A Proposal Writing Short Course
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The subject of this short course is proposal writing. But the proposal
does not stand
alone. It must be part of a process of planning and of research on, outreach to, and
cultivation of potential foundation and corporate donors.
This process is grounded in the conviction that a partnership should develop between
the nonprofit and the donor. When you spend a great deal of your time seeking money, it
is hard to remember that it can also be difficult to give money away. In fact, the dollars
contributed by a foundation or corporation have no value until they are attached to solid
programs in the nonprofit sector.
This truly is an ideal partnership. The nonprofits have the ideas and the capacity to
solve problems, but no dollars with which to implement them. The foundations and
corporations have the financial resources but not the other resources needed to create
programs. Bring the two together effectively, and the result is a dynamic collaboration.
You need to follow a step-by-step process in the search for private dollars. It takes
time and persistence to succeed. After you have written a proposal, it could take as long
as a year to obtain the funds needed to carry it out. And even a perfectly written proposal
submitted to the right prospect may be rejected.
Raising funds is an investment in the future. Your aim should be to build a network of
foundation and corporate funders, many of which give small gifts on a fairly steady basis
and a few of which give large, periodic grants. By doggedly pursuing the various steps of
the process, each year you can retain most of your regular supporters and strike a
balance with the comings and goings of larger donors.
The recommended process is not a formula to be rigidly adhered to. It is a suggested
approach that can be adapted to fit the needs of any nonprofit and the peculiarities of
each situation. Fundraising is an art as well as a science. You must bring your own
creativity to it and remain flexible.
Gathering Background Information
The first thing you will need to do in writing the master proposal is to
documentation for it. You will require background documentation in three areas: concept,
program, and expenses.
If all of this information is not readily available to you, determine who will help you
gather each type of information. If you are part of a small nonprofit with no staff, a
knowledgeable board member will be the logical choice. If you are in a larger agency,
there should be program and financial support staff who can help you. Once you know
with whom to talk, identify the questions to ask.
This data-gathering process makes the actual writing much easier. And by involving
other stakeholders in the process, it also helps key people within your agency seriously
consider the project's value to the organization.
It is important that you have a good sense of how the project fits into
the philosophy and
mission of your agency. The need that the proposal is addressing must also be
documented. These concepts must be well-articulated in the proposal. Funders want to
know that a project reinforces the overall direction of an organization, and they may need
to be convinced that the case for the project is compelling. You should collect
background data on your organization and on the need to be addressed so that your
arguments are well-documented.
Here is a check list of the program information you require:
the nature of the project and how it will be conducted;
the timetable for the project;
the anticipated outcomes and how best to evaluate the results; and
staffing needs, including deployment of existing staff and new hires.
You will not be able to pin down all the expenses associated with the project
until the program details and timing have been worked out. Thus, the main
financial data gathering takes place after the narrative part of the master
proposal has been written. However, at this stage you do need to sketch out
the broad outlines of the budget to be sure that the costs are in reasonable proportion to
the outcomes you anticipate. If it appears that the costs will be prohibitive, even with a
foundation grant, you should then scale back your plans or adjust them to remove the
least cost-effective expenditures.
Components of a Proposal
umbrella statement of
your case and summary
of the entire proposal
why this project
nuts and bolts of
how the project will
of the project plus
history and governing
structure of the nonprofit;
its primary activities,
audiences, and services
The Executive Summary
This first page of the proposal is the most important section of the
entire document. Here you will provide the reader with a snapshot of
what is to follow. Specifically, it summarizes all of the key
information and is a sales document designed to convince the reader
that this project should be considered for support. Be certain to
Problem — a brief statement of the problem or need your agency has recognized
and is prepared to address (one or two paragraphs);
Solution — a short description of the project, including what will take
how many people will benefit from the program, how and where it will operate, for
how long, and who will staff it (one or two paragraphs);
Funding requirements— an explanation of the amount of grant money required
for the project and what your plans are for funding it in the future (one paragraph);
Organization and its expertise— a brief statement of the name, history,
and activities of your agency, emphasizing its capacity to carry out this proposal
The Statement of Need
If the funder reads beyond the executive summary, you have successfully
piqued his or
her interest. Your next task is to build on this initial interest in your project by enabling
the funder to understand the problem that the project will remedy.
The statement of need will enable the reader to learn more about the
issues. It presents the facts and evidence that support the need for the
project and establishes that your nonprofit understands the problems and
therefore can reasonably address them. The information used to support the
case can come from authorities in the field, as well as from your agency's own
You want the need section to be succinct, yet persuasive. Like a good debater, you
must assemble all the arguments. Then present them in a logical sequence that will
readily convince the reader of their importance. As you marshall your arguments,
consider the following six points.
First, decide which facts or statistics best support the project. Be sure the data
you present are accurate. There are few things more embarrassing than to have the
funder tell you that your information is out of date or incorrect. Information that is too
generic or broad will not help you develop a winning argument for your project. Information
that does not relate to your organization or the project you are presenting will cause the
funder to question the entire proposal. There also should be a balance between the
information presented and the scale of the program.
Second, give the reader hope. The picture you paint should not be so grim that the
solution appears hopeless. The funder will wonder whether an investment in a solution will
be worthwhile. Here's an example of a solid statement of need: "Breast cancer kills. But
statistics prove that regular check-ups catch most breast cancer in the early stages,
reducing the likelihood of death. Hence, a program to encourage preventive check-ups will
reduce the risk of death due to breast cancer." Avoid overstatement and overly emotional
Third, decide if you want to put your project forward as a model. This could
expand the base of potential funders, but serving as a model works only for certain types
of projects. Don't try to make this argument if it doesn't really fit. Funders may well
expect your agency to follow through with a replication plan if you present your project as
If the decision about a model is affirmative, you should document how the problem
you are addressing occurs in other communities. Be sure to explain how your solution
could be a solution for others as well.
Fourth, determine whether it is reasonable to portray the need as acute. You
are asking the funder to pay more attention to your proposal because either the problem
you address is worse than others or the solution you propose makes more sense than
others. Here is an example of a balanced but weighty statement: "Drug abuse is a
national problem. Each day, children all over the country die from drug overdose. In the
South Bronx the problem is worse. More children die here than any place else. It is an
epidemic. Hence, our drug prevention program is needed more in the South Bronx than in
any other part of the city."
Fifth, decide whether you can demonstrate that your program addresses the
need differently or better than other projects that preceded it. It is often difficult to
describe the need for your project without being critical of the competition. But you must
be careful not to do so. Being critical of other nonprofits will not be well received by the
funder. It may cause the funder to look more carefully at your own project to see why you
felt you had to build your case by demeaning others. The funder may have invested in
these other projects or may begin to consider them, now that you have brought them to
If possible, you should make it clear that you are cognizant of, and on good terms
with, others doing work in your field. Keep in mind that today's funders are very interested
in collaboration. They may even ask why you are not collaborating with those you view as
key competitors. So at the least you need to describe how your work complements, but
does not duplicate, the work of others.
Sixth, avoid circular reasoning. In circular reasoning, you present the absence of
your solution as the actual problem. Then your solution is offered as the way to solve the
problem. For example, the circular reasoning for building a community swimming pool
might go like this: "The problem is that we have no pool in our community. Building a pool
will solve the problem." A more persuasive case would cite what a pool has meant to a
neighboring community, permitting it to offer recreation, exercise, and physical therapy
programs. The statement might refer to a survey that underscores the target audience's
planned usage of the facility and conclude with the connection between the proposed
usage and potential benefits to enhance life in the community.
The statement of need does not have to be long and involved. Short, concise
information captures the reader's attention.
The Project Description
This section of your proposal should have four subsections: objectives,
staffing/administration, and evaluation. Together, objectives and methods dictate staffing
and administrative requirements. They then become the focus of the evaluation to assess
the results of the project. Taken together, the four subsectors present an interlocking
picture of the total project.
Objectives are the measurable outcomes of the program. They define your
methods. Your objectives must be tangible, specific, concrete, measurable,
and achievable in a specified time period. Grantseekers often confuse
objectives with goals, which are conceptual and more abstract. For the
purpose of illustration, here is the goal of a project with a subsidiary objective:
Goal: Our after-school program will help children read better.
Objective: Our after-school remedial education program will assist fifty
improving their reading scores by one grade level as demonstrated on standardized
reading tests administered after participating in the program for six months.
The goal in this case is abstract: improving reading, while the objective
is much more
specific. It is achievable in the short term (six months) and measurable (improving fifty
children's reading scores by one grade level).
With competiton for dollars so great, well-articulated objectives are increasingly
critical to a proposal's success.
Using a different example, there are at least four types of objectives:
1.Behavioral — A human action is anticipated.
Example: Fifty of the seventy children participating will learn to swim.
2.Performance — A specific time frame within which a behavior will occur,
expected proficiency level, is expected.
Example: Fifty of the seventy children will learn to swim within six months
pass a basic swimming proficiency test administered by a Red Cross-certified
3.Process — The manner in which something occurs is an end in itself.
Example: We will document the teaching methods utilized, identifying those
the greatest success.
4.Product — A tangible item results.
Example: A manual will be created to be used in teaching swimming to this
and proficiency group in the future.
In any given proposal, you will find yourself setting forth one or more
of these types of
objectives, depending on the nature of your project. Be certain to present the objectives
very clearly. Make sure that they do not become lost in verbiage and that they stand out
on the page. You might, for example, use numbers, bullets, or indentations to denote the
objectives in the text. Above all, be realistic in setting objectives. Don't promise what you
can't deliver. Remember, the funder will want to be told in the final report that the project
actually accomplished these objectives.
By means of the objectives, you have explained to the funder what will
be achieved by the
project. The methods section describes the specific activities that will take place to
achieve the objectives. It might be helpful to divide our discussion of methods into the
following: how, when, and why.
How: This is the detailed description of what will occur from the time
the project begins
until it is completed. Your methods should match the previously stated objectives.
When: The methods section should present the order and timing for the tasks.
make sense to provide a timetable so that the reader does not have to map out the
sequencing on his own....The timetable tells the reader "when" and provides another
summary of the project that supports the rest of the methods section.
Why: You may need to defend your chosen methods, especially if they are
unorthodox. Why will the planned work lead to the outcomes you anticipate? You can
answer this question in a number of ways, including using expert testimony and
examples of other projects that work.
The methods section enables the reader to visualize the implementation
project. It should convince the reader that your agency knows what it is doing, thereby
establishing its credibility.
In describing the methods, you will have mentioned staffing for the project.
You now need
to devote a few sentences to discussing the number of staff, their qualifications, and
specific assignments. Details about individual staff members involved in the project can
be included either as part of this section or in the appendix, depending on the length and
importance of this information.
"Staffing" may refer to volunteers or to consultants, as well as to paid staff. Most
proposal writers do not develop staffing sections for projects that are primarily volunteer
run. Describing tasks that volunteers will undertake, however, can be most helpful to the
proposal reader. Such information underscores the value added by the volunteers as well
as the cost-effectiveness of the project.
For a project with paid staff, be certain to describe which staff will work full time and
which will work part time on the project. Identify staff already employed by your nonprofit
and those to be recruited specifically for the project. How will you free up the time of an
already fully deployed individual?
Salary and project costs are affected by the qualifications of the staff. Delineate the
practical experience you require for key staff, as well as level of expertise and educational
background. If an individual has already been selected to direct the program, summarize
his or her credentials and include a brief biographical sketch in the appendix. A strong
project director can help influence a grant decision.
Describe for the reader your plans for administering the project. This is especially
important in a large operation, if more than one agency is collaborating on the project, or
if you are using a fiscal agent. It needs to be crystal clear who is responsible for financial
management, project outcomes, and reporting.
An evaluation plan should not be considered only after the project is over;
it should be
built into the project. Including an evaluation plan in your proposal indicates that you take
your objectives seriously and want to know how well you have achieved them. Evaluation
is also a sound management tool. Like strategic planning, it helps a nonprofit refine and
improve its program. An evaluation can often be the best means for others to learn from
your experience in conducting the project.
There are two types of formal evaluation. One measures the product; the other
analyzes the process. Either or both might be appropriate to your project. The approach
you choose will depend on the nature of the project and its objectives. For either type,
you will need to describe the manner in which evaluation information will be collected and
how the data will be analyzed. You should present your plan for how the evaluation and
its results will be reported and the audience to which it will be directed. For example, it
might be used internally or be shared with the funder, or it might deserve a wider
audience. A funder might even have an opinion about the scope of this dissemination.
The budget for your proposal may be as simple as a one-page statement of
expenses. Or your proposal may require a more complex presentation, perhaps including
a page on projected support and revenue and notes explaining various items of expense
or of revenue.
As you prepare to assemble the budget, go back through the proposal narrative and make
a list of all personnel and nonpersonnel items related to the operation of the project. Be
sure that you list not only new costs that will be incurred if the project is funded but also
any ongoing expenses for items that will be allocated to the project. Then get the relevant
costs from the person in your agency who is responsible for keeping the books. You may
need to estimate the proportions of your agency's ongoing expenses that should be
charged to the project and any new costs, such as salaries for project personnel not yet
hired. Put the costs you have identified next to each item on your list.
Your list of budget items and the calculations you have done to arrive at a dollar figure
for each item should be summarized on worksheets. You should keep these to remind
yourself how the numbers were developed. These worksheets can be useful as you
continue to develop the proposal and discuss it with funders; they are also a valuable tool
for monitoring the project once it is under way and for reporting after completion of the
A portion of a worksheet for a year-long project might look like this:
10% of salary = $10,000
25% benefits = $ 2,500
Hired in month one
11 months at $35,000 = $32,083
25% benefits = $ 8,025
12 working 10
hours per week
for three months
12 x 10 x 13 x $ 4.50 = $ 7,020
Requires 25% of
25% x $20,000 = $ 5,000
20% of project
20% x $64,628 = $12,926
With your worksheets in hand, you are ready to prepare the expense budget.
most projects, costs should be grouped into subcategories, selected to reflect the critical
areas of expense. All significant costs should be broken out within the subcategories, but
small ones can be combined on one line. You might divide your expense budget into
personnel and nonpersonnel costs; your personnel subcategories might include salaries,
benefits, and consultants. Subcategories under nonpersonnel costs might include travel,
equipment, and printing, for example, with a dollar figure attached to each line.
A narrative portion of the budget is used to explain any unusual line items
in the budget
and is not always needed. If costs are straightforward and the numbers tell the story
clearly, explanations are redundant.
If you decide a budget narrative is needed, you can structure it in one of two ways.
You can create "Notes to the Budget," with footnote-style numbers on the line items in
the budget keyed to numbered explanations. If an extensive or more general explanation
is required, you can structure the budget narrative as straight text. Remember though, the
basic narrative about the project and your organization belong elsewhere in the proposal,
not in the budget narrative.
Organizational Information and Conclusion
Normally a resume of your nonprofit organization should come at the end
proposal. Your natural inclination may be to put this information up front in the document.
But it is usually better to sell the need for your project and then your agency's ability to
carry it out.
It is not necessary to overwhelm the reader with facts about your organization. This
information can be conveyed easily by attaching a brochure or other prepared statement.
In two pages or less, tell the reader when your nonprofit came into existence; state its
mission, being certain to demonstrate how the subject of the proposal fits within or
extends that mission; and describe the organization's structure, programs, and special
Discuss the size of the board, how board members are recruited, and their level of
participation. Give the reader a feel for the makeup of the board. (You should include the
full board list in an appendix.) If your agency is composed of volunteers or has an active
volunteer group, describe the function that the volunteers fill. Provide details on the staff,
including the numbers of full and part-time staff, and their levels of expertise.
Describe the kinds of activities in which your staff engage. Explain briefly the
assistance you provide. Describe the audience you serve, any special or unusual needs
they face, and why they rely on your agency. Cite the number of people who are reached
through your programs.
Tying all of the information about your nonprofit together, cite your agency's expertise,
especially as it relates to the subject of your proposal.
Every proposal should have a concluding paragraph or two. This is a good
place to call
attention to the future, after the grant is completed. If appropriate, you should outline
some of the follow-up activities that might be undertaken to begin to prepare your funders
for your next request. Alternatively, you should state how the project might carry on
without further grant support.
This section is also the place to make a final appeal for your project. Briefly reiterate
what your nonprofit wants to do and why it is important. Underscore why your agency
needs funding to accomplish it. Don't be afraid at this stage to use a bit of emotion to
solidify your case.
What Happens Next?
Submitting your proposal is nowhere near the end of your involvement in
process. Grant review procedures vary widely, and the decision-making process can take
anywhere from a few weeks to six months. During the review process, the funder may ask
for additional information either directly from you or from outside consultants or
professional references. Invariably, this is a difficult time for the grantseeker. You need to
be patient but persistent. Some grantmakers outline their review procedures in annual
reports or application guidelines. If you are unclear about the process, don't hesitate to
If your hard work results in a grant, take a few moments to acknowledge the funder's
support with a letter of thanks. You also need to find out whether the funder has specific
forms, procedures, and deadlines for reporting the progress of your project. Clarifying your
responsibilities as a grantee at the outset, particularly with respect to financial reporting,
will prevent misunderstandings and more serious problems later.
Nor is rejection necessarily the end of the process. If you're unsure why your proposal
was rejected, ask. Did the funder need additional information? Would they be interested in
considering the proposal at a future date? Now might also be the time to begin cultivation
of a prospective funder. Put them on your mailing list so that they can become further
acquainted with your organization. Remember, there's always next year.
This short course in proposal writing was excerpted from The Foundation
Center's Guide to Proposal Writing, rev.ed. (New York: The Foundation Center, 1997), by
Jane C. Geever and Patricia McNeill, fundraising consultants with extensive experience in
The Foundation Center's Guide to Proposal Writing and other resources on the
subject are available for free use in Foundation Center libraries and Cooperating
Burns, Michael E. Proposal Writer's Guide. New Haven, CT: Development & Technical
Coley, Soraya M., and Cynthia Scheinberg. Proposal Writing. Newburg Park,
Gooch, Judith Mirick. Writing Winning Proposals. Washington, D.C.: Council
Advancement and Support of Education.
Hall, Mary. Getting Funded: A Complete Guide to Proposal Writing. 3rd ed.
Continuing Education Publications.
Kiritz, Norton J. Program Planning and Proposal Writing. Expanded version.
CA: The Grantsmanship Center.
The Foundation Center