26 Questions Grant Funders Love To Ask Nonprofits

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October 4, 2021

Last Updated:

March 11, 2024

Have you ever wondered what grant funders truly seek in a grant proposal?

In this article, we will unveil insider secrets and invaluable tips from a seasoned grant reviewer—Sara McLaughlin. Sara has reviewed hundreds of grants in her tenure. With her grantor insights and expertise, you will better understand what to do and what not to do when it comes to developing strong grant proposals and cultivating funder relationships.

We will also dig into the most common questions grantors ask and some of Sara’s pointers on how to craft compelling responses that really count!

How Do Grantors Decide What Work To Fund?

As an experienced grant reviewer, Sara was able to share with us some insight into what grantors really look for when reviewing proposals.

In her experience, grantor’s will create detailed rubrics with clear requirements that they use to evaluate applicants. The hope is that by asking well-crafted, specific questions, grantors can more easily identify the most competitive proposals:

“Creating the application and rubric are extremely intentional processes. Grantors that I’ve worked alongside want to be clear about what they’re looking for in a response, and craft the application questions accordingly.”

As a grant writer, it’s important to keep in mind that even the most impressive proposals can be turned down if they don’t clearly answer the questions outlined by the funder. According to Sara:

“Instead of scoring grant applications on who has the most sophisticated writing style or impressive verbiage, my team and I are always referencing our rubric and scoring for the content that is within an organization’s control.”

Beyond meeting the application requirements, Sara also shared with us some advice on how to really catch the eyes of grantors:

“Ensuring that your application is targeted to the specific questions, requirements, and areas of interest of the grantor will help the application stand out."

How can you do that?

By signing up for Instrumentl, you get access to Advanced Funder Insights that are designed to help you better understand a funder’s decision-making process, trends in grantmaking, and areas of focus.

Instrumentl synthesizes complex data from funders’ 990s in easy to digest infographics and tables so you can quickly analyze key information about grantors, including:

  • Grantor’s openness to new grantees: Instrumentl captures data that shows how many awards were granted to new grantees versus returning grantees to help you better understand funders’ preferences.
Grantor’s openness to new grantees

Openness to new grantees will help you understand the likelihood of your proposal being awarded as a first time applicant.

  • Grant size and amounts: Instrumentl analyzes average and median amounts awarded by a funder. This data can help you understand how much a funder is willing to award a new recipient and what the most strategic ask for a specific opportunity is.
Grant size and amounts

Grant size and ranges can help you know how much to request in a proposal.

  • NTEE Codes: Instrumentl also provides a breakdown of a funder’s giving by NTEE code. This gives users clear insight into what areas a funder is most interested in awarding grants to.
NTEE Codes

NTEE codes can help you determine if a funder has an interest in your mission.

You can try Instrumentl’s 14-day trial today and see for yourself how this tool can unlock powerful insights about grantors, helping you create expertly crafted, successful grant proposals.

How To Answer Common Grantor Questions To Knock Your Application Out of the Park

The best strategy for creating a winning grant proposal is to be prepared.

Most grant proposals will feature a number of similar questions that you will see over and over again. Having compelling, boilerplate language that can be reused across multiple applications will make the grant process easier for you and your team.

This way you can spend your time tailoring these responses to specific funders and opportunities, threading in information that will better align your proposal with the grantor’s mission and goals.

Below is a breakdown of questions that funders will typically ask in a grant application.

Questions Funders Ask About Your Organization

Almost every grant application is going to ask questions about your nonprofit organization. Even project grants will require you to share some about your organization’s background, mission, vision, and overall structure.

Here’s an example question with a templated response you can adapt for your own organization:

“Can you provide a brief overview of your organization's mission and history?”

[Your Nonprofit’s Name] was founded in [the year your nonprofit was formed]. Our central programs are [Program Name 1], [Program Name 2], and [Program Name 3]. These programs provide a range of services, namely [Service Area A], [Service Area B], and [Service Area C].

Each year, our program has served approximately [Total number served annually] people. Our nonprofit’s mission is [Your Nonprofit’s Mission Statement]. Our vision of [Your nonprofit’s vision statement] is aligned with [Funder Name] to [Funder and Your Nonprofit’s Shared Vision or Objective].

Some other organization questions you may find in a grant proposal include:

  • Who are the members of your board, and how are they involved in the organization?
  • Describe the diversity and inclusion practices within your organization.
  • What are your short-term (1-5 years) and long-term (5-25 years) organizational goals?
  • How do you plan to achieve them?

Questions Funders Ask About Your Project

Questions about your proposed project will often be the heart of your grant proposal.

Here’s an example of one of the most common questions you should be prepared to answer with a templated response you can adapt as needed.

“Can you describe the project for which you are seeking funding?”

[The Project Name], a project of [Your Nonprofit’s Name] is working to provide the local community with critically needed services, including [Type of Service] to [Target Population Description].

Responses to this question will vary wildly depending on the type of applicant, program size, how long it has existed, and the project’s service population. Key to developing a strong project focused description is accurately describing the project while also explaining how it addresses a specific community need.

PRO TIP: Using data or research to prove the efficacy of your work or to highlight the urgency of the community need is a great way to strengthen your proposal!

Some other examples of project-focused questions include:

  • How does this project align with your organization's overall mission and goals?
  • How does your team's experience and expertise support the project's goals?
  • How will additional funding affect the project's scope or outcomes?

Questions Funders Ask About Your Finances

Almost every grant proposal you come across will ask questions about your organizational and/or project finances. A funder will want to ensure you have the financial capacity and know-how to effectively manage a grant.

To better understand your financial capabilities, you may be asked about:

  • Your organization or project budget;
  • Financial audits;
  • Financial controls and processes; and
  • Any financial issues the funder should be aware of such as a deficit.

Most funders will also request a budget narrative that describes each line item of your budget and justifies why this funding is important.

Let’s pretend that you are requesting funding that will cover approximately 50% of your project manager’s salary. The budget narrative for this line item might read something like this:

[Dollar amount requested for Project Manager’s salary] will cover 50% of the Project Manager’s salary. The Project Manager provides essential oversight of the project’s operations by [Key examples of the Project Manager’s primary activities].

Some other examples of finance-focused questions include:

  • How does your organization define and ensure financial solvency?
  • What does sustainability mean to your organization, and how do you plan to maintain financial sustainability?
  • How do you track and manage budget line items?

Questions Funders Ask About Program Beneficiaries

Many funders focus their investment on organizations that serve specific populations or are committed to supporting a specific region.

Here’s an example of a question they might ask about program beneficiaries:

“Can you describe the primary population served through this request?”

[Project Name] is focused on providing vital services to [Primary population description, e.g. youth]. Of those served by [Project Name], [% of total participants served] identify as [primary racial or ethnic demographic served], [% of total participants served] identify as [primary gender identity served], [% of total participants served], are [primary economic or income bracket served, e.g. low- to moderate-income or living under the federal poverty level (FPL)], and [% of total participants served] are [notable demographic category, particularly one that is a focus of the funder, e.g. veterans, LGBTQ+, justice system-involved, unhoused, etc.].

Describing the population you serve, including their demographics and where they live, will help further illustrate your project’s alignment with the goals of the funder or specific RFP.

PRO-TIP: Don’t neglect your data! Quantitative information about the demographics of the population served will help strengthen your response.

Some other examples of program beneficiary focused questions include:

  • How do you consult with and involve the community in your programs?
  • What methods do you use to recruit and retain participants?
  • How is participant feedback incorporated into your program development and continuation?

Questions Grant Funders Ask About Your Measurement, Evaluation, and Learning Practices

Grantors want to invest in projects that can make a positive impact, and they will want you to prove that through effective program measurement, evaluation, and learning practices.

Here’s an example of a common question that comes up in grant applications:

“How does your program measure/define success?”

“A grant from [Funder’s Name] will allow [Project’s Name] to achieve the following: 1. [Project’s Name] will serve [total number of participants served] during the calendar year; 2. [% of total participants served] will improve their [achievement specific to the project, e.g. housing stability, self-esteem, wellness, physical health outcomes etc.], 3. [% of total participants served] will successfully [meet goal or primary achievement of the program, e.g., graduate, complete training, secure full-time employment, etc.].”

Outcomes can vary significantly depending on the design of the program and its objectives. Work with your team to identify the best outcomes, outputs, and goals to best measure your specific project’s success.

Some other examples of evaluation-focused questions include:

  • What measurement and evaluation practices do you have in place?
  • How do you ensure that your programs are effectively achieving their intended outcomes?
  • What processes do you have in place for adapting programs based on evaluation findings or changing needs?

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How To Avoid Common Red Flags in Grant Applications

As a grant reviewer for many years, Sara is also no stranger to grant application red flags. Here are a few important Dos and Don’ts based on her experience:

DON’T Blindly Recycle Answers

Blindly recycling answers without any strategic thought behind them is an immediate red flag in the eyes of funders.

No reviewer wants to see that the responses for a submitted proposal are nothing more than copy and pasted content from another application—and it is so much easier to spot than you might think.

If a funder is asking you a question and you know you’ve responded to something similar in the past, do not just use that exact response without first adapting it. You should reformat the original response to align perfectly with the grantor’s question and their area of focus.

DO Thoroughly Read the Directions

Another common mistake Sara shared she often sees is applicants failing to read directions or question prompts fully or as directed. Neglecting to read each and every direction carefully can mean missing important context that weakens your application and may even disqualify you completely.

Here’s her advice:

“Reading things over several times or having a colleague be a second set of eyes can be such a helpful step in avoiding small but important logistical mistakes.”

Being an effective grant writer means being a great reader and reviewer yourself. Do not let your application suffer because you skimmed or skipped over important content in the proposal’s directions.

DON’T Become Complacent With Renewals

Funding is never ever guaranteed—no matter how close you are or think you are with a funder.

Sara noticed that when reviewing applications from organizations that have received multiple rounds of funding they can start to become complacent and become less and less intentional when developing their proposals:

“My team has seen many examples of returning grantees start to submit subpar applications after several years, and although we inherently know they are doing incredible, impactful work, this awareness often can’t make up for a low scoring application amongst a pool of really strong ones.”

Never let your renewals fall by the wayside. These funders are your organization's core support, your trusted partners who have funded you since the beginning.

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What Is the Future of Grant Making

Thanks to Sara’s expertise and insight, you are well on your way to becoming a grant expert yourself!

But what should you anticipate as you look toward the future of grantmaking?

Luckily, Sara has some insight on this too:

“I see the grantmaking process evolving to be more equitable and understanding in the future.”

Grant applications are being reformatted and scaled down to make the grant processes simpler. That way nonprofits can focus on the provision of their services and programs, doing the work grantors fund instead of focusing on arduous application and tedious reports.

Sara has noticed these trends toward increased equity and just practices:

“Incorporating other modalities for evaluating an organization’s credibility and fit for a grant is slowly becoming more common. For example, offering video or verbal applications, visiting programs on site visits as part of the review process, and accounting for the white-centric historical context of philanthropic work in evaluating potential grantee partners, can all allow for a more inclusive grant-making environment.”

While there is still a long road to travel, the future of grantmaking is bright.

Wrapping Up

Thanks to the advice and insight from grant expert Sara McLaughlin, you now have the knowledge you need to grow your grant portfolio and achieve success as a grants professional.

Incorporate these valuable strategies and practices when diving into your next grant application and approach the process with newfound confidence.

Don’t forget that Instrumentl is a powerful tool for effective grant writing, tracking, and management. Sign up for the 14-day free trial and see how Instrumentl can take your fundraising to the next level!

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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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