We asked a grant expert what makes proposals stand out. Here’s what he had to say.

Ariel Schwartz
August 18, 2018
Programs & Research

This article first appeared on August 30, 2017. We’ve republished it here with updated information

Let’s talk about grants. In so many ways, they’re a wonderful thing, providing funding to organizations and businesses that are changing the world for the better, and who need financial support to create that change. Unfortunately, they can be really difficult to get, and often require a great deal of work. The good news is, applying for grants is well worth it. In 2017, foundations gave $66.9 billion to nonprofits – a 6% increase from the previous year. With a little guidance and some hard work, some of those dollars could be yours.

To get that guidance, we talked to our friend, colleague, and favorite grant expert Umi Howard, who originally established and manages the Lipman Family Prize at UPenn’s Wharton School. Umi has worked in the social sector in various capacities for the majority of his career and the grant writing world for the past twenty or so, and is a wonderful resource of information about the world of grants. We had the chance to sit down with him, and talk about his advice around writing a grant application. Here are the 8 top insights he shared:


1. Capture attention & imagination

One piece of advice that Umi emphasized throughout our discussion was to make sure your application stands out by focusing on developing a succinct and powerful description of the problem, model, and impact. He says:

“We’re often reading applications where we have detailed, very informative explanations of the work, and I think it’s important from a messaging standpoint and for the impact on the reader to really capture their attention and capture their imagination. The tighter the messaging is, the more it will stand out as we’re reviewing multiple applications.”

While the content itself is extremely important, the way you present it can make or break your application, as grant managers review so many applications for each grant.


2. There is no magic formula

Though presenting your organization’s work in a way that is compelling is key, there aren’t many grant writing rules that are going to work across the board. Generally, there is not one single factor that matters more than others when it comes to the application process that you can focus your attention on specifically. (For more articles and tips about business, call Lee S. Rosen or visit his blog.)

In that vein, Umi shared a couple of myths around that idea that he thinks it’s important to debunk. The first is that the quality of writing matters more than the content of the application itself. This is simply not true, at least most of the time; Both the content and the quality of writing matter, but in a very specific way:

“Organizations are being evaluated on the argument they’re making in writing, so the writing does matter. But I would frame it as being able to build a persuasive argument, use the data you have and the logic behind the way you do your work in the most effective way. Without a well-structured argument, your prose won’t matter.”

Similarly, he’s heard that relationships matter more than the application itself, which is also not generally the case, though relationships do help move an organization forward in some cases. Again, there is no rule of thumb – it looks different from foundation to foundation, depending on what their systems look like.

“Every funder operates differently. Some build relationships over time, and in those cases, where there’s a trust in the quality of work being done, relationships might matter a lot. But then there’s situations where you aren’t able to engage with funders directly, and don’t have the chance to build a relationship.”


Photo via Unsplash

3. Try to build relationships

Though building a relationship with a funder doesn’t necessarily carry any weight in the application process, it’s worth trying. It can also be helpful to you as you’re writing your grant application, at a bare minimum. Before writing your application, reach out to the funder and ask to connect via phone.

“Asking for a quick call or finding some way to engage to ask any questions about the application before applying is a good thing to do. Know that you won’t have it with every funder, but you have to take opportunities with the funders where you can.”

At the Lipman Family Prize, they take requests for phone calls from those who are considering applying for a grant, though they don’t put it on the table at first – you have to ask. This is the case for many grantors, so keep it in mind that you’ll need to be proactive.

“Sometimes organizations assume that funders won’t connect on the phone or provide feedback, when that’s not actually the case. A request might get you something that you didn’t think you could get. And mostly because the program officer can offer a bit of clarity around what’s being asked in the application, what the process is, and add points of clarification that help the applicant better understand the application.”

This is for two reasons: to continue to build a relationship that could help as you move forward, and to get feedback about your application, so you can improve for the next time. Again here, funders likely won’t provide feedback if you don’t ask, so make sure you take the initiative to make that connection. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to learn what you can do better next time – all it takes is an email or phone call!


Photo via Unsplash

4. Make sure your application is coherent

Umi says that one of the biggest mistakes he sees grant applicants make is putting together an application that isn’t coherent across sections. For example, the Lipman Family Prize grant asks applicants to share the social challenge the organization is working on, the model that they implement, the impact that they’re delivering, their methodology, outcomes, and the transferability of their work. These sections could all be well done separately, but if they don’t make sense as a coherent document and presentation of the organization’s work and outcomes, it doesn’t look good.

“Pieces of grants can get written in sections and borrow from boiler plate copy, so it’s important that it all makes sense together.”


5. Be realistic

The lack of coherence described above is also sometimes a result of an organization not being realistic about their goals, which is hugely problematic when it comes to writing a grant application.

“In one section, an organization may claim a really big mission, really big goals, or an expansive set of activities, but in another section it’s clear that they have very limited capacity in terms of staff or funding. So, the story doesn’t add up.”

As such, it’s key that you really think through what you’re capable of accomplishing given your size, capacity, and other resources, so you can tell a story that makes sense in your grant application.

“It’s much better to have a right-sized set of goals for whatever you’re proposing, or get a clear sense as to where you are in your own life cycle, and make sure the funding you’re seeking is well-suited for what you’re claiming or hoping to do.”


6. Do your homework

According to Umi, one of the best things you can do before writing a grant application is take a look at the other organizations who are being funded by the same grantor. This will give you a great deal of insight into what kinds of organizations will be successful in receiving funding from that grantor going forward.

“Really take a good look at the size, sophistication, geographic scope, and approach of other organizations who have received funding. If there are themes, that will be helpful. The organizations that have made it through that process have tended to have done that homework, and determined whether or not they have the threshold, capacity and impact data, and are also offering something unique that we might value.”


Photo via Unsplash

7. Practice makes perfect

When it comes to grant applications, you’re bound to get better with experience. But because you have to start somewhere, one of Umi’s biggest tips for at least your first couple of applications is to get feedback from peers before submitting. If you know other funders who might be able to take a look, that’s ideal, but not completely necessary. He suggests that you ask those individuals to review for the clarity of your argument and whether or not it resonates with the reader.

“Like with anything you’re new at, writing grant applications takes some practice and some reps. Organizations who put together really strong proposals have often been at it for years, and are not only constantly reworking their model, but also the way they talk about it.”

8. Search for grants by sector & geography

One of the most overwhelming aspects of seeking grant funding is finding the right grants to apply for. According to Umi, the best way to narrow it down is by sector and geography.

“If you want to get at the center of your bullseye, the first thing to know is the issue areas that your services are seen as most directly addressing, and getting really clear on that.”

It’s important to think through each of those and look for funders specific to the issue areas your organization focuses on. Even if that’s a number of areas, you need to get clear on what they are, so you can start your search there and really appeal to those issue-specific funders.

The next thing you can do to “focus the microscope on what you want,” as Umi puts it, is to look at the geographic boundary that you are working in.

“In the US, we have a local ecosystem that includes smaller family foundations, churches, giving circles, municipal government, community foundations, and more. Then there’s the regional level, including United Way, corporate foundations, regional foundations, state funding, wealthy individuals. Nationally, you have big foundations like Ford and Rockefeller that fund multiple cities and regions, federal government that operates through the state. Then internationally, there are government agencies that are set up explicitly for the distribution of funds, like USAID, US Department of Agriculture, which has a whole division built around international development and farming practices.”


Upcoming Trends

Because Umi knows so much about the world of grants, we wanted to ask him about trends he’s seen or predicts going forward. Here’s what he shared:

“If people are doing something that is a for-profit social enterprise or a blended model where there’s a for-profit component, there’s definitely a growth in impact investing. It’s probably good, even if someone is looking at a traditional nonprofit, to understand that triple bottom line businesses are going to compete for some of the same dollars as well as for some of the mindshare of funders. The impact investing structure, which comes out of the venture capitalist tradition, is increasingly influencing the way traditional funders look at nonprofits and think about sustainability and impact. The trend of greater emphasis on this will only continue if not become more intense.”

Umi also thinks that a greater emphasis will be placed on funding innovative, emerging technologies that address social and environmental issues going forward.

Thanks to Umi Howard for providing this valuable information about grants! We hope it’s been helpful to you as you seek funding for your impact work. If you’re on the hunt right now, check out the Lipman Family Prize here and see if it might be a good fit.

Looking to stay up-to-date in the worlds of social impact, leadership, nonprofits, and grants? Here are some of Umi’s favorite resources for doing just that:

Chronicle of Philanthropy | The Chronicle of Philanthropy is an independent news organization that has been serving leaders, fundraisers, grant makers, and others involved in the philanthropic enterprise for more than 25 years. It offers a robust advice section to help nonprofit workers do their jobs as well as one of the biggest listings of career opportunities.

Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) | Stanford Social Innovation Review is an award-winning magazine and website that covers cross-sector solutions to global problems. SSIR’s mission is to advance, educate, and inspire the field of social innovation by seeking out, cultivating, and disseminating the best in research- and practice-based knowledge.

Nonprofit AF | Nonprofit AF (formerly Nonprofit With Balls) is the professional blog of Vu Le (“voo lay”), a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps. Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at

Harvard Business Review | HBR produces a variety of print and digital media with the aim of influencing real-world change by maximizing the reach and impact of its essential offering—ideas.

ARNOVA Nonprofit | The Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) is the U.S.-based, national and international association that connects scholars, teachers, and practice leaders interested in research on nonprofit organizations, voluntary action, philanthropy and civil society.

Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (NVSQ) | The Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, the official journal of ARNOVA, is the leading scholarly journal in the field of nonprofit, philanthropic and civil society studies. It is now published six times a year and provides a forum for researchers from around the world to publish timely articles from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

NationSwell | NationSwell is a leading social impact media company dedicated to powering the solutions and innovations that will move our country forward. We advance that mission through a digital media platform that tells powerful, authentic human stories of problem solvers.