Why is the executive summary important?
Because the executive summary (sometimes called an "abstract") will be one of the first things read by every reviewer and funding agency staff member, it will set the tone for the rest of the application. In some cases, the executive summary may be the only section of the proposal some evaluators read. Even if the evaluator reads the entire proposal, a well-written summary will make the evaluator approach your proposal with an open mind. If the executive summary is poorly written, the evaluator may begin reading the proposal with a negative bias that will be difficult to overcome unless the rest of your proposal is exceptionally well written.
Grant reviewers read hundreds of proposals during a week. To get beyond their glazed eyes, your executive summary should compel the reader to read the rest of your application. Here is where you demonstrate the urgent need for the program and help them understand how your organization has the expertise to accomplish this critical task. You should immediately connect your proposed project to the very nature of the funder's mission statement.
An executive summary should be clear, concise, and persuasive and include the following:
- Who you are
- What you do
- A description of your problem
- A few key descriptors of your program/project
- The project approach to solving the problem
- Number of targeted beneficiaries
- What makes your program/project extraordinary
- How your organization/program/project is uniquely positioned
Your first step should be to write the rest of your application. Skip writing the executive summary until after the other parts of the proposal are either completed or at least well-drafted. The executive summary demands a compelling storyline, and comprehensive evidence, which is easier to provide when you have a complete picture of your project, your objectives, and the overall tone and expectations of the proposal.
Because your executive summary should outline your grand application, it should mirror the headings outline of your proposal in a way that sets the reader up for the main points of the proposal and focuses on the solutions you bring to the table. The golden rule is that an executive summary should only include information presented elsewhere in the proposal.
Check your funder's guidelines. The guidelines should give a specific length for the summary. You will want to be close to the recommended length, without going beyond the length limits.
Your good idea will not be funded if you do not follow the directions.
Understand the mechanics of the proposal. Knowing what forms to fill out and how to fill them out correctly by fully understanding the purpose each form serves in achieving the agency's mission is integral to your success.
Start by describing the problems the nonprofit group is trying to address. Your first section should convince readers of the urgent need for your project in 2-4 sentences (20-25% of the total word count). A good practice is to include facts or statistics about the magnitude of the problem, followed by a statement about how the project is necessary. Finally, this section should conclude with a sentence stating the purpose of the project. Much of this information can be found in the background and purpose sections of a well-constructed grant application.
If you are struggling to find ideas for this section, you can always read some of DARPE's development stories to learn from other organizations and the approaches they have used.
Explain to readers your project design, time period, and how the program, once up and running, will be evaluated to determine if goals are being met. This section should take up 2-3 sentences (10-15% of the total word count). You should aim to be clear on how you will evaluate, measure, and report project outcomes, and any sustainability measures that you have put in place. Most of this information can be found in the methods sections of a well-constructed grant application.
This section should state the projected cost of the project in 1-2 sentences (10-15% of the total word count). Make sure the cost given is reflected down to the penny in the budget section of your grant proposal. Then briefly outline how the budget was created to add a measure of legitimacy.
This is perhaps the most important question. Here, you need to answer the question "why you". Start by giving a short description of your nonprofit, then explain why and how your group is the most qualified to run the grant project. You should include relevant project personnel and demonstrated history of organization fiscal and project management success.
The final section in your executive summary should demonstrate to the grant reviewer how your project addresses the funder's mission statement in 3-4 sentences (35-40% of total word count. Many grant funders only give grant funding to specific projects, so it is worth spending some time finding out what they are looking for before applying for the grant.
Make sure to use the keywords from the funding opportunity announcement as oftentimes the reviewer is looking for an exact word or phrase - make their job easier by including word-for-word snippets from the funding announcement within your executive summary. Finish with a nod to the positive impact of your proposed work and how the expected outcomes will advance your business and the funder's mission.
One thing is for certain, you need to know the funding agency very well in order to write a targeted proposal and executive summary. As a member of DARPE, you can access our donor profiles, which provide business intelligence about each donor agency so you never have to write a proposal unprepared! Each donor profile includes contact information, an archive of all former requests for proposals, the projects they have funded, and more!