It’s All About Context

Every time I complete a grant proposal or application, I cannot prevent the following thought from crossing my mind:  will this thing actually be read?  Willingly?  Carefully?

Recently, I had the good fortune to spend some time with a seasoned grantmaker chatting about the topic of grant proposals.  What works.  What doesn’t.  What is changing.  Midpoint during the conversation, she said to me, “John, I think one of the reasons that I don’t read proposals as carefully as I used to is that I already know so much about the issues and, sometimes, the organization itself.  What’s missing in most cases is context: why the work you are doing now important today?”

When pressed a bit further, she went on to say, “In most cases, we get proposals from organizations that are doing work in a community where we already know “the grim statistics” (her quotes).  So, I tend to skim this part which means that when I get to the meat of the proposal, I don’t really have any context upon which to judge the program I am being asked to support.”

One opinion, to be sure.  But one that is eye-opening.

Context is generally defined as “a set of circumstances or events influencing an event.”  And when you step back and apply it to a grant proposal, suddenly it means everything. With hundreds or thousands of proposals constantly crossing desks, setting the context for your presentation becomes quite important.  Here’s three ways that context influences your reader:

  1. It makes your work relevant.  Relevant to your community or constituency   Relevant to the times (this helped a lot of relief organizations successfully leverage grants during the recent recession by framing their mission against clear and present need and suffering).  And most important, relevant to the mission and work of the foundation.
  2. It helps to focus the reader on the here and now.  Grants are not rewards for work you have done.  Or prior accomplishments.  Grants are investments to be used in the coming months or years to create real, positive and (hopefully) lasting change.  Focusing the reader on why your work must be done now may be the lifeline you need to secure the grant sooner rather than later.
  3. It allows you to frame the measures of your success.  When you set the context for your funding request, you are setting forth the boundaries and parameters of success for your work.  This is important by way of setting and managing expectations for the reader (trust me: most foundation  staff want to see realistic goal setting) who will hopefully become the donor.

Context makes your proposal current and relevant.  It demonstrates that you are in touch with your community and constituency  two attributes of a good and, ultimately  successful grantee.  In my next few posts, we will look at some tools and techniques for setting context effectively.

Stay tuned!


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