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This post is about budget justifications. It is one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its context is the United States of America.


Budget Justifications


The budget often makes or breaks a grant proposal. It is a focal point for deciding its merits. It is also one of the main reasons for asking for funding in the first place. It is vital, therefore, for an applicant to present a clear and well-reasoned budget; otherwise, it can be all for nothing.


Budget Justification Graphic




Be clear. Clarity is critical. The assumptions underlying line items need to be clear to proposal reviewers. The need for clarifying assumptions increases with the length of a proposal and the size and duration of the grant being sought.


Explain costs. Many state and federal agencies require all applicants to explain their assumptions in a budget justification (also called a budget narrative or a budget justification narrative); some private foundations require one as well. Applicants may need to explain every line item in every cost category or only some of them.


Comply with rules. Always follow the specific grant maker’s instructions for justifying budget line items. If an item is not clear to an applicant’s red team reviewers, it is unlikely to be clear to the proposal reviewer.


In preparing an item-by-item budget justification, applicants should:

  • Present each budget line item in the same sequence as in the itemized budget
  • Present locally established authority as a basis for calculations (salary schedules, rates, policies)
  • Adopt regularly updated state or federal per diem reimbursement rates (mileage, lodgings, meals, fares)
  • Describe or explain factors in the formulas used for specific line items (numbers of units or events, costs per unit or event)
  • Associate line items with specific goals, objectives, or program design components
  • Explain unusual or unique budget line items or costs
  • Use real costs – not estimates – as they exist at the time of application
  • Avoid vague and opaque line items, such as ‘miscellaneous’ or ‘contingency’
  • Give only as much detail as will clarify or explain or justify each line item




This post is about itemized budgets. It is one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its context is the United States of America.


Itemized Budgets


Budgets are the epicenter of grant decision-making. Applicants should propose a budget in only the format and degree of detail that a specific grant maker requires. The budget should be cost-effective for the expected benefits and results that a proposal describes. It should be reasonable with respect to the objectives. And it should be adequate to support the proposed activities.


Itemized Budget Graphic




In creating an itemized budget, an applicant should:

  • Propose items that reflect the applicable rules, regulations, review criteria, and instructions
  • Observe a funder’s limits (e.g., on administrative costs or on indirect costs)
  • Align line-items with objectives, activities, and the rest of a proposal narrative
  • Ensure that every line-item is neither a surprise nor a ghost nor a stray
  • Defend line-items with well-established rates or schedules
  • Base line-item calculations on actual costs, not arbitrary estimates
  • Use formulas, where possible, to show the elements of calculations
  • Calculate costs per participant and/or per unit
  • Justify calculations with local, state, and/or federal guidelines, as appropriate
  • Check and recheck the accuracy of all calculations


In presenting a budget summary for a grant proposal, it often helps to:

  • Complete the summarized budget as a spreadsheet or a table
  • Use the funder’s budget form (if it provides one)
  • Indicate funds from other sources (e.g., matching cash, matching in-kind)
  • Complete all applicable budget cost categories for each year of requested funding
  • Indicate the applicant’s indirect cost rate, if any, and its type and source
  • Calculate the total cost and the total grant budget request


The larger the grant maker and the larger the amount requested, the larger the number of cost categories that may appear in a proposal. Among typical cost categories in a grant budget are:

  • Personnel
  • Fringe benefits
  • Travel
  • Consultants
  • Equipment
  • Materials or supplies
  • Contractual services
  • Other


Always adopt the cost categories of the specific funder.


A grant maker, particularly if it is a government agency, may require a Budget Justification Narrative for all or some of the line-items in a proposed budget. Writing budget justifications is the subject of another post.





This post is about evaluation plans. It is part of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its context is the United States of America.


Evaluation Plans


The quality of an applicant’s evaluation plan is critical for its proposal in winning a grant. The same plan is also critical to success in implementing a project. The evaluation plan demonstrates the applicant’s willingness to report on the benefits and results of a grant. Its content and level of detail vary with the funder’s requirements and with the nature and scope of a project’s program design.


Data Collection Graphic


Essential Questions


An applicant’s evaluation plan needs to answer essential questions, such as:

  • How will it collect or gather data?
  • Who will collect the data?
  • When will it collect the data?
  • How often will it collect the data?
  • How will it analyze the data?
  • How will it report the data?
  • When will it report the data?
  • How often will it report the data?
  • To whom will it report the data?




An applicant can strengthen its evaluation plan, if it:

  • Describes its internal evaluation team
  • Identifies and uses a highly qualified External Evaluator
  • Presents its External Evaluator as one of its key personnel
  • Defines and delivers what stakeholders need or want to know
  • Defines its data collection needs and strategies
  • Uses summative and formative evaluation methods
  • Uses quantitative and qualitative evaluation methods
  • Describes technical merits – reliability and validity – of its evaluation instruments
  • Incorporates a grant program’s performance indicators (if any)
  • Identifies target audiences for its evaluation reports
  • Links monitoring and evaluation to its management plan
  • Presents its evaluation processes in chart or table format
  • Includes a timeline or a list of evaluation milestones




Among the many roles of an evaluation plan are to:

  • Measure an applicant’s progress in achieving its objectives
  • Provide accountability for outcomes to funders and other stakeholders
  • Assure a grant maker of an organization’s effectiveness and capacity
  • Improve the quality and extent of implementation of key activities
  • Increase local support for a current initiative and for its sequels
  • Inform decisions about what works and what to do after a grant ends


This post is about sustainability plans. It is one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its context is the United States of America.


Sustainability Plans


A plan for long-term sustainability should guide development of virtually every grant proposal. Its focus should be what is expected to happen after requested funding has been spent and the funding period has ended. Its goal should be to carry forward those aspects of a project or initiative that proved most beneficial or most effective.




Government grant makers often require a sustainability plan (or a continuation plan); generally, private grant makers require such a plan somewhat less frequently. A sustainability plan must describe how the applicant will sustain (or continue) activities and efforts similar to those for which it seeks funding from a specific grant maker.




In a sustainability (or continuation) plan, an applicant may provide evidence of commitments from:

  • Internal leadership, e.g., the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) or the Chair of a Board of Directors
  • Partnering organizations (authorized executive leadership) or individuals
  • Key community stakeholders


Sustainability Graphic




Among strategies for creating a viable sustainability (or continuation) plan are to:

  • Structure the undertaking to reduce the costs of its long-term continuation
  • Use a Train-the-Trainers Model for professional development
  • Plan to build organizational capacity during the grant period
  • Minimize grant-paid personnel as a portion of the total proposed budget
  • Identify and secure alternate funding sources during the grant period
  • Plan to use marketing (dissemination) to persuade key audiences of the undertaking’s worthiness of long-term funding
  • Plan to use evaluation findings to identify which elements are worth sustaining




If a project or initiative is not sustainable, future funding to continue it is unlikely. Conversely, if the funding for a project or initiative is not continued by other means, its activities are unlikely to be sustained beyond an initial grant period.


Both closely related questions – sustainability and continuation – require an applicant to anticipate what it will do in the long term, which is typically beyond the duration of an initial grant-funded project. They represent two of the most challenging aspects of both seeking and making discretionary grants for the purpose of local capacity building.


This post is about quality of personnel (or personnel plans). It is one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its context is the United States of America.


Quality of Personnel


The ultimate success of a grant-funded project or initiative depends largely upon who does the work and how well each person does it. Descriptions of staff qualifications and roles (known also as Personnel Plans or Staffing Plans) help funders to decide which applicants win grants and which ones don’t.




Among the factors that reviewers often use in determining the quality of personnel who are proposed to manage or implement a grant-funded project or initiative are:

  • Required qualifications are appropriate
  • Actual qualifications of named key personnel are appropriate
  • Suitable personnel are identified by name
  • Current resumes or curricula vitae are available for all key personnel
  • Time commitments are clear, explicit, and appropriate
  • Experience and educational attainment levels are appropriate
  • Position descriptions fit the specific proposal



Personnel Plans Graphic


Other factors that help reviewers to judge the quality of personnel include:

  • Position descriptions include all expected elements
  • Key personnel have outstanding professional accomplishments
  • All key leadership positions have administrative experience
  • A plan or policy for nondiscriminatory employment is in place
  • Evidence is given that the applicant in fact observes its nondiscrimination policies




If possible, for each identified key position:

  • Prepare a brief biographical sketch
  • Identify each specific person by name, title or position, and affiliation
  • State the person’s highest level of educational attainment
  • Present and quantify the person’s relevant experience
  • Present the person’s relevant professional accomplishments or distinctions


Whom an applicant proposes to do the work, manage the work, and evaluate the work can make or break its grant proposal. Applicants must ensure that their descriptions of quality of personnel demonstrate the organization’s capacity to deliver high-quality results.


This post is about project goals. It is one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its context is the United States of America.


Project Goals


Having clearly stated project goals is critical in competing for grants. Well-formulated goals drive project planning. The same goals also drive project implementation. Typically, the goal statements that help applicants to win grants are relatively long-term, abstract, ambitious, and ultimately attainable. They also clearly relate to and underpin a specific proposal’s declared objectives.




In formulating goals, an applicant should:

  • Adopt them as the ultimate rationale for its proposal-specific objectives and activities
  • Reflect its own proposal-specific needs assessment or problem statement
  • Verify that the funder’s program-specific goals are compatible with its own goals
  • Resonate with the grant maker’s funding priorities, goals, and long-term vision (Example: Environmental Education Local Grants Program RFP 2016)


Goals Graphic




A well-articulated goal should be compatible with the funder’s declared overarching goals and its program-specific review criteria. It should also be time-bound, quantifiable, abstract, and significant.


Typically, a goal will:

  • Include a time frame. Examples: ‘…by the end of the funding period…’ or ‘…by the end of five years…’ or ‘…after completing the proposed project…’or ‘…by September 30, 2021…’ 
  • Define a performance criterion. Examples: A specific number (N): ‘a total of (N)…’ or… a specific percentage (%): ‘a ratio (%) of…’
  • Suggest a final state of accomplishment. Examples: Use verbs like ‘…will have increased…’ or ‘…will have reduced…’ or ‘…will have created…’ or ‘…will have implemented…’
  • Allude to cause and effect. Example: Start a goal with: ‘…As a result of…’




A goal statement having these four elements may have a structure resembling this:

…‘As a result of project activities, by September 30, 2025, 90% or more of participating middle school students each year will meet or exceed State proficiency standards in Environmental Education.’




Goals are considerably more open-ended or general than objectives. Compared to the number of objectives, most successful proposals tend to articulate few goals (commonly, only one or two). Funders are less likely to be expect applicants to measure the attainment of goals, except by proxy through measuring the proposed objectives that should lead to accomplishing those goals.



This post is about project performance objectives. It is one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its context is the United States of America.


Performance Objectives


Constructing a strong performance objective is one of the most important aspects of competitive grant seeking. A well-crafted objective is relatively short-term, concrete, ambitious, and attainable – and it is consistent with the applicant’s declared goals.




An applicant’s objectives ordinarily should:

  • Reflect its own proposal-specific needs assessment or problem statement
  • Be suitable for use as the basis of its proposal-specific evaluation plan
  • Address significant aspects of the funder’s program goals and grant-making priorities
  • Integrate measures such as Government Performance Results Act (GPRA) indicators (Example: SAMHSA GPRA Tools).


Objectives Graphic




A well-structured objective will have several characteristics. It will be compatible with explicitly required program performance criteria. It also will be time-bound, measurable, quantifiable, conditional, directional, and significant.


Typically, the objective will:

  • Include a time limit. Examples: ‘…at the end of each month…,’ ‘…at the end of the project period…,’ or ‘…at the end of each project year…’
  • Define a desired increment of change. Example: A specific number or amount (N)… or a specific percentage (%)…
  • Define a performance criterion. Examples: A specific number such as ‘(N) out of a total of…’ or… a specific percentage such as ‘(%) of a total of…’
  • Include conditions or qualifiers. Examples: ‘…participating…’ or ‘…completing…’
  • Indicate a desired direction of change. Examples: Use verbs like ‘…increase…’ or ‘…decrease…’ or ‘…reduce…’
  • Allude to cause and effect. Example: Start an objective with: ‘…As a result of…’
  • Allude to measurement instruments. Example: Introduce a measure to be used in an evaluation plan with: ‘…as measured by…’




An objective having these elements – if it were to be framed as an outcome objective – may have a structure resembling this:

…‘As a result of project activities, by the end of each project year 95% or more of participating middle school students will demonstrate statistically significant gains (p <.05) in proficiency in Mathematics, as measured by the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR).’


This post offers tips about writing needs assessments. It is one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants.. Its context is the United States of America.


Needs Assessments


Strong evidence of need for a project or an initiative can go a long way toward winning a grant. The methodical analysis of needs or problems in a needs assessment or a problem statement is critical to winning grants. Often such analysis occurs early in a proposal narrative. It sets the tone for what follows. The analysis makes the case that a problem or a need exists and it describes its nature and magnitude.


Types of Evidence


A needs assessment may use one or more of four types of evidence:

  • Quantitative data – numbers or statistics
  • Qualitative data – opinions or perceptions
  • Limitations or gaps – differences or distances between actual and ideal states or conditions
  • Evidence of unmet demand – shortfalls in supply to meet demand


Needs Assess Graphic




In writing a needs assessment:

  • Create context – the real background problem of which the applicant’s is a local case
  • Use statistics to place the local problem in a larger context
  • Describe why the real problem exists or characterize its specific causes
  • Give a historical perspective on the problem’s growth or trends or cycles
  • Define the problem’s (negative) impacts
  • Define a specific problem for each major part or focus of a project
  • Present data to support the definition of each problem
  • Use tables (or other graphics) to present extensive numerical data


In presenting data in a needs assessment:

  • Use fresh or recent data, not stale or obsolete data
  • Use specific data, not general data
  • Use local data, not remote data
  • Use comparative data, not isolated data


The data selected and presented will underpin much of the overall proposal. Many proposal reviewers favor statistics or other quantitative data that are no more than 2-5 years old. Consider using surveys or other instruments to generate current data where otherwise none would exist.


A sophisticated statistical analysis of need is often useful, but is not always required. Always adjust such analysis to fit the requirements of the specific funding opportunity.


Ascertaining whether a potential applicant should pursue a specific grant requires a close analysis of both the applicant and the funding opportunity.


At times, the signs are uncertain. Some outspoken leaders or stakeholders may be anxious about subsequent commitments if a proposal is funded. Internal or external critics may question the wisdom of pursuing a particular grant. And the organization as a whole may be reluctant or unable to commit significant time and money to developing a proposal that may or may not yield funding.


At other times, all signs are that a organization is ready to compete. The leadership’s go-ahead decision is unequivocal and has broad-based support. All of the organization’s assets necessary to prepare a proposal are committed to the task.


Readiness 2 Graphics


The more of the list-items below that a potential applicant can mark as present, the more likely it is to be ready to pursue a specific grant opportunity.




An applicant is probably ready as an organization to pursue a specific grant opportunity if it can:

  • Supply adequate proofs of its legal status and eligibility
  • Provide sufficient data to substantiate need
  • Propose creative and innovative yet realistic and practical solutions to problems
  • Anchor its choice of key strategies in the scientific research literature
  • Identify and describe appropriately qualified key personnel
  • Bring other agencies on board in a partnership, if required
  • Track and report on its funding and expenditures
  • Adopt and execute a sufficiently rigorous evaluation design
  • Measure and report on interim and final outputs and outcomes
  • Commit enough matching funds or other cost sharing
  • Monitor and protect confidentiality and privacy, as needed
  • Enact and enforce human subjects research protocols, if needed
  • Commit to continuing its initiative after initial funding ends




A potential applicant is probably ready to seek a grant if its leadership has:

  • Completed its process of selecting priority grant opportunities
  • Validated a specific grant opportunity as a viable option
  • Firmly decided to pursue a particular grant opportunity
  • Adopted a proposal submission approval process
  • A shared awareness of the commitments that a funded proposal will entail
  • Sufficient human and financial resources to dedicate to developing a proposal
  • Policies in place for ensuring fiscal and programmatic accountability
  • Sufficient technologies available to create and submit an application


This post has focused on organizational and leadership readiness. A later post will address strategic and development readiness.

The budget identifies and justifies the costs of a project or initiative. It should be consistent with objectives, activities, strategies, and other aspects of the Work Plan as well as with future funding plans. Funds for budget items may come from a grant, an applicant, and other sources.


The budget presents itemized costs and their basis. It must be specific, detailed, accurate, and justified. Some grant makers may allow applicants to adjust a proposed budget during negotiations or after notification of funding.


An itemized budget can use a four-column format: Item Cost Category, Grant (Requested) Funds, Other (Local) Funds, and Line Item Totals:


  1. Item Cost Category – a brief description of each budget item
  2. Grant (Requested) Funds – funds from the requested grant award
  3. Other (Local) Funds – funds from all other sources than the requested grant award
  4. Line Item Totals – sums of each line in Grant Funds and Other Funds columns


Budget Graphic


A Budget Justification explains the calculations and factors used to arrive at figures presented for each budget line item.


In ordinary practice, budget considerations loom large. They can drive an applicant’s initial decision to submit a grant proposal as well as impact every aspect of any proposed Work Plan.


Preparing Budgets


In planning a budget for a proposal, several questions prove useful:


Personnel: What personnel will the project or initiative require? What will they cost? Who will pay for them? Do you have already established salary and wage schedules?


Fringe Benefits: What benefits will personnel receive? What will they cost? Who will pay for them? On what basis are the fringe benefits calculated? What do they include?


Travel: Will personnel travel anywhere? Who will go? What will transportation, lodging, event registrations, and per diem expenses cost? What will each destination cost?


Supplies: What supplies will the project or initiative require? How does the grant maker define supplies? What will they cost? Who will pay for them?


Equipment: What equipment will the project or initiative require? How does the grant maker define equipment? What will it cost? Who will pay for it?


Contracts: What contracted services will the project or initiative require? Who will provide them? What will they cost? Who will pay for them?


Other: What other resources will the project or initiative require? What will they cost? Who will pay for them?


Indirect Costs: What is your indirect cost rate? On what basis is it calculated? How was it established? To what categories of budget items can it be applied?


This post is one in a series about questions useful in planning competitive grant proposals.


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