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Writing Your First Grant Proposal

The Post-Manilla-Envelope World

Applications & Grant Portals

For years, grant applications were primarily mail-in. The grant writer would compile the narrative, answers to application questions, and all required attachments and mail everything to a potential funder in the hopes of receiving an award letter 4-6 months later, sometimes longer. Although some foundations still require snail mail applications, many organizations and funders have opted into online grant portals. This process includes private and public foundations and corporate and government grant opportunities. If you come across a grant opportunity that does not have an online grant application or a mail-in option, smaller foundations will opt for submitting applications via email, which gives nonprofits direct access to the funder and the opportunity to build rapport.

When writing your first grant proposal, it is helpful to understand the diversity of the types of applications you will encounter. Although most grant applications are similar, some stand out from the rest. However, most will still require the same information to get your first grant in your pipeline out the door.

Financials & Required Attachments

Financial information, especially for new organizations, can be tricky. As you prepare your first application, consider the potential funder and their specific funding requirements. Some grantmakers require an organization to be an active 501c3 for at least one to three years before applying. However, don’t let this stop you from finding the right funder who will be receptive to your organization’s capacity for growth.

What most grantmakers seek when it comes to financials are the following items:

  • 990: the tax form the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) requires all 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable and nonprofit organizations to submit annually
  • Audited Financial Documents: financial statements that have been reviewed and verified by a registered certified public accountant (CPA) to ensure they are error-free. The CPA also ensures that the statements adhere to general accounting principles and auditing standards.
  • Current and Prior Year’s Budgets
  • Balance Sheets (Profit & Loss): can be found in 990 or audited financials.

Additionally, financial documents like 990s are not only important to the work you do but also insightful documents that help you learn more about potential funders, their giving history, and whether an organization like yours fits their funding priorities. At the end of this lesson, check out the resource on how to read 990s to help you find the best funders for your grant writing goals.

Funding Goals

Setting measurable goals at the beginning of developing your grant calendar will help you set realistic expectations around the number of grants you want to submit for the year. If you want to submit 20 grants for an amount between $10,000 and $50,000, having an idea of where you want to start will make it easier to find the best grants for your organization.

Budget Templates

Budgets are a pivotal part of grant writing. Whether you are writing a grant for general operating support or project support, you must provide a budget to show that your nonprofit is in good financial standing.

The basics of a budget will include a budget narrative, annual operating budget, and the project budget.

  • Budget Narrative: A budget narrative is an accompanying explanation that justifies the costs attributed to each line item or category within your proposed budget. This explanation is usually in paragraph format and isn’t too extensive, but it clarifies the numbers provided in the budget to the funder. This is a great space to reel in storytelling, humanize your organization’s numbers and statistics, and focus on the reality of the beautiful and complex people you have the opportunity to serve.
  • Annual Operating Budget: This budget showcases your expenses and revenue for the current fiscal year.
  • Project Budget: The budget details the program or project’s expenses, costs, and revenue (if any).

As mentioned before, all grant applications are created differently and require the same or similar information to varying degrees. One organization may ask for a budget narrative; one application will simply ask to upload your annual operating/project budget and audited financials. Crafting budgets may not be your forte as a grant writer, but it will strengthen your application, assuring the grantmaker that your budget is related to the success of your proposed project or program.


The point of grant writing is to get funding for your organization and build amazing relationships along the way. If you are on the other end of an awarded grant, you will eventually progress to the reporting stage. At this point, you will be asked by the funder to provide updates and data on how the grant funding was utilized throughout the grant term. This term could be between 6 months after funding or 12 months, depending on the amount received. A six-month report is typically defined as a mid-year report. Anything after that will be a simple one-year report.

Some funders are particular about this section, as others will happily take a one to two-page summary of the programming completed in the last year. Here are a few ways you may be asked to submit a report:

  • If your application was submitted via an online portal, many grantmakers have adapted to online reporting portals. You will be asked who was served, how many, and if all funds were expended as outlined in your grant application budget.
  • Other methods include emailing an update and inquiring about how the funding was used and if all the outcomes and goals listed were met.

Although reporting is essential to finalizing a grant post-award, it is only sometimes requested by the funder. If you’ve been awarded a grant and a funder does not have a formal follow-up process, it is an unspoken rule to follow up one year after funding has been expended to offer an update on how the funder’s fiscal gift was used. This is where you, as an organization, can get proactive and creative.

Creative ways to do this include:

  • Sending letters via snail mail
  • Sending updates during important holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas and even seasonal appeals thanking them for their generosity
  • If your organization is youth or family-focused, sending handwritten cards/drawings from students is always appreciated.
  • Additionally, sending videos of those served saying “thank you” via email and newsletters is also an excellent and creative touch.

Additionally, reporting aids in managing fund updates when auditing season rolls around. Keeping those award letters and follow-up reports will be helpful when your Executive Director or Chief Financial Officer wants to know why XYZ organization is listed in the system as sending $30,000 without details in the database.

In the realm of grant writing, completing a grant from beginning to end can be a year-long process with differing variables surrounding updates and reports. Funders will look on prompt responses to these reports favorably, and will be considered in the next round of funding when grant seasons circle back around.

Helpful Tip: Including reporting dates in your grant calendar will help you stay on top of deadlines.

Rinse, Recycle, and Repeat Proposals

Grant writing is a cyclical process. When it comes to efficiently getting well-written grants out the door, recycling content is the way to go. Returning to Lesson 2, Case Statements and Statements of Needs will save the day on multiple occasions. Having verbiage and compelling stories on reserve will make writing more manageable and help you quickly meet your funding goals.

In the process of recycling content, always be sure to tailor your answers appropriately to each grant application. Although some application questions seem similar, be diligent in ensuring all questions are being answered as clearly as possible.