Grant Pathways is a division of Pathways to Growth

Most grant proposals are divided into sections. Each section serves a specific purpose in convincing funders that your organization is a strong match for their funding priorities, a good steward of their dollars, and is meeting a critical need in your community. This blog series will break down the grant proposal and look at each piece individually – its purpose, the message that piece conveys to the funder, and the best practices for sharing that information. We’ll look at:

  1. Cover Letters – What to Include and What to Leave Out
  2. Organization History and Background – Developing a Narrative that Appeals to Funders (this post J)
  3. Need Statements – Making the Case for Your Organization
  4. Measurement, Evaluation, and Outcomes – Are Numbers Set in Stone?
  5. Presentation of Budgets for Grant Applications
  6. Preparing Your Grant Proposal Packet for Submission

Whether your nonprofit serves animals, people, or the environment, the Organization History/Background is where you tell the funder what you do and why.

The second section of a grant proposal is typically called the Organization History, Background, or Applicant Description. There are many different terms funders may use to describe this section of the proposal, but they all boil down to the same thing – a brief description of your nonprofit and why it is a valuable part of your community. Think of this section as your elevator story with a bit of extra history thrown in – an engaging, informational story about how the organization was established, what it has accomplished, and why it needs to continue serving a specific need locally, regionally, nationally, or globally.

What are the components of this story?

  1. The Beginning – When was your nonprofit founded? Was it founded by an individual, a grassroots group, or a group with a common need or interest? Start your story by sharing this background information. Every nonprofit has a “why” behind it. One of Pathways to Growth’s clients runs a child development center that has served its community for more than 125 years because two women established schools for children of immigrant families who did not have access to public schools.
  2. Your Mission/Vision – While it isn’t necessary to say “The mission of ABC Child Development Centers is to engage children as we prepare them to meet the academic, social, and developmental skill requirements for K-12 education,” you do want to clearly indicate your mission in your story. Depending upon the space available, you can use a summary statement or rephrasing of your mission statement, an expansion of your mission statement, your vision statement if the mission statement was provided in a previous question, or relate your mission/vision statement to the mission and priorities of the foundation. If you have a compelling mission statement and it hasn’t been stated in the cover letter or an application text box, this is the place to use it.
  3. What You Do – What population do you serve? What role does your organization play in your community? What programs and services do you provide? This section of the application is your opportunity to provide general information about all that your organization does. This is a key component for organizations with multiple programs and services. You may be applying for a grant that only supports a single program area. Use the Organization History and Background to paint the full picture of what you do and how all of your programs come together. Sharing this larger picture may provide the critical piece of information the funder needs to engage with your organization. I recently wrote a grant seeking funding for a camp program. The funder later told the organization that they moved the application forward because they were particularly interested in the services for seniors provided at a different program site. If the funder hadn’t received a full picture of all of the programs and services provided, the grant most likely would have been declined.
  4. What Makes You Unique – There are probably at least twenty after school programs in a single mid-sized community. Why should a funder provide a grant to your middle school arts program rather than the program at the YMCA two miles away? Regardless of whether you are working in education, substance abuse programs, arts programming, or the environment, there is a huge amount of competition for every dollar of grant funding. Let funders know why your organization is uniquely qualified to deliver this service – your major achievements, your connections in the community, anything that will set you apart from the rest of the field. It is okay to brag a bit, but also remember to keep things brief.
  5. Show that you are Stable – Funders want to know that your organization is a good investment. Demonstrate that you are fiscally responsible, that you have an engaged board with strong governing capacity, and that you have diversified funding streams. It is also helpful to tell funders briefly about the capacities or qualifications of your staff or volunteers. There may be an opportunity to provide this information later in the proposal. If so, it is not necessary to include it in the history/background section.
  6. Connect the Organization to the Foundation – Tailor your organization history and background to highlight ways in which your nonprofit aligns with the mission, guidelines, and grant making priorities of the foundation. If the foundation focuses on a specific geographic region, clearly state that your programs or services are in that region using their terminology for the region. If they focus on serving a specific county, refer to your services in the county. If they focus on serving a city or metropolitan area, use that as your point of reference. These same guidelines apply to grant making priorities. Use the foundation’s terms for service areas (i.e. victims of domestic violence vs. survivors of domestic violence, workforce development vs. employment services).
  7. Follow the Directions – The funder may have specific guidelines about what to include in this section of the proposal. If they provide a list of topics for you to address, be certain to write about each topic in your proposal. To make reading your proposal easier for the funder, it is easiest if you address each item on their list in order. You can include additional information as well, but keeping their items in order makes it easier for funders to check off each answer as they read through the proposal. The directions may also specify the length of this section.

The length requirement can be the hardest part of writing the organization history and background. If you are writing a general proposal (total length of proposal about 4-6 pages), the organization history should not exceed one page. If the funder has set the length for each section, you may be limited to a specific number of words or characters. I frequently see this section limited to 200 words, 1,000 characters, or 2,000 characters.  It can be difficult to say everything you want within these limitations. Prioritize any directions from the funder first, then prioritize the bullets in the order they are listed. When words or characters are limited, you will not be able to fit everything listed above.

What to leave out of the story:

  1. Too many details – You may have noticed the word “brief” in various forms above. This is intentional. The story of your organization in the Organization

    “The only therapy my son has had is through this amazing program. He was nonverbal, almost nonresponsive, and meltdowns were a daily event. [Now] meltdowns are few, he communicates, and has totally busted out of his shell. Amazing program with amazing people doing amazing things.” -Autism Center Parent

    History/Background/Applicant Description is not intended to cover every permutation of your nonprofit. If the organization has changed names 5 times in the last 50 years as the focus and programs gradually shifted, the funder doesn’t need to know. If the nonprofit is relatively new and going through growing pains as it determines what programs will work, how big the board should be, and what staff structure will be ideal, those details don’t belong in the organization history synopsis. The story is about the heart of your organization and why it exists, and that is something that should be consistent over time even if there are changes in your mission statement, name, and the specific programs offered.
  2. Information covered in other sections of the grant – While your story should state why your organization exists/is needed in your community, this is not the place to provide a substantial amount of data. The Statement of Need section is where you insert general data about the population you serve or the problem you are working to resolve (i.e. the number of homeless veterans in your county, state, and in the country). You will also provide demographics data in the project proposal and outcome measures sections.
  3. Testimonials – Lengthy client or community partner testimonials should not be part of your organization history/background. Testimonials are typically included as attachments to the proposal. If the testimonial is a brief quote and the proposal is in document format, the quote can be inserted as a text box for a visual break anywhere in the application. Visual breaks should be evenly distributed over the length of your proposal. To create the most impact, the text box should be attached to an image. (see the sample on the right?)

Whether the section is called Organization History/Background, Applicant Description, or any other title, this is typically the most flexible section of the grant proposal and the only opportunity you have to tell your nonprofit’s story. As with any good story, your goal is for the grant officers or trustees reviewing the grant to be able to picture the organization as they read your story. Use your words to paint a picture of where the organization started and where you are today. Make certain the funder can see themselves in that picture and can clearly see the impact their investment will make in your unfolding story. When funders envision themselves in your story, you come one step closer to securing your grant funding.