Last Updated:

August 9, 2023

How To Write A Winning Grant For Your Nonprofit: Step-by-Step Guide


Instrumentl team



October 30, 2021

The past year has been a chaotic one, to say the least. Despite the various political, economic, environmental, and health crises affecting all aspects of our lives, charitable giving continues to occur.

In this article, we will discuss one of the most common ways through which these funds are distributed - grants! We will go over where to find grants, how to write grants for nonprofits, grant proposal samples, and tips for new grant writers!

Grant Proposal Template for Nonprofits (+5 Tips Included)

What are Grants? The Basics

Grant writing for nonprofits involves the strategic process of seeking financial support from sources like foundations, corporations, government entities, and community organizations.

There are many different types of grants, such as unrestricted grants that the nonprofit can spend however they please, pass-through grants which the nonprofit uses to fund other nonprofits, and many more.

Successful grant writing requires research, clearly written applications and a clear alignment between your nonprofit's mission and the grantor's objectives. By mastering the art of grant writing, nonprofits can secure vital resources to drive their initiatives and make a lasting impact within their communities.

Grants are generally directed to specific organizations to address specific issues, impact particular populations, and/or reach specific goals. For example, you might find a grant for nonprofits providing free childcare in the state of Ohio to build a new facility. Or an opportunity for organizations serving youth in New York City to expand their after-school programs.

The stringency of the grant guidelines, application process, and use of funds will often vary largely between the different kinds of opportunities that are available. This information is usually communicated through requests for proposals (RFPs), funding opportunity announcements (FOAs), or notices of funding availability (NOFAs).

In the next section, we will further delve into grant writing for nonprofits, including what is a grant proposal and when you should write one.

What is a Grant Proposal and When Should You Write One?

Before we get to how to write grants, it’s important to know what you're getting yourself into. A grant proposal is a formal request for financial investment in a nonprofit organization or one of its projects. It is similar to a contract.

Below are the key components of most grant proposals:

  1. Cover letter
  2. Program Title
  3. Executive Summary
  4. Description and Background of the Organization
  5. Problem Statement (A.k.a Needs Statement) for the program or project
  6. Program Description
  7. Implementation plan (activities, timeline, & staff)
  8. Evaluation Plan
  9. Budget for grant spending or budget narrative

Note: See a more detailed breakdown of each of the grant proposal components to help guide you through this process.

Remember, the average proposal has a 10-20% chance of being awarded, so the decision to enter this ultra-competitive environment should be well thought out and deliberate to save your organization valuable resources and increase your chances of being awarded. Each grant shouldn't be composed in haste, but have a clear grant narrative that clearly aligns your nonprofit's mission with the funder's.

Take careful stock of internal and external factors that can seriously impact your organization’s capacity to successfully research, apply, win, and manage grant applications. 

Internal Temperature Check: Is your nonprofit grant ready?

You never want to apply for a grant when you are unprepared, especially when your time and resources are already limited. It takes a lot of effort to shape a grant proposal into something that not only represents your organization but also meets the proposal requirements. It’s important to get your nonprofit grant ready before you even start, so let’s take a quick look at how you can assess your grant readiness and what you can do to better prepare.

Does your organization have all of the necessary paperwork to qualify and be eligible for grant funds?

  • Nonprofits looking to receive grant funds must be incorporated with Articles of Incorporation and have received a tax-exempt 501(c)3 letter.
  • Almost all grants will also ask for a recent tax return (990 Form) and EIN (Employer Identification Number).
  • Be aware of additional requirements in the RFP. Federal grants, for example, require that you register at and to receive a DUNS number (Data Universal Numbering System) before submitting your grant application. This process can take up to thirty days.

Does your nonprofit have the capacity to support and sustain expansion?

  • Staff should be able to sufficiently and successfully run existing programs, feel adequately supported, and be dedicated to the organization's overall mission.
  • If you are looking for funds to develop a new program, there should be an agreement among your organization's staff, leadership, and grant writers on the program's goals, objectives, milestones, and evaluative measures, as well as on all of the key staff and resources required to implement the program successfully.

Are your organization’s finances in order?

  • To be sustainable, your organization should have a diverse fundraising strategy that includes earned income, donations, and fundraising campaigns along with regular grant seeking.  
  • In addition to annual operational budgets and individual program budget(s), funders may also ask for details about your financial tracking methods to measure your organization's reliability in managing awarded dollars.

If you're looking to start building your own nonprofit budget and nonprofit donation receipt, get started quickly by using our Nonprofit Budget Template and Nonprofit Donation Receipt Template. The template is made in Canva, an easy-to-use creative design tool. You can jump right in, change colors, add your logo, and adjust the copy so it fits your brand. Why start from scratch when you can use one of our templates?

External Temperature Check: Do you have a good match?

You should also assess how your organization aligns with a potential funder before you spend time writing your grant proposal. Funders want to award grants to organizations that share a common goal or mission, so finding that perfect match will increase your odds of winning one. Here are some questions to ask yourself. 

Does the grant connect with and support your mission and vision?

  • Beyond the application guidelines and eligibility requirements, the funder’s priorities and giving history will also impact your chances of securing a grant.
  • Funders will be much more likely to award your organization among others if they clearly understand and empathize with your cause and the program’s impact.

Does the grant match the financial needs of your organization?

  • Be clear on the financial costs of your program and the giving capacity of the funder before asking for an inappropriate amount of funds. Will you need to find multiple grants to fund a program, or will one award be sufficient for meeting your current needs?
  • If a funding range is given in the grant details, your request should fall within that range. If a range isn't provided, you should do your homework to find their past giving trends and average grant amounts to ensure your request is appropriate. Access our Donation Request Form Template.

Is the timing appropriate?

  • Be aware of your organization's internal rhythm and its evolving priorities to measure if the timing of a grant opportunity fits your organization's capacity and needs.
  • If your nonprofit is an after-school program that is typically busiest around fall when school starts, anticipate that staff will have low capacity for development efforts at that time. Maybe you work for a nonprofit that actively responds to natural disasters such as fires, flooding, or pandemics, and as such, you need funding that will be promptly available.

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How Do You Find Grants?

Finding grants can be overwhelming. The trick is that you need to know where to look to find them.

We’ve listed four common ways that organizations find grants below, and we’ll explain them in more detail in the following section.

  • Contacting Elected Officials
  • Reaching out to Foundations
  • Scouring the Internet
  • Using Instrumentl

Because there are a lot of grants available, you have to be strategic and have a clear idea of what your proposal will be about. When you’re looking for grants, make sure to pick ones that align with your organization’s mission and core values. For example, if you are an animal rights organization, you may not want to reach out to an elected official whose favorite hobby is hunting. 

Focusing on finding the right funding opportunities will not only increase your odds of landing a grant but will also help you foster relationships for long-term success.

How To Start Finding Grants for Your Nonprofit

Give yourself ample time and be strategic when grant-seeking. It’s important to get your hands on grant opportunities as early as possible to give you the time needed to develop a great proposal

Here are some steps you can take to help you find grants for your nonprofit. 

Contacting Elected Officials

If you are pursuing government grants, you should take the time to visit elected officials to share information about your organization, programs, and funding needs. This may involve reaching out to your city council members or the local offices of your senators or congressional representatives.

In addition to having access to the grant information, government staff are often happy to add you to a mailing list for prompt updates. Whether through a call or email, it is good practice to keep this conversation friendly and respectful as you may find yourself asking for their support when applying for the grant.

Reaching Out to Foundations

You can also reach out directly to foundation staff to get information about their grantmaking. Before making the call, you should check their website for whatever information is publicly available. 

Regardless of whether they have very detailed grant information or their site or no information, it is always helpful to reach out to introduce yourself and your organization.

Be prepared with a basic understanding of their organization, their priorities, and, if available, the grant details to not waste their staff’s time. If you want more insight into building meaningful relationships with funders, check out our post on how to approach and build grant funder relationships.

Scouring the Internet

When all else fails, take to the Internet! Start to look around for potential funders or organizations you would want to partner with. There are a lot of options out there - all you have to do is find them.

However, this can be both a blessing and a curse. Searching the internet is free, but it’s often also very ineffective. You can spend a lot of time researching opportunities that don’t end up aligning with your nonprofit’s objectives. 

Using a Grant Management Tool

Even the most experienced grant writers can become overwhelmed with the task of finding new funding opportunities. 

That’s where grant databases and grant management software come in. They are designed to help streamline the search process, making it easy to locate your next opportunity. Instrumentl is the most comprehensive, easy-to-use grant database and management tool for nonprofits and grant writers. 

Instrumentl is the most comprehensive database to track grants
Instrumentl is the most comprehensive database to track grants

Through a personalized process, grant seekers can discover, research, and track their grants all in one place. You can filter searches, get Smart Matches based on your projects, and so much more. 

With its extensive grant directory, you can look up available grants specific to your state and focus area. You can even use Instrumentl’s, free 990 Finder and search “community foundation” to narrow your search and increase your chances of finding a funder to invest in your organization.

Grant databases can be an investment, but they pay for themselves quickly when you consider all the wasted time and resources spent on finding grants and writing proposals for opportunities that weren’t a fit. 

Ready to get started? You can sign up for a free 14-day trial of Instrumentl here

The following sections will help you understand what the different types of grants are and how to write effective proposals. 

What are the Different Types of Grants and How Do You Find Them?

There are a few major players in the grantmaking field every grant writer should be aware of. When thinking of grants funding, people often look to private foundations or corporations. And this makes sense given that in 2020, these two groups gave a total of $105.4 billion ($88.6 billion and $16.88 billion respectively).

In 2019, the federal government allotted roughly $721 billion of the United States budget for grants and at the time of writing this article, there are over 900 federal grants available for organizations with 501c3 status.

This section will go over the different types of grants available for nonprofits and how you can go about securing grant funds for your organization.

Foundation Grants

If you’re wondering what a foundation even is, you’re not alone. Although foundations are typically nonprofit organizations or charitable trusts that release grant funding, ‘foundation’ is not a legal term, so there are no actual requirements for their creation or any of their activities.

Instrumentl’s free 990 Finder provides data on 113,742 private foundations actively giving to nonprofits. These foundations range vastly, and understanding their differences will help save you time and energy when writing grant proposals.

Independent Private Foundations

The largest foundations are independent private foundations often established by individual donors or donor families. One of the most well-known examples of this type of foundation is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Private foundations are often bound to the morals, values, and vision of their donor or original endowment. That being said, these foundations often have specific giving priorities, award grants to a narrow pool of eligible applicants, and sometimes do not accept unsolicited proposals.

Corporate Foundations

Company-sponsored foundations, or corporate foundations, are legally independent entities created by businesses, either with funds from the business itself or from its founder/s. These foundations often release grants that are in some way tied to the goals of their founding business. For example, Bank of America, like many major banks, has a corporate giving program that focuses on economic development and advancing financial literacy in the communities they serve.

Community Foundations

Also known as local foundations, community trusts, or community funds, community foundations are created to exclusively support a specific city, region, or local community. These foundations are administered by individual trusts or pools of funds from individual donors and are usually established to address issues predetermined by the founding group.

Government Grants

Government grants at the local, state, and federal levels are like all other grants; they are made to address a public need or accomplish a public good. Whereas a foundation’s founder or board of executives determines the grant details, requirements, and focus area, government grants are established and detailed by specific legislation and their issuing government agency.

Federal Grants

Grants from the federal government often come in the form of contracts and tend to involve a lot of paperwork, financial auditing, and accountability. On average, writing a single federal grant application will take a nonprofit between 80 to 200 hours. Although federal grants may be intimidating, doing the work involved can help your organization secure the substantial, stable, and multi-year funds that they tend to offer.

State & Local Grants

State grants are similar to federal grants but are distributed directly through your state government’s revenue and typically offer more funding than federal grants. Local politics can sometimes play a larger role in these grants, as the pool of eligible grantees is located within the state’s borders. Larger counties may also allocate their funds to support local projects and organizations.

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How to Write a Grant Proposal: 7 Steps to Follow (With Do's and Don'ts)

Ready to delve in and start writing your award-winning proposal? This section will outline how to write grant proposals with seven steps to take before, during, and after you've submitted an application.

Note: There are a number of grant writing best practices to keep in mind throughout each of these steps.

Step 1: Determine Your Organization’s Needs

Before you can convince a funder that your organization is deserving and in need of financial assistance, you ought to be able to articulate what that means. Make sure you and your team are on the same page about what you are asking for and are trying to accomplish with the grant funding.

Do: Be honest and realistic about the needs of your organization and the costs of the program.

Before you write a successful proposal, you must have an apparent problem that your organization hopes to solve, a plan on how you will achieve that solution, and an estimate of how much it will cost. Costs, including staff salaries, should be fair and reasonable for what they will accomplish. Your program plans and expected outcomes should be realistic, otherwise you risk the chances of the funder seeing through your fibs or being awarded and expected to deliver unattainable goals.

Don’t: Don’t forget to include the priorities and concerns of your community.

Avoid creating or exaggerating a problem that isn't a priority for your organization or the community. In addition to collecting recent and reliable data, include community members' voices when defining a specific need in the community. Collect surveys, conduct focus groups, or hold a community roundtable to ensure you capture honest and diverse perspectives from those whom your program will directly impact.

Step 2: Establish Your Match

When you're preparing the proposal, take every opportunity to match the needs of your organization and the community with the interests of the funders.

Do: Explain how your proposed program will further the mission and goals of both of your organizations.

The mission of your organization, the goals of your program, and the community served should all clearly align with the mission, vision, and giving priorities of the funder. When writing your proposal, find a specific angle to highlight that will appeal most to a particular funder. Compliment hard data and statistics with illustrations, photos, client testimonials, or success stories. This can help you draw a fuller, more dynamic picture for funders about the real impact your programs make in the community.

Don’t: Avoid creating an entirely new program just to meet the eligibility requirements of a grant opportunity.

Too often, nonprofits are desperate enough for funding that they try to go after all grants that cross their path, even if they are not directly related to what they do or are feasible for them to execute. Even if you believe that your team could launch this new program, you are potentially stretching your staff’s capacity and your organization’s mission - as well as your chances of winning the grant. Programs are more likely to have a real and significant impact if they are mission-driven, not grant-driven.

Step 3: Make an Outline

Creating an outline is not only a time-tested strategy that will help save you writing time, but it will also show the funder that you understood what they are looking for and provide a clear argument for why your organization should be funded.

Do: Include each topic in the outline as a subheading.

Even if you decide to remove these in your final draft, this strategy will be extremely helpful and keep your proposal on track. Having a well-structured proposal that's easy to follow will make it easier for you to convince a funder of your organization's unique qualities and capability of delivering the grant objectives.

Don’t: Refrain from excluding, altering, or neglecting any sections or portions of sections in the outline.

When reading through an RFP, make note of all guidelines, questions, or selection criteria to create your outline. If the funding opportunity includes a rubric, all major sections should be clearly formatted to make it easy for the funder to give your proposal points. Make sure to include all of the requested sections and information in the order requested, even if it doesn’t seem related to your program.

Step 4:  Write a Compelling Story

Funders may receive and read hundreds of proposals before getting to yours. To make your proposal stand out, it should tell a compelling and persuasive story about your organization, the community, and the potential of your program to make a difference.

Do: Keep your own voice out of the proposal.

While learning how to write grants, remember to stick to the third person and resist using "I," "we," and "our." We support youth who have been shockingly ignored and neglected by the federal government." Instead, you might say, "The A.W. Youth Center was created to support and expand opportunities for youth who lack access to traditional programs."

Don’t: Refrain from exaggerating or over-using adjectives.

A competent grant writer can craft a grant proposal in which facts about the program, organization, staff, and community can speak for themselves. Funders will likely be able to read through any over-selling or exaggeration of your program or organization's history. Use adjectives strategically and explain why your program is innovative, how your staff is talented, and in what ways the community is in need.

Step 5: Review, Review, Review!

Grammar mistakes can stand in the way of your otherwise excellent proposal from being considered as they suggest that you didn't take the time to proofread and rewrite your proposal. Plan an adequate amount of time for review, peer-review, and editing before the grant deadline.

Do: Comb through the proposal for mistakes or misspellings that were overlooked by your computer software.

All computers come with spell-checker software, so there’s no reason for your proposal to have obvious grammar errors or misspellings. It’s hard to build confidence in your organization if you send out a proposal with avoidable mistakes. Use a published or online grammar book and/or use grammar-checking software such as Grammarly or

Don’t: Don’t only trust yourself (and your grammar-checker) to be the only one to read the proposal.

After reading through your proposal carefully, maybe even out loud, ask friends and colleagues to read it too. Staff members whom the proposed program will impact will likely have useful insight into the program's implementation, including realistic and attainable goals. It is also helpful to ask someone unfamiliar with your program or the subject matter to read your proposal to ensure it is clear and understandable to the average person. After you have collected all of the feedback and made your edits, a final read-through, even if it seems redundant, can help you catch any overlooked mistakes or inconsistencies.

Step 6:  Submit (Early!)

The grant writing process can be tumultuous and stressful at times. This is especially true when you are working against the clock to prepare a grant application that may include a lengthy proposal, letters of support from external agencies, and signatures from leadership. Be realistic and plan accordingly to give yourself and your team ample time to complete, review, edit, and submit the proposal.

Don’t: Avoid waiting until the last minute to review the submission process.

Submission processes that seem straightforward can be more difficult or time-consuming than they appear at first glance. Does an online application have hidden sections accessed after you enter the submission portal? If submitting an attachment via email, do you have to attach a condensed folder or follow specific instructions for naming the file?

Do: Submit your application 24-48 hours early.

Difficulty reaching staff along with unexpected setbacks can hurt your chances of submitting the proposal before the deadline. Late applications are often not accepted, and if they are, your bid will likely lose points and it may tarnish your organization’s image. Having a plan to submit your proposal early will help avoid missing any deadlines and give you time to hear back that it has been successfully accepted by the funder.

Step 7: Follow Up & Prepare for the Next Grant

Although submitting a grant proposal (on time) is a considerable feat worthy of celebration in itself, it isn't where your job ends. Next comes the funder's decision, and there are a few key things to keep in mind.

Don’t: Don’t neglect your relationship with the funder, regardless of their decision.

Whatever their decision is, it’s still important to see the submitted proposal as just the beginning of your relationship with a potential funder. If you are given the grant, you should immediately send a thank-you letter and track your award.

If your proposal was rejected, approach the funder in a professional manner with courtesy and respect, not with anger or disbelief, and ask why your organization wasn’t selected and if there was anything your proposal was missing.

Do: Accept rejection as a possibility and recognize it as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Whether you decide to use grant management software or a well-organized spreadsheet, keep systematic records of the grants submitted, the submission deadline, funder name, amount requested, and result (i.e. declined or the amount awarded).

With Instrumentl, each project you set up lets you keep a saved grants search along with a Tracker where you’ll be able to manage all the grants, both won or lost, related to that project.

Remember, even the worthiest of programs or deserving of organizations get rejected. By tracking your efforts you will be able to measure your proposal success rate and discover trends for what works and what doesn’t work for your organization.

Looking for additional help with crafting an award-winning proposal? Check out the article Successful Grant Proposal Examples: The Ultimate List for sample grant proposals, detailed characteristics of successful proposals, and other useful tips!

Wrapping Things Up: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Grant Proposals

Phew - you made it! Getting through this article was your first step in securing new grant funding for your organization. You should now be equipped with the answers to these key questions:

  1. What are grants?
  2. What are the different kinds of grants, and how do you find them?
  3. What is a grant proposal, and why should you write one?
  4. How to write a grant proposal?

Eager to start finding grant opportunities for your nonprofit? Instrumentl’s unique matching algorithm will only show you active open grant opportunities that your nonprofit can apply for so you can start winning more grant funding. Give Instrumentl a try free for 14-days!

Instrumentl team

Instrumentl is the all-in-one grant management tool for nonprofits and consultants who want to find and win more grants without the stress of juggling grant work through disparate tools and sticky notes.

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