How to Apply for Grants in Simple Steps

Updated March 11, 2020
Brainstorming session using sticky notes

Applying for grants for nonprofit organizations can seem daunting if you've never written one before. While you do need to be thorough and do your research, writing a grant can be a simple process if you follow the traditional steps other nonprofits grant writers use for funding success.

Review Your Organization's Information First

Before you even start applying for grants, you need to sit down with your board of directors and staff and make sure that your organization is ready to apply for grants. Most funders will expect a certain level of readiness from an organization before they will consider you for funding. This means you should have the following aspects of your organization in place before you begin the grant writing process:

  1. Your paperwork and legal status as a 501c3 nonprofit should be in place, which includes your Internal Revenue Service tax determination letter, Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws.
  2. A board of directors with at least the minimum number of members specified in the bylaws.
  3. A clearly articulated mission and vision statement.
  4. The capacity to use the grant money if funded, which may mean paid staff, volunteers and contractors, as well as equipment and a facility, ready to go.
  5. A set of financial processes set up to ensure that funds are used properly with generally accepted accounting procedures.

Note that many funders now have online application forms, so you will need to have electronic copies of all of these items as well as physical copies.

What Is the Funding For?

The next crucial step is to have a dedicated program, or project that you want to have funded. Most foundations and funding agencies will not provide you with money to be used for general operating expenses, though a few will provide "seed money" to brand new non-profits. When writing a grant, you need to have a specific need for the grant with clearly articulated goals and objectives and timelines. If you and your board have not determined what this will be and you send in a general funding request, your chances of getting funded are very low. At a minimum your program should have SMART goals that are well articulated and compelling and fill a clearly demonstrated need. SMART goals are ones that are Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound.

Writing Your Grant Application

Once you have your organizational structure in place and have a program with specific goals that you want to fund, it's time to start the application process. In order to save time, it helps to pull all the typical paperwork that you will be asked for during the application process. Some agencies and funders will ask for additional materials, but you can expect at the very least that you will need to provide:

  • A copy of your IRS Tax Determination Letter
  • Audited tax records or form 990s from the previous year if available
  • A brief description of your organization, its mission and the measurable goals and timeline of the project
  • A specific funding request which will include a line-item budget for the project as well as information on your overall budget to demonstrate that your organization can function without the money if need be
  • A clearly articulated fundraising plan for the future, as most funders will want to know that you will be able to continue with the program after they have funded it and you can raise more money on your own once the grant money runs out
  • A description with professional biographies of any key staff members or volunteers who will be involved in the project
  • Some funders may also ask for a copy of your Articles of Incorporation, Bylaws and a list of your board of directors with their background information
  • While not always requested, including letters of support from members of the community who can attest to the need for the proposed project can help provide needed information to the funding agency
  • In some cases the foundation may make specific requests such as a media presentation of your program, program brochures or annual reports.

Research Funding Organizations

A big mistake that many new grant writers make is to send grant requests to every funding source they can find without getting more information. Most foundations and funding organizations have specific criteria that need to be met to receive funding.

  • They may specialize in a certain population, such as women and children, or a specific location such as the Mid-Atlantic region.
  • Others only fund certain types of nonprofits, such as homeless shelters or church groups.
  • Most foundations also only provide a specific type of support, such as funding to begin a new program, or for technological needs.
  • A few provide general operating funds, but these types of funders are hard to find and generally receive many, many more requests than can be funded.

Make sure that the foundations you apply to will be interested in funding your program and assisting your specific population before you begin the grant writing process. Most foundations and corporations will have public information on who they have funded in the past, so reviewing these lists can give you a good idea of how your organization would fit within their funding plans.

Finding Potential Grant Funders

Depending on where you live, your local library may have resources for finding local and national foundations and corporations that provide funding. If not, you can do most of your research online. There are several websites where you can find funders:

  • Foundation Directory Online lets you look up foundations for free by searching by foundation name, tax EIN number, location or dollar range for giving. If you want to have a more robust search capability, you can pay for their professional plan that also covers corporate foundations, public charities and government agencies.
  • Guidestar is a website that lets you search for free, once you set up an account through a national database of nonprofits which includes foundations.
  • FoundationSearch is a site that helps nonprofits find funding sources for a range of pricing depending on your organization.
  • The Council on Foundations has a Community Foundation Locator directory on their website.
  • Grant Advisor allows you to search for funders by state.
  • GrantWatch is a paid service that helps you find funding opportunities. You can subscribe for $18 a week, $45 a month, $90 a quarter or $199 for the year.
  • GrantStation is a similar paid service to GrantAdvisor. A subscription for one year is $139 or $189 for two years. Subscriptions include helpful information on how to write grants as well as funder directories.
Business woman and man holding over-sized blank check

Another way to find funding agencies and foundations is to talk to your local United Way, which may be able to let you know about local family foundations who do not have websites or advertise. Network with other nonprofits as well and find out where they received their funding. Not only can they help provide you with information grant sources but you may be able to build coalitions with them to work on your cause which funders generally look very favorably on.

Get Organized Before You Write

Once you've done your research and found a group of foundations and corporations that you want to apply to, it's a useful idea to create a spreadsheet first. Include columns on the name of the funder, the application deadline date, any materials that are required, and your progress on the grant, including check-off columns for different people to review your finished grant. It's always a good idea to have someone edit your writing for general grammar and clarity, as well as have some staff and board members review it for how clearly it demonstrates the need for the program.

Read the Instructions

This may seem like an obvious step, but it's an important one. Make sure that you have made a checklist of every supporting document the funder requires. Read their guidelines closely so you are sure to answer every question that is asked on their application form. You don't want to miss out on a grant because you missed answering a key question.

Speak to the Individual Foundation in Your Application

While you may find that many of the funders have similar, and sometimes identical, grant applications, this doesn't mean that all of them will. Be mindful of differences and make sure you write your grant specifically to the requests of each individual funder. It's ok to write an overall description of your request first and then use that as the basis for each individual application. Just make sure that you tweak each individual application to answer the questions from that funder, and depending on their focus, you may want to provide additional information to a grant that makes your application stand out.

A Typical Grant Application

Most grant applications tend to ask very similar questions and follow the same structure. In general, you can expect an application to have the following sections:

  1. The qualifications of your organization describes your history, mission and purpose as well as key staff and volunteers. The object of this section is to demonstrate that you have the ability to carry out the proposed program.
  2. The needs assessment, or problem statement, describes the problem that your project is trying to solve. This is a good area to include statistics and hard data about the population you are trying to serve and why they need help.
  3. The goals and objectives of your proposed program, which should be specific, measurable and have a clear timeline.
  4. A methodology section is where you describe your program in detail. This is where you write about how you will meet each goal and objective, including who will do the work and when.
  5. An evaluation section describes how you will review the goals and objectives of the program to determine what items were met and what needed additional work. It can also include descriptions of processes such as client surveys, community feedback and more. Evaluation is often an overlooked area of a grant and the more you can demonstrate to the funder how you will ensure that their funds were used well, the more seriously they will judge your proposal.
  6. A budget section which should describe in detail how the money will be used, including specific line items. You will also likely need to include a budget for your entire organization in addition to the specific program budget.
  7. A funding section which describes how your organization intends to find funding in the future for your program. This is also a critical section that is sometimes overlooked. A funder wants to know not only that you are going to use their money well, but that you have a plan in place to continue to find funding as many grants are for one year only.

Do a Final Review Before Submission

Once you have your grant written and all your supporting documents gathered together, make sure you do a final review. It's easy to miss a document or a section, especially if you're writing a lot of grants or it's a particularly long application. Having a second or third person to go through the grant with you is always a wise idea. Keep a copy of the grant for your files before you mail it out, or hit submit online.

Successfully Applying for Grants for Nonprofit Organizations

Don't become discouraged if you're turned down for the first grant application you send out. Remember that you're competing against many other nonprofits with worthy programs and funders have a limited amount of money for each funding cycle. The more you work at writing grants, the more practice you'll get at honing your message and making a compelling argument in favor of serving your cause and deserving population in need.

How to Apply for Grants in Simple Steps