Grant writing for beginners

Posted by Ed Lasher on 15th Jun 2014

Never applied for a grant before and you're not sure what to do? Hopefully this guide will point you in the right direction.

Before you start ...

Finding grants

Google is your best friend when it comes to finding grants, but since so many of our customers work in law enforcement, fire and EMS, here are some good places to start:

Read the instructions

I will give you guidelines, but this article is in no way intended to be used as a one-size-fits-all formula. When applying for a grant, read the directions carefully and follow them to the letter. If the grantmaker specifies a 3-page limit and you turn in 7 pages, your proposal, no matter how worthy, will be dead on arrival.

How to think about your proposal: actions speak loudest

OK, so you're coming into this with a goal. Ultimately, your goal is to obtain grant money. What do you need the money for? Panasonic Toughbooks? Automatic license plate scanners? GPS bullets? New personnel? Training programs? Something else entirely? While it's true that, in the most direct sense, you need funding for things, that is not how you want to frame your proposal. You are asking for money to fund a project, a course of action (which will necessarily entail paying for those things you need). Verbs are more persuasive than nouns, so emphasize what the funding will allow you to do more so than what it will allow you to buy. The proposal is something you will input with the hope for a certain output -- grant money. Likewise a grantmaker inputs her investment with the expectation of a certain result. Results follow actions, not objects.

How to write your proposal: clarity is king

Although your grant proposal will be framed in terms of what you will accomplish, you still must be unambiguous about the tools required to get there. Grantmakers don't want to throw money at abstract ideas or good intentions -- they want to know that you have a plan. Show that you've done your homework and itemize your specific needs. Specifics should comprise the majority of the space on the page. Don't waste your reader's time by waxing philosophical about your project's potential benefit to society. Simply state your objectives and requirements. Good writing is plain writing.

Anatomy of a grant proposal

There is some flexibility and variation as to how you might structure your proposal, mostly depending on what the application specifies, but here are some pretty standard sections found in most proposals:

  1. Cover letter
  2. Executive summary
  3. Need statement
  4. Goals and objectives
  5. Program design
  6. Budget
  7. Supporting materials

Cover letter

  • The cover letter will be the first thing the reader sees, but you should write it last.
  • Address it to a specific person (know your audience).

It's hard to recover from a bad first impression, so make it good. Although it is not the most substantive part, a hastily written, sloppy cover letter will color how the reader views everything that follows it. In your cover letter you should make a brief statement regarding what your proposal asks for and what your program is about. Touch at the essence of your proposal, but do not get wrapped up explaining it in depth. This is why you should write your cover letter last. It is much easier to encapsulate your message after it has been written down).

Executive summary

A slice of conventional wisdom often attributed to Albert Einstein goes, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." Begin your proposal with a succinct, easily digestible summary. The purpose of the summary is to give the reader an overall sense of what to expect in the pages to follow. It should eloquently explain who you are ("you" being your organization), what you do, what your mission is, and what you are planning to do. Generally, you should assume that the reader of your proposal does not know anything about you, but don't insult them by explaining the obvious (your reader probably knows, for example, that law enforcement officers enforce the law, that fire fighters fight fires, and that EMS responders respond to emergencies).

When drafting your summary, think about the purpose of the grant proposal. Why is your project important? What specific need does your project address? What will it cost, and how much are you asking for? Do your objectives fit within a timeframe? Is this an ongoing project? Your summary should give a complete picture with specific details, but leave the minutiae out for now. If you find yourself going over one page length in your summary, you need to go back and pare it down. If your reader is bored or exhausted by the time they're finished the summary, you are at a disadvantage.

For you as a writer, the summary may be one of the proposal's more challenging components to navigate, as it must be both complete and brief. Here are some tips:

  • Include only the key points (but include all the key points)
  • Emphasize the points that will be most salient to the grantmaker (know your audience)
  • Include only information that is clearly presented in the body of your proposal (this is not the time to spitball new ideas)

Goals and objectives

Explain what you aim to accomplish. Enumerate the expected outcomes of your efforts. Outline your broad goals and the individual steps you will take in order to get there. Be specific.

Program design

This is your game plan. If you wish, you can merge this section with your section on goals and objectives, as they are related. Explain the mechanics of how your project will function. In presenting your program design, you should be detailed and practical, almost scientific in your approach. Show the component parts, methods, and tasks of you project laid out on a timeline.

A well-organized program design may lack the overt rhetorical strategy found in previous sections, but it will build confidence with the prospective grantmaker by showing that a responsible adult is behind the wheel.


Present a short budget that shows how much your project will cost, including any direct or indirect expenses you expect to arise, such as administrative costs, incidentals, equipment costs, system repairs and maintenance, etc. Also be sure to factor in any additional sources of funding you might have, like additional grants or a revenue stream. Your project will be much more attractive to the grantmaker if you can show that they would not be the sole source of funding.

Supporting materials

The last section of your grant proposal will consist of any necessary supporting materials. This could include research data, tax information, organization contacts, financial statements, old budgets, or any number of documents. Remember to carefully read the application instructions so you'll know what items are required.

After you've finished writing ...

Before you submit your grant proposal, have someone else look it over, preferably someone of higher rank or someone with grant writing experience. no matter how careful you are, you're bound to make a few ttypos.

Good luck!

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