Give Your Proposal the Winning Edge

by Susan Schaefer

You've tweaked the text, finalized the supporting data and compiled pages of required attachments. If you've been attentive -- and lucky -- enough to finish your proposal with time to spare, how might you make your document stand out above the pack?

One in a pack is exactly what your proposal becomes once it hits the mailroom of most foundations. Put yourself in the shoes of a program officer at a foundation that is listed in one or more of the national directories. That publicity usually results in dozens of proposals per grantmaker per day. Funders simply do not have the time to read each one closely. If you spent your time doodling during Grantwriting 101, your proposal's time with a funder will likely be short and less than sweet. Lack of attention to guidelines, a rambling executive summary or a shoddy needs statement, among other things, will quickly disengage foundation staff.

If you have met those basic requirements, there are human factors that may determine a proposal's fate. These are the elements that make a text interesting to read.

Human nature draws us to documents that are visually appealing, readily understood and easy on the eyes. Most successful grantwriters incorporate some variation of the following into their writing routines:

  • Read for succinctness. Each paragraph, sentence and word should help make your case. Cut text to a bare minimum, which if often a third fewer words than most of us tend to write. Omit text that you left in the document because it sounded impressive but does not directly contribute to your case. Your program officer will thank you.
  • Write for dummies. No, you should not assume that your program officer is incompetent, but you should not assume that he or she has an advanced degree in the subject for which you are seeking funds. Find an editor who is unaffiliated with the proposal's preparation or even its basic premise. Ask that person to read the document with the aim of full comprehension. Since most grantmakers are generalists, your goal is to create a tone that is conversational and free from technical language, industry lingo, undefined acronyms or incomplete explanations.
  • Format each page so that you leave some amount of white space on each. Page after page of solid text will increase the chances that your reader will skim the document rather than read it with care. You may consider adding bullets, creating more paragraphs, including some longer quotations (which are indented), leaving generous margins or inserting the graphics described below.
  • Include one graph or chart to illustrate your most important point. One clear visual does wonders for providing the reader with a lasting image of your program results or the needs of your client group.
  • Insert one photograph to put a more personal bent on your story. If you focus on a particular client's experience in your proposal, his or her picture will provide the reader with a sense of familiarity. If you make a case for a new facility, a photograph of the building will solidify your description of it.

If you write with another human being in mind, you will increase the chances that a program officer will spend time studying, and not skimming, your text. Make your submission as interesting to read as you would want it to be if you had dozens like it to pore over each day. The human side to winning grants is as critical as it is when soliciting gifts from individuals. After all, grantmakers are people, too.

Susan Schaefer

Principal, Resource Partners
5515 Hoover Street
Bethesda, MD 20817
301-571-0625 phone/fax

Susan Schaefer is passionate about helping nonprofits enhance their development strategies and has done so for 13 years. As founder and principal of Resource Partners, Susan advises nonprofits whose budgets have ranged from $250,000 to over $150 million. Recent clients include the United Negro College Fund, New American Schools, Howard University and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. She has given seminars nationwide about grant opportunities, proposal writing, and the solicitation process.

Prior to her consulting work, Susan spent five years as National Director, Foundations at the United Negro College Fund. There, her department generated $66 million in fiscal year 2001, and she managed development activities for 26 area offices nationwide. Susan was also involved in the creation of the historic Gates Millennium Scholars, a $1 billion scholarship program. Susanís previous experience includes providing development services for colleges nationwide and supervising a university annual fund operation. She has served on multiple boards and is a contributing writer for Charity Channelís Grants and Foundations Review. Susan is a Certified fund Raising Executive and holds a masterís degree in Not-for-Profit Management and a bachelorís degree in English, both from the University of Maryland.

Resource Partners advances charitable work by providing professional, ethical, and collaborative fundraising counsel to nonprofit organizations. We work hard to insure that clients come away having gained more than just grants. We value the opportunity to help clients rise to new heights, so that when our work is completed, a stronger organization exists.

Susan Schaefer Photo

Copyright © 2005 Susan Schaefer. All rights reserved.

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