Good vs. Great Proposal

Recently, our two work teams at Ignite—Non-Profit Services and Philanthropic Services—sat down for a collaborative discussion on the topic of what makes a great grant proposal. The Non-Profit Services team often writes grant proposals as part of its fundraising strategy work for clients. The Philanthropic Services team reads hundreds of grant proposals a year as part of its management of private foundations. Our goal was for each team to have a better understanding of the scope of work we do as a company related to grant proposals. After an engaging and sometimes humorous discussion, we decided to share what we learned.

As a company, our vision is to maximize the power of giving. That includes advancing the philanthropic sector, thereby increasing the sector’s capacity to do good. We know that relationships matter. We consider the work we do a privilege and we seek to be better partners. So we discussed: Is there something we can do to streamline or simplify the ways we engage with foundations and nonprofits? Is there better technology we can offer? How can the philanthropic decision-making process be improved? What best practices can we implement, such as viewing proposals through various lenses?

Proposal Strategies

From our team’s perspective, it’s critical to prepare in advance before applying for a grant. What a nonprofit asks for and how the proposal is completed matter; however, think before you act. Develop a clear strategy, identify your specific funding need, and assess what components make it attractive to a potential funder. How to do this?

  • First, dig into the funder’s decision-making process and identify key influencers who may need to be engaged as part of the application process. This is not always easy; some funders lack transparency. Check the 990-PF plus other online and public library resources; ask other nonprofits who’ve been successful with the funder.
  • Second, understand that applying for grants is a competitive process. You will not always be successful. Private foundations are required to spend 5% of the average market value of their assets each year, but the demand is typically much greater. Donor-advised funds are growing rapidly, but do not have a minimum spend rate (although many distribute more than 5% of their fund balance per year).
  • Third, boards make the decisions, not program officers and not just one board member (at least in most cases). Still, it can be helpful to discuss your idea with the program officer in advance to build a relationship with the funder and to improve the likelihood of success with the application.

As you read our suggestions on What Makes a Good Proposal Great, help us help you. We’re interested in your thoughts. Send your feedback and suggestions to or call Annemarie Henkel, Vice President, at 513-381-1848.

Further Reading

To build on the ideas expressed here, consider Philanthropy’s Seven Deadly Sins by Ali Webb, which appeared in the March 15 edition of Nonprofit Quarterly.