Whatever its scale or ambition, a grant proposal aims to do two things: to show that a particular project needs to be supported by a funder and to show why some individual, group, or organization is the right one—the best one—to carry out the project.
Showing the “need” is largely an exercise in argumentative writing. It’s argumentative not in the hostile, red-faced, fist-shaking sense but in the classical sense of establishing a claim, developing and supporting it, and taking into account the concerns of a reasonable but skeptical audience.
In a grant, your claim is that some project is necessary, and you can support this claim by identifying the gap in services or gap in knowledge that the work addresses. The flip side of need is impact, so you’ll usually want to go beyond necessity to showing how things will be different once the work is completed. If your project is supporting dental education for rural populations, you’ll want statistics and quotes that explain why it needs to be done. And you’ll want to explain how this will change the community in the long run, not just in the period of the grant.
If you are writing a grammar of an endangered language, you’ll want to show that the need is urgent because the speakers are dying off. And you’ll want to show that the grammar will have a broader impact, contributing to cultural or scientific projects. If you are writing a biography of a historical figure, the need may arise from new material (letters, manuscripts, unsealed papers) or new ways of interpreting historical documents and events. And you’ll want to let the funder know what significant things the biography will tell us about an era, movement, or culture.
The argument for the need should also be framed with reference to the funder’s values and priorities and how the project relates to them. Often a funder’s values and priorities will be explicit in the grant application questions. Is their focus geographical? Demographic? Disciplinary? Are matching funds a must? A close reading of funder’s mission—and a look at previous projects they have funded—will save you (and them) a lot of time if you are not really a good fit.
That’s all there is to it. Argue for the need for the project. Persuade the funder that you are the best one to do it.
All grant applications are not identical, of course. Most ask specific questions about audience, access, partnerships, sustainability, evaluation, or more. Some applications will give you 25 pages to make your case; others will give you a box allowing no more than 300 words per answer. But if you have a clear vision of the need for the project and your relationship to it, the writing will go more smoothly whatever the format.
Think of grant writing as business writing that shows some passion: direct and straightforward, a minimum of rhetorical flourishes, abbreviations, undefined technical terms, and no loaded language or slang. Follow the journalistic inverted pyramid style of putting the most important information first and aim for a positive tone that presents a vision not a problem.
Finally, keep in mind that grant applications are read by people. Each reader will have a different specialty and a different set of concerns. Some will question your evidence, some will question your methodology or your evaluation plan, some will comb over your budget or résumé, and some will circle your typos in red. So as you proof your application before hitting the submit button, put yourself in the shoes of these different personalities and try to anticipate what might stand out to them.
If grants seem daunting, remember that grant writing is also a transferable skill—the same rules can be applied to: business plans; book, film, and project proposals; and white papers to address community or national issues. Essentially, it’s just writing that gets things done.