How to Write a Federal Grant Proposal

A step-by-step guide on the fundamental components required to write an effective Federal Grant Proposal


Taking the First Steps Towards Developing a Grant Proposal

When it comes to actually constructing a grant proposal, applicants will find that a bit of research and work is required well before they start typing. The first step is to thoroughly review the individual catalog program, or federal grant, that a prospective recipient is applying for to ensure a firm grasp on all specific criteria required. Programs generally have a contact person listed within the description and application, and a phone call or email to said person comes in handy to confirm the funding available, deadlines, how to submit the application / grant proposal (i.e., online or mailed in), and any other specifics that will lay down the foundation to developing the proposal itself.

Bear in mind that the application process is unique for every grant, including varying application forms and pre-requisite requirements, so be sure and do your research on your specific grant of choice, and not the overall federal grant application process.

Once the deadlines, application format, and the criteria of the grant are mastered, it's time to start ensuring that your proposal is solid, and does not run into unintended competition. Before developing a proposal, it's essential to review similar programs or projects that may already be in the works on a state or local level. Essentially, state or local government agencies could already be beneficiaries of a federally funded grant to do similar work, and if such a program already exists, the original concept may need to be altered to cater to or address a new niche. Contacting your state legislators or specialized branch of government that would work in your area of interest will be instrumental in confirming that your proposal isn't already addressed and funded.

Generating Support for your Grant Proposal

Perhaps the most important aspect of ensuring that your grant proposal is heard is to make sure you're not the only voice of support. A network of community backing and promotion can go a long way when it comes to encouraging grantors to fund your specific proposal. A good first step for new applicants is local individual professionals and organizations which have a solid background in the applicant's field of interest, and who can commit, in writing, the benefits of such a proposal. Look for recommendations and supporters with solid backgrounds, including individuals which represent political, academic, and professional positions in your field, as well as non-profit or lay organizations which would have an interest in your proposal.

In addition, for grants that can potentially benefit an entire community, applicants should turn to their local politicians and community leaders for additional support, either through individual meetings, or a local forum to discuss the merits of the proposal, as well as how essential endorsements, (such as buildings, staff or services), would factor in. Often, a grant award will also require affiliation agreements, (a mutual agreement to share services between agencies), and building space commitments before a grant is approved, so working with the community leaders and garnering their support as well as their commitment, in writing, can be instrumental to secure funding in the end. Applicants should allow themselves several months to both hammer down the details of how their project will function once receiving a federal grant, as well as garner multiple letters and statements of support from noteworthy, and altogether persuasive individuals.

When developing a grant proposal, be sure that your interests, intentions and needs are in line with the grantor agency. An overview of the Objectives and Uses and Use Restrictions sections of the Catalog program will give applicants a clear idea of whether their idea can be considered for funding, and applicants can also examine related departments or areas for additional grants that may be an even better fit.

Working with the Federal Grant Agency

Once the grant has been identified, applicants may need to call the agency distributing the grant to request an application kit. While this first step is obviously required to start the process, generally, it should by no means be the only contact an applicant has with the agency.

It's helpful to have contact with the agency representatives and staff that help determine which grants are accepted, and getting to know some of the grantor agency personnel can ensure that the grant proposal is what said agency is looking for. Stop by in person at your regional agency office for a face-to-face introduction to leave an impression, or ask personnel and staff within the agency to review your concept ahead of time. This can even be achieved by sending a short 1-2 page summary of the proposal, complete with a cover letter and a request for any feedback and comments, (although it's smart to check beforehand and ensure that this approach is acceptable.) If an applicant finds along the way that the grantor agency and the individual grant proposal don't mesh, the agency can also recommend other branches and agencies that might be interested.

It can also be helpful to do a brief review of the federal budget beforehand. Federal agencies are required to report funding information as funds are approved, increased, or decreased, and a review of the budget can determine what amount of funds have been allocated, (and distributed), for a certain agency, area, or field of study.

Applicants should also note that in addition to their outlined proposal, they may be required to perform other services or commitments, such as future involvement in specific institutions or client groups. This may necessitate the modification of the original concept in order for the project to be eligible for funding, or may require the applicant to make commitments they are not prepared for. Questions about eligibility or other required commitments can be addressed with the specific program officer.

Above all else, remember the deadlines. Often, deadlines are set in stone, (with the exception of unforeseen events such as the October 2013 National Government Shutdown), although some programs do have more than one application deadline within a fiscal year.

Organizing your Ideas

Before beginning, start gathering all the documents and paperwork required to accompany a proposal. Documents such as articles of incorporation, tax exemption certificates, and bylaws should all be on hand before the writing process.

Many grant writers also find it's helpful to keep an informal notebook or list of ideas that pop up throughout the writing process. Keep all of this information in writing, and in a handy locale, so that it can be referenced with ease as the proposal develops.

Writing the Grant Proposal
Grant Proposal Overview

A solid grant proposal package is comprised of eight distinct components: (1) the proposal summary, (2) introduction of organization, (3) the problem statement (or needs assessment), (4) project objectives; (5) project methods or design, (6) project evaluation, (7) future funding, and (8) the project budget. Each of these sections must be covered in detail, and should comprise its own separate section of the proposal for easy review and reference by the grantor agency.

The Grant Proposal Summary: Capturing Your Audience

The Grant Proposal is the first aspect of your hard work that the agency officials will see, and if not drafted carefully, may also be the last. The summary should only be 2-3 paragraphs at the most, and be comprised within a cover letter or a single page, but should be a cohesive overview of the fundamentals of your proposal.

The summary is the first opportunity to outline your project, certainly, but also impress the importance of your proposal to your community or field of study. Be sure and indicate the local need for said project, alternatives in the absence of federal support, as well as the influence of the project both before and after its implementation. The consequences of the proposal after funds are allocated should certainly be highlighted, essentially ensuring that the agency officials reviewing the proposal will see clearly, from the first page, the benefits of allocating funds.

Most grant writers find that the summary is easiest to compose at the end of the writing process, after all their data has been put into a cohesive proposal, and they can straightforwardly draw out the highlights. Though just a few paragraphs at most, the summary should certainly elicit a lot of forethought and attention to ensure it grabs, and more importantly, maintains the reviewer's attention.

The Grant Proposal Introduction: Establishing Credibility

If applying as an organization, the introduction is where an applicant establishes their credibility and introduces their past and present operations. Applying organizations will want to make sure they include a condensed biography of board members and key staff members, (especially those involved with the proposed project), as well as the organization's goals, philosophy, track record with other grantors if applicable, and any success stories relevant to the desired federal grant.

Individual applicants will want to include their own background as relevant to the federal grant they are applying for, as well as information regarding any supporters, community organizations, and other parties who may be involved with and / or may benefit from the receipt of funds.

The Problem Statement or Needs Statement: Identifying the Issue

The third component of a well-written federal grant proposal should be a clear and concise account of the problems or issues that need to be addressed, and which were the foundation for applying for a specific grant in the first place. Applicants will find it helpful to conduct both formal and informal needs assessments for a program in the target area beforehand, and ensure that the ensuing data is completely factual, but also makes it obvious, at a glance, why funds relating directly to the grant are required.

This assessment may seem initially intimidating, but there are plenty of resources available to applicants. Local, regional, and state government planning offices, as well as local universities who are engaged in current studies, can all be instrumental, (and well-qualified), resources for collecting and presenting this data. Colleges and universities with an interest in the subject / area of study may prove to be exceptionally helpful when it comes to gathering or sharing data that applies to presenting the issue at hand.

The type of data collected and presented can vary widely as well, including historical, geographic, quantitative, factual, statistical, and philosophical information, as well as studies completed by colleges, or even literature searches from public or university libraries.

The important aspect is to present this data in relation to your proposal to clarify a need that only grant funding can relieve. Applicants will want to note how the organization or individual came to notice the problem or issue, the nature of the problem, what is currently being done, and the purpose for developing the proposal. Also include the remaining, (if limited), alternatives if funds are not allocated, and what will happen if the project or problem is not addressed.

Above all else, this is the time to outline the specific manner through which the problem or issue will be solved, including a review of the resources or funds needed, and how they will be effectively used.

By a detailed chronicle of the problem or need, the facts, the solution, and the unappealing alternatives, the Problem Statement can affectively make the case for why the proposed grant funds are a necessity.

Project Objectives: The Goals and Benefits

The Project Objectives portion of your grant proposal identifies all objectives related to the desired outcome of your proposal, as well as the methods that will be used to ensure these goals are met.

The best way to address this is with quantitative and measurable aspects, coupled with a problem statement and a well-stated and detailed objective. The figures used should be able to be referenced later, as often these stated objectives will be utilized in the future to determine and assess program progress, so don't embellish the numbers. Be realistic, and make sure your objectives can be measured, as well as obtained.

The Program Methods and Program Design: A Detailed Solution

The program methods or design section will outline, in great detail, how the project will function in order to address the issue in the Problem Statement. Clearly, this will be one of the most intricate portions of your presentation, and the more details provided, the better. Applicants will want to include the following in this section of the proposal when applicable, as clearly and concisely as possible:

  • The activities of the project as well as the staff or resources required for the process.
  • An in-depth flow chart of the organizational aspects of the project, which indicates what parts interrelate, where staff is needed and in what capacity, and any other resources, such as facilities, transportation, and support services, which will be required during the duration of the project required (also known as throughputs).
  • An explanation of what will be achieved through implementing the project, which should include measurable results. Keep in mind that the personnel recruited to work on the project may be required to produce evidence of program performance during a site visit by the Federal grantor agency and / or periodic grant reviews which may involve peer reviewing committees.
  • Graphs and diagrams which pull all the factors of a grant proposal together into a cohesive project. For example, draw a three column block, with each column identified as one of the integral parts of the overall project (or inputs, throughputs and outputs.) On the left of the diagram, identify specific program features (i.e., implementation, staffing, procurement, and systems development). In the grid, specify something specific about the program design. As an example, if the first column is labeled inputs and the first row is labeled staff, the grid might specify under "inputs" five nurses to operate a child care unit, the throughput might indicate the processes of maintaining charts and counseling children, and the outputs might be the goal to discharge 25 healthy children per week. This type of presentation is time consuming, but for grants that require numerous parts to work together to achieve a goal, will help to conceptualize both the scope and detail of the overall project.
  • Applicants will want to be sure to justify their methods and costs throughout their proposed course of action, calling to attention that the most economical method is being used to produce the best possible outcome without sacrificing quality. Often, federal program staff will take a hard look at the financial aspects of the project, and use these points for negotiation, essentially changing the grant proposal from what the applicant originally intended. By stating, emphatically, that each component of the proposed route is the best way to accomplish these goals, the applicant leaves little wiggle room when it comes to future funding negotiations. A Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) chart could be useful in justifying certain proposals which may later be up for financial debate.
  • Separate your proposal from other grant applicants by highlighting any portions which could be considered distinct and innovative.
  • Instead of compiling all detailed data and sources into your document, use appendices to guide reviewers to detailed statements, supplementary data, references, and any information requiring in-depth analysis. Though instrumental to the support your project, these types of data can easily detract from a grant proposal's readability if placed, verbatim, within the body of the proposal itself. By adding an appendice, a grant proposal reader will have easy access to the details if clarification or back-up information is required, but can still skim through and understand the important aspects of the overall project. (Depending on the project, time tables, work plans, schedules, activities, methodologies, legal papers, personal vitae, letters of support, and endorsements are examples of appendices.)

Remember that the Program Methods and Program Design aspect of your grant proposal is the "meat and potatoes" of your project, so it's essential to be detailed yet concise, and prove that every aspect of your proposed project is both covered and financially necessary to proceed.

The Evaluation: Product and Process Analysis

Most federal agencies that distribute grants require some sort of project or process evaluation among the grantees to ensure the funds allocated have been put to good use. As such, it is incredibly helpful to both the reviewers and the applicants to include a proposed evaluation process to showcase how the project will be reviewed during and after its completion.

While not many grants utilize an evaluation process from the get-go, including a detailed evaluation plan can be instrumental in the initial grant proposal process as it both employs the collection of quantitative data and measurements obtained before the project begins, and also dissuades any reviewers from second guessing the proposal based on a lack of evaluating future performances.

This portion of the grant application should indicate the start date of an evaluation, the amount of time needed to evaluate, how the feedback will be distributed among any staff involved with the project, and a schedule for review and comment.

The original evaluation design may be altered as the project progresses, but having a solid background of how an evaluation will take place, specifically, will make any changes to the process much smoother as the project progresses.

Remember that the issue itself has to be well defined, with easily identifiable cause-and-effect relationships to garner a successful evaluation design, and the federal grantor's objectives and interests should always be at the forefront of determining any success. (For proposals without a clear and measurable cause-and-effect outline, a pilot program or study may be helpful to determine the results of unprecedented projects or programs.)

Some federal agencies may require specific evaluation techniques such as designated data formats. (an existing information collection system). and the applicant should ask about these points specifically, and include them as needed. The "Criteria For Selecting Proposals" section of the Catalog program description can also be an excellent resource to determine the exact evaluation methods, if applicable, for the program if funded.

Future Funding: Continuing your Goals

Once federal funding has been exhausted, applicants should outline how the project will continue, including the availability of other resources. If the project is construction related, applicants will want to review maintenance, equipment purchases, and other program funding considerations.

The Proposal Budget: Putting Funds to Good Use

Applicants should note that funding levels in federal assistance programs are analyzed and adjusted every year, and a review of the past years' appropriations can help project future funding for agencies and projects.

That said, preparing and sticking to a project budget is nothing short of a tightrope-walk, as applicants will have to adjust their figures for unforeseeable factors such as inflations or project issues, while not inflating the numbers to the point of causing scrutiny in the original proposal.

The most vulnerable and easily-skewed areas of budget are utilities, rental of buildings and equipment, salary increases, food, telephones, insurance, and transportation, and while additional funding and budget adjustments are occasionally awarded after a grant is approved, it can be a lengthy and arduous process. Be sure beforehand that implementation, continuation and phase-down costs can be met, and all ensure that long-term financial costs are accounted for, such as leases, evaluation systems, hard/soft match requirements, audits, development, and maintenance, information and / or accounting systems.

With all these factors in mind, applicants are advised to be modest but realistic in their estimates, while justifying all expenses and details outlined in their grant proposal. Applicants should especially consider the following to ensure consistency down the road, and to not raise red flags with the grantor reviewers:

  • Salaries in the proposal should be comparable to those of the applicant organization.
  • If new personnel are being hired, additional space and equipment should be accounted for, if applicable.
  • Equipment purchases in the budget should be the type allowed by the agency.
  • Additional spaces required for rent should also include and support any increase in insurance.
  • If an indirect cost rate applies to the proposal, the division between direct and indirect costs should not be in conflict, and the aggregate budget totals should refer directly to the approved formula.
  • If matching costs are required, the contributions to the matching funds should be taken out of the budget unless otherwise specified in the application instructions.

Applicants will want to become very familiar with Government-wide circular requirements, which are identified for a specific grant in the program description. The catalog identifies the particular circulars applicable to a Federal program, and summarizes coordination of Executive Order 12372, "Intergovernmental Review of Programs" requirements in Appendix I. The appropriate circulars should therefore be thoroughly reviewed since they are essential in determining aspects such as cost principles, and conforming with Government guidelines for Federal domestic assistance.

The budget can be the most daunting aspect of the grant proposal, but with a lot of forethought, an attention to detail, and a little research into current and future budget and inflation trends, a grant writer should be able to assimilate their information into a well written, cohesive budget that covers all the bases.

Reviewing and Submitting a Federal grant

Once your grant proposal is completed, there are a few final steps to take to ensure everything is in order and ready for review.

A critic can come in handy when it comes to written proposals, especially when it comes to grammar, spelling and overall readability. Enlist a neutral third party to review your work for errors, and ask for constructive criticism regarding narrative, clarity and reasoning. If possible, seek out members of the field that the grant pertains to who also have a background in writing and editing.

Your completed grant should be typed and organized from cover to cover. Biding may be necessary, via clamps or hard covers, and it may prove beneficial to call the awarding agency to ask for their preferences before submitting. Ensure your headers, sub headers and content text and sizes are uniform, so that your finished product is easy to read and review, and presents a good first impression on the grantor agency committee.

Most proposals are made to institutions rather than individuals, and as such, signatures of chief administrative officials are required. Be sure and check to make sure they are included in the proposal if applicable.

When ready to mail, be sure and include a brief cover letter detailing the contents, and allow plenty of time to reach the agency before the deadline. Occasionally, special arrangements, (like dropping off a proposal), can be made, but applicants are advised to call the grant office beforehand to make these provisions.

Most important, be prepared for a wait. It can take a reviewing committee several weeks if not months to examine each proposal with the consideration it deserves so be patient while awaiting the good news that your proposal has been approved.

Need Help Writing a Federal Grant? Hire a Professional

The legwork required to sort through stacks of information and condense it into a well-written grant proposal that garners attention can be challenging for the best of writers. However, there is help available for individuals and organizations which need a little assistance transforming their ideas into a clear and sellable proposal.

Many independent grant writers are available to help clients form grant proposals that are eye-catching and clear, and are consistent with the caliber of proposals that grantors are accustomed to receiving. For new applicants, or any individual or organization that could use a little guidance, an experienced grant writer can provide the bridge between a great idea and a fully-funded project.

Review the following list below for a selection of experienced grant writers that can assist you with your upcoming grant proposal.

Clearly, constructing a well-written grant proposal can be an undertaking, but extensive research, background information, and some well-rounded support can certainly go a long way. Don't be afraid to ask for help, in the form of information, studies, support and even writing assistance, and while deadlines should always be noted, take the time necessary to develop a concise, clear and readable grant proposal. With hard work and dedication, the resulting product will be eye-catching, persuasive, and lead to the ultimate goal of securing funding for a well thought-out and beneficial project.

Federal Grants Resources