Grant Seekers Toolkit Step 5: Write the Proposal Narrative

So, you've gathered information about the project you want to propose to a foundation, you've researched the foundation, and you've determined that there is a reasonable fit.

You have made first contact with the foundation, either by phone, e-mail, a letter of inquiry, or a meeting. You have received the go-ahead from the foundation to submit a full proposal – and perhaps you’ve gathered some additional useful information about, for instance, key points to emphasize. Now, you’re ready to write.

But, before you start:

  • Review (again) the foundation’s funding goals to refresh for yourself what the foundation’s primary commitments are and the language it uses to express them.
  • Review (again) the foundation’s guidelines to see if there are specific questions you need to answer in the narrative or special formatting you need to use. Some foundations require that you use an application form or create a cover sheet according to their specifications. Others ask for particular pieces of information in the body of the narrative. Foundations also typically ask for a series of attachments to the narrative.
  • Review the information that you gathered about the project you are about to propose. As you write the proposal, you are likely to come up with additional questions that you need to answer about the project.
  • Some foundations in some states are willing to receive Common Grant Application Forms. The Foundation Center provides a list on their website. These forms are intended to save you work, but note that many foundations still ask for letters of inquiry first, or for supplemental information to be attached to the completed form.

O.K., now you’re ready.

Most foundations publish guidelines that outline the information they want in a proposal. Some guidelines are very specific and others are quite general – but most request the same basic information. When you write a grant proposal, you will draw heavily on information you have already gathered about your organization and your proposed project. Refer to the sections What to Know About Your Station and Understand Your Project.

Proposal narratives are typically 5-10 pages in length. Some foundations require shorter proposals and a few expect substantially longer ones. The narrative of your proposal is best organized in sections. You can create whatever sections you like, but the ones described below work well.


Some people like to open their proposal narrative with a quotation and/or a short paragraph that lays out the issue about to be addressed. Others like to get straight to the point with a simple summary of the proposed project, including ask amount. If you choose the first approach, be sure to still include a sentence or two that states the project and the amount requested.

Organizational Description

You will need to provide a short (1-3 paragraph) description of your station(s). This section provides you with a valuable opportunity to do three things:

  • Describe the work and programs of your station;
  • Distinguish your station and its work from other media;
  • Enlarge the funder’s view of you from “radio station” to “community asset.”

Be sure to include your station’s mission, when you were founded, your service area and listenership, and a brief description of the programming you offer. You can indicate whether you are affiliated with a university, any training opportunities you offer, any distinctive constituencies you serve, and the level of involvement by volunteers in your organization. This is a good place to note some of your station’s major accomplishments and to provide a description of the ways in which your public service extends beyond your on-air programming.

Project Description

You will use this section to provide a concrete description of the project you are proposing. Remember as you do this that foundations are far more interested in the public or community impact of the project than they are in the impact on your station. Even in cases where you are asking for infrastructural or capacity-building support, the end result will be to strengthen and expand your service to listeners.

It can be helpful to open this section with some discussion of the need for the project. Given the nature of public radio, you may sometimes find that you want to propose a project that grows more out of an opportunity than a need. This is fine. Not every project has to respond to a problem; funders will still be interested in projects that proactively seize opportunities to expand your service or reach.

  • As you write this section, use data when appropriate to support your position. For instance:
  • You might distinguish your service by providing data on media conglomeration trends.
  • Or you might set up a request for a music education program by providing data about arts education in schools.
  • Or you might position a request for local news production support by including data about local news trends in mainstream media.

Most foundation representatives will probably be familiar with public radio, but you should not assume that they know anything about trends and issues within the media industry. Data can help them develop an understanding of the issues faced by public radio and the impact of your service.

Once you have laid out the need or opportunity at hand, you will describe what you will do and how you will do it. Be as specific as you realistically can be. For instance, if you are proposing new coverage, give some examples of what it might be and how much will be produced. If you are proposing an educational project, indicate whether you will be working with specific schools and/or other collaborators. If you are planning to expand a local talk show, indicate the elements that will change and why.

Work Plan/Project Implementation

Once you have outlined what your project is, you will need to describe specifically the activities that will be part of its implementation. It is very helpful to include a work plan or series of benchmarks for the project. Many grant applicants have not thought this far, and a work plan can show the foundation that you have planned how you will implement the project. If you have specific dates nailed down, use them. If not, you can develop a work plan or list of benchmarks using an approximate timeline (e.g., 1st quarter, 2nd quarter, etc.).

If you have already conducted research related to the project, launched a pilot, or done anything else that lays the groundwork for your proposed project, be sure to include this information.

You should also note who is going to implement the project. It is helpful to attach a one-page list providing short bios of the key project personnel (staff or volunteer).

Project Impact and Evaluation

Foundations are typically very interested in the outcomes of the grants they make. You should indicate what the impact of the project will be, using as much data as you have available. The fundamental question is: What will change/improve as a result of this project? Answering this question can be a little challenging for public radio – as for other organizations that educate and inform – because it can be hard to measure the impact of ideas, which is where the most profound impact often occurs.

  • However, there are still a variety of important ways to measure success. Depending on the nature of your proposed project, you might:
  • Use Nielsen reports to assess growth in listenership;
  • Conduct focus groups;
  • Create an online evaluation survey;
  • Distribute evaluation surveys at a community event that you host;
  • Solicit and collect listener feedback.
  • You should be as specific as you can be about when and how you will evaluate the project and about what you will do with the information you gather.

The Need for Support

In this section, you will underscore why you need grant support at this time. You should reiterate how your project will benefit the community and indicate how it will help advance the foundation’s specific interests. You can also use this section to talk about the broader funding environment. For example, if you are making a request for general support, you might use this section to underscore why general funding is essential to your organization in a funding environment that favors project-specific support.

However you decide to use this section, be sure to include:

  • The total budget amount for your project;
  • Your organization’s total budget;
  • The amount you are requesting;
  • Information on other sources of funding: While a (small) handful of funders like to provide sole project support, the overwhelming majority prefer to share the load with others. You should note any funders who have already committed funding or where requests are pending. You should also list other sources of revenue for the project (in-kind support, fee-for-service). Funders want to see that you have plans about how to sustain the project past the termination of their grant, if the project is meant to be ongoing. (Any earned and contributed income, including pending grant requests, will also be outlined on your attached project budget.)


A succinct concluding paragraph can underscore why your particular project is important, how it fits the funder’s mission and goals, and the impact it will have. This is a good place to be inspiring, to point to some of the hope behind the benchmarks and work plans and budgets. Much of what public radio is trying to do is to encourage us to think beyond ourselves, to imagine new possibilities, and to stir a love of ideas and art. Part of the reason any donor gives is emotional; it’s fine to soar a little bit.

Some Tips for Writing a Successful Proposal

  1. Be sure to follow the funder’s guidelines. If they want specific topics addressed, do so explicitly.
  2. If you can manage it, include some white space in your document. Proposals can easily become very dense. You can make your proposal more readable by increasing the size of your margins, adding spaces after headings, using bullet points, etc.
  3. Quotations can spark up a proposal either by placing your project in a larger context or, in the case of listener comments, by personalizing the impact of your work.
  4. Avoid “we believe” or “we hope” statements. In general, these are less compelling than statements that are based on research and careful planning.
  5. Proofread! Typos, grammatical mistakes, and punctuation errors are unprofessional and annoying. Find someone else who can also proofread for you.
  6. Watch for chronic repetition. It’s very easy to use the same words and phrases over and over and over. Having another person read and edit the proposal can help you avoid bad habits.
  7. Match your formatting. If you have some headings in bold, make sure the corresponding headings are also in bold.
  8. If a foundation says they prefer electonic submissions, submit electonrically! If you are senind paper, don’t staple your proposal or put it in a fancy cover. This drives foundations nuts, mainly because they often make multiple copies of proposals. Use a binder clip. Make sure you have numbered all of the pages.

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