Grant Writing Basics


Some foundation grant makers will provide specific guidelines to follow in completing their application process. Anytime a foundation provides guidelines addressing the information to send in an application, applicants should follow the guidelines. As a result of following each foundation’s guidelines, grant proposals or applications will vary in length. Generally, larger foundations will require more detailed information than perhaps a local family foundation.

Regardless of how much information a foundation requires, all foundations ask for the same basic information. The way to look at it is that some foundations simply allow more writing space than others. If a foundation gives a page maximum, for example, up to ten pages, it is an indication the foundation expects applicants to submit a proposal ten pages in length. Let the guidelines clue you in as to how much detail the foundation expects from applicants.

Interestingly enough, many foundations do not have guidelines to provide applicants with information about what to send and how much information to send (page length.) When this is the case, it is recommended the grant writer submit a standard foundation proposal narrative one-to-five pages in length, plus a cover letter and appendices. The Standard Proposal is the most common type of proposal.

The Standard Proposal should include the following seven (7) sub-headings providing information in narrative format about each one:

Summary of the Proposal (a brief description of the project the applicant is seeking funds to support and a statement of how much money the applicant is requesting from the foundation.)

Agency Description (a description of the organization requesting funds from the foundation, including mention of the clients and services provided. The organization might be a hospital, the YMCA, a township, or a school district.)

Need for the Project (information should be provided to build a case for the foundation lending its support to the project. Answer the question: What is the problem?)

Project Description (a description of the project the applicant is asking the foundation to support, including expected results. The project could be an existing counseling service, the expansion of a meals program, construction of a new building, or the purchase of new equipment.)

Evaluation (a description of how the applicant will determine if the project has been successful.)

Financial Information (provides the foundation with information about the total cost of the project; how much is being requested from the foundation, and how the contribution will be applied to the project; other sources of funding for the project or the applicant’s plan for raising it; and the applicant’s plan for sustaining the project.)

Project Budget (a narrative summation of the proposed project budget.) Click here for Budgets and to see an example.

A formal Cover Letter will introduce and summarize the Standard Proposal. Click here for Cover Letter.

The Standard Proposal will include four attachments. The attachments are documents that are routinely requested by most foundations. They are (1) a list of governing board members; (2) proof of not-for-profit or public tax status; (3) line item project budget; and (4) most recent audited financial statement. Click here for Appendices.

It is recommended that applicants begin the grant seeking process by preparing a Standard Proposal for each project they will seek funding from private grant makers. Once a Standard Proposal is completed, the applicant will have the information needed to complete other types of proposals, including Letters of Intent, Letter Proposals, and online applications.




Applicants will submit a line-item, detailed, project budget along with the Standard Proposal. It is recommended that applicants prepare the budget before writing the narrative section of the proposal. Applicants will need the budget information in order to write the Budget Section of the narrative where it is intended that applicants will summarize the attached line-item budget for the foundation reader/reviewer.

It is important to note the difference between a project budget and an agency/organization budget. A project budget details costs specific to the project the applicant is asking the foundation to support. The agency/organization’s budget is broader and includes costs for all projects, programs, and services offered by the agency. It is possible the project and agency budget could be one in the same. One last note about the agency budget: the applicant is not advised to send the organization’s budget unless it is specifically requested by the foundation.

Click here for more information about Grammar and Writing Tips.

Some typical line items in the project budget are listed below:

Salaries and wages
Fringe Benefits





Consultants and Contract Services

Online Access

Legal Services
Computer Services
Technical Assistance
Strategic Planning
Fund Raising



The following is a sample budget presentation to accompany the Standard Proposal.

Note: The federal government and some foundations will provide their own budget forms in which case the applicant must fit all costs into the line items specified on the forms.


Foundation Grants                                          $50,000
Applicant Contribution                                    $10,000
Special Events                                                $20,000
Individuals                                                      $35,000
Dept. of Veteran Affairs                                  $79,100
Total Income                         $194,100

Executive Director (3% x $75,000)                 $2,250
Meals Coordinator (100%)                             $37,750
Volunteers                                                       $35,000

Rent/Utilities                                                   $10,000
Office                                                             $100
Meals/Food                                                   $80,000
Meals/Carriers and Containers                       $10,000

Local Meal Delivery                                       $5,000

Telephones                                                      $2,000
Postage                                                           $300
Online Services                                               $250

Advertising/Publicity                                       $1,500
Printing Brochures                                          $1,000
Memberships/Subscriptions                            $450
Audit                                                              $2,000
Evaluation                                                       $2,500
Volunteer Recruitment/Training/
Recognition                                                    $4,000
Total Expenses                      $194,100




The Cover Letter serves to introduce the applicant’s proposal. It is a one-page letter written on the organization’s stationery. The purpose of the Cover Letter is to present information about the organization and project, and to present it in a compelling fashion to get the interest of the foundation. The Cover Letter is an important document, and in preparing it, the applicant should treat it as a one-page grant request.

In addition to introducing the organization and summarizing the project, it is important to state the request (how much the applicant is asking from the foundation and how the grant will be used), and invite the foundation to conduct a site visit. It is not common for foundation representatives to make site visits, but it is advisable to extend the invitation.

Include contact information in the Cover Letter, including the name, email address, and telephone number of the person in the applicant’s organization who can answer the foundation’s questions about the agency, project, and budget. Foundation representatives do not appreciate calling an applicant organization and being referred from one person to another to get information.

Since many foundations are moving to the acceptance of online applications, it is often difficult to secure the name of the foundation representative to whom an applicant should address the Cover Letter. When possible, do use a foundation representative’s name in the salutation.

Lastly, the Cover Letter should be signed by preferably, the president of the board of directors or the highest ranking official in the agency (i.e., the superintendent of the school district.) This tells the foundation the governing board is behind the request and knows the grant proposal is being submitted. Since grants are deadline oriented, realistically it is not always possible to secure this individual’s signature. As a rule of thumb, ask the highest ranking official in the organization who is available to sign the Cover Letter (i.e., Executive Director, CEO, COO, President, Vice President, Department or Program Chief, etc.)




A foundation will often require as a first step in the application process that the applicant send a Letter of Intent. The foundation will review the Letter of Intent and invite an application or full proposal based upon the review. Letters of Intent are often the first contact an applicant will have with a foundation.

The Letter of Intent may also be referred to as a Letter of Inquiry or a Query Letter. Letters may be invited to be mailed, emailed, or submitted via an online application process.

Applicants should have their project well-planned and know the total cost of the project and how much they intend to request from the foundation when preparing a Letter of Intent. The content of a Letter of Intent will introduce the applicant organization, summarize the project and expected results, and present the total cost of the project and the amount the applicant will be requesting from the foundation if a full proposal is invited.

The Letter of Intent is similar to a Cover Letter. It should be written on the organization’s stationery (if it can be mailed) and limited to preferably one, but not more than two pages. It should also be signed by the highest ranking official in the applicant organization ((i.e., Executive Director, CEO, COO, President, Vice President, Department or Program Chief, etc.)

The applicant should clearly and directly state that the organization is seeking funding for a project in the first sentence of the Letter of Intent. The applicant might begin the Letter of Inquiry with the statement: I am writing to state our intent to apply for a grant for $300,000 from the ABC Foundation to support meals for homeless men in Cincinnati, Ohio; and conclude the Letter of Intent with the statement: I welcome your invitation to submit a full proposal.

The applicant is not making a grant request per se from the foundation in a Letter of Intent, but rather, stating the intent to ask. Grant makers often criticize Letters of Intent stating that applicants do not give enough attention to them. Essentially, the Letter of Intent should provide enough information for the foundation to make a funding decision although, at this early stage in their grant making process, they are using the Letter of Intent to screen applications to determine which applicants will be invited to submit full proposals.

As more foundations move to online application processes, an applicant may be required to submit a Letter of Intent in an electronic format, either by email or through the foundation’s website. Foundations will request the same information from applicants regardless of the format. Be advised that some online applications limit word or character counts, and others may require applicants to provide the organization’s tax identification number and establish a password. Letters of Intent are screened and, if interested, the foundation will invite an applicant to proceed with a full application online. It is often difficult to access an online application form until the Letter of Intent has been approved by the foundation.

To view the online Letter of Intent requirements, please visit the websites of the following foundations:

Kresge Foundation,

Public Welfare Foundation,

Aetna Foundation,

Charles Stewart Mott Foundation,

Ford Foundation,

It is recommended that the project and amount of the request to the foundation remain the same and not change between submitting the Letter of Intent and later, upon invitation, a full grant proposal.




As part of the required application process, a foundation may ask applicants to send a Letter Proposal instead of the Standard Proposal. Click here to learn about Proposal Basics.

It is recommended the Letter Proposal be kept to one page in length. And, like the Cover Letter and Letter of Intent, the Letter Proposal will introduce the applicant organization, describe the project, and state the total cost of the project and amount the applicant is requesting from the foundation. It should be signed by the highest ranking official in the applicant organization (i.e., Executive Director, CEO, COO, President, Vice President, Department or Program Chief, etc.)

Refer to the following example of a Letter Proposal for a fictitious organization.


February 3, current year

Ms. Eleanor High
ABC Foundation
12131 Main Street
Fresno, CA 99999

Dear Ms. High:

I am requesting $100,000 from the ABC Foundation to develop an educational project called Scenes of California HistoryThe project will be centered on an upcoming exhibit of the Fresno Historical Museum that features historic photographs depicting the construction of the transcontinental railroad in California. Your contribution to develop Scenes of California History will present teachers with the opportunity to use historic treasures located in the museum to teach California history to their students. Nine hundred third and fourth grade students attending Fresno elementary schools are expected to participate in the project.

The not-for-profit Fresno Historical Museum was established in 1851 and is the oldest museum of its type in the United States. Our goal is to preserve and promote California heritage through projects that include a museum, library, and educational activities. The museum’s long history includes working with educational institutions throughout the state, especially elementary and secondary schools. Our projects bring California’s rich history alive to young learners and not only help our schools to meet state curriculum standards but also help to boost community standards by helping the local school district to maintain its elite status among state schools.

A grant for $100,000 will be used to develop the curriculum, promote the project to area schools, and transport students to the museum where they will actively engage in the exhibit. We will implement the project upon grant notification so that students may participate in the project during the upcoming school year beginning in August.

I encourage you to contact Emily Hill, Museum Director, at 111-111-1111, or ••••, for further information about the project. We would also be pleased to arrange a tour of the museum at your convenience.
Thank you for considering our request to support this project to teach young students about the history of our fine state.


Irene Jones
Board President




A Standard Proposal will be accompanied by four documents included as Appendices:

  1. A List of Governing Board Members
  2. A Copy of the Organization’s Tax-Exempt Verification Letter
  3. A Copy of the Organization’s Most Recent Audited Financial Statement
  4. Project Budget

Limit attachments to those listed above unless the foundation has other requirements.

New organizations are not likely to have been audited when they begin applying for grants. Since all organizations should prepare for an audit, the applicant may want to include a statement verifying the organization has established a system of accounting that will permit an effective audit at the end of the fiscal year. The statement should be signed by a Certified Public Accountant or the chairman of the board’s finance or audit committee.




Some groups of grant makers have developed common grant applications. The common grant application format allows grant applicants to save time by producing a single proposal for a specific community of funders. To learn more about foundation applications, visit the web sites of some of the organizations using common grant applications:

Associated Grant Makers, Inc.
Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers
Chicago Area Grant Application
Colorado Common Grant Application
Council of Michigan Foundations
Grantmakers of Western Pennsylvania
Maine Philanthropy Center
Minnesota Common Grant Application Form
New York/New Jersey Area Common Application Form
Ohio Common Grant Forms
Philanthropy Northwest
Rochester Grantmakers Forum
San Diego Grantmakers
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers
Donors Forum of Wisconsin