Read an Excerpt
Webster's New World Grant Writing Handbook
By Sara D. Wason
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-5912-5
Chapter OneWRITING THE PROPOSAL
Now that you have defined the project [see Part III], determined the best corporate and foundation matches [Part IV], and collected and organized the components of your proposal [Part VI], you are ready to begin writing.
If you have developed a document outline, you should feel confident and able to make a strong case for support to a funding source. If, however, you still have issues to resolve, your lack of confidence will reflect itself in the proposal you are about to write. Oftentimes, a proposal deadline is driving the production of the proposal, whether you are ready or not. If your organization is not ready to submit a proposal, your shortcomings will become apparent, both to you and to the funder.
YOUR UNIQUE VOICE
After you are confident in your plan, you need to determine how to approach your writing. This is often referred to as finding your voice.
You can approach a proposal various ways. To determine the tone and structure of your writing, you must take into account the characteristics of your own organization and the funding source. The vocabulary, sentence structure, and degree of formality are all elements of your voice.
Clues from Your Organization
Your organization's size and type provide clues about the appropriate voice.
Size of Organization
If you are in a small agency, finding your voice is fairly easy. You are very likely familiar with the proposed project and can speak with passion and enthusiasm about its benefits and outcomes. In smaller organizations, a program director or other administrator (even the executive director) may have responsibility for writing the proposal. Being deeply entrenched in and passionate about a program can sometimes produce a narrow perspective that has the potential to alienate corporate and foundation representatives. While it is noble to be invested in your program, balance that perspective with a broader view of the issue. This perspective shows itself in the voice of your proposal.
If, however, you are in a larger organization and are the fundraising professional responsible for requesting support, you need the respect and cooperation of the experts in your organization when writing the proposal. The experts may not be used to describing their work in terms that a corporation or foundation can easily understand.
Not only will you have to present a clear and compelling case to your primary contact at the funding source, you must also take into account that your contact may need to present it to others in the corporation or foundation. Thus, you may also have to appeal to a diverse group of staff or board members. These people may or may not have expertise in the particular area you do. As the writer, it is your responsibility to maintain the essence of the expert's voice while at the same time adapting it for clarity.
Type of Organization
Proposals should reflect your organization's personality. For example, an arts organization might exercise more creativity in its proposal than a credit counseling agency. A new grassroots agency will have a far different approach than a 100-year-old bureaucratic educational institution. Be proud of your organization's unique strengths and let them shine in your writing while being mindful of the funder's requirements.
The Funder's Perspective
Put yourself in the funder's shoes as you begin to write. It's your job to get in tune with the funder. Maintain your organization's voice while adapting its style to suit the funding source. People who solicit individuals for donations know this well. Would you make the same approach to a local foundation that you know well as you would to a less well-known national foundation?
Before you begin to write, you should have a good feel for the funder. Go to the funding agency's web site, read the president's statement in the annual report, and review foundation publications and press releases. This gives you a sense of their preferred style of communication. Note whether their style is formal, scientific/technical, or community oriented. You can also learn more about their style through personal interactions (visits and phone calls) with the foundation staff.
Local funders such as community foundations probably know your organization well, so you can use a more familiar tone. If you have a long history with the funder, you want to present your organization as a trusted friend. National funders merit a more formal approach, yet try to avoid sounding arrogant. Funders want competent partners, not prima donnas.
An important element in finding your voice is knowing how you will be evaluated by the funder. Government grants clearly lay this out in the RFP. In corporate and foundation grantmaking, things aren't always as straightforward. However, most corporate and foundation funders would agree they look for the following:
A capable partner who can help them achieve their goals. Voice: Show confidence and competence.
A clear rationale for support. Voice: Be straightforward and to the point.
The relationship of the request to the funder's program focus. Voice: Use words that convey a feeling of shared values and partnership.
Keep a positive tone throughout the proposal, avoiding the following:
Having a tone or making statements that are condescending to other organizations grappling with the same issues.
Speaking poorly of any individuals or groups. You never know what organizations members of the board are involved with.
Dismissing the opinions of your constituents or beneficiaries in the project planning process.
Assuming that your organization is the only one that can address this problem and that you can do it alone. Acting in isolation is counter to today's thinking.
Dropping names, unless you have been given permission to do so. Sometimes this can do more damage than good.
Apologizing about asking for money. Funders want confidence!
A Corporate Voice
Corporations prefer a very concise and businesslike approach. They are adept at conveying clear and short marketing messages and expect the same from others. Draw the reader in with a compelling summary and introduction and then provide the details to back up those things. In order for a corporation to want to invest in your organization, the corporation must benefit in some way. Many corporations integrate their giving into an overall marketing plan to increase market share. For example, computer companies donate their products to local schools, gaining greater exposure in the education market. Even community infrastructure (for example, literacy) or social improvement (teen pregnancy) projects may link to their interests. A strong community with a sound labor pool benefits society, yet it also helps businesses remain viable. Companies are very strategic in the way they choose which issues to support.
The proposal must clearly state these benefits to the corporation; the tone is more akin to a sales approach or a transaction rather than an appeal for the general betterment of mankind, for example. The proposal should be brief, directly addressing the rationale for support.
When crafting a proposal to a corporate foundation (versus a corporate giving program that operates directly through the business), be aware of the gray areas that exist between the two. A corporate foundation must be careful not to fund things that are too closely related to their interests due to certain legal restrictions. (A corporate giving program has more flexibility.) To determine the correct tone and voice, pay close attention to the foundation's published materials and guidelines and follow that tone as you write the proposal. Make sure you understand the funder's perspective and philanthropic goals. If possible, it is a good idea to have the corporate foundation review a draft before final submission to make sure you are using the right tone.
More and more corporations are reverting to online proposal submissions with little space provided to make a case for support. This trend continues as the number of proposals from nonprofits increases and corporate contributions staff decrease. Finding your voice within this format can be a challenge. Do your best to keep the proposal concise yet reflective of your style.
A Foundation Voice
Foundations are interested in finding partners to help them achieve their goals. Again, the foundation's particular expertise is often a good clue as to the voice you should use. Since foundations generally choose partners based on their competence and credibility, you must establish that you are an authority in the field early on. Demonstrate your knowledge of the problem and confidence that you are the best organization to help them solve it.
Know a foundation's politics. For example, if you approach a very conservative foundation for support for a liberal initiative, you will likely create embarrassment for your organization. Your voice will clearly not fit with the funder's interests. However, don't automatically assume a funder's ideology. Many are open to considering multiple points of view; your job is to make a case for why it is advantageous for them to consider your project.
Speak to them in their own language. Gear the language to the reader. Is this a very scientific foundation? If so (and you aren't knowledgeable in this area), bring in experts. However, be careful not to use language that is overused and banal. You want to let the funder know that your project is unique and leading edge.
Remember that your proposal may be read by members of the board and staff who have little understanding of your project area.
Write for a broad audience, do a good job linking your project with the foundation's objectives and mission, and strive for clarity.
Finding your voice is easier when you believe in your program's value and understand the funder's perspective. A good way to test the effectiveness of your voice is to have someone who has no background in your field read the proposal and provide feedback.
Length, Style, and Flow
Construct the proposal so that it makes sense and conveys the information logically and persuasively while retaining your unique voice. You want to be complete yet concise, engaging the reader in your story. You do that through your proposal's length, style, and flow.
In the early days of proposal writing, it was not unusual for the proposal to be twenty or thirty pages long. However, the increase in the number of proposals submitted (reflective of the number of nonprofits as well as advances in technology and communication) and funder staff have caused funders to request shorter proposals. Some even speculate that the proposal will be a thing of the past, with letters of inquiry sufficing.
Many foundations provide guidelines on length. Others simply lay out the proposal components with no length requirements. In general, it is best to limit the proposal to no more than ten pages. In fact, it is desirable to finish the body in less.
Keep these length guidelines in mind:
Technical proposals require more-detailed descriptions of the project and of principal investigator(s) and their qualifications.
Local funders may not need a thorough description of the organization. Capital projects or challenge grants require lengthier proposals because they include building or fundraising plans.
Joint proposals are longer because you need to discuss all organizational partners and their qualifications.
While individual funders may have particular preferences when it comes to the proposal itself, it is wise to follow some general guidelines:
The proposal should be tight, without unnecessary or flowery words or jargon.
The proposal pages should be clean and neat. Coffee spills don't convey a good image.
Check spelling! Read for meaning and typos that evade a spellchecker.
The proposal should be easy to read, with plenty of subheadings and white space to break up the text. The proposal should follow the funders' instructions with regard to number of pages, margins, fonts, and so on. Even if the funder allows 10-point type, resist the urge! It's very hard to read and exhausts the eyes. A confusing document conveys a confusing concept. Use 12-point (or 11-point) type.
Data and statistics are good but make sure you sprinkle in some quotes or qualitative or narrative evidence. (Make sure you respect the confidentiality of your clients in this process.) Use examples where appropriate. This keeps the reader's interest.
Remember: It's important to follow the instructions of the funder.
The flow of a proposal is extremely important. Ideas must logically connect, and the proposal should guide you through a story, with each part contributing ultimately to the conclusion.
It is obvious to the funder when you cut and paste a proposal or take a scattershot approach by sending the same proposal to multiple funders. The case for support falters, and ideas become disjointed. It is perfectly acceptable to use boilerplate material (or pieces of another proposal) in constructing a proposal-or to send out more than one proposal at a time. Just be sure that the ideas connect logically and are customized to each funder's interests.
In order for your proposal to flow properly, keep the following tips in mind:
Outline your document to help sequence and organize your ideas. Use transitional phrases such as "An additional component is ..." or "Furthermore, ..." to link thoughts and paragraphs.
Vary sentence structure and paragraph length to interest the reader.
Summary statements can be used at the end of paragraphs or sections to complete a series of ideas.
End the proposal with a summary statement, not with the budget.
If you are "translating" an expert's wording to make it more understandable, make sure the proposal's style is unified. Inserting technical paragraphs into a basic document results in choppiness. Maintain the same degree of formality throughout the proposal. In other words, use the same voice.
THE FUNDER'S REQUIREMENTS
The most important thing a grant writer can do is listen to the funder throughout the proposal process. Corporations and foundations often have specific requirements that give them a basis on which to compare proposals and projects. Each funder has its own culture and preferences, and you must respect that process if you are going to be successful.
Excerpted from Webster's New World Grant Writing Handbook by Sara D. Wason Excerpted by permission.
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