to sell the need for your project and then your agency's ability to carry it out.
It is not necessary to overwhelm the reader with facts about your organization. This information can be conveyed easily by attaching a brochure or other prepared statement. In two pages or less, tell the reader when your nonprofit came into existence; state its mission, being certain to demonstrate how the subject of the proposal fits within or extends that mission; and describe the organization's structure, programs, leadership, and special expertise.
Discuss the size of the board, how board members are recruited, and their level of participation. Give the reader a feel for the makeup of the board. (You should include the full board list in an appendix.) If your agency is composed of volunteers or has an active volunteer group, describe the function that the volunteers perform. Provide details on the staff, including the numbers of full and part-time staff, and their levels of expertise.
Describe the kinds of activities in which your staff engage. Explain briefly the assistance you provide. Describe the audience you serve, any special or unusual needs they face, and why they rely on your agency. Cite the number of people who are reached through your programs.
Tying all of the information about your nonprofit together, cite your agency's expertise, especially as it relates to the subject of your proposal.
Sometimes the scale of the project might suggest a small-scale letter format proposal, or the type of request might not require all of the proposal components or the components in the sequence recommended here. The guidelines and policies of individual funders will be your ultimate guide. Many funders today state that they prefer a brief letter proposal; others require that you complete an application form. In any case, you will want to refer to the basic proposal components as provided here to be sure that you have not omitted an element that will support your case.
As noted, the scale of the project will often determine whether it requires a letter or the longer proposal format. For example, a request to purchase a $1,000 fax machine for your agency simply does not lend itself to a lengthy narrative. A small contribution to your agency's annual operating budget, particularly if it is a renewal of past support, might also warrant a letter rather than a full-scale proposal.
What are the elements of a letter request? For the most part, they should follow the format of a full proposal, except with regard to length. The letter should be no more than three pages. You will need to call upon your writing skills because it can be very hard to get all of the necessary details into a concise, well-articulated letter.
As to the flow of information, follow these steps while keeping in mind that you are writing a letter to another person. It should not be as formal in style as a longer proposal would be. It may be necessary to change the sequence of the text to achieve the correct tone and the right flow of information.
Here are the components of a good letter proposal:
Ask for the gift: The letter should begin with a reference to your prior contact with the funder, if any. State why you are writing and how much funding is required from the particular foundation.
Describe the need: In a very abbreviated manner, tell the funder why there is a need for this project, piece of equipment, etc.
Explain what you will do: Just as you would in a fuller proposal, provide enough detail to pique the funder's interest. Describe precisely what will take place as a result of the grant.
Provide agency data: Help the funder know a bit more about your organization by including your mission statement, brief description of programs offered, number of people served, and staff, volunteer, and board data, if appropriate.
Include appropriate budget data: Even a letter request may have a budget that is a half-page long. Decide if this information should be incorporated into the letter or in a separate attachment. Whichever course you choose, be sure to indicate the total cost of the project. Discuss future funding only if the absence of this information will raise questions.
Close: As with the longer proposal, a letter proposal needs a strong concluding statement. Offer to provide more details or meet with the funder.
- Attach any additional information required: The funder may need much of the same information to back up a small request as a large one: a board list, a copy of your IRS determination letter, financial documentation, and brief resumes of key staff.
It may take as much thought and data gathering to write a good letter request as it does to prepare a full proposal (and sometimes even more). Don't assume that because it is only a letter, it isn't a time-consuming and challenging task. Every document you put in front of a funder says something about your agency. Each step you take with a funder should build a relationship for the future.
Every proposal should have a concluding paragraph or two. This is a good place to call attention to the future, after the grant is completed. If appropriate, you should outline some of the follow-up activities that might be undertaken to begin to prepare your funder for your next request. Alternatively, you should state how the project might carry on without further grant support.
This section is also the place to make a final appeal for your project. Briefly reiterate what your nonprofit wants to do and why it is important. Underscore why your agency needs funding to accomplish it. Don't be afraid at this stage to use a bit of emotion to solidify your case.
Submitting your proposal is nowhere near the end of your involvement in the grantseeking process. Grant review procedures vary widely, and the decision-making process can take anywhere from a few weeks to six months or more. During the review process, the funder may ask for additional information either directly from you or from outside consultants or professional references. Invariably, this is a difficult time for the grantseeker. You need to be patient but persistent. Some grantmakers outline their review procedures in annual reports or application guidelines. If you are unclear about the process, don't hesitate to ask.
If your hard work results in a grant, take a few moments to acknowledge the funder's support with a letter of thanks. You also need to find out whether the funder has specific forms, procedures, and deadlines for reporting on the progress of your project. Clarifying your responsibilities as a grantee at the outset, particularly with respect to financial reporting, will prevent misunderstandings and more serious problems later.
Nor is rejection necessarily the end of the process. If you're unsure why your proposal was turned down, ask. Did the funder need additional information? Would they be interested in considering the proposal at a future date? Now might also be the time to begin cultivation of a prospective funder. Put them on your mailing list so that they can become further acquainted with your organization. Remember, there's always next year.
This short course in proposal writing was adapted from The Foundation Center's Guide to Proposal Writing, 6th ed. (New York: The Foundation Center, 2012), by Jane C. Geever, chairman of the development consulting firm, J. C. Geever, Inc. This book and other titles are available to use for free at Foundation Center libraries and Funding Information Network locations.
Foundation Center offers several courses on proposal writing in a variety of formats, ranging from one hour introductions to multiple-day boot camps.
See also these related resources on GrantSpace:
- Knowledge Base Articles
- Proposal Writing gallery for videos, podcasts, webinars, live chats on this topic
- Sample Documents gallery for actual winning proposals and comments from funders