The Elements of a Good Proposal Abstract

The Elements of a Good Proposal Abstract

This article was originally published on the Charity Channel.

Many grant proposals require an abstract or executive summary, which is usually one—rarely two—pages in length. An abbreviated summary, the abstract serves to give a synopsis of the proposal’s important factual information or major distinguishing elements. Think of it as a map that highlights the outstanding features of your proposal’s terrain. It guides readers as they read to pay special attention to what you want them to notice and helps them to recall these points clearly when they think about (and judge) your proposal later on.

What Should You Include in the Abstract?

Often a funder will tell you exactly what to include in your abstract. This may be contact information, information about your organization’s activities, your project’s start and end dates, the number of people to be served, and which funding criteria your project meets. Alternatively, the abstract may contain a brief synopsis of the major sections of the proposal, such as: Need, Objectives, Outcomes, Target Population, Scope of Services, or Project Methods.

If the funder does not specify what you are to include in the abstract, it is a good idea to include:

  1. Organization: Who are you? Where can you be contacted?
  2. Need: What is the purpose of your project?
  3. Target Population: Whom will you serve?
  4. Project Overview: What will you do, and how? What are your project’s goals and objectives?
  5. Outcomes: What do you expect to achieve? How will you measure success?
  6. Request: What is the total amount you ask from the funder?

If you are trying to figure out what to include in your abstract, refer back to the required contents of the proposal for guidance. Reread your proposal and look specifically for its most important elements.

When Do You Write the Abstract?

Although it can be tempting to start at the beginning and to write the abstract up front, it is most useful to save writing it until the end. This way, you can include excerpts from your own text, boiled down to suit a shorter format. However, feel free to revise your text rather than simply cutting and pasting. You may find that you need to add or delete information to make things clear in this new context. (As you cut unnecessary information and eliminate wordiness, you’re bound to find ways to streamline and strengthen your original text; more on this below.) Be sure you make the abstract easy to read by using bold headers and bulleted or numbered lists. Additionally, make sure that you use an active voice in your sentences.

What If You Don’t Have Enough Space in the Abstract?

You’ll rarely have enough space in the abstract to say all you want to say. However, the challenge of fitting everything in is also the biggest opportunity the abstract presents. The abstract will make you rethink your project and see it from the outside in rather than the inside out. When writing your abstract, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What are your project’s most important elements?
  2. What must someone absolutely know in order to understand your project?
  3. What elements of the situation you address must someone know to grasp why this project (and not some other) should be funded now (and not later)?

Often what you thought was important while you were writing the proposal turns out to be less important as you rewrite. One of the pleasures of grant writing is finding a way to say a lot in a very few words. Grant writing can be dull, pedestrian prose; however, good grant writing consists of crystalline and energetic sentences. Your abstract can thus help you revise your proposal and make it stronger. Take a look at the sample problem statements and project synopses below and see how brief one can get and still convey the essence of the proposed work. In each project synopsis, the second paragraph could be cut if there were space constraints or might be placed under a heading entitled “Evaluation/Outcomes.” 

Note: These samples intentionally contain a little fluff. See if you can find ways to make them leaner still.

Sample Problem Statement #1

Elementary school students in Northwest County, like most young people of color who live in poverty, are more likely than higher-income students to become ill and to die at young ages. They are more likely to live in poor environmental situations with limited healthcare resources—factors that can compromise their health status—and three and a half times more likely to be overweight or obese than their more well-to-do peers. As African Americans, they have a 51 percent higher obesity prevalence than whites. Obesity undermines people's health as being obese increases the risk for many chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and stroke. Results from student physical fitness assessments conducted at Northwest public schools each fall show that 50 percent of children from the low- to very low-income demographic in grades pre-K are overweight. Many lack physical stamina and have low self-esteem. Most report watching television and playing video games when out of school. Recent district-wide budget cuts have severely reduced public schools’ physical education programming.

 Sample Project Synopsis #1

CDC seeks $10,000 to cover the costs of sports equipment associated with offering regularly scheduled after-school activities five days a week. Our Fit for Life initiative promotes physical fitness among youths of all physical abilities in grades pre-K through five by encouraging participation in workouts, games, or sports to the extent of each child’s ability and by defining success in terms of individual achievement. Group discussions on three topics—Setting My Personal Fitness Goals, Understanding the Importance of Teamwork, and Serving My Community—also take place one day each week and enhance student appreciation of the relationship between being active and remaining healthy.

Year-end outcomes are: 1) 100 percent of participants exercise regularly as measured by program participation and self-reports, 2) 70 percent of participants improve in physical fitness as measured by pre and post fitness evaluations, and 3) 100 percent of participants recognize the role of teamwork in promoting physical health and character as measured by self-reports and staff observation. Participants also will take part in a fitness evaluation to assess speed, agility, strength, endurance, and flexibility upon enrollment, midway through, and at the end of the school year. In-house pre and post surveys and staff progress reports for each participant will assess changes in attitudes toward self, community, and community.

Sample Problem Statement #2

Statistics for 2009 show that there are 3,475 women veterans in Q County and more are expected as deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq end. Women vets represent more than 10 percent of deployed troops. However, women vets are a population whose needs are only now being documented. Newly returned to civilian life in greater numbers than ever before, women vets nationwide often suffer from severe isolation and dislocation as they transition to civilian life. During this period, they are often unable to obtain full or well-paid employment, and many become chronically unemployed or underemployed. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in November 2009 veterans of both genders made up 20 percent of our unemployed. In fact, despite their career in the service, their marketable job skills often fall short of those required in a civilian workforce. Seventy percent of women vets return to civilian life with only a GED or high school diploma and even officers, who have held high-power jobs on active duty, are hindered by gaps in their resume and training. Women vets also suffer from unresolved combat-induced physical or psychological illness. They may experience flashbacks or periods of depression that impede their day-to-day functioning or full-time employment. Those who have seen combat and/or been victims of Military Sexual Trauma frequently suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sample Project Synopsis #2

The Women in the Military Program (WMP) provides education, training, job-seeking assistance, and mentoring for employment-related outcomes for women veterans. Many of these women already possess leadership and technical skills; however, they need assistance in transitioning back into the civilian workforce and/or dealing with the emotional traumas of war. Program components include: 1) Job coaching to create individual employment plans for workforce reentry; 2) Online mentoring by women veterans for clients needing to work on skills and issues identified by the mentee; 3) Regular meetings with women vets for social support and to share knowledge and referrals; 4) Financial assistance for education-related needs—such as college tuition or specific training costs—that are not met by other community services or programs; and 5) Networking and trainings to strengthen the linkages between emerging employment markets and veterans interested in green jobs.

WMP will capture client outcomes using surveys, case management documentation, and biannual and exit interviews. Anticipated quantitative outcomes include: Attainment of living wage employment; use of community support network; connection to professional career-related networks; use of employment-related service system. Qualitative outcomes include: Understanding civilian career options; reduced sense of isolation; confidence in applying learned military leadership skills to civilian life; confidence in ability to support self and family; appreciation of the benefits of mentoring support; and understanding and application of work-life balance.