proposal writing

What a grant proposal contains will depend on the funder. The guidelines that the funder outlines will let you know exactly what you need to submit to them; thus it is difficult to outline a series of instructions or tips that will always hold true. It is extremely important to read the application instructions carefully as funders will notice grant proposals that are well-tailored to their funding requirements, and they will certainly notice proposals that miss even a small requirement. The most common, basic elements of a grant proposal are a cover letter, a project description, a budget, and a work sample.   

Cover Letter

This is the top page of your proposal; it should succinctly identify and explain the contents of the proposal. 

Basic characteristics of a cover letter:

  • One page in length.
  • Identify what you’re requesting, for example: "I am writing to request an artist’s grant in the amount of $500.” 
  • A brief description of your project (a few sentences long).
  • Identify some particular aspect of your project to which you’d like to draw attention.  For example, high-profile collaborators, previous success, support already received.  (See “Motive” under “Project Description” for more ideas to use here.)
  • A list of enclosed materials (after your signature).

Project Description

This is where you can explain, in depth, what your project is all about. Project descriptions should address whatever items the funder requests; listed below is a general formula for writing a successful description. While the structure is outlined below, it is important to remember that the project description will be read by someone who is reading potentially hundreds of similar descriptions. This makes it all the more important to focus on style and readability: a well-written description will read like a narrative, flowing from one section to the next. 


  • Hook: interesting first sentence. Begins to set up the problem that your work seeks to address.
  • Motive: why should the reader care? Set up an explanation for why your work, your approach, your ideas are important and need to be funded. This might be a chance to use some of the research you’ve done on the funding organization. What do they care about? Here are some ideas of what a motive could entail:
    • The truth isn’t what one would expect, or what one would expect on first glance.
    • The standard opinion needs challenging.
    • There’s a contradiction or complexity.
    • This seemingly tangential or insignificant matter is actually important or interesting.
    • There’s a mystery or question that needs explaining or answering.
    • Views on the matter conflict.
    • This is something that has never been done before in this way.
  • Closing: setting up the basic outline of your project and how it will address the problem.


  • Describe the project’s aesthetic approach, materials, goals, and any other information that will give the reader a well-rounded idea of your project.
  • Clarity is key here. Don’t write around what you’re trying to say: describe what the project is, what its intentions are, what you hope to accomplish, etc.  This is a time to look back at what the funder wants from a project and then tailor your description to match exactly what they want.
  • Describe how your work fits into the larger art world.


  • Restate the main argument for funding your project with the focus on what you think is the strongest reason for funding your project. 
  • Details and logistics: any dates or details on the basic logistics of the project can be included here.  


A budget is a basic breakdown of the funding your project will require. The general amount of your budget will usually correspond to the scope of your project, your experience level, and your history of carrying out similar projects. Looking at friends’ or colleagues’ budgets can help you get an idea of where you might want yours to land. In the end, though, it’s important to estimate your expenses (and income) as closely as you can. The budget is not set in stone, though; it’s only an estimate, and once your project is under way many of the amounts will likely shift. Be careful not to allow too little, however, so that when you’re in the middle of your project you suddenly find that you are underfunded. In addition, make sure you pay yourself! Professional artists get paid for their work, and by budgeting for your own salary you will show the funder that you are a professional who values your time. 

Keep in mind that the strongest budget proposals usually include money coming from several sources instead of just one. 

Supporting Materials

Gauge what to send based on what the grant funder asks for in the grant application. Often, funders will ask for a biography and resume and any other documentation of your career, including reviews, press releases, catalogs, videotapes, portfolios, etc. No matter what the application asks for, do not send material that is no longer relevant. If you have a press release from ten years ago, for instance, promoting work that is much different from your current project, it's probably not going to help your application to include it. 

If you’re sending slides or digital images of your work, make sure that they are well shot and highlight the strength of your work.  


The person on the other end of the proposal will only know you through your proposal. This means that presenting a thorough, well-researched, detail-oriented proposal is essential. Putting all written documentation (proposal, resume, etc.) on the same kind of paper using the same font is a small detail that will go a long way in the presentation of your proposal.    

As mentioned earlier (but it bears repeating), look through the qualities that the funder wants in a funded project. Does your project embody each and every one of those requirements? Is each one addressed clearly in your proposal? If you tailor your proposal to the exact requirements of the grant, you will be showing the funder that your project is exactly what they are looking for.