National Park ServiceU.S. Department of the Interior
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Preparing a Successful Grant Proposal

Although grants vary in terms of monetary amounts awarded, frequency of distribution, and steps for requesting funding, these are common, basic application process principles. When applying for a grant, the applicant prepares a well-thought out thorough proposal, the components of which are outlined below.

For first time grant writers the complexity of grant guidelines and requirements can be overwhelming. But the most important requirement to writing a successful grant proposal is representing an outstanding cause to fund, a professional organization and conveying your passion for its mission. Clearly convey the benefits of the project/program to be funded. Many grant funding sources prefer to read staff prepared proposals that reflect the thinking and voice of the organization than those prepared by professional grant writers that may be less persuasive.

In order to make your proposal stand out from the 100 or more that a funding source might read, be positive and upbeat, assume the reader is unfamiliar with the subject and your park, follow the guidelines in the grant application and demonstrate that your project can serve as a model from which others can learn.

Your winning proposal will be based on a number of variables, including:

  • the quality and innovative nature of your project,
  • your ability to make a compelling case for funding and help the funder to envision anticipated results,
  • the organizational capacity and credibility of your park and partner
  • a clear and concise proposal, and
  • a strong relationship with funders.

Building Relationships with Grant Funding Sources

Building personal relationships will improve your likelihood of funding success. Building a relationship with grant funding sources begins by researching their mission, funding interests, history, preferred method of initial contact and application process. Develop an understanding of the size of their awards, featured projects or programs, board members and their grant review process. This information is generally obtained through the funding source's websites, annual reports, and grant guidelines.

Establish initial contact with a funding source after checking out their website by calling to request grant guidelines and their annual report. Use the opportunity to introduce yourself and your park, discuss funding priorities and seek their advice about a potential match between the park's goals and those of the funding source. Ask if it would be possible to meet to with them to discuss a potential grant. Involve grant funding sources in events or opportunities that showcase your project and help them understand your park's mission.

Regardless of whether your project receives a grant, your park and partner should continue to support and develop relationships with funders. If your project is funded, be a good steward of your project by sending thank you notes and progress reports within expected timeframes to your funders. Keep them informed with current newspaper clippings or photographs that highlight your project and the results it produces. Always meet deadlines and respond in a timely manner to phone calls, requests for meetings and site visits. By keeping them informed, grant funding sources become stronger advocates for your park. And don't forget to recognize their support internally and externally.

If your proposal isn't accepted, don't take it personally. Contact the funding source to find out why and ask for advice on how to make your proposal more competitive for the next funding round. Take advantage of their expertise to discuss future projects and other sources of funding. Move on and seek other funding options but write them a thank you note and express your appreciation for their time during the review process and your respect for the funder's philanthropic activities. Continue to develop and maintain a relationship with them through brief updates or good news of recent successes that align with the funder's interests. It's a good idea to adopt a team approach. Designate a lead park contact and a back up contact when the lead is not available.

What Grant Funding Sources Look For in a Proposal

Grant funding sources are looking to invest in projects that will produce the greatest return/results for the funders' dollars and evaluate proposals based on your park or partner's ability to demonstrate that there is a need for your project or program. They are interested in the number of people that will be served as a result of the grant and what the impact if your proposal is not funded and the problem is not addressed.

Grant funding sources also assess the quality of your proposed program or project. What are the components in your proposal that ensure a successful project? It's a good idea to cite in your proposal similar projects that have been successful. They are interested in the results you expect and how those results will be measured. In the event something goes awry with your project, do you have a backup plan? What are your benchmarks for success? Of particular importance to grant funding sources is whether your project and the problem being addressed align with the mission and goals of the funding source.

Organizational capacity is another factor grant funding sources consider. Does your project advance the mission of your park and partner organization and relate to your long-term goals? Demonstrate that your staff is adequately trained, sufficient in numbers and has the appropriate experience to carry out the project successfully. Grant funding sources are also interested in how your partner's board has demonstrated their support for the project and how you plan the project's sustainability beyond the grant.

Your park and partner's credibility will play a significant role in your ability to secure a grant. In reviewing your proposal, a funding source must be convinced that your park and partner organization can accomplish the project within a specific timeframe. At a minimum, non-profit organizations applying for grants can demonstrate credibility by having:

  • 501(c)(3) status (If your organization does not have tax exempt status, you should engage one that does)
  • a Board of Directors with organizational, management and programmatic expertise
  • a mission statement that demonstrates that their organization is not chasing the money
  • a track record of establishing or maintaining a particular project or program.

Grant funding sources want to know if your project has community support. Have community members and organizations been involved in the planning of your project and how often does your park and partner meet with other organizations to discuss common concerns? They are also interested in whether your project has the support of other grant funding sources, government agencies, businesses and members from a cross section of the community which can be demonstrated through letters of endorsement to the sponsors.

Types of Proposals

There are three levels of grant proposals. The first type is a letter of inquiry which is an introduction to your project and helps the funding source determine if there is a potential connection and interest in requesting a more in-depth proposal from your park or partner organization. The one- or two-page letter suggests how your project fits the priorities of the funding source, the project need and the method used to address the need.

Some grantseekers confuse the letter of intent with a letter proposal. The three- to four-page letter proposal includes a description of the project plan, information about your park and partner, project objectives, evaluation methods, and unlike a letter of intent, a funding request for a specific amount. Corporations and some foundations that lack sufficient staff and time to review long proposals prefer the brevity and conciseness of the letter proposal.

Foundations and government funders most often request long proposals that are generally seven-to-10 pages and provide more details about the project and its impact on the community than the other two types of proposals. Because some grant funding sources separate the cover letter and attachments from the proposal during the review process, requests for specific funding amounts should be included in the cover letter, the summary and the body of the proposal.

Components of Successful a Long Proposal

  • A one-page cover letter with your park and/or partner organization's contact information accompanies the proposal. The cover letter grabs the reader's attention and provides an opportunity for your park or partner organization to request a follow-up meeting with the grant officer to explain your project in more detail. If a foundation requests a letter proposal then a cover letter isn't necessary.

  • The Summary - The summary clearly identifies the grant applicant, the problem or need being addressed, the project objectives and method for addressing the problem. Project costs, secured funds and the amount being requested are also included. Write the summary after you've laid out other sections of the proposal. Have people that are unfamiliar with the project review the summary to see if they can succinctly explain the problem and how the project will address it.

  • The Introduction - This is the opportunity for your park and partner to demonstrate their credibility and make the case that your project is a good investment for the funding source. Begin by describing the primary purpose and goals of your park and partner and the geographic area or community your park serves. Give a brief history of your park and partner, describing their activities and accomplishments. Demonstrate that your park and partner are qualified in the area of activity in which funds are sought by highlighting staff expertise in the field and if possible, providing an example(s) of how your park dealt with a similar grant.

  • The Needs Statement - The problem or needs statement relates to the purpose and goals of your park and partner organization. The needs statement presents a compelling argument on why your project is necessary and defines the problem your park will address with the requested funds. Express the statement in terms of the visitor population, community's or park resources' needs and problems. Include information about the population(s) that will be impacted and provide supporting facts, statistics, studies and quotes from authorities that help define and prove the need. Provide as much quantifiable and qualitative data as possible to support your case.

    Make the connection between your park and partner's organization's purpose, background, track record and its capability to address the problem. Consider including information on how your park became aware of the problem and what is being done to solve it. But be careful not to make the needs statement so grim that grant funding sources won't fund your project or too optimistic so that you won't be able to realize your objectives.

  • Goals and Objectives - Discuss the project's/program's goals and objectives. Goals are broad statements on what your park and partner organization hope to accomplish whereas objectives are specific, measurable outcomes that can be achieved within a specific period of time.

    Well-defined objectives can represent outcomes or become criteria of success and show the funder the impact their money can have on a problem. An objective, for example, might address who and what will be affected if the project is funded or what amount of change will occur by a certain timeframe.

    The goals and objective section is the most scrutinized by funders. So be sure to include goals and objectives that are reasonable, credible and verifiable. If your proposal is selected, your project's success and effectiveness will be evaluated against your stated objectives.

  • Methods of Accomplishments - Your proposal will need to address the process that will be used to achieve your objectives. This section describes how the project will be implemented and staffed, including details about who will be responsible for each task, the clients served and the timeframe in which each of the project's objectives will be completed. Grant funding sources are looking to see if the scope of work is reasonable for the funded period. If your proposal is for program funding, describe the program's scope of activities and justify why the activities were selected.

  • The Evaluation - This section presents a plan for determining the degree to which objectives are met and methods that are followed over the course of the project. Your park and partner must be willing to have an impartial evaluator assess your project. Assessing the successes and failures will strengthen the project over time. Carefully craft this section to make sure the evaluation is professional and consistent with your measurable objectives.

    Specifically, the evaluation section addresses:
    • who will be conducting the evaluation and how they were chosen,
    • the criteria used to measure success,
    • how data will be gathered, any test instruments or questionnaires to be used,
    • the process of data analysis, and
    • any evaluation reports to be produced.

    Evaluations can focus on outcomes or processes. Outcome evaluations address results or products that can be directly attributed to the project and examine the extent to which the project has satisfied its objectives. Process evaluations address how the project was conducted in terms of consistency with the stated plan of action such as timeline and budget and the effectiveness of the various activities within the plan.

    An internal staff member of a granting agency, an evaluation firm, or both may conduct evaluations of the funded project. Evaluators look at the sustainability of the program. Is the project finite? Or can it become self-sustaining and generate diversified income streams so that the grant is no longer needed?

  • The Budget - The budget explains how the project will be funded, follows the grant guidelines and stays within the grantmaker's funding range. Present the budget for each year, showing how the budget relates to the chronology of planned work. In one or two pages, accurately outline costs and describe how the project will be implemented and managed within a specified timeframe for each component identified in the methods of accomplishment section. Costs should be broken down into those that will be funded through the grant, those that will be paid by other sources, and the project's in-kind match such as volunteer time. The grant source may specify exactly how they want the budget presented.

    The budget should reflect the narrative section of the proposal and should make sense to anyone who reviews it even if they are unfamiliar with your organization or project. A funder should be able to quickly scan your budget and understand it.

    When developing a budget, outline the expenses planned for the term of the proposal and what the funds will buy. Include line items that identify direct and indirect costs such as personnel, consultant fees, environmental review, travel, office space, equipment printing costs and supplies. Also include contributed services, supplies, equipment and materials.

    Your budget should also include an itemized list of anticipated income sources in your budget, such as approved funds, pending requests and any income you expect to receive during the grant period. If you are planning a campaign to raise funds for your project, explain your fundraising plan and the likelihood of success based on past experience.

    Also, include information on how your organization plans to continue the project or program beyond the grant or other resources necessary to implement the project. Present a plan on how future funding will be obtained if the project or program will continue beyond the grant and/or other resources identified in your proposal.

    Ask yourself once you've developed a budget if it is realistic. Can the project be accomplished within the proposed amount and timeframe? Verify that the budget is consistent with the projects proposed activities and that the costs are reasonable. Although your costs are estimates, carefully calculate your figures. Try not to underestimate your expenses, otherwise you might be awarded a grant that is insufficient to fully fund your project. Conversely, don't inflate your budget to where the costs appear extravagant.

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