Lesson 4: Writing

Writing the Proposal

Many proposals focus on the benefits for the applicant and few pay enough attention to the benefits for the funder. A grant proposal should be viewed as a win/win proposition. As you are going through various elements, remember to articulate your project’s fit with the funder’s interests. It may be helpful to write a template proposal using the elements discussed below. Then tailor this proposal to specific potential funders. Always be sure to follow the funders’ guidelines.

Typical Proposal Elements

Most grants will need to be submitted through an online form and some will need to be printed and mailed. Funders do not follow a standard proposal blueprint with online applications. However, they usually address the same types of content although they may ask different questions. These are some of the common elements you can expect to see (and again, be sure to follow any guidelines):

  • Executive Summary: a 1-2 page mini-proposal. This is the last thing written, but is generally the first thing a funder will read.
  • Narrative: This is the largest part of the proposal and where the purpose of the funding is described. Include how it will benefit you, your work, and the funder, and how you will know if you are successful. This is usually no more than 10 pages.
    • Statement of need (1-2 pages)
    • Project description (3-5 pages)
      • Objectives
      • Methods
      • Evaluation
      • Sustainability
    • Organization information (1-2 pages)
    • Conclusion (1-2 pages)
  • Budget (length varies)
  • Supporting Materials (length varies)

In the next section, we’ll get into each of these elements in more detail.

What Do Funders Really Want to Know?

By focusing on a funder’s interests, you can show them how they could advance their mission through supporting your work. Therefore, it is important to highlight common concerns throughout your proposal. We’ll take a closer look at each proposal component with an eye to what funders may want to know.

Here is a sample outline that highlights some key proposal elements. You may find it useful to refer to the descriptions in this section.

Proposal Elements


Narrative: Statement of Need

In this section, describe the specific need your grant proposal addresses. In particular, consider:

  • What audience and community are you serving?
  • What evidence do you have to support the credibility of your need?
  • If applicable, you can add supplementary anecdotes or call-out boxes to highlight quotes or anecdotes from the community you are serving. Be sure to keep funder’s guidelines in mind (length, format, etc.).

Narrative: Project Description

This section provides an overview of your project, including how you propose to address the need you just described. In particular, consider:

  • Objectives:
    • What are you trying to achieve? What are your goals? These are broad, typically with only 1-2 goals per project.
    • What are your objectives? These flow from the goals, and are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely (S.M.A.R.T.).
  • Methods:
    • How will you accomplish the work?
    • Who will do the work?
    • What is the timeline?
    • Where will this work be completed?
  • Evaluation:
    • How will you know if you are successful?
    • Identify key indicators of success that directly reference your objectives
    • Outline data collection and analysis activities
      • If your project is an ongoing or long-term project, develop a timeline to monitor the success of the program on an ongoing basis
  • Sustainability:
    • How will your project move toward self-sufficiency in the future?
    • How will this project sustain itself without grant support?

Narrative: Organization

In this section, describe both your organization and the work that you do. Help your potential funder to develop a clear sense of who you represent and why you are the best organization to do this work. Specific things to include might be:

  • Organization overview
  • Mission, vision, and history of organization
  • Programs
  • Leadership
  • Accomplishments

For individual projects, this section is where you will describe why you are the best person to complete your project, and why funders should fund you specifically. Some funders may require these items separately and possibly earlier on. Specific things to include might be:

  • Curriculum vitae or resume
  • Personal Statement
  • Transcripts (if required)

Narrative: Conclusion

The conclusion should answer the question, “So what?” You have provided all of the information in previous sections. Now help the reader to pull everything together and understand why your project or organization is the best candidate for this particular funder. Demonstrate that you have vetted your potential funding partner and that this is a good match. Keep in mind:

  • This is the final appeal for your project
  • Make it compelling
  • Tailor it to speak to this particular funder’s guidelines and interests


There are typically two parts of a budget–a budget narrative and the itemized budget. The budget narrative is usually a short (1-2 page) description of items in the budget. It is an opportunity to describe why you need individual items and provides justifications for costs. The line-item budget is typically a spreadsheet which contains an account of the total cost of your project broken down by categories.

Budget-related resources:

Supporting Materials

Funders often request a variety of supplementary materials in addition to the proposal itself. For organizations, these might include a list of board members and biographies, proof of nonprofit status, financial audit documentation, and tax returns. For individuals, this may include transcripts and letters of recommendation.

Depending on the type of project and the type of funder, you may need to include public access policies and a research data management plan. This will typically be stated in the funder’s guidelines.

Individual vs. Organization

In general, proposals from individuals do not exceed five single-spaced pages, in addition to the cover letter and the budget. Below is a typical breakdown:

Proposal Element Individual Length Organization Length
Cover Letter*: Written specifically to the appropriate contact person at the foundation.
*This may be called a Personal Statement or could be in addition to the statement. Not always applicable to organizations.
1 page 1-2 pages
Executive Summary (organization) or Abstract (individual): Describes concisely the information that will follow. 250 words or fewer 1-2 pages
Introduction: Helps to establish credibility as a grant applicant. 1 sentence to 2 paragraphs Part of Narrative
Statement of Need: Describes a problem and explains why you require a grant to address the issue. 1 page 1-2 pages
Objectives: Refine your idea and tell exactly what you expect to accomplish in response to the need. 1 page 1-2 pages
Methods: What you will do to accomplish your objectives within a stated time frame. 1 page 1-2 pages
Evaluation: Measures your results and effectiveness. This should correspond to your objectives. 1 page 1-2 pages
Future Funding: Details feasible plans to sustain your project. This applies only if the project will run indefinitely. 1 paragraph 1-2 paragraphs
Conclusion: Tailor to funder’s needs and mission. 1 paragraph 1-2 paragraphs
Budget: Itemized list of income and expenses that shows precisely how much money you will need and how you will spend it to accomplish your objectives. 1 page 1-2 pages
Length of Proposal Elements for Individuals and Organizations


Communication during the writing phase is centered around ensuring your proposal is as strong as it can be. Be sure to have both an internal and external person review your proposal–-someone who is closely involved with your project and someone who is not familiar with your work. A person familiar with your project can make sure your proposal is still closely tied to your project goals or the organization’s mission. An external reviewer can make sure your proposal is clear for someone who is not familiar with your work, and that your proposal clearly connects to the funder’s goals. You may also see if the grants officer who works with the potential funder is able to review proposals prior to submission.

Writing Tips

When going through the process of writing your proposal, here are some tips to help make it successful:

  • Start with an outline
  • Keep the language clear and concise
  • Focus on the funders’ interests
  • Follow the funders’ guidelines
  • Revise and edit before submitting

You have done the hard work of planning and researching, so be sure to draw on that preparation when writing your proposal. In our next section, we’ll explore how to follow-up with funders after you submit your proposal.

Submission Tips and File-naming Conventions

With most applications being online, here are a few tips to help with your proposal submission:

  • There are frequently small text boxes to fill in while answering specific questions. Copy and paste the questions into your preferred word processing software or platform and work on the questions there where it is easier to review and edit.
  • Upload your answers to the online submission form.
  • Many onlines formats have word or character limits. These may not align with word counts in word processing software, so be prepared for a few minor edits at the time of submission.
    • It may be helpful to have another member of your team present, if applicable, when you fill out the application and submit to help with last-minute edits.
  • Attempt to submit several days prior to the deadline to allow for any technology errors or difficulties.

You will need to upload files in online applications. Frequently, but not always, you will be told the file format. Please consider the following for consistent and clear file-naming and formats:

  • PDF is the recommended file format, unless otherwise noted in the application guidelines
  • Use clear and consistent file names. Here are a few examples:
    • OrgName_Item.pdf
      • UWMadLib_BudgetNarrative.pdf
      • UWMadLib_Narrative.pdf
    • LastName_Item.pdf
      • Doe_CV.pdf
      • Doe_PersonalStatement.pdf

Be sure to follow up with your potential funding partner after you submit. In the next lesson, we’ll discuss more strategies for follow-up and communicating with funders.