A close-up of two hands reaching across a desk, with one hand giving a check to the other.
Before your organization can receive grant money, you'll have to go through a rigorous application process. — Getty Images/AndreyPopov

For many organizations, grant writing is the most important component of their entire fundraising strategy. In fact, a single grant application can make or break your organization, so if you’re trying to secure funding for your nonprofit, community organization or research group, it’s important to learn how to write a strong, successful proposal. Here’s what you need to know to get started.

[Read more: 22 Grants, Loans and Programs to Benefit Your Small Business]

What to consider before writing a grant application

The best grant proposals are clear, organized documents that illustrate why your organization should receive funds from the grantor. That’s why it’s a good idea to plan in advance and get some things in order. Here are three things to know or accomplish before you start writing your proposal:

  • Your audience. First and foremost, get to know the institution that is offering the grant. Consider its goals, values and objectives. Understanding these elements will later help you demonstrate how and why your organization is a good fit.
  • The minimum requirements. Research the eligibility expectations for each specific grantor and make sure you meet the minimum requirements. If you find that your organization does not meet these requirements, contact the grantor directly to discuss your options.
  • Your organization’s credibility. Compile a list of testimonials, recommendations, data sets and success stories to include with your application. Every grantor is different, but they all want to know their money is being used wisely.

Elements of a grant proposal

Grant applications are organized in specific sections that help the reviewer parse through information quickly and find potential grantees. Here are the main elements to include in a grant proposal:

  • Cover letter. Some, but not all, granting organizations ask that you include a cover letter to introduce yourself. This section should establish why you are seeking the available grant, describe your organization or project and illustrate your professionalism.
  • Executive summary. Also known as an abstract or overview, the executive summary should state the most important information from the entire proposal. This section should be concise, yet fully describe your goals, what steps you will take, why you need funding and how you will measure progress. It is often best practice to write this section last.
  • Needs assessment. The needs assessment, also known as the statement of need, problem statement or literature overview, defines the lack in resources, information or opportunities that you are trying to solve. Include as much data and research as possible and show how your organization is the key link between the problem and the solution.
  • Project description. Also known as the project narrative, this section states how you will address the problems described in the needs assessment. The description should include your goals, your projected timeline, how you will measure progress and how you will recognize success. Focus on the impact your work will have on the given issue.
  • Budget. This section should clarify why you are asking for funding. State how each dollar will be spent, and illustrate how the cost of labor, materials or equipment is required to fulfill your mission.
  • Supplemental documentation. Finally, you may need to provide an appendix with all the supporting materials you’ve included in your application. This may include additional data, business records, employment information, letters of reference, organizational qualifications and so on.

[Read more: How to Get a Grant to Start a Business]

It’s important to remember that there are so many factors beyond a nonprofit’s control that influence decision-making...

Arianna Maysonave, Director of Development at Herbicide-Free Campus

4 tips for writing a grant application

  • Stick to your mission. It’s not uncommon for inexperienced grant writers to stretch their application too far and create a weak proposal.
    “Write grants based on your mission,” said Lauren Balkan, Deputy Director of Wellspring Center for Prevention. “Stay true to your mission and then be creative with how to meet that mission within the scope of the grant funding.”
  • Build your network. Even if you’re not actively writing a grant application, start meeting with grantors to build a professional relationship. Networking will help you better understand the mission, values and objectives of specific granting organizations, which will give you a head start when you are ready to prepare a proposal. “Relationship building is the number one key to success in securing a grant,” said Arianna Maysonave, Director of Development at Herbicide-Free Campus. “Identify the interest of the grantor long before their grant deadline, and begin connecting with relevant partners months or even years before you expect to receive a grant.”
  • Expect to receive rejection letters. Learning how to craft solid grant applications takes time and experience. If your organization doesn’t earn a grant, use it as a learning opportunity. “It’s important to remember that there are so many factors beyond a nonprofit’s control that influence decision-making,” said Maysonave. “Do your best and don’t be afraid to follow up and ask why you weren’t chosen.”
  • Learn from your community. Finally, learn from other organizations within your community or industry to better understand what funders are looking for. “Connect to many community groups where organizations come together,” Balkan said. “Workgroups or committees usually provide information about possible funding opportunities, [so] pay attention when similar organizations are talking about their funding and where they get it.”

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