Keys to a Successful Non-Profit Grant: Top Five Things Funders Really Want

By Amy Smith

Everyone seeking funding has heard at least one “holy grail” story. You know the one. Our fledgling agency scratched out a grant proposal in less than twenty-four hours on a half-baked idea and received full funding. We didn’t even have to report on the money—no strings attached.


Contrary to the “holy grail” stories (as well as late-night television ads designed to appeal to out-of-work homeowners, single parents returning to school, and others struggling to make ends meet), the federal government is not giving out “free money.” In fact, more than ever before, obtaining grant funding is complicated, time-consuming, and not for the faint of heart. There is hope. Even in a time of federal cutbacks and increased oversight, funders have money to award and they want to support great ideas that produce results. The key to writing a successful grant is to understand what funders really want and give it to them. Following are the top five things that funders want when they are searching for fundable proposals.


#1: Funders award funds to organizations that have clear ideas

  • Ensure your idea makes sense. Find a reviewer who knows nothing about your project and ask them to read it and tell you where they are not clear on how something will work.

  • Use the funder’s format. If they give you guidelines, follow them strictly. If they don’t give you guidelines, use headers and bullets to create an easy-to-follow outline of your ideas.

  • Proofread your proposal. Funders will reject a proposal with misspellings, punctuation issues, and other problems. It shows a lack of care and attention to detail, which they will require of you when keeping records after your agency is funded.


#2: Funders award funds to organizations that understand current trends

  • Know the field. Whatever your idea, it’s probably been tried before. Make sure you understand your chances for success and failure. Explain how your project will overcome barriers experienced by others in the field.

  • Research what works. Your idea doesn’t have to be new and innovative; in fact, it helps if others have tried it successfully. Show your funder that you are looking for strong models and using that knowledge to shape your idea in order to achieve high levels of success.


#3: Funders award funds to organizations that have strong track records

  • Document your strengths. Select areas that highlight the strengths your agency, staff, volunteers, partnerships, and clients bring to the project. Financial records, audits, Internet or newspaper articles, survey results, interviews, and letters of support or recommendation are great tools.

  • Partner with a strong organization. If your agency doesn’t have the tenure, history, or successes of other agencies, up your competitive edge by finding a partner agency that does. Collaboration shows funders that your project will benefit from shared resources, financial and intellectual, and that risk is shared.


#4: Funders award funds to organizations that show need through data and stories

  • Use current data. Just as trends change, research changes. Use the most current data you can find to support your case, and mix community- and state-level data with national or international data.

  • Explain the data with a personal story to show need. Funders tend to remember visual images and specific individuals that convey a story rather than the numbers that support a point. Force your funders to connect with one of your clients to show the need that the project will meet.

  • Find a success story to highlight what you can achieve. Success stories show funders that it is possible to meet the need and achieve success with your program. Make your funder want to invest in and take credit for the success of your clients.


#5: Funders award funds to organizations that produce results

  • Be realistic in setting goals. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Make sure you understand how you will be evaluated once funded, and create specific, measureable, achievable goals.

  • Document well and on a regular basis. Keep great records by following the funder’s guidelines and make documentation a part of your daily work. Ask the funder for help to set up records and prepare for site visits and audits.

  • Show results. Take time before you begin spending the grant money to create a process for showing results. Use evaluation forms, surveys, pre- and post-interviews, videos, news clippings, and web articles. Assign a staff person to ensure your evaluation process is followed and to review results on a weekly or monthly basis.


In a time of dwindling resources with new players vying for those smaller amounts of funding, set your agency apart by following these key steps to writing successful grant proposals that funders will be excited to support.



Amy SmithAmy Smith, Ph.D., works for a non-profit organization where she has guided others to higher levels of work excellence in the areas of communication, training, leadership, and organizational development for over 17 years.  A graduate of the University of Louisville and Georgetown College, Amy holds a doctoral degree in education, with an emphasis on training, leadership, and organizational development. She is the creator of an award-winning corporate university and works daily to help employees and groups achieve personal and professional goals. Amy can be reached at learndomore@yahoo.com.

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1 Comment

Elaine Shryock Allen   on Wednesday 08/01/2012 at 09:25 PM

Dr,Smith, I find your comments insightful, clear and quite accurate. After 16 years of grant writing as a means of supporting and funding our countiy's adult education programs, I would highly recommend your format for anyone new to this task.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.