7 Tips for Writing an Effective Grant Proposal

NEEF awards an average of $675,000 a year in grants to public land partners and educators across the country. Like many grantmaking foundations, the Grants Department receives many more applications than it can fund. But there are a few things grant writers can do to ensure that their proposals make it to the top of the stack. Whether you are applying for grant funding from NEEF, or elsewhere, these tips will ensure that your proposal is in top shape.

7 Tips for Writing an Effective Grant Proposal

1. Follow directions. 

The sage wisdom of your grade school teacher still applies--especially when crafting a grant application.

At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, eighty percent of the grant applications that come through the door are immediately rejected (Dickey 2003). To avoid having your project proposal tossed aside, read the parameters of the grant carefully. Review the Request for Proposals. Are there geographic limits? Does your organization meet eligibility requirements? Does the timing make sense for your organization? If the funding opportunity seems like a good fit, think about how to frame your ask according to the grantmaker’s priorities. "Careful examination of an organization's website can help grant seekers draw connections that may aid them in preparing their applications,” says David Littlefield, communications officer at the California Wellness Foundation (Dickey 2003). 

Once at the application, be sure to read carefully and directly respond to all parts of the question. If an example is provided, it’s for a reason. Your answer should follow the same format. 

Be clear about who the grant contact is, check your math, and make sure not to omit contact names or contact information. Double- and triple-check grammar and spelling. It may help to first write your proposal on a separate word document before copying and pasting it into the online application itself (oftentimes, online grant systems do not come equipped with spell check). Pay attention to character limits. Have another staff member review your project budget to make sure line items are accurate.

Although these tips may seem obvious, small oversights such as these may turn a reviewer off or distract them from the message you are trying to convey. Don’t dampen a reviewer’s excitement about your project by neglecting an aspect of a question or by supplying a generic answer. And again, always proofread before you click ‘submit.’

Read more at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

2. Pay attention to your partnership letter.

Give your partnership letter the TLC it deserves! Reviewers notice when a partnership letter has stock or repurposed language. Like a job applicant sending out dozens of resumes to potential employers, applicants often mistakenly submit a partnership letter referencing the wrong funder or grant program. This makes it apparent to a reviewer that the letter is an afterthought and was submitted solely to fulfill the requirements of the application. This is a missed opportunity as the partnership letter is a chance to strengthen your proposal, especially when applying for a grant that, for instance, hinges on nonprofit and public land collaboration. 

Fundingforgood.org lists five key messages that every partnership letter should include:

1. Commitment to partnership/initiative

2. Confirmation of the need for the project

3. History of prior successful partnership or why a new partnership is a great fit

4. Commitment to project as it relates to specific roles, responsibilities and resources

5. Closing assurances and contact information

Partnership letters should always be signed and on letterhead. Don’t forget that NEEF no longer accepts Memoranda of Understanding. So reach out to your partner early and make sure they have all necessary information in order to tailor their letter to the specific grant opportunity for which you are applying.

3. Just because you build it, doesn't mean they'll come.

Many nonprofits have responded to recent cultural shifts by elevating their digital presence in order to engage existing supporters and reach new audiences. Nonprofits are building new websites, transitioning volunteer and event registrations online, conducting social media campaigns, and generally investing more time and money into their digital assets. 

But with so much online content competing for attention, it is important for organizations to be intentional about how they design their web-based strategy. Building a new website or signing onto various social media channels will not necessarily equate to visitors or followers. 

Before embarking on any web-based communications project, do the necessary research. Define your target audience. What are their demographics? Are there any barriers to their engagement with your public land site or organization? According to a study published by the National Park Service Stewardship Institute, “Along with the use of new and different forms of communication. . . the type of information communicated is important for welcoming and engaging diverse audiences. . . learning about language and cultural differences and then adapting media and communications strategies appropriately will likely enable messages to reach broader communities” (McCown et al. 2008, 277).

Design an intentional strategy and tell us how you will conduct focused outreach. The grant application is the place to map out your goals and to state how you will track your effectiveness in reaching your target audiences.

For more information about creating an online marketing or strategic communications plan, visit:

• The Impact Foundry’s Marketing and Communications Resource Library

Spitfire’s Smart Chart

Nonprofit Tech for Good

4. Show us your process. 

Almost all capacity building projects or strategic planning require partnering with a third-party consultant. 

The selection process for this consultant or service should be completed before you start your grant application. Describe not only who you will be working with (should you receive grant funding) but also how you came to choose them. In the narrative portion of your application, describe your vetting process, including whether you conducted cost comparisons and/or looked into their previous track record.

5. Tell the same story in the budget and the project narrative. 

Make sure that the project budget is a direct translation of the narrative in fiscal terms. Additionally, if the grant would only partially support the project, show where the rest of the funding will come from. It is especially important to include matching funds as well as other funding sources (foundation, governmental, corporate or otherwise). Grant reviewers are likely considering the project’s sustainability, and demonstrating buy-in from other funders will only strengthen the application. This additional funding shows that the project will likely continue to be funded even after the grant period ends. 

6. Define success. 

First, determine the end goal of your project and how you will measure the degree of its success. Grant reviewers are looking for your intent, but also numbers and metrics that go along with it.

Any project proposal--whether it be capacity building, programmatic, event, or otherwise-- should be accompanied by what the Corporation for National & Community Service calls complementary performance measures. There are two types of performance measures:

1. Outputs: A type of measure that tabulates, calculates, or records the actual products or services delivered by a program, such as students receiving tutoring or houses built.

Example: A new donor system will be implemented and X staff will be trained on how to use it via Y training program. 

2. Outcome: A type of measure that indicates progress toward achieving the intended result of a program, which usually represents a change in the situation of beneficiaries of service, such as educational achievement or housing.

Example: The new donor system will eliminate redundancies by showing an X% decrease in staff time spent on data entry. Weekly timesheets, pre and post donor system implementation, will track staff use of time. 

For more on resources on nonprofit evaluation and measurement, visit The Impact Foundry’s Evaluation & Outcomes Resource Library.

7. Tell a clear financial story.

One of the most common weaknesses seen in grant applications is that the applicant does not present a clear financial story. Before applying for a grant (of any size), be prepared to submit crucial financial documents. For NEEF grants, this is of particular importance. All applicants are required to submit the following financial documents to complete their application:

• Annual Organizational Budget (for current fiscal year)

• Audit for the last complete fiscal year (if available) or Balance Sheet & Statement of Income for last completed fiscal year

Strong, concise financial information signifies that an organization’s accounting processes are efficient and transparent. Essentially, it tells a grant reviewer that the applicant will be able to manage a grant effectively. 

To address this need, NEEF has partnered with PwC to offer free, online financial training modules tailored to Friends Groups. The modules can be taken in any order and at any pace. Though it is not a requirement of any of NEEF’s grant to take these courses, we encourage board, staff, or anyone who communicates about a nonprofit’s finances to take advantage of these modules before submitting an application.

Another helpful resource is The Impact Foundry’s Financial Management Learning Center, which has countless how-to’s for nonprofit financial management. 



• Corporation for National & Community Service. n.d. “AmeriCorps Performance Measures.” Accessed October 27, 2017. https://www.nationalservice.gov/resources/performance-measurement/americorps

• Dickey, Marilyn. 2003. “Grant Makers Reveal the Most Common Reasons Grant Proposals Get Rejected.” Accessed October 27, 2017. https://www.philanthropy.com/article/Grant-Makers-Reveal-the-Most/183799

• Palacios, Marie. 2006. “Quick Tips: Partnership Letters and Agreements.” Accessed October 27, 2017. https://fundingforgood.org/quick-tips-partnership-letters-and-agreements/

• Stanfield McCown, Rebecca, Daniel Laven, Robert Manning, and Nora Mitchell. 2008. “Evaluation Research to Support National Park Service 21st Century Relevancy Initiatives: Narrative Accompaniment to PowerPoint.” University of Vermont, National Park Service Northeast Region Office of Interpretation and Education, and the National Park Service Stewardship Institute. https://www.nps.gov/civic/resources/narrative.pdf