Presentation Matters: How to Organize Grant Proposal Narratives by AGS Staff

Grant proposals consist of a variety of components depending on each grant’s requirements. Most require some form of a budget, whether that is a simple project budget or a complex organizational budget, or both. Some will also include a budget narrative or justification and any number of other attachments. But in any grant proposal, the narrative is where you will likely spend most of your time. Fortunately, the proposal’s narrative is the fun part! This is where you get to put your storytelling skills to work. So how do you get started? Much like an author would begin a novel, start with an outline.

An outline will ensure that you have covered all the important details of your project and answered any questions funders would ask in determining whether your project is worthy of support. Some requests for proposals (RFPs) will provide an outline for you, and others will be less specific in their guidelines. Either way, most narratives include the same elements that follow the same general order of presentation. Because of this predictability, you can get ahead of the game by creating a “case statement.” To be clear, a case statement is not a boiler plate document you can copy and paste into every proposal. However, it does serve as a reference for all proposals and can save you time by including the most updated content and well-thought-out descriptions of your organization that can be tailored to fit whatever proposal comes your way.

Your case statement, and most grant proposals, will most often include the following elements.

Overview of Your Organization: Include the history of when and how the organization began, its mission, vision, lessons learned, and how your goals and activities have evolved.

Problem or Need Statement: What problem does your organization help to address? This is the portion of the narrative where you will bring in research and statistics to prove there is a need in the community for your services. While national statistics are helpful, you’ll want to bring in as many local ones as possible to show that there is a need for your agency’s services in the community. What gaps or consequences would exist without your services?

*Tip: most of us want to start talking in-depth in the need statement about the great work we’re doing to address the problem. Try to resist that tendency! There are other sections of the narrative where you will go into detail about how awesome your services are. This section should really be focused just on the problem with a brief statement that makes it clear that these needs are the reason your program is so important.

Program Description: This is where you can brag about the amazing services you provide, the impact they have, and how you know they work.

First, talk about your target population. Funders often want to know details about who your programs impact. Ideally, you have been tracking who you serve and can briefly list their demographics: age, race/ethnicity, income level, insurance status, education level, and geographic region. You probably have a pretty good sense of who you serve, but if you can include specific numbers, that will demonstrate your impact and ability to track outcomes. In this section, nonprofits have a history of describing people in terms of their status. You are likely aware of this evolution but be careful not to refer to clients/participants as “homeless people” or “low-income people.” You are referencing their current situation but not their permanent identity as people. Instead, use person-centered language like, “people experiencing homelessness” or “people who are low-income.” This is also the part where you can talk about any outreach you do and how participants enroll in programs, if applicable.

Next, list each of your programs separately and then describe the activities of each program. Be sure to include how they address the need/problem you talked about above and how you know they are the appropriate and most effective activities to address the need. If any programs are evidence-based, be sure to talk about that and reference any standardized tools or protocols used.

The last element of your program description will focus on the people who make your programs happen. List each key staff member followed by a description of their role and time with your organization, professional background/expertise, and any licenses or certifications. If you have volunteers, this section gives you a chance to include the number of regular or episodic volunteers, how many hours they contribute each year, and what role they play in making your programs a success. Collaboration is also an important aspect that not only strengthens your programs but will also give you points with funders. We’re better when we work together, so give lots of detail on your partnerships and how they help you streamline services, avoid duplication, fill gaps in services, and strengthen the quality and impact of your programs.

You’re nearing the end now! Can you guess what’s next? No proposal is complete without telling the funder about the end game. What good is all of this activity if you can’t show that it’s actually solving the problem? That’s right, next is your evaluation section!

Evaluation: Here, you can talk about the impact your programs have had on clients/participants – how has your organization changed lives and addressed the community need? You can include anecdotal information about attitudes, behaviors, and situations that your programs have affected. But you’re also going to need to include SMART outcomes. You have probably heard of this and hopefully already have some established for each of your programs. However, here is a little refresher. SMART outcomes are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timebound. Talk about how you will measure these outcomes: what tools you use, who will collect the data, and how you will utilize that data to improve programs. I could write a whole blog on these, but here is one example that might help: By May 2020, 75% of ABC program participants will increase test scores by ten points as measured by the Missouri XYZ Scoring System. Include realistic outcomes for each of your programs and any that are pertinent to your organization as a whole.

Lastly, your favorite question on any grant proposal. Drum roll please…SUSTAINABILITY!

Sustainability: While many funders are now acknowledging how dreaded this question is for nonprofits, you will still likely run into it in many RFPs, so you might as well have it scripted and ready. Yes, in reality you will, at least in part, continue writing grants to sustain programs. Or, the program/project won’t actually be sustained after the grant ends. However, you will still need to spell out how you will attempt to finance the program after grant funds are expended. More importantly, this section gives you the opportunity to talk about other strengths aside from monetary sustainability. How does the competency of staff ensure high-quality programming? Has your board of directors developed a strategic plan for sustainability? How do community partners help illustrate that your programs result in more impact for your funder’s dollar? Funders are just as interested in the general capacity and quality of your organization, so emphasize those positive attributes along with discussing your diverse revenue streams.

And that’s it! Once you have all these components up to date, worded clearly, and edited for any errors, you’ll have a compelling proposal that any funder will be excited to support!

Competency #4: Knowledge of how to craft, construct, and submit an effective grant application.

Skill #5: Identify appropriate, sequential, consistent, and logical presentations of grant-narrative elements and ideas among or within proposal components.


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