Read an Excerpt
Both of us stumbled into fund-raising writing. Danielle had done virtually no proposal writing before taking her job at The Nature Conservancy in 1994. When she sat down to write her first piece, she was terrified.
Joe wrote his first proposal years ago at New York University. He had little idea what a development office was until he joined the staff there. His boss, a Harvard graduate and friend of James Baldwin and W. H. Auden, was a gifted writer who had learned his craft in fund-raising offices at Princeton and Cornell.
Together we will use our different vantages in Writing for a Good Cause to help you produce more persuasive fund-raising pieces.
Most of the time, we will speak in one voice. And the first thing we want to say is this: There is no such thing as proposal writing. There are proposals, and there is writing. The same is true of case statements, brochures, and newsletters. They are all fund-raising material in different formats, and they all require solid craftsman-like writing.
To write proposals successfully, you must know two things: what to put into a proposal and how to write well. This book addresses both matters, with the emphasis on the latter.
Why? Because you can find lots of advice elsewhere on how to determine which funders are interested in your cause, how to plan and develop a proposal for a particular program, how to work up a budget, etc. What you won't find anywhere else is how to take all that information and shape it into a knockout, beguiling, exciting, can't-put-it-down, and surely can't-turn-it-down fund-raising proposal.
Are we exaggerating? Of course. That is one of the early lessons we will teach you. Controlled hyperbole is a high art. But then we assume that, like our book, your program is worth shouting about from the rooftops. If you don't believe in it, if you don't call attention to it, why should anyone else notice or care?
But wait. Before we go any further, let's deal with an assumption that pervades most fund-raising offices. It is this: Anyone can write. The gobbledygook we all encounter in office memos every day gives the lie to those three words. Yet the notion that anyone can write, and presumably write well, persists. The personal computer, which allows us to move words, paragraphs, and sections any which way and to remove and add words with great ease, has given even more power to the idea that we are all writers.
Interestingly, it is an assumption made only outside the world of professional writing: Editors of newspapers and magazines and at book publishing houses are well aware that not everyone can write. Indeed, they spend each day trying to improve the writing of people who actually can write. Writing is their product, and they cannot publish material written by just anyone who thinks he or she can write.
Now, of course you can write. You do it all the time, and you give about as much thought to it as you do to other things you do all the time: breathing, eating, walking, watching television, driving to work. The only problem is, most of your writing is for people who know you or care greatly about what you are writing about. Your Aunt Sally is terribly interested in your family, so a run-on sentence or two or a boring paragraph won't keep her from reading your letter. And your boss really does want to know what happened during your call on an important prospect, so he or she will take the time to puzzle out your trip report.
You pay a lot more attention to your conversation when you are with someone you don't know well that you want to impress, don't you? You should. The same goes for writing that is intended to woo.
Or perhaps you know people at the Ford Foundation who care about you and your work to the same degree that Aunt Sally does. If so, congratulations! You don't need this book.
Well, you get the point. Stringing words together with an occasional period is not writing no matter how pretty it looks when it comes out of a laser printer. The people working at Time magazine know this; if they published the prose turned out in the typical American office, they would soon be out of business.
All of this is compounded in fund-raising offices because those doing the writing of persuasive pieces are generally neophyte writers or experienced fund raisers harried by a thousand concerns other than writing the proposal at hand. In fact, the writing of the proposal is deemed a necessary evil, a chore, an unfortunate task that is often put off and put off until finally the foundation deadline is upon us and Well, let's get the thing written and out. Thank God for FedEx!
The result is delivered by ten o'clock the next morning to funding officers around the country, and it ain't pretty. Often, it is illogical, unreadable, and boring. And the typos Well, at least they break up the tedium of stirring the mud with the eyeballs.
On the other hand, we know that some of you considered crawling under your desks as you read the above because you know you can't write. You just spent an hour looking at a blank computer screen. You reworked the same opening sentence 68 times. You highlighted your outline in three different colors but don't have a scrap of writing to show for it.
Worse, your colleagues have been slowly piecing together how unqualified you really are, and when they get this first draft, they'll know for sure: You are a hoax. You can't write to save your life. You are doomed.
Believe us, we've been there. And we hereby guarantee that you will not only survive but you will conquer.
What is to be done? It is time to think about how to write for a good cause. Let's take the writing itself as seriously as we hope funders will take our proposals. Let's take a deep breath and begin.
In his classes on proposal writing, Joe has found that most men and women realize they must spend more time thinking about the writing in proposal writing. Most have a fairly strong idea of the information that must go into a proposal. It is the writing that concerns them, for they are not writers.
- Can you give us an outline for a basic proposal? (Yes.)
- How long should my proposal be? (Long enough to secure funding.)
- How do I find time to write? (You don't find time to write. You make time to write.)
- Does my proposal have to look fancy? (Depends on who's reading it.)
- Isn't there an easy way to do this? (No.)
- What's the best advice you have? (Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.)
- What's the second-best advice you have? (Read everything you can get your hands on.)
We're going to address all of that and more in Writing for a Good Cause. We're going to offer the best advice we have about the experience of writing in the context of fund raising. And we are going to offer thoughts related to fund-raising writing from a wide range of people and places.
We collared colleagues fund raisers and writers and persuaded them to tell the stories of their work at disparate nonprofits: from the Consumer Federation of America to the Wilderness Society; from the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts to the University of California at Davis; from Borealis Community Land Trust in Alaska to WETA, a public television and radio station serving Washington, D.C. We surveyed program officers at the 100 top foundations; we demanded hot tips from photo, design, printing, and Web site gurus; and we nearly ransacked libraries at the National Society of Fund Raising Executives and other national groups.
We also garnered advice from writers, both living and dead, ranging from Chekhov ("Take out adjectives and adverbs wherever you can") to the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jonathan Yardley, who has been writing persuasively for many years and who reminded us about the string that must run from the beginning of a piece to the end: "If the string breaks, you lose the reader," he says.
"Put the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair," Rex Stout used to say when asked how he got his writing done. He was writing Nero Wolfe mystery novels. How does that relate to your work? Plenty. Nothing ever got written without putting seat to seat. (Hemingway was the exception; he'd often write while standing, with his pad on the top of a refrigerator; when we become Hemingway, we will do that, too.)
We found some of our advice in unlikely places. Zen masters like Thich Nhat Hanh have much to tell us about writing. When doing the dishes, do the dishes, they tell us. When eating, eat. When writing, write!
We're looking forward to spending some time with you aimed at strengthening your writing for the finest causes in this country. We're going to learn a thing or two ourselves as we move ahead. Despite our harsh words about much that gets written, we both remain humble and a bit insecure when it comes to writing well. Writing is hard work; never let anyone tell you otherwise. The more you grow as a writer, the more you will be grateful for those moments when you get the words right.
We're going to toss in a bit of poetry now and again. We're going to show you how accomplished writers lure readers by using plain English for complex subjects. And we're going to describe at least ten wonderful things that enrich our lives every day that would not have existed if someone hadn't written a fund-raising proposal.
We will do our best to be empowering, realistic, down-to-earth, lucid, motivating, sympathetic, and amusing.
In Writing for a Good Cause, we'll show you how to use words well to win the support of funders.
Copyright © 2000 by Joseph Barbato and Danielle S. Furlich