When writing proposals, keep in mind that proposals are read, not weighed. Funding agencies value precision and concision and rarely welcome lengthy grant proposals. In fact, recent trends indicate that grantors appreciate shorter proposals, ranging from two to five pages, single-spaced.

Each proposal is unique and, ideally, should respond directly to the guidelines, expectations, and priorities of any given funding agency. See this “Grantwriting 101” presentation for an overview. While a few writers use templates or boilerplate language, we recommend individualizing each proposal. In some instances, this may mean adapting a few words, phrases, or sentences to the language of the funder’s guidelines, but in most instances, this will mean re-conceptualizing and redrafting the proposal. To that end, here are a few suggestions that successful grant writers have used to shape their drafts.

First, know your audience. While grantors do award large sums of money, they do so in order to advance their own strategic goals. You may propose the same project to several foundations, but each proposal should address the objectives of that foundation. Take time to research your prospective funder/s. Knowing your audience will not insure funding, but it will almost certainly guarantee a receptive reviewer.

Second, know your project well enough so that your reader will be convinced that you have command of your ideas. Often, details make the difference between an acceptance and a rejection. Of course, the details have to be relevant.

Third, be positive but realistic. Use a friendly, informed tone, one that assumes you are addressing an interested, educated audience. Avoid jargon, acronyms, and cliches. Tell readers what your project will do for the grantor, not what it will do for you. Mary Walters, author of Write an Effective Funding Application: A Guide for Researchers and Scholars (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), has written a helpful and succinct article on the importance of using the right tone and style in a grant proposal.

Fourth, draft a one- to two-page concept paper identifying the problem, proposing a solution, outlining the project, sketching a timeline, and discussing the project’s impact. This early draft can pinpoint strengths and weaknesses in your proposal before they emerge in a longer, fully articulated draft. You may wish to share this concept paper with your colleagues or with staff in the Grants Office.

The Parts of a Proposal

Although the format for each proposal is funder-specific, proposals usually have the following parts:

  1. Summary (request or executive)

    Assume this is the only part of your proposal that will be read on the first review. Usually one page or less, the summary must capture your reader’s attention, convey the essence of your project, and request a specific amount. Most professional proposal writers draft the summary last.

  2. Introduction

    The introduction establishes your credibility, your institution’s credibility, and your capacity to fulfill the objectives of your proposal. The language should be oriented toward your reader.

  3. Statement of the problem or statement of need

    Define the problem or need in specific terms. Avoid generalizations, academic jargon, and undocumented assumptions. Demonstrate that your proposal is balanced, that you have researched the subject, and that you have the capability to complete the project in a timely and judicious manner.

  4. Project description, objectives, and methodology

    From the reader’s point of view, describe how you will approach the project, how your solution will improve upon existing conditions, and how your methodology will succeed. Show cost-effectiveness. Describe the leadership or the project director’s role.

  5. Evaluation

    Grantors want to know that they are funding projects whose goals will be met. To funders, assessment and evaluation demonstrate a well-conceived project. Describe how you will evaluate the project, how you will measure whether you have met your stated objectives, what methodology you will use, and whether these methodologies are appropriate and effective.

  6. Future funding and sustainability

    Tell how your project will continue at the end of the funding period. If you have submitted or intend to submit additional funding requests during or at the end of the current proposal, mention your plans. If the college is expected to support your project or if your project will become self-sustaining at the conclusion of the funding cycle, explain how this will happen.

    Program officers ask each other and reviewers a “stock question” about sustainability: “How will you sustain this project after the grant ends?” They look for answer to that question in the proposal.

  7. Budget

    Include a detailed and accurate budget, one section for each year of the project. Make arrangements to meet with Susan Benson, Grant and Cash Manager (x5990) in the Business Office, to have your budget reviewed. See the “Creating a Budget” page on this website for more information.

  8. Information about your organization

    The description of your organization usually includes a history; an explanation of the non-profit governing structure; as well as its primary activities, audiences, and services. The Grants Office has several prototypes for paragraphs, pages, or addenda describing Carleton College.

  9. Appendices

    Keep appendices to a minimum. Examples of appendices often requested are an IRS Statement of Tax Exemption [501(c)(3)], a list of the Board of Trustees, and an annual report. All of these documents are available in the Grants Office.

Cover Letters

Cover letters often constitute part of the proposal and can convey information that might not otherwise be conveyed to your reader. In other words, use the cover letter as an opportunity to make your proposal shine.

The person who submits the cover letter will depend upon the context in which the proposal is submitted. Possibilities include the project director, the dean, the president, the director of the Grants Office, or the assistant director of the Grants Office. If the cover letter needs signatures other than the project director’s, allow sufficient time for that person to review the proposal. We do not encourage dragging letter signers away from meetings, meals, or family gatherings for this purpose.