Grant Writing for Public Service: How to Secure Funding for Your Social Impact Project

From funding community improvement programs to financing social impact projects, learn how to align social good with financial backing through skilled grant writing.

Last Updated: 04/23/2020

Meet the Experts
Tara Houston

Nonprofit Professional and
Public Servant

View Bio

Tara Houston is a nonprofit professional and public servant in Nashville, TN. In her current role, Tara works with patient advocacy groups seeking therapies and cures for the rare, genetic disorders they represent.

Thomas Grant Richardson

Freelance Traditional Arts
Consultant

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Thomas Grant Richardson, Ph.D., is a freelance traditional arts consultant, fieldworker, and
documentarian based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has worked for state traditional arts
programs, universities, and various nonprofits across the country. He has also served as a
grant panelist (several times over) on the state and federal level.

If you’re in (or want to be in) the business of serving the public, you need resources. The more money you have, the better you’re able to help others. But where do you find the funding? One word: grants. A grant is a tool for funding ideas and projects that provide public services, stimulate the economy, and benefit the general public. But grants aren’t just given out like Tootsie Rolls on Halloween night. You need a definable goal, a strategy to reach that goal, and an explanation of why the goal is worth funding.

Crafting a compelling grant proposal that clearly demonstrates how exactly the funding will benefit the local community or the public at large is far from simple, but with the right tools and resources, it’s possible for anyone to learn how to write a winning proposal. This guide breaks down the key components of a successful grant proposal, includes expert advice to get your submission noticed, and offers tools to help you locate funding sources that can project off the paper and into the community.

Types of Public Service Grants

Before you get started writing your grant proposal, it’s important to understand the main types of grants available to fund public service projects. Although it’s true that all types of different grants exist, below are the three types of grants most common in public service.

Grants for Special Programs and Services

These types of grants are intended for programs that aim to improve the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Typically, these grants are awarded to organizations that are aiming to create community education services, health services, or programs involved with philanthropy.  

Example:

The Ford Family Foundation offers a Community Building Spaces Capital Grant. In this program, recipients receive between $25,000 and $250,000 to work on a variety of projects including building improvements at libraries, fire halls, theaters, and county fairgrounds. Additionally, the money may be used for new construction and renovation, playgrounds and parks, land acquisition, and the purchase of buildings.

In the case of this grant, funds must be used to serve communities in Oregon or Siskiyou County, California with a population of 35,000 or less. Among many other guidelines, projects for this grant need to highlight the ways in which the project supports the community and how community members may collaborate with grant recipients.

Grants for Research

Public service research grants are awarded to individuals and organizations seeking to conduct research on social topics such as public education, social development, public health, and other community services. Research grants may cover the cost of research assistants, supplies and materials, technology and administrative support, and travel.

Example:

Offered by the U.S. Library of Congress, the Archie Green Fellowship is designed to support new research documenting American Folklife, especially the life of workers in the country. Researchers who receive this grant must create archival-quality recordings or videos that document American workers and include accompanying photographs and field notes. The project generates materials for other researchers, public education, and related community services.

In order to apply for this grant, applicants must write a proposal that outlines an ethnographic project based on original research. The application review committee expects applications to include a cover sheet, project description, expected budget, a list of necessary equipment needed to carry out the project, a projected timeline, and a statement of agreement from an occupational group that the researcher plans to work with throughout the duration of the project.

Grants for Capital Improvement

Public service capital improvement grants address a variety of infrastructure needs such as hospitals, schools, and water systems. These grants aim to benefit not only the current population but lay the groundwork to attract new investments to the communities through championing economic development and self-sufficiency.

Example:

The Gates Family Foundation offers capital grants to improve civic infrastructure, facilities, and land to benefit nonprofit and community organizations in Colorado. Applicants for these grants must have a comprehensive outline that designates funds for buying buildings, organizing construction, building expansion and renovation, or land acquisition.

The guidelines for this grant requests that proposed projects support rural communities and reinforce the foundation’s goals to improve either K-12 public education, community development, or preserve natural resources.

Grant Timeline

Regardless of the funding source, the typical grant timeline consists of several common stages and components. Let’s break down the normal grant lifecycle and how long you can plan to spend on each grant component.

6-12 MONTHS

Preparing your proposal

  • Find the right program for you and your project
  • Develop a timeline for your proposal preparation
  • Understand the criteria used to eval

1-3 MONTHS

Writing your proposal

UP TO 10 MONTHS

Submitting your proposal & awaiting notification

Writing Your Grant Proposal

Tara Houston
Thomas Grant
Richardson

To write an effective grant proposal, you need to understand what each section is supposed to accomplish. In this section, we will help you breakdown your grant proposal into more manageable pieces and give you some useful tips from experienced grant writers who know exactly how to get public service projects funded. From constructing your outline and creating an abstract to formulating your project description and hammering out the budget, we will guide you through the process from start to finish with the help of our grant writing experts Tara Houston and Thomas Grant Richardson. Let’s get started!

What does an organization look for in a grant proposal?

  • Clearly definable and relevant mission
  • Driven by specific project goals and plans
  • Sustainable financial and operational structures
  • Use of modern fundraising tools and methods
  • A history of successful projects and initiatives
  • Strong relationships with community and peers

What to Write: Proposal Breakdown

To get a better understanding of what your grant proposal should include, we’ve broken down each section below.

Title Page

When constructing your title page for a grant, you need to include some essential information right from the start. The title page should include the title of the proposal as well as identify all of the principal investigators and all the necessary contact information for the principal investigators.

Abstract

You grant proposal abstract should serve as a crystal-clear summary of your project. The abstract is typically brief and not more than half a page in length. Some experts argue that the abstract must answer the “what, why, and how” about a project–what is the project, why the project is important, and how you plan to execute it. Richardson adds that proposals need to convince the funder that a project “needs to happen, and how it will do good instead of harm.” Unless directed otherwise by the funder’s guidelines, use the abstract to contribute to answering why your project needs to happen and why now.

Project Description

When writing your project description, do your best to include specific details about the background and significance of the project, specific aims and intellectual merit, preliminary data, hypothesis and objectives, research design and methods, and broader impact of the project. Houston argues that, “much of the work that individuals and organizations are writing grants for is technical, and not always easy to explain . . . therefore assuming the committee that reviews your grant will understand your work is a mistake.” That being said, grant writers need to take extreme care when painting a detailed picture to give review committees the lay of the land in the project description.

Budget Information

This is quite a critical section because it tells the funder if your proposed project is actually doable and sustainable. The budget section typically includes an organized and well-formatted list of essential costs you plan to incur throughout the project, including equipment, supplies, overhead costs, travel costs, and more.

Project Timeline

Richardson argues that there’s always a place in a grant proposal for being explicit about when a project needs to take place. Especially for shorter projects that may be dependent on the seasons, such as research involving an outdoor festival or a summer camp program. Richardson states that, “A random timeline doesn’t really help you. Being able to explain your timeline effectively, and why that’s the right time to do your project, gives the grant reviewers another example as to why you are the right person for that particular job.”

Biosketches

Biosketches give writers an opportunity to give the reviewers a quick rundown of their related experience, education, contributions to the field, and any other personal details they’d like to add. Depending on your experience and complexity of the project you are proposing, try to keep the biosketch between 2-3 pages.

Tips for Crafting an Effective Grant Proposal

  • Use a storytelling approach
  • Incorporate a case study
  • Take advantage of online dictionaries and thesauruses
  • Tailor your language to each grant
  • Research proven best practices
  • Hire an editor
  • Write in short, hard-hitting sentences

Grant Writing Steps

1 Identify the problem that needs funding

Before beginning your proposal, you’ll need to identify the specific issue your project will address. Perhaps you want to develop a program that will improve reading and writing tutoring options at an underserved school. Maybe you have a solid idea of how to bring up employment rates in a particular area. Whatever it may be, it is best to get your head around the project as a whole before you start getting anything official down on paper.

2 Go through the grant

  • Understand the grant application: All grant applications are different. Be sure that you spend enough time reading through the eligibility requirements and guidelines before you start writing. A well-formed grant application takes time and energy. There’s no need to waste that on a grant that doesn’t make sense for your intended project.
  • Prepare a summary statement: This statement both speaks to the needs of the project and your ability as an organization or individual to get it done. Even if you end up not using this summary statement in your actual proposal, it gives you an opportunity to focus on writing a concise summary that highlights all the important aspects of your project.
  • Create an outline: Every project involves some kind of process. From preparation to execution, there’s at least a dozen signposts that you’ll need to hit along the way. Creating an outline that clearly illustrates the who-what-when-where of your project and how that information may need to unfold sequentially will help keep your proposal organized and on track.
  • Determine whether your project is in line with grantor funding: Grantors have agendas, guidelines, and certain initiatives that they are willing to support. For example, if you are considering a grant that has historically never been used for a social justice project, it’s probably not a good candidate for your social justice-focused intentions.

3 Write proposal

  • Cover letter: As with other types of applications, the cover letter gives writers the chance to introduce themselves and their idea. It identifies the individuals who will be making crucial decisions about the project.. In a cover letter, writers need to both clearly state the positive impact of the project and illustrate their passion for what they are proposing. Houston suggests that writers should think of the cover letter as comparable to re-working one’s resume or cover letter for different companies when they’re applying for jobs: “While the content may not change much, the delivery ought to be based on the audience. I keep a file of my own grant writing templates and use those as the basis for new proposals.”
  • Executive summary: The executive summary may be the first section that a review committee reads. It needs to clearly state three particular points. You need to show that the project relates to an important aspect of the community, that the organization or individual has the experience and background to accomplish their goals and that the proposed plans are related to the funder’s interests. Houston suggests writing the executive summary first in a “working backwards” plan of attack. In part, she suggests writing this section first because it is one of the most time-consuming parts and requires a particular set of “creative writing skills” to be both concise and informative.
  • Needs statement: The needs statement is often one of the bulkier components of your grant proposal because you will need to provide details about the urgency and need for your project. This is the section where writers need to convince the prospective funder that their project performs an essential function and that they are the correct group or organization to get it done. You should plan on the needs statement being about one page in length.
  • Goals and objective: In this section, writers need to lay out what they plan to do about solving the problem or challenge at hand. It’s best to be explicit and state the goals that the project hopes to accomplish. Include a timeframe for these goals. Be sure to include specific results you plan to achieve. Richardson argues that using quantifiable goals or numbers is a useful strategy and makes the project feel more doable.
  • Program design: When creating your program design, build upon the goals and objectives you just laid out and tell the funder how you plan to achieve everything. This is the moment where the writer tells the reviewer exactly how they expect the project to unfold and be effective at solving the stated problem.
  • Evaluation section: The evaluation section shows the funder how you plan to assess the accomplishments of the project you are proposing. Review committees want to know what impact you will have and how you plan to evaluate these outcomes. To receive an unbiased assessment of what a project will cost, some grant writers will hire an outside evaluator.
  • Sustainability: This section gives grant writers a chance to explain all the sources of funding that will support the project. In some cases, funders like to be part of collaborative projects in which they are not the only source of financial support. Traditionally, funders want to know if this project has an end-date or if it’s an ongoing effort that will extend into the future. If it is the latter, they will want to know how the organization or individual plans to continue supporting the project and if it’s a sustainable endeavor.
  • Brief about your organization: This section should include a few paragraphs that provide a short yet detailed history of the organization, a mission statement, and track record of their work in the field. This helps the funder know that you have experience and can be trusted with the responsibilities outlined in your proposal and that you will use the funds efficiently.
  • Project budget: The budget should show exactly how much the project will cost to carry out in its entirety. The budget is essentially a list of your expected expenses and if there’s any income or donations associated with the project. Writers need to include personal costs that they may incur, administrative expenses, and costs that come from the project itself.

4 Finalize

Whether you are submitting a hard copy by mail or a digital copy online, make sure that all sections of the proposal are included and that you’ve covered all the bases as requested by the grantor’s original guidelines. It’s more important that your documents are free of typographical errors and easy-to-read than to have some kind of fancy presentation of the materials.

5 Follow up

If there’s no clear timeline for when you might hear a response to your proposal, it is acceptable to send a well-crafted follow up email. This reiterates your interest in the funding and gives you an opportunity to quickly restate why your project is an excellent candidate for their support. Be sure that your follow-up is professional and consistently uses a positive tone.

Telling Your Story

If you really want to secure the funding you need, there is no better way than through telling a compelling story. To tug at the heartstrings of your potential financial backer, make sure your grant proposal includes the following storytelling elements.

1 A purpose

Writers need to make clear to review committees why they’re telling a particular story and specifically why it is relevant today. Houston reiterates this point, stating that, “Narrative is a critical tool for writing grants. Use personal stories and examples to illustrate the need. Make those reviewers feel something!”

Thomas Richardson feels similarly and argues that the writing should be clear while still sounding natural and “like a human wrote it.” He emphasizes that, “It’s not leisure reading [for review committees]. Just having a narrative that sounds like a human wrote it is helpful to get the reviewer to stay with you and not glaze over while they’re reviewing it.”

2 A plot

Grant writers need to take the funder on a journey from the problem that needs to be addressed, through the planned approach, to a positive and logical outcome. Throughout her preliminary research before writing a grant, Houston keeps track of relevant stories from the community that the grant intends to serve. She keeps a running document with personal stories that help explain the benefit of the project. She also notes that it is important to protect people’s identities and to get permission to share their stories before you put them in a grant.

3 Characters

The story needs to include characters, especially the main players who will be making the project happen on the ground. In this way, be sure to include the project leaders, any kind of management team or task forces, as well as the people involved who will benefit from the project.

4 An audience

Sometimes it’s difficult to know if your proposal will be reviewed by a single individual or by a number of people on a review committee. Effective storytelling and knowing one’s audience are crucial but tricky aspects of grant writing. Knowing the funder’s areas of interest, funding objectives, and project guidelines is one thing. Knowing what will grab their attention and lead them to ultimately back your proposal is another. Richardson suggests casting a wide net that appeases both the qualitative- and quantitative-focused reviewer. Richardson suggests that grant proposal writers should pay equal attention to the budgeting aspects of the proposal as much as the engaging narrative to cover their bases. For him, this shows, “what the recipient wants to do with the money and if they are capable and responsible of handling it.”

5 Excellent writing

Even the best stories can lose their impact if they’re not delivered well. Take extra care to craft thoughtful statements, tell your story clearly, and keep it interesting. It is possible to heed Richardson’s advice of writing with a natural, human-like voice while writing extremely well.

Drafting Your Dream Grant Writing Team

A reliable grant writing team will consist of…

  • The nonprofit’s executive leadership
  • At least one board member
  • Staff members familiar with fundraising and project planning
  • Volunteers who can offer unique perspectives on engagement
  • Writer/editor
  • Accountant

Completing Your Grant Application

Before submitting your grant proposal, be sure to double-check for the following:

  • Grammatical or spelling mistakes
  • Unclear, vague, or ineffective language
  • Unsupported claims and statements
  • Missing steps or data points
  • Repetitive or drawn-out explanations

Finding Funding for Your Grant

To find the funding you need, you need to know where to look. Below are some of the most common sources for grant funding. Depending on your project, it may be worth your time to look into more than one funding sources. Consider looking into public grants from the government or military as well as private grants from individuals, organizations, and endowments.

Common Funding Sources

Military Funding

The Department of Defense and the U.S. Army Medical Research Materiel Command offers funding for a variety of research projects that are focused on medical issues. They offer millions of dollars in grants for research in areas like autism, melanoma, breast cancer, military burns, lung cancer, and more. You can find a full list of medical research initiatives for 2020 here. Additionally, the military offers grants to help military members and their families fund their education such as the Military Spouse Career Advancement Grant or Air Force Aid Society General Henry H. Arnold Education Grant. Eligibility for all these grants varies but there are many options for both individuals and organizations.

Private Grants

Private grants come from private individuals or organizations and are not affiliated with the government. You can find private grants through a variety of sources, including local social groups like Kiwanis or Rotary. additionally, nonprofits, businesses, and private companies sometimes reserved grants for people with particular backgrounds. For example, ethnic minorities, women, medical students, military personnel, and individuals who meet particular financial needs can find grants that are set aside for them. Individuals with disabilities can also secure private funding reserved for them. Lists of private grants are widely available, but writers can start with GrantWatch.

Organizations & Endowments

Organizations and endowments fund both organizations and individuals. Each funding body will have its own set of guidelines that applicants must follow in order for their proposal to be considered. Additionally, since organizations and endowment funds usually have certain agendas that serve particular efforts or communities, be sure to thoroughly read the eligibility requirements for each potential funding source. The Hearst Foundations, for example, helps fund nonprofit institutions that meet their funding requirements and align with the foundations’ priorities.

Grant Writing Resources

If you’re still looking for some extra help starting your grant writing project, check out these excellent resources for grant writers.