This post is one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its topic is cover letters. Its context is the United States of America.
Sometimes an applicant must send a brief cover letter or a letter of transmittal with its proposal – particularly when seeking a grant from a private foundation. Such a letter introduces the proposal to a potential funder. It creates a first impression among those who receive and process proposals and sometimes also among those who read and rank them.
In preparing a compelling and cogent cover letter, be sure to:
- Use organizational letterhead
- Use the grant maker’s correct and complete address
- Address it to a specific person
- Insert a reference line before a salutation line
- Keep the letter short (one page only)
- Use standard margins and a standard 12-point font
- Use left-justified text – not center-justified text
- Send it from the applicant’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO)
- Send it signed by a human hand and in blue ink, when possible
- Include prepared by and enclosure lines below the signature
- Proofread it to ensure that it is error-free
In developing the cover letter, use up to four paragraphs to:
- Open by describing the organization, community, and target population
- Describe the undertaking and two of its major selling points
- Explain the reasons for applying for a grant
- Close with a thank-you and contact information
In all cases, always follow each specific grant maker’s instructions for a cover letter. If a grant maker does not want to get one, then do not send one. Government grant makers are far less apt to expect, require, or accept a cover letter than are private grant makers.
This post is one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its topic is tables of contents. Its context is the United States of America.
Grant makers often require a table of contents for longer proposals. Its visual appeal, structure, and coverage – as well as its completeness and its compliance with instructions – can suggest a great deal about an organization as a potential grant recipient.
Look at the proposal’s headlines, headers, and sub-headers as a possible starting point for the table of contents. Use the table of contents to make a strong and positive early impression on the proposal reviewers.
In preparing a table of contents when one is required:
- Use the request for proposals (RFP) as an outline and guide
- Use the grant maker’s specific order of parts and sections
- Use the grant maker’s specific names for parts and sections
- Present a separate line entry for each part and section
- Break up the proposal narrative into multiple indented subheadings
- Present a separate line entry for each budget year’s form and narrative
- Present a separate line entry for each item attached in an appendix
- List all forms included in the proposal
The proposal’s table of contents is an early opportunity to convince a grant maker of an organization’s worthiness for funding. Reviewers may refer to it often. Applicants need to be sure that it is clear, accurate, and easy to use.
This post is one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its topic is proposal attachments. Its context is the United States of America.
Most public and private grant makers require applicants to include a number of attachments (or appendices) as part of their proposals. Applicants omit forget or omit attachments at the risk of becoming ineligible for proposal review.
In writing proposals requiring attachments (or appendices), an applicant should:
- Follow each specific grant maker’s instructions
- Provide all required attachments
- Observe all limits on number of pages to be attached
- Observe all limits on types of documents to be attached
- Number all pages consecutively
- Label every document clearly
- List attached documents in a table of contents, if one is allowed and used
- Refer to or cite attached documents clearly in the proposal
Always attach documents only if they are allowed or required. And always follow the funder’s instructions, if available, for where and in what sequence to attach them.
Although an applicant should not expect to need to attach every type listed here in every proposal it submits, among the attachments (or appendices) that it may need are:
- Biographical sketches (resumes or vitae) of key staff
- Position descriptions
- Organizational charts
- Program design flow charts
- Logic models
- Timelines (Gantt charts or PERT charts) or milestone charts
- Letters (commitment, support)
- Contracts or sub-contracts (consultants, service providers)
- Partner agreements (memoranda of understanding, memoranda of agreement)
- Sample survey instruments
- Sample assessment instruments
- Technical specifications for products or construction/renovations
- Tax-exempt letter (IRS non-profit status determination letter)
- Organization’s most recent audit statement
- Organization’s board of directors (names, positions, and affiliations)
- Required standard forms (certifications, assurances)
Every attachment (or appendix) is an integral part of a proposal. Reviewers consider them in deciding which proposals to recommend for funding. Applicants should take as much care in preparing and presenting them as they do with the rest of their proposals.
This post is one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its topic is budget justifications. Its context is the United States of America.
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.
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.
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.
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 one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its topic is itemized budgets. Its context is the United States of America.
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.
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
- 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:
- Fringe benefits
- Materials or supplies
- Contractual services
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 such justifications is the subject of another post.
This post is one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its topic is evaluation plans. Its context is the United States of America.
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.
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 one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its topic is sustainability plans. Its context is the United States of America.
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
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 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 one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its topic is management plans. Its context is the United States of America.
Effective management is critical to the success of activities described in a funded proposal. A management plan describes the lines of communication and directions of interaction among key personnel, as well as mechanisms for ensuring accountability for a project’s results and for its finances.
A strong management plan will:
- Identify key leadership positions, including the Project Director or Principal Investigator
- Identify, by position title, to whom the leadership will report
- Link key personnel internal to a project to other key personnel external to it
- Describe channels of communication for all project personnel
- Describe lines of responsibility and accountability for all project personnel
- Provide a clear and current organizational chart, if a funder permits one
An applicant may need to discuss other aspects of project management, such as how it will:
- Recruit, screen, train, and monitor all volunteers
- Ensure the privacy and confidentiality of participants’ data
- Comply with policies and regulations governing privacy and consent
- Ensure the security of persons, property, and project inventories
- Handle legal matters such as insurance and liability
- Coordinate transportation and logistics for participants and project staff
- Document and report participants’ and staff members’ activities
- Document and report financial activities
- Document and report monitoring and evaluation activities
A strong management plan is essential for ensuring the ultimate success of a funded project or initiative. Applicants need to be certain that their plans convey their commitment to being accountable for delivering high-quality results.
This post is one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its topic is personnel plans. Its context is the United States of America.
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 quality of personnel narratives) 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
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 competitive grant proposal. Applicants need to be certain that their staffing plans demonstrate the organization’s capacity to deliver high-quality results.
This post is one of a series about what goes into proposals that win grants. Its topic is project goals. Its context is the United States of America.
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:
- Use 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
- Mirror or resonate with the grant maker’s funding priorities, goals, and long-term vision (Example: Environmental Education Local Grants Program RFP 2016)
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, 2021, 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. Applicants are less likely to be expected to measure the attainment of goals, except by proxy through measuring the proposed objectives that should lead to accomplishing those goals.