Hallmarks of Effective Grant Writing

Tailoring the Proposal

There’s a saying in the world of grant seeking: “If you’ve met one funder, you’ve met one funder.”

Part of what makes grant-seeking challenging is that every funder wants something different. The essence of what they want is the same—what do you propose to do, what difference will it make, and where do we, the funder, fit in?—but the narrative configurations, space limits, and formats in which they want this information varies greatly.

This means there is no one-size-fits-all approach to requesting grant dollars. To stand a chance of cutting through the competition and getting a grant, it is necessary to tailor a proposal to each funder.

There are two levels of tailoring a grant application: first, tailoring the format to meet every specification of the application guidelines and process. And secondly, tailoring the message to the unique interests and priorities of the funder.

Tailoring the Format

Completing a grant application can feel like a game of jumping through hoops. You may need to squeeze complex answers into painfully few characters…provide letters of support, a logic model, and executive summary…then mail it to the funder, three-copies-double-spaced-paper-clipped-not-stapled.

Coming across a grantmaker with no specified format can feel like a dream, especially since they can be far and few between. Following strict application, instructions is a reality of grant seeking.

Keep in mind that you have choices. If a funder’s specifications strike you as too onerous or time-consuming, step back and weigh whether it’s worth the time and risk to apply. Sometimes, it’s reasonable to calculate that the opportunity cost of applying to a funder exceeds the potential gain.

If you decide to go for it, commit to making sure that your application follows every guideline and instruction. Don’t be tempted to believe that your organization’s relationship to the funder is so solid, or your program so unique, that you can cut corners. Not following directions could land your application straight in the reject pile.

Tailoring the Message

It’s not enough just to adhere to instructions and fit your standard narrative into a funder’s format. Writing a truly compelling proposal requires tailoring your content and message too.

What’s important to keep in mind is that funders don’t exist to fund your organization’s mission. They exist to fulfill their own missions by investing in organizations and projects that bring their priorities and beliefs alive in the world. Grantmakers are looking for proposals that they can take to their boards of trustees and say: “This—this project, this idea—is what we are looking to accomplish.”

Tailoring content to a grantmaker doesn’t mean you should distort the truth, alter your deliverables, or design a project just to please a funder. Rather, it is the work of good writing to consider the reader’s point of view (in this case, the funder’s mission and interests) and to place emphasis on aspects that will excite and activate what the reader cares most about.

Following below are four practical tips for tailoring the message of the proposal to the funder:


Before you write, think. As part of your pre-writing process, brainstorm the unique alignment between your organization’s mission, or the project you’re proposing, and the mission and interests of that funder. This means you should find different alignment for the same project with different funders.

For example, for a proposal written by a food pantry about its community food distribution service:

To a funder whose primary interest is the well-being of children, the alignment is in showing how distributing food benefits families and, ultimately, children. The proposal might emphasize stories about families or highlight statistics about child hunger.

To a funder whose primary interest is ending poverty, the alignment is in showing how addressing food insecurity helps lift people out of poverty. The proposal might include evidence about how this has worked in other communities.


Once you’ve identified this alignment, articulate it in key places of the application, especially the cover letter and introductory and concluding sections of the narrative. You may literally refer to the funder (e.g. “Like the XYZ Foundation, the ABC Organization believes that no child in our community should be hungry…”) or you may not name them, but “speak to their mission” by using words and ideas that match or imitate the funder’s own word choices and priorities.


Demonstrate that the grantee understands and appreciates the funder’s vision by acknowledging their leadership and impact. For example: “The ABC Organization is deeply grateful that the XYZ Foundation has been a champion for improving access to healthy, fresh food in Cleveland’s inner city neighborhoods.” Showing gratitude can go a long way.


Literally, write the funder into the solution that you propose to help them envision your partnership. Attribute future success to them, should they decide to invest in your organization, in key places of the document: “With generous funding from the XYZ Foundation, ABC Organization will ensure that these children start the school day with a hot, nutritious meal so that they can learn and grow towards better futures.”
Tailoring your proposal format and message is the first step in showing a funder that your organization can be trusted and counted on—and put you one step closer to getting the grant.

Convey the Core Compelling Idea

While facts, figures, data and details are necessary to strengthen a grant proposal, they alone don’t win the grant. What can set your proposal apart is a clear, compelling, and unifying narrative thread that makes clear to the reader how your organization’s work is important, urgent, unique, and deserving of funding.

Keep it Simple

In the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, authors Chip and Dan Heath discuss ideas that manage to stick with the reader. By “sticky,” they write, “we mean that your ideas are understood and remembered, and have a lasting impact—they change your audience’s opinions or behavior.”

The Heath brothers explain that making an idea “stick” starts with keeping it simple, according to this formula:

Simple = Core + Compact
Core: Hone in on the core concept
Compact: Succinctly communicate this core concept

How is this practical in the context of grant writing? Can a grant writer deliver a succinct, simple, core idea when a grant proposal demands so much information?

Make it Memorable

The answer is that a grant writer not only can, but really must, anchor a grant proposal around a core compelling idea to stand a better chance of cutting through the competition for grants.

Consider how the funding process works in many foundations: the program officer reviewing your proposal is also reviewing many others, all that are stuffed with large amounts of information. She or he is responsible to boil down the main ideas of each proposal, to summarize what’s most important for a board of trustees who will decide on funding.

The program officer will likely forget the specific facts and figures they read in your proposal, but what they’re more likely to remember is a sticky core idea. An hour after reading, what is the bottom-line impression or message that you want him or her to remember?

Distinguish What’s Unique

The executive director of the Hunger Network was challenged to demonstrate to funders the organization’s unique contributions as compared to the region’s flagship food bank.

With help from Grants Plus, she hit upon the core compelling idea that sets the Hunger Network apart:

While the food bank is the region’s largest distributor of food, by managing the volunteers who operate area food pantries, the Hunger Network is the region’s nourisher of people. Food awaiting distribution in a box or on a shelf does not feed a community. It is in transferring food to hungry people that it becomes nourishment.

This concept isn’t complicated—rather, it’s because the idea is intentionally simple but powerful that it calls the reader’s attention and is likely to stay in their mind.

That’s just the effect that the Hunger Network’s grant proposals suddenly had on funders, the executive director explained: “The response I was getting from program officers was ‘Oh—now I get it.’”

Work Your Core

The core compelling idea should be distinguishable as the core of every grant proposal you write. When you step back from the details, what will stay with the reader?

Think of the core compelling idea as the overarching theme of your grant application that conveys how your organization makes a powerful difference and what sets it apart. It is the answer to why the funder should want to fund your request, so that through their investment they can see their own mission come alive in the world.

A core compelling idea has these qualities:

  • It is tailored to the funder: Start with recognizing what matters to the funder. Your core compelling idea should vary from one application to another based on the priorities of the specific foundation. Imagine you are a food pantry preparing two grant applications. The first funder’s key concern is child hunger. The second funder’s interest is improving academic outcomes. Your description of your organization and programs will likely be very much the same between the two proposals. But the core compelling idea the proposal is anchored around will be different: for the first funder it should be centered on ending child hunger, and for the second it should make the link between food access and education.
  • It’s simple: A core compelling idea is compact—think around 25 words. A sticky idea starts with being simple. In the example above, about the food pantry applying to the funder concerned with academics, a simple and compact core compelling idea might be: “A child who is hungry at home is a child likely to struggle at school.”
  • It’s declarative: There’s an emphatic energy to the core compelling idea. It shouldn’t just summarize, but declare something of interest and confidently convey a point of view—fitting, since after all, a grant proposal should be a persuasive document.
  • It’s bold: There may be an element of surprise or the unexpected, even a flair for the dramatic, that captures the reader’s attention.
  • It gets repeated: By reinforcing the core compelling idea in different words and different places throughout the proposal, the concept is more likely to stay with the reader. The grant writer of the hypothetical proposal about hunger and academics would want to reiterate in several places why hungry children struggle to learn and how providing access to food can improve academic outcomes.

A core compelling idea is not your organization’s mission statement or a description of what your organization needs. It is a bold and compact statement that declares what’s most important about your organization or project, and is repeated for emphasis throughout the proposal.

Don’t leave it to a busy program officer to deduce and later recall what’s most important from your proposal. Make his or her job easier, and your own chances of funding greater, by making sure your proposal is one that sings clear and true with an unmistakable and unforgettable compelling idea at its core.

This article was contributed by Lauren Steiner, President of Grants Plus

Lauren Steiner is the president and founder of Grants Plus, a national leader in grant seeking consulting. Grants Plus has secured more than $165 million in grant funding for nonprofit organizations around the country since 2007. Under her leadership the company has received many awards for growth and innovation including a 2016 Smart Business: Progressive Organization Award, and a 2016 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award from the American Psychological Association.

Lauren is past president of the Grant Professionals Association Ohio–Northern Chapter as well as an active member and former board member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Greater Cleveland Chapter. She was awarded AFP Greater Cleveland’s Outstanding Fundraising Professional award in 2017. She is an active member of the Giving Institute and serves on the editorial review board for Giving USA. Lauren teaches a graduate-level course in philanthropy at the Mandel School of Applied Social Science at Case Western Reserve University.