Write a Great Federal Grant Executive Summary!

Sections of this topic

    Why are Executive Summaries so Important?

    Some federal grant guidelines require an Executive Summary or Project Summary. Some Project Summaries have page limitations and strict rules about their content.

    However, if the Executive Summary is open-ended you have an opportunity to introduce your narrative and provide a roadmap for reviewers. If your Executive Summary is not compelling and persuasive, reviewers may not pay much attention to the rest of your proposal.

    A great Executive Summary should:
    • Connect your project to the federal agency’s mission or goals.
    • Identify the federal agency’s need.
    • Connect your project directly to the federal agency’s need.
    • Explain why you are superbly qualified to carry out your proposed project.
    • Preview how your proposal narrative is organized.

    Despite the importance of the Executive or Project Summary, they often are weak introductions to the proposal narrative.

    Avoid these four common mistakes to produce a great Executive Summary.

    Mistake #1: Not paying enough attention to your Executive Summary
    Too many Executive Summaries invariably begin with the sentence “We are pleased to submit this proposal to xxx and look forward to your review.” They often are very general and they focus on your organization, not the federal agency. These kinds of Executive Summaries are guaranteed to put reviewers to sleep and convince them that they should not read your proposal carefully.

    Pay careful attention to your Executive Summary because reviewers will pay careful attention to it too.

    Mistake #2: Doing your Executive Summary at the last minute
    If you write your Executive Summary at the last minute, you will not have enough time to create a good one. I do not recommend that you do your Executive Summary at the beginning of the proposal cycle, but you need time to think, polish, and refine. This cannot be done at 2 A.M. the morning the proposal is due.

    Begin working on your Executive Summary once you have an almost complete first draft of the proposal narrative.

    Mistake #3: Not addressing your federal agency’s needs
    Too many Executive Summaries focus on your organization to the exclusion of almost everything else.

    Answer two important questions in your Executive Summary: Why am I applying? What am I offering the federal agency?

    Mistake #4: Not being focused and structured.
    Bad Executive Summaries are not only dry and boring, but often they are unfocused and unstructured. Unfortunately, this may be a prelude to the rest of the narrative.

    Your Executive Summary is a short sales pitch. Your challenge is to demonstrate in just a page or two that you have something special to offer a government agency.

    Structure your Executive Summary by following the order of the evaluation criteria in the grant guidelines and be very clear and straightforward. This is a good place for bulleted and numbered lists, call-out boxes, and great visuals. Tell the reviewers what your organization has to offer and explain why you have the best solution to the need that has been identified in the grant guidelines.

    The Executive Summary is too important a part of your proposal narrative to treat lightly. Use it to hook your readers and engage them in the rest of your grant proposal with a compelling story.


    Dr. Jayme Sokolow, founder and president of The Development Source, Inc.,
    helps nonprofit organizations develop successful proposals to government agencies. Contact Jayme Sokolow.


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