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“S” is For SPECIFIC: The SMART Approach to Writing Your Proposal

Writing a grant proposal can be a daunting task, especially when as a leader of a nonprofit organization, when you are already wearing too many hats as it is, working more than you sleep, giving more than you have. And now you have to be a writer too?! Not to mention a mind-reader… What will the funder want to know? Which specific details of your endless work will they care about? How do you take all the work you are doing, with its many nuanced facets, and boil it all down into one compelling paragraph that moves hearts and opens wallets?

Enter the SMART approach to writing your proposal (cue the angel chorus):

The SMART Approach to Writing Your Proposal

S- Specific

M- Measurable

A- Achievable

R- Relevant

T- Timely

Using the SMART acronym to tackle your proposal will calm your overwhelm and help you stand out from the crowd. Let’s start with the first letter, “S,” for “specific.”

4 Important ways to be Specific 

The most effective way to stand out from the competition is to be as specific as possible.

Specific Project 

The first and most important thing that funders will want to know is what is your specific project. As clearly and as concisely as you can, tell the funder what you are going to do, the program goal, and/or the specific activities involved. In the simplest terms, funders want to know: what do you do?

This can often be stated in a sentence or two. For example, if your organization works to reduce food insecurity in your community, then you should state it simply:

The XYZ Community Market works to reduce food insecurity in the community.

Specific People 

Make your project objective even clearer by telling your funder specifically who you help, by describing the demographic you work with within your community.

The XYZ Community Market works to reduce food insecurity for families and individuals living below the poverty line in the Detroit area.” 

Solutions Focused 

Now that you have the funder’s attention with your clear mission to address a clear problem, it’s time to wow them with your brilliant plan to address this problem. This is where the funder wants to know: how will you help them?

Rather than spending too much time and space focusing on the problems in the community, focus on the solutions your organization offers, and how you can address this issue in the community:

The XYZ Community Market works to reduce food insecurity for families and individuals living below the poverty line in the Detroit area with a market-style food bank where families can choose their own food, providing a sense of dignity and control.


Although using statistics to support your objectives and mission is important, (and should certainly be included), don’t just stop there. This is your chance to “tell a story” that highlights why you help and convinces a funder that they want to help too

Telling a compelling story is the icing on the proposal cake! Include testimonials and/or accounts of real people your organization has helped. If someone at the bus stop were to ask you, “who does your organization help?” whose faces come into your mind? Which people are the “poster children” for why you do what you do? Which stories do you hold in your heart that make all your hard work worthwhile? These are the stories your funder wants to hear. Choose one or two of the most compelling examples of the difference your organization makes and share those specific stories in your proposal.

How to Choose the Right Story

If you’re anything like most nonprofit staff I know, every single person you have helped has taken up permanent residence in your giant heart. Of course they have, because you are a deeply compassionate person who loves them all! So how do you decide whose story to share? 

Do Some Digging

Even though you are already wearing “too many hats,” you may need to wear one more: detective. Visit your potential funder’s website to see what you can find out about their particular areas of interest. Does this funder focus more on senior citizens? Tell them about the lonely veteran everyone loves who came to market and found not only fresh, healthy food, but a sense of dignity and community as well. Does that funder focus more on children? Highlight that single mom with four children who is so thankful for your help.

Do Some Asking

Just because you have helped someone with a compelling story does not mean you can use their story however you wish. Gently and respectfully asking your participant’s permission to use their story in your proposal is an important part of the work you are doing. It furthers your effort to empower and restore the people you care so much about and are doing all of this hard work for. You can offer to change their name to protect their identity if it would make them more comfortable, but if they do not wish to share their story, respect their privacy and dignity with grace, which reinforces the mission of your work in the first place, and goes a long way to establishing a relationship of trust with the people you serve. 

Put the Pieces Together

Just like assembling a puzzle, looking at all the pieces together before you start can overwhelm you. Instead, group the similar pieces together and start with one specific piece at a time, building toward the beautiful bigger picture. Start with the specifics: project, people, solutions, and stories, and you’ll have woven a compelling masterpiece in no time!

More articles in The SMART Approach Series:

“S” Is For Specific

“M” Is For Measurable

“A” Is For Achievable

“R” Is For Relevant

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