top of page

A Beginner's Guide to Winning Grants

The Why, How, and When of Grant Applications

You’re a nonprofit executive director, small business owner, or your boss has assigned you the unenviable task of finding grants for your organization. Where to start?

Don’t worry– we’re here to help. We’ve broken down the basics to get you started.


Why: Grants from private foundations, corporations, or local, state, and federal government provide valuable financial resources allowing your organization to initiate, maintain, and expand mission goals. Depending on the source, type of grant, and purpose, funding can range from a few thousand to millions of dollars. This money doesn’t have to be paid back, nor do you have to give up a piece of your company. But, they don’t come easy. Grants are often competitive and all demand significant time and effort to locate and apply to.

How: We get it– the process can be overwhelming. From the additional workload placed on already stretched resources to endless and often fruitless internet searches, to confusing application requirements and regulations, you might want to just throw your hands up and quit. However, if you want to go it alone, the best approach is to break the application process into distinct tasks.

Create a Grant Budget. Outline your proposed project (or expansion of an existing one) and determine a realistic amount needed. This will refine your search criteria and help you get a jump on the documentation required in any resulting application. Most grant applications will require a detailed accounting for the proposed use of funds (e.g., staffing, services, administrative costs, supplies, travel, etc.) and a justification for funding it.

Identify Relevant Grant Opportunities. Grants for nonprofits and small businesses are plentiful – billions of dollars in grant funding flows through every conceivable sector: from animal welfare to workforce development. But, you have to find them first–it can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. One option is to conduct web searches using keywords and phrases relevant to your project. Get a comfy chair and settle in for hours searching individual websites. For example, 70% of active grants come from private foundations, and each foundation has its own website, making the search process incredibly tedious. There are databases of grants and funders out there, but they are costly and still require you to manually vet each opportunity. Seek out nonprofits with similar goals and ask about their funding sources. Yes, the search processes can be time-consuming, frustrating, and resource-intensive.

Gather Essential Data in Advance. Having the content below in hand will speed up the application process and make your organization more agile in responding to grant opportunities. While the data required varies by funding entity, standard elements include:

  • Organizational history and mission

  • Description of the target population, needs, and proposed services

  • Assertion of how your project is distinct from other programs serving your target population

  • Major accomplishments to date

  • Challenges and lessons learned with the program to date

  • Milestones and expected accomplishments

  • Description of progress evaluation process

  • Staff and team leader resumes or biographies, including the senior leadership of the organization, board members, and the key staff

  • List of other cooperating organizations

  • Financial information, including audited financials, a budget for the proposed program, a budget narrative explaining how you plan to use the grant funds, a list of other funders, and tax forms

  • A program sustainability plan

  • Additional attachments such as a 501(c)(3) letter and an annual report

Ensure Eligibility: Eligibility is everything. Are you a nonprofit? Do you have 501(c)(3) status? Do you qualify as a small business? Is your organization woman-owned? Minority-owned? Veteran-owned? Does your organization reside in-state? Are you a Tribal Organization? Have you received a grant in the last 12 months? Are you prepared to match grant funds? These are just a few of the possible eligibility requirements. Make sure you meet every stipulation of the grant criteria—if you don’t, move on. Unsure? Some grantors offer a Q&A period.

Create an Application Checklist. Grantors will reject incomplete or non-compliant submittals. In their estimation, if you can’t deliver a satisfactory application, you’re a poor candidate for funding. You can avoid this by creating a comprehensive checklist (ideally in a shared document) that breaks down each required element (e.g., Project Summary, Budget, Required Forms, etc.) and assigns a due date and responsible party.

Establish an Application Production Schedule. Determine the delivery date and work backward from there. The table below provides an abbreviated example based on a 30-day window (excluding weekends and holidays) and assumes early submission*.


Due Date



Kick-Off Meeting

Day 1

All relevant staff

Register for relevant application management systems

Day 1

Project Manager or Grant Writer

Expect a 2-3 week processing time.

Gather/Update documents

NLT Day 5

Grant Writer, Assistant

Complete Initial Application Draft

Day 7

Grant Writer

Group Review of Initial Draft

Day 8

Review Team

Complete Post-Review Document Recovery

Day 11

Grant Writer

Obtain Letters of Commitment

NLT Day 15

Grant Writer, Assistant

Identify relevant stakeholders

Finalize Budget

NLT Day 15

Finance Staff

Complete 2nd Draft

Day 17

Grant Writer

Group Review of 2nd Draft

Day 18

Review Team

Complete Post-Review Document Recovery

Day 21

Grant Writer

Final Edit

Day 22


Complete Post-Edit Document Recovery

Day 23

Grant Writer

Final Compliance Check

Day 24

Review Team

Final Production

Day 24

Production Team

Submit Proposal

Day 25

Grant Writer

Electronic submission

Host a kick-off meeting with all involved parties and set expectations for participation and deliverables. Set and enforce deadlines for all tasks. *Plan to submit the application early. This builds in time to deal with unforeseen challenges and, in some cases, grantors offer an early review and allow for corrections prior to the due date.

Diversify. Overreliance on a single funder is risky. Seeking grant opportunities from varied sources has multiple benefits including minimizing the risk of economic downturns, increasing revenue, and providing separate pools of funding to support distinct efforts within the organization.

When: Establish a fundraising goal for your funding cycle (typically one year) that details the total amount of money your organization seeks to obtain from grants. Estimate the number of grants you’d need to win per year to meet this goal. (This will be challenging until you have a handle on the types of grants and dollar values available for your specific organization and purpose). Dedicate sufficient time and resources to apply for grants to meet your yearly goal. Once you’ve written an initial proposal, you’ll have “boilerplate” material (e.g., organizational history and mission, accomplishments to date, financials, etc.) that can be repurposed in subsequent applications. This will reduce the level of effort and resources required.


To sum up, submitting a grant takes tens if not hundreds of hours of research and writing, and some nonprofits and small businesses don’t have the capacity or desire to endure that process. If your organization is stretched, we humbly recommend GrantExec.

We founded GrantExec to make the grantseeking process painless and cost-effective. We identify, vet, and recommend relevant grants for your specific organization. We’ll sit down with you to review our recommendations and create a gameplan to secure each one. Further, we have a dedicated team of grant writing experts ready to write your application or just give it a once-over (whatever makes sense for you). If you’re interested, head over to our main site at


bottom of page