Crafting a Nonprofit Grant Proposal: 7 Essential Sections

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Every aspiring journalist knows the formula for capturing the key elements for a news story. They ask and answer the “5 W’s and H”: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

To secure grant funding, an essential part of a sustainable nonprofit financial strategy, an organization must similarly draft a complete and well-written grant proposal. You essentially tell the funder who your organization serves, what programs and activities you propose, when and where you plan to do the work, why your organization needs the grant, and how your work will make an impact.The competitive nature of grant seeking means you’ll need to take extra care to write a thorough, compelling proposal that potential funders will seriously consider.

In this guide, we’ll break down the seven essential sections of a nonprofit grant proposal, including the:

  • Executive summary
  • Organizational background
  • Problem statement
  • Program goals and objectives
  • Methods and activities
  • Evaluation
  • Budget

As you write proposals for your organization, keep in mind that each funder is unique. Check the funder’s website to ensure the opportunity aligns with your initiative, your nonprofit is eligible to apply, and you fully understand their grant proposal requirements. Let’s dive into each essential section in more detail.

1. Executive Summary

The executive summary goes by many names, including the introduction, overview, or abstract. No matter what you call it, this section condenses your entire proposal into a short reference section, usually a page or less. Although you’ll include the executive summary first in your proposal, it’s often best to write it last so you can reference the most important details from each completed section.

The executive summary is similar to an “elevator speech” about your proposal. It includes brief information about your organization and the proposed project or initiative, and it should clearly demonstrate a need. A funder will use the summary to get an idea of what your proposal is about before reading the rest and refer back to it as they make a decision.

However, if your executive summary doesn’t effectively demonstrate to the funder that your nonprofit may be worth supporting, they might not read the rest of the proposal. So, you will want to put extra time and effort into this section to craft it as well as you possibly can. Once you finish a first draft, edit it and ask for feedback from colleagues at your organization as well as any outside grant-writing experts you work with to develop the proposal.

2. Organizational Background

In the organizational background section, you will tell the story of your nonprofit. Who are you and what do you stand for? Your goal here is to establish credibility—to show that your organization has a track record of meaningful, relevant work and has made a positive impact before you ask for funding that will help your nonprofit achieve even greater success.

In this section, detail your organization’s:

  • Size, location, and scope
  • Mission and vision statements
  • History and past successes
  • Key services and programs

If the grant requirements include a word, character, or page count, stick to it closely. Be concise and focus on the details that emphasize how your nonprofit’s values align with the funder’s. Also, use concrete data to back up your claims, showing how their support will fit into your mission—and how partnering with your organization can help the funder achieve their goals.

3. Problem Statement

Sometimes called the statement of need or needs assessment, the problem statement addresses the why of the proposed initiative. It should accomplish three goals:

  1. Introduce the project or initiative you plan to use the grant to fund
  2. Clearly state the issue your project or program will address
  3. Link that issue to the funder’s values

Your problem statement should be written in a straightforward but persuasive way. Back up the points you make with relevant data to help the funder understand how their support would make a difference. Use published research, statistics, and news stories to explain the current situation, why it exists, and the urgency with which it should be addressed.

4. Program Goals and Objectives

Once you’ve clarified the issue your organization will address, outline how your initiative will address the problem. This section of your grant proposal will give the funder a clear picture of how your nonprofit will use their grant through well-written goals and objectives.

First, you’ll establish an overarching, long-term goal for your proposed initiative. Goals are broad statements of what you wish to accomplish. For example, an educational nonprofit might set a goal to “increase access to higher education for low-income students in Greater Chicago.”

Then, articulate the concrete, quantifiable objectives that your nonprofit will use to achieve this goal. Effective objectives will tie into your nonprofit’s overall strategic plan and follow the SMART model:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Objectives help to solidify your plan and show funders that your nonprofit is ready to follow an organized plan of action. An objective to support higher education access might be to “implement the Aim High mentoring program at five Chicago Public Schools high schools with Title I designations in the next 12 months.”

5. Methods and Activities

The methods and activities (or methodology) section is sometimes separate from the goals and objectives, and other times the two categories are combined to form a larger solution section. No matter which format the funder requests, the methods and activities you include in your grant proposal will break down how your organization will accomplish the program goals and objectives.

The three main aspects you’ll need to detail in the methods and activities section are:

  • What each activity will entail
  • When and where they will take place
  • Who will be involved

To return to the higher education access example, that nonprofit might propose hosting information sessions to introduce high school counselors to colleges and their application processes. In their grant proposal, they would offer an outline of the information they plan to share in these meetings, an approximate timeline, and the staff members who would work on organizing, leading, and promoting the sessions.

When you write this section, you’ll need to communicate clearly with your team to make sure everyone is on the same page about the plan. Also, as you outline each of your methods and activities, make sure to tie them back to your goals and objectives to show funders why each one is essential—and, therefore, how putting grant funding toward those activities will help address the issue at hand.

6. Evaluation

The evaluation section of your grant proposal shows how your nonprofit will measure the initiative’s success.  Evaluation is a data-driven process, so make sure to outline the methods and tools you’ll use to track and analyze your program results. Common program metrics include surveys of participant knowledge, attitudes, or behaviors before and after engaging with the nonprofit; attendance records; and other tallies of services provided. 

Besides ensuring that both your organization and the funder will know if your initiative has been successful, the evaluation section will lay the groundwork for reporting if you’re awarded the grant. Refer back to your success metrics as your nonprofit goes through the grant management process to create effective reports and demonstrate that the funding was an investment well made.

7. Budget

The budget section will break down exactly how much funding you’ll put toward each aspect of your initiative, as well as how you’ll cover any costs outside the grant’s scope. Many funders provide a required budget template and oftentimes request a budget narrative detailing the expenses the grant will support. Once you complete the budget, double-check your calculations, as small mistakes that cast doubt on the feasibility of your plans could be the difference between securing funding and being rejected.

Along with your budget, you’ll likely need to include information about how the grant fits into your nonprofit’s overall financial plan. You may be required to submit additional documents with your budget, such as an IRS Form 990, so the funder can review your organization’s history and make sure you’re managing your finances well before they invest money in your mission.

These seven sections of a grant proposal can serve as a helpful starting point, but every application will look somewhat different. The surest way to have a proposal rejected is to fail to follow all the funder’s instructions. Make sure you’ve included all the information required, in the correct format, and refer to each section using the funder’s terms.

Lastly, keep in mind that good grant writing is, at its core, simply good writing. Communicate your “5 W’s and H” clearly, concisely, and with the conviction that your initiative deserves the funder’s support.