Building a Winning Grant Pitch

Grant writing per its textbook Webster definition is the practice of completing an application for a financial award provided by an institution. Easy peasy, right? Wrong!


If you have ever attempted to write a grant application, you know this is far from the truth.


As a grant writer you are always making a pitch.


It’s like putting together a world series winning team. You must have the right mix of heart, talent, strategy, equipment and a little dose of luck  helps to. This will excite a funder to want to fund your idea or project. There are elements you can control and others you can’t but you can sway the decision your way with a well-written, compelling argument.


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Let’s start building your team aka essential proposal segments.


Heart is essentially your why. Tell me who you are and how you do what you do. Most grant applications categorize this as the Organizational Info and History.


At the center of every successful nonprofit are a strong, focused mission, vision and core values. (We will explore this in more depth in a future post.) These declarations are what drive your agency and what should direct your work.


Tell the story of why you started the agency in a brief, poignant manner that reflects your passion and drive for the cause at hand. Share one or two vignettes aka vivid short stories where you had successful results you can point to. This supports your ability to execute your idea. If you you’ve yet to execute the idea and don’t have your own data, borrow someone else’s who does similar work. In doing this, be sure to show how your idea is better and can potentially be more effective. Lastly, indicate the importance of the need in your community for the the work you plan to do beyond just stating it. We all know the US continues to lag behind in STEM education. Make your claim personal. Share the unique situation is in your town or city, maybe your graduation rates have dipped in the last 5 years or your district has a teacher shortage. Data is constantly being collected in some form or another by government agencies, colleges, etc.  Use this data to your advantage and drill down as much as possible, if possible. Show the funder that your decision to do this work is routed in a concrete, well-researched exploration of the critical needs of your community. If you are merely replicating what the nonprofit down the street does, then don’t waste your time or the funders.



Who’s in your bullpen? Every championship team has strong players that can step in and get the job done. It’s a team effort. Most grant applications categorized this under Experience or Staffing Plan.


In nonprofit, your team includes your board members, executives and program staff. If you have a highly involved advisor or volunteer you can include them too. Just be sure to get their permission first. Nothing is more annoying than getting a call that someone has added you to this section of an application without your knowledge. Integrity matters.


When you’re a new agency, just getting your legs the strength of your team is everything. This is what will convince funders to take a chance on you. Be sure to clearly define what talent you need down to the roles and responsibilities of each along with the talent you have. Include education, specialized training and experience in a similar area of work. Funders are not interested in knowing John Doe’s experience in horse therapy when you’re asking them to fund transitional housing. Keep the bios of your team short with symmetrical formatting. Do not cut and paste resume content verbatim. It’s disjointing for a grant reviewer to read applications where the tone, voice of the writer shifts intermittently within the narrative. Would you keep reading a novelist that did this? Take the extra time to develop this information so it naturally flows within your greater narrative.


For established nonprofits, be sure that you are keeping information up to date and not providing stale resumes from 5 years ago. We can sometimes get caught up in doing that we do not take a step back to tune up. I recommend doing this at least once a year and, of course, when there is a staffing change.



Let’s dive in to your play book. What’s the game plan for this particular program and proposal. Most grant applications categorize this as the Needs Statement, Program Plan and Sustainability Plan.


This is where your agency shares the exact plan of how you intend to execute your idea or program. Be as specific as possible inclusive of service population, catchment area (town or zip code you plan on serving), program period, planning schedule, reporting framework, potential partners, etc. Funders like to see that you are supported by your community and collaboration is always a plus. We all know the old adage – jack of all trades, master of none. Operate in your area of expertise and do not veer to much to the left or the right. This will send up red flags that you are chasing trends instead of chasing your mission. When it comes to funders, they also want to know who has skin in the game. Bank A may  not fund you if Bank B already funds you. What’s your plan to ensure the program continues to operate beyond their investment.


Know your competition. Investigate who in your area does similar work. Who funds them? What is their data? What curriculum or design do they use?  Similar to staring a business, when a service is over saturated. You may want to consider to serve another area or open up shop where the need is greater. Articulate your differentiator and fold this into how your solution fits into the broad social issue your intending to help resolve.


Finally, convert the tangible actions to dollars. Develop a budget that is compliant with industry standards and properly formatted. Keep your administrative costs low and make sure all resources are essential. Do not forget to include standard costs percentages across all programs – utilities, communications, marketing, etc. Determine if your project is cost efficient and given its current cost is it easily replicable. Remember, grants are an investment. Value is important and getting the biggest bang for your buck matters even in philanthropy. If it costs $80,000 per pupil to run your tutoring program and your competitor can do at a cost of $65,000, guess who’s getting funded.


What resources do you have, what resources do you need? If you don’t know your inventory, how can you grow? Most grant applications categorize this as the Budget and/ or Budget Narrative.


If a baseball team only had two bats and three gloves they would have to forfeit the game, right. Yet, nonprofits often step out into traffic without knowing what they need to be successful.


First, take a real assessment of your needs (tangible and financial). Do a rigid cost analysis of every thing you think you may need to run your agency. This can include online subscriptions, certifications, books, supplies, third partner presenters, travel costs, postage, printing, etc.  Know your actual costs then tack on 10-20% as a buffer. This is how you will set your raise goal each year. This keeps you focused as you explore funding opportunities and will allow you to create a more concrete plan of action.


Explain why such resources are critical to the success of the program or idea. Paint a picture for a funder as to what the resources/ equipment will support. For example, if you were serving a low-income housing facility with a computer lab share how the families are unable to afford this and it is essential for the children to keep up with their education in the current digital learning environment. Without computers, the children will lag behind and the cycle of poverty will persist for these families. Note – Grants, any donation for that matter, are a resource. They provide nonprofits cash flow and fill cost gaps.


Be transparent. Donors have the legal right to know that you are properly stewarding their funds according the proposed plan and areas they specifically agreed to fund. If you do not adhere to this, they can rescind the funding and will not renew your grant. The philanthropic circle is small and news travels quickly across the sector. Do what you say your going to do. 



About the author: Vonni Guthrie is a nonprofit expert with over 25 years in the sector having worked on both sides of the giving table. She is best known for her development skills, specifically grant writing and leadership management. Vonni is a Columbia University grad and the trailblazer scholar of the Program for Academic Leadership and Service (PALS). She brought her clients millions in private and public funds via grants and contracts for her clients.

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