Last Updated: October 11, 2022
A couple of years ago, we were asked to read several ineffective community development grant narratives that non-profit and neighborhood organizations have submitted. We decided to show you some sample poorly written sentences excerpted from actual applications for funding, with suggestions for improvement shown in parentheses. We hope this is helpful in improving your success rate as you seek external funds for your important work in your neighborhood.
You might be seeking money for trash cans with personality, such as the one pictured on this page, or for new benches for your business district, which we will use as our example. If you want support for a social program or children's initiative, the principles will be the same. We start with some actual sentences from a community development grant narrative that we were hired to review.
The real-life example sentences from one application are in red, while our comments are in parentheses.
1. We the XYZ Neighborhood Association want $25,000 so we can buy some new benches for the Johnson Street Business District. (Do not waste words. Most grant applications require a form, and if so, the form will definitely ask the name of your organization and the amount sought. Watch your formality level; instead of "want," you should use a more formal word such as "seek." This organization says it wants to buy "some" new benches. Surely you know how many, and if so, use that number. If not, simply omit the word some. Numbers are specifics are usually vital in successful grant applications.)
2. We need new benches to improve the appearance of the district and to replace the benches that are worn out. (Be more graphic about what "worn out" looks like. We need to paint a word picture any time possible, so say that some slats in the backs of benches have fallen out, that benches have become full of splinters, or that seat boards are deteriorating and may not hold the screws much longer. Community development grant narratives should be specific whenever possible, so you should be able to say that the backs of five benches have missing boards, for example.)
3. The benches we have now are really old. (Quantify every single statement possible. Investigate when the last benches were installed and report their exact age. While you are researching, find out how the previous benches were funded. If that money source is no longer available or is greatly diminished, as might be the case if Community Development Block Grant funds were used, for instance, state why the previous support is not possible for you now.)
4. Besides being ugly, we just don't have enough benches. (This sentence is poorly written. Does "besides being ugly" refer to "we?" Whether something is "enough" will always be perceived as a self-serving value judgment unless you can cite an objective national standard about how many benches per linear foot of sidewalk or per block are sufficient. Maybe you have a photo of people standing around, showing there are not as many benches as potential users. Convince us that you don't have enough.)
5. On sunny days some people who would like to sit down can't find a place. (Who are these people? This is your opportunity to tug at the heart strings, and you must do so. Pregnant women, third graders on the way home from school, and grandmothers shopping for groceries would produce a more emotional and more sympathetic reaction in the reader.)
6. We don't know for sure how much new benches would cost, but our officers think $25,000 should cover it. (Your community development grant narratives must include a detailed budget for the money you are requesting. Guessing is not an effective option. Do some work to obtain actual quotes for the cost of benches, shipping to your cite, and installation. Explain how you decided to purchase a particular bench; if others were considered and your selection is less expensive than other options, you need to state this. If you need to purchase a mid-range or high-priced bench, explain why, illustrating the problems that lower-priced benches cause. Then report those numbers, together with any modifying specifications you can supply, such as the manufacturer name, model, finish, and size of benches. If you obtained three bids for installation, report that. If shipping cost was obtained from the manufacturer, say so.)
7. The community will really benefit if you fund this grant. (Community development grant narratives need to be both specific and expansive about how and why the community will benefit. Work really hard on this benefit description if you think your application falls just outside of the usual pattern of funding for the granting organization. Benefits might include: increased sales in the business district due to people staying longer and to an improved appearance, increased sales tax revenue, improved likelihood of attracting additional businesses to fill the vacant storefronts that account for 16 percent of available square footage downtown, more safety for children walking through the business district after school because of an increased number of adults outdoors taking advantage of the new benches, and so forth. Look for research studies that show how much more sales per square foot a commercial district can expect after a streetscape project such as the one you propose.)
8. We have the experience necessary to implement this project. (Who is "we?" How old is your organization, how is it organized, how strong are you, how many members do you have, how have you been honored, and what is your track record on similar projects? If you have never done a similar project, what projects have you completed that demonstrate expertise in project management at the level of complexity that will be needed for this particular improvement? Is your executive director a leader in the field and a seasoned manager? Effective tracking and the qualifications of the persons directly responsible for the grant implementation and at the chief executive officer level are of utmost importance.)
9. We will be so grateful if you fund our application. (How grateful will you be? Your community development grant narratives need to explain in detail what recognition will be given to the funder. Will there be a ribbon cutting ceremony where the CEO can speak? Will there be a small brass plaque on each bench? Will you give recognition on your website and in social media? Will you give the organization four free tickets to your next gala? Note that if you are applying to a very large foundation, they won't need your expression of gratitude, but individual philanthropists and small local foundations certainly will appreciate it.
Several key points must be observed to support your successful fundraising application:
1. Make your writing concise and compelling. If the funding organization publishes a narrative word or character limit, be sure to observe it. Often you have no choice because the digital entry forms simply cut off characters or words exceeding the limit.
Sometimes a grant officer will give you advice on a narrative length, even if there is no firm rule. Pay attention. But if you have a limit, pack your story to the brim with buzz words reflecting the funding organization's priorities and interests, the most dramatic statistics you can find from reliable sources about the impact of your program, slightly unusual and evocative words as opposed to boring and everyday ones, and emotional examples of how your program can impact society, a target population, or a location of mutual interest to your organization and the funder.
2. In addition to great writing, make sure that you use proper grammar and impeccable spelling. If you submit the application on paper, take time to assure a clean, neat appearance, and quality printing. If you submit electronically, rehearse how the platform works and discover in advance any quirks about its response.
3. Follow the advice of the grant maker on content. Community development grant narratives should not repeat information requested elsewhere in the application unnecessarily though. On the other hand, if a part of an earlier answer is relevant to the current question, at least refer to the previous response briefly; if it is a key point of your entire application, repeat the content but use fresh wording. To make sense, your community development grant narratives often need to repeat data shown on fill-in-the-blank portions of the application form; a small amount of this redundancy is fine, but if it needs to be extensive, feel free to refer to your earlier replies.
4. If the application does not allow you to do so elsewhere, it is critical to use community development grant narratives to include all the information to explain your proposal. We suggest that you scramble the journalistic 5 W's and try this order of presentation: what, where, why, who, when. Typically the "where" and the "when" of community development grants can be described very briefly.
However, the "where" should give particular buildings or locations if relevant and "when" should give specific dates if events are involved. If the application form covers almost all of the "what" adequately, concentrate very heavily on "why," and give as little or as much explanation as necessary to tell who will be participating.
5. Look all over the internet and in professional or trade sources to find relevant data, statistics, prices, and numbers in general. Count things yourselves if necessary. Use this information carefully to support your case.
6. Quote sources for any statistics or research findings to the extent possible. Your community development grant narrative shouldn't assume that a grant maker will believe you just because you say half of all mothers are also grandmothers.
When sources are numerous, select the one with the most sterling reputation. For most funding organizations, you won't need footnotes. Use a sentence such as "According to the Urban Institute, 67 percent of all mothers are also grandmothers." Funders that require an exact citation usually will let you know that.
7. Gear your narrative to the reader. If the funder is very familiar with your organization and your leadership, you can afford to spend less time touting your competency to do the project, and more time explaining why this application is particularly apt. Even in that event, however, be careful to address all important points briefly, since you never know when the funder will ask for input and evaluation from an outsider who is less acquainted with you.
8. Be sure to use the narrative to underscore how application strengths match up with selection criteria. Don't be afraid to specifically reference scoring criteria and to organize all or part of your application by demonstrating the outstanding applicability of your project to each criterion. If you have room, you can summarize the match in a table.
Just be brief if that information is contained elsewhere; you can even reference the part of the application that gives a more detailed explanation. For example, you might say, "As explained in more detail in response to question 9A, we plan to contract out meal service."
9. Unless specifically forbidden to do so, consider including photographs in your narrative. Place each photo adjacent to a point being discussed. In our example, you could use photos of missing boards in benches. These days there is little excuse for a poor quality photograph in a grant application. Be careful about formatting when electronic submission is required.
10. If you are approaching large foundations or corporations that work beyond your own city, it is worth pondering current trends in foundation thinking. We stress foundations, since corporations often look to the foundations for guidance on philanthropy.
If this interests you, see the Council on Foundations article on the current thinking of foundations with respect to community development.
Note: You may want to enjoy our three-part series on neighborhood associations, in addition to checking out one of these.