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How to Get Started on a Grant Proposal for Your Nonprofit

Generally, a nonprofit grant writer develops a proposal by talking with staff members, volunteers, or the board about a project idea. Before setting fingers to keyboard, the writer should investigate the following:

  • What is the demonstrated need in the community for the project?

  • Who are the constituents who will benefit from the project? (Find out everything you can about them.)

  • What are others doing in this field?

  • What particular strengths does your nonprofit bring to the project?

  • Specifically, what do you want to accomplish?

  • What will it cost to do this work?

Sometimes a funding source announces a specific initiative for which it’s inviting proposals — called a request for proposals (an “RFP”) or a program announcement. When you respond to an RFP, you’re trying to convince the foundation or government agency that your nonprofit is the best one for the job.

Ask for permission to ask

Many funding sources screen proposal ideas before they receive extensive, detailed documents. This enables them to encourage only truly promising proposals, saving both themselves and grant seekers the time and effort that goes into reviewing and writing longer proposals.

When you encounter a request for a letter of inquiry, boil down the essence of the proposal into a readable, compelling letter. The letter doesn’t ask for a grant directly, but it asks for permission to submit more detailed information. Most letters of inquiry are two or three pages long. Follow the foundation’s stated preferences.

The screening questionnaire

Some funding agencies screen potential applicants by asking them to respond to questionnaires, which are often found on funders’ websites. Questions may determine specific eligibility — such as whether the nonprofit organization serves a particular geographic area — or ask for substantive answers to questions. Like a letter of inquiry, this questionnaire keeps unlikely applicants from wasting their time and effort.

Don’t pass off the letter of inquiry or questionnaire as an inconsequential hurdle: First impressions can be lasting impressions.

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