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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

Grant Proposal 101: The Basics of Planning and Writing

If you have been given the opportunity to write a grant—or assist in writing one—the task might seem overwhelming at first. You likely have many questions about the process: What goes in the proposal? What figures and statistics do you need to include? And how much research will it require?

Before we delve into the answers to these common questions, let's first address the importance of recognizing the amazing results that grant writing can bring. Some of the most impressive nonprofit and community-based efforts have been funded by grants, and many important artistic endeavors have been paid for by grants focused on the arts. In short, knowing how to plan for and write one is a valuable skill, regardless if it's for academic or professional purposes, and it's a skill that could translate into many other potential opportunities.

In her article, Planning and Writing a Grant Proposal, Professor Kate Vieira describes grant writing as a creative process akin to fiction writing—these are works of imagination, and recommends approaching the task of writing a grant proposal with an attitude of wonder and excitement as you strive to turn your ideas into something real.

Looking at a grant in this light will undoubtedly make your work easier in writing it. As with any written endeavor, the author's passion for the topic shows through (or fails to)—and this is never truer than with a grant proposal.

Planning phase

First, do your research

Successful grant proposals can look vastly different, depending on context. For example, a grant proposal seeking funding for research will have different sections than one seeking the same for a nonprofit. Academic grants are written differently than grants seeking funding for an artistic endeavor, and even across grant organizations, expectations for the proposal and what it should contain will vary.

In the planning stages of writing a grant proposal, it's important to talk with people who have been through the grant-writing process and have an insider's view of what it takes to get one written. This could involve speaking with mentors in your field, previous grant winners, or even people within the agency offering the grant.

You'll want to ask very specific questions, such as which agency or agencies would be most likely to award a grant for your particular project (if you don't already know this information or have an agency in mind). When that part is narrowed down, you'll then want to research that agency's grant guidelines and expectations to make sure you know exactly what is expected of your grant proposal before you begin writing the first sentence of it.

Second, consider your audience

Once you've narrowed down the appropriate grant agency most likely to fund your grant, it's important to focus on who they are as an agency (otherwise known as, your audience) and what their goals are for the grant funding. Basically, you want to brainstorm ways to catch their attention in your writing.

One way to do this is to look through their website and online or printed materials discussing their business model, philosophy, and history. What words tend to pop up often? Is there an overall goal that they seek to fulfill with their funding? What phrases occur in their language to help you place where they are on the political spectrum and what philosophy their founders live (or have lived) by?

If, for example, a grant funding agency often mentions social justice in their online and printed material, highlight this aspect of your proposed grant throughout the summary of it (which we will discuss later in this article). In the section describing who will carry out the grant activities, whether this is you or an academic department at a university, highlight the role of social justice in their lives and career or study pursuits.

Also, consider what kind of persuasion would be best. Would it be better to persuade by establishing historical precedent? Would numbers and data be more persuasive? Or maybe a mix of the two?

Third, establish your credibility

This step goes along with the above paragraph concerning the section highlighting who you are as a researcher, artist or entrepreneur and how thoroughly you have thought through the plan for the grant. It's important to remember that you are selling yourself (or your business, or academic department) as much as you are selling an idea. This is because grant-funding agencies understand that even the best ideas can fall through or fail if not properly executed and managed. They will be looking to find credibility in your planning and expertise on the topic, as well as passion for what you are doing to ensure you'll stay focused until completion of the project once the money is granted.

There are several ways to establish this credibility, including details of any partnerships you have that will assist in the project's implementation or continuing goals. You should also mention any relevant experience you've had, degrees you've earned or research you've undertaken that makes you uniquely qualified to write this grant proposal and use the funds appropriately.

Drafting phase

Now that you understand the immense planning, brainstorming and preparation that goes into writing a grant proposal, let's discuss the actual drafting phase of the document. As with any draft, allow it to be a working document that is changed and made better by mentors, editors and peers, but be sure it retains the important words and themes you decided on in the planning phase. It's important that your research into the grant agency's language and overarching goals isn't wasted or removed from the proposal by well-meaning editors or reviewers (unless they work with the agency itself).

Writing style

The best writing style to aim for when writing a grant proposal is direct and clear. A grant proposal is not the document for extensive metaphors or allusions that might be missed by its audience, its purpose is to communicate clearly your motivation, plan and aspirations for a project. Use vivid language and anecdotes if they convey your passion for the topic but keep in mind that this document should be a professional, clearly expressed mix of informative and persuasive writing.

Short summary

Most grant proposal guidelines will include a request for a short summary of your project, otherwise known as an executive summary or an abstract. Think of this as your "elevator pitch" for the project—basically, a three-minute summary of the most important parts (including intended outcomes) of your plan.

As mentioned earlier, grant proposal rules will differ across organizations so it's important to follow the rules of the specific funding agency to which you are applying. Some might require a one-paragraph summary, while others might allow you to use an entire page.

Depending on how much space you have, your summary might include:

  • The goal or expected outcomes of your project
  • The needs you hope to address through your project
  • Reasons why your project is important and should be funded
  • Briefly, why you are qualified to lead it

Again, grant funding organizations almost always supply guidelines for grants submitted. Many such guidelines are detailed about which sections are needed for the proposal, and what to include in each section. In this article, we are only able to discuss the requirements in very general terms, since there is such a wide scope of requirements given by grant funding agencies. When in doubt, check the requirements!

Examination of the need

Most grant proposal guidelines will ask for an examination of the need or a statement of the problem. If you are writing an academic grant, this needs assessment will likely be a review of the current literature to show gaps and how the project will fill it.

This is where you show how your project is needed—either to fill gaps in the literature, to create a necessary community resource, or to address a social justice inequality, etc. Basically, you want to make sure you use this section to clarify the value of your proposal and intended project.

Description and timeline of your project

This section could be named several different things—methodology, strategies, project objectives, project narrative—but it will generally serve as a detailed description of how you plan to put the proposal into action. Some questions you will likely need to consider for this section are:

  • How will the project goals be achieved and through what methods?
  • What are the desired outcomes of the project and how will you measure those outcomes?
  • What specific, measurable, and realistic actions will be completed over the course of the project?
  • What will you do if the project runs into challenges or problems?


Since the success of your project will depend on money that is funded through the grant, grant organizations want to make sure you will be a good steward of their money and use it as it is intended to be used. One way they do this is to ask you to create a detailed budget of your project's costs to ensure that the money granted will be enough to sufficiently fund the outcomes. Again, grant organizations will often offer specific details they want to be included in the budget section and it is best to consult their guidelines to make sure all budgetary considerations are covered.

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