Help Writing a Winning Grant Proposal

Grant Proposal Writing - Collaboration (ALA staff, Flickr)The Summit Collaborative team describes 5 key considerations for writing a successful technology grant proposal: crafting the proposal, being specific about goals, avoiding buzzwords, funding appropriate technology, and calculating costs. Much of their advice is also relevant to other types of grant proposals, such as grants for Christian ministry.

Writing a Winning Grant Proposal

Clear goals and a careful cost/benefit evaluation will help

By: Marc Osten, Susan Myrland, and Katrin Verclas

August 22, 2003

Editor's Note:

This article is part of the Adopting Technology Series, a project of Summit Collaborative. Learn more about Summit Collaborative and their resources at the Summit Collaborative Web site.

Competition for funding is tough even in good economic times, let alone bad. So what makes the difference in a proposal? How do you help it to go from the bottom to the top of the pile? More importantly, once it is noticed, what must you have in your proposal to ensure that you have the best chance possible of being funded?

The reality is that many of us are far too busy to find time to prepare properly before we write a grant proposal. We already know that funders, for the most part, are skittish about funding technology. So the harsh reality is we have no choice but to do a better job:

Crafting a Proposal

Before you start writing, have ready any technology assessments and your technology plan. Go back to the case statement developed as part of the planning process and use it. Remember to write the proposal from the perspective of your strategic goals -- either programmatically or in terms of organizational effectiveness. Do not fall into the trap of having technology drive the proposal, but let the strength and vision of your work and your goals drive the language in the proposal.

Compare the following:


"Our new integrated database system will make it possible for us to gather and manage data about our clients more quickly."


"Our new database system will make it possible for us to better gather and analyze information about our clients. This will result in us being able to better serve them."


"Understanding our clients means we can better serve them with the care and medications they need, when they need them most. To augment our personal contact and knowledge of our clients, a new database will make it possible for us to better analyze data about them and trends in our service delivery approaches. This means better service to individual clients and improvements in our overall patient care system."

Which says more about what your organization does and why you need technology? They all mention the database and the results, but a simple shifting of words and a few additions means a major shift in emphasis from the technology tools to the program results. Believe it or not, this simple shift can change the way a funder views the entire proposal.

Making the Case

As you look at language you use to describe the project and technology you want funded, ask yourself whether the descriptions are powerful or sound dry. Does your proposal address real needs in the context of your organizational goals? Does it describe real actions and impacts? Does it give the reader a sense that you know where you've been and where you're going?

Some examples:


"In our strategic goals for 2003, we will develop and support advisory boards of our constituents. In the past, this communication was ad-hoc and anecdotal. We want to develop a systematic approach that will let us track how the community's needs change over time. This will help us document our growth and better anticipate future needs.

"Because our constituents are spread out over a large geographic are, an extranet will allow us to effectively and efficiently communicate with our advisors and board. In addition, the extranet is part of an overall communications strategy to improve our record-keeping and decision-making process."


"We rely upon our advisors to help us stay in contact with and better understand the community we serve. We have always strived and struggled to gather their input to guide our programming. In our strategic goals for 2003, we clarify that this is an area where there needs to be a lot of improvement. We will respond to this reality by formally developing and supporting two new advisory boards of our constituents. In the past, this communication was ad-hoc and anecdotal with community advisors. We want to develop a systematic approach that will let us track how the community's needs change over time. This will help us document our growth and better anticipate future needs.

Because our constituents are spread out over a large geographic are, a better communications system (Extranet) will allow us to effectively and efficiently reach out to and hear from our advisors and board. In addition, the extranet is part of an overall communications strategy to improve our record-keeping and decision-making process."

In the second narrative you get a much better sense of why there is a need for the extranet and how it might help the organization. Develop clear and concise goal-oriented statements that focus on how you will get results.

Being Specific

Technology can help you streamline your operations and increase the effectiveness of your programs. It can help you improve your fundraising and marketing capabilities. It can assist you in developing better partnerships and conducting research.

There are lots of ways technology tools can be of real value to your organization.; it is not just about improving efficiency. One key to success in your proposal is to describe how you are building specific expertise or capabilities. You do not want to get so specific about the technology that you lose the funder in a flurry of words like XML, throughput, and click-throughs. You are better off being specific about the real value -- results you will realize. For example, there are simple yet powerful statements that hint at why you need the technology but focus more on the specific value you are looking for. (Check out "Building a Great Case Statement Funding Planner" from TechSoup for more ideas.)

"As consumer watchdogs, staying in more regular and timely contact with our partners means we can respond together with a unified and strong voice to proposals announced by the mayor's office."

Can you guess what the technology is that might be part of the proposal where that statement came from? Is it a new wireless cell phone system or network? Is it a mapping system that lets partners know where their colleagues are at any given moment? Is it a secure e-mail system that partners can use from remote locations? Actually it could be any of these. What matters to you and the funder is that you will be able to be a better watchdog!

Funding Appropriate Technology

It's important to ask yourself if the technology you propose is appropriate to the needs and goals you identify in your proposal.

This is an intricate, nuanced question. On one hand, you want to plan ahead and use a technology that can grow with your organization's needs. On the other hand, you don't want a system that can do everything conceivable when, in fact, you don't (and won't) need everything conceivable.

Beware of the trap of buying or building something that never launches or is so complex that no one ever really learns how to use or manage it. Address this issue head-on in your proposal: let the funder know why the technology you propose is appropriate. It may even help to talk about the things you chose not to purchase in order to show the funder that you made choices that are measured and strategic.

Calculating the Cost

Calculations about the total cost of technology in nonprofits have been improving. Generally, we encourage you to treat technology funding as a cost of doing business. It should be embedded in your annual budget and programmatic budget.

That said, there may be times when you need to seek explicit support for a specific type of technology. Calculating the total cost means including not just the cost of purchasing equipment, but related aspects, such as training, cost of implementation, and support. (Please see the following resources from Summit Collaborative: "So What's the Real Cost of Technology?" and the Strategic Technology's Total Cost of Ownership tool.)

For example, a new local area network -- with wiring, cards for old computers and a few new computers -- might run you $3,500. Now you need to add on the following:

  • Item:
    Staff or consultant time to reorganize the files on all the computers, develop a central filing system on the new server, and prepare a protocol for saving files to the server
    20 hours staff time or $1,500 in consulting fees
  • Item:
    Training for four staff members on logging in, saving files, and troubleshooting minor problems with the new network
    18 hours of staff time and $750 in trainers' fees
  • Item:
    Semi-annual cleaning of network files
    16 hours of staff time or $1,000 in consulting fees
  • Item:
    Ongoing support to deal with network administration and problems
    1/8 time of staff person or $4,000 annually in consulting fees

Get the picture? A $3,500 investment in the equipment just ballooned to more than double that (plus staff time).

Now, this is only a scary proposition if you can't articulate the cost savings. For example, the same network that cost $10,000 will save hundreds of staff hours previously spent hunting for files and building files from the ground up. Try to put some calculations together and figure out what the actual savings would be.

It can be very hard to measure how much technology actually improves your ability to fulfill your mission -- both in term of internal effectiveness and community impact. This is particularly true when the new technology takes a long time to learn and productivity drops at first. Increasingly, funders and nonprofits are recognizing that they need better ways to measure the return on investments. We need to know if technology makes the kind of positive change we want it to yield.

That said, you should still try as best as you can. Funders tell us that they expect an analysis of the cost and benefits of technology. As one funder said, "We understand and expect to see described that technology is an integral part not just of programs, but that the cost in staff hours or the cost of not having that tool can make a huge difference in the organization's overall financial health."

The more clearly you can make the cost/benefit case in your proposal, the more this helps the program officer make her or his case to the foundation board.

Another caveat:

There often is an age gap between those on foundation boards and people in the nonprofit field. You might feel that it is a given that your organization needs a computer, network, high-speed internet access, a Web presence, and other sophisticated technology. The foundation staff or board may not feel the same way. Hence, the more cogently you make your case, the more likely your audience will see that the technology is necessary.

A funder brought up an example from a few years back when cell phones were not quite as ubiquitous or inexpensive: "An environmental nonprofit in Florida made the case that arming its senior staff with cell phones made sense because they were spending so much time stuck in South Florida traffic. This was costing the organization a fortune in down-time [and hurt] their ability to respond to constituent and press calls from wherever they were. And they ended up getting their cell phone system funding."

As we've mentioned, technology can be a scary thing for some funders. They may not be active users themselves. They'll want to know you'll use their grant wisely. It helps to say something like, "We've learned from working with other organizations on joint projects that a database project of this scope is expensive and challenging. Therefore we are breaking the project into six specific, manageable stages. We will further reduce risk by using feedback mechanisms built into each stage. A detailed description of our implementation plan with timelines and benchmarks is attached."

Be clear and concise; specify value and cost, and how the technology is appropriate. Do those things well and you will see your proposals quickly rise to the top of the pile.


About the Authors:

Marc Osten is Founder of Summit Collaborative.

Susan Myrland is Director of Interactive Media Management.

Katrin Verclas is a consultant with Summit Collaborative, where she works on technology strategy and analysis.



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