Grantwriting: The 40% Proposition

Each fall, I teach a course on foundation and corporate grants as part of Columbia University’s Masters in Fundraising Management program. In our first class, after the usual introductions, I tell my students the following: “60% of writing a grant proposal involves following the instructions; the other 40% involves choosing your words, choosing your approach and making the right connection with the reader — that’s the fun part!”

Now I realize that “grant writing” and “fun” are not two words/figures of speech commonly found in the same sentence. But I look at most applications as a puzzle or challenge to be worked out. Who is this foundation? Who is the individual reading my proposal? What might motivate them to take this application seriously and, better yet, take action on it and become a stakeholder in our work?

To me, the 40% boils down to the following:

1.Understand the prospect. This is one of the basic tenets of all successful fundraising. How do I make the right connection between my opportunity and what the donor wants to accomplish via their philanthropy.

2. Move from need to opportunity. Speaking of which, its more about opportunity than need. Most grantmakers understand the needs and problems we are addressing. And most don’t know about the opportunities we have to do something it.

3. Frame your story. For most foundation readers, engagement comes down to context. Are we presenting too big of a picture to the reader and, in doing so, suggesting that we are trying to bite off way more than our organization can chew? Are we presenting too small of a picture, asking for a lot of money to help relatively few people? Or are we framing something that balances capacity with our capability to stretch to do something more — and hence the need for a foundation’s support?

4. Pick up clues and cues. I read foundation websites for way more than the application instructions. What kind of language do they use? Is their point of view “old school” or “new school”? What are the foundation’s particular values?

5. Mirror, Mirror. Picking up on clues and cues, how can I write in a way that will demonstrate to the reader that we have comparable values, points of view, approaches? And if we don’t match on every point, how are our differences in approach complimentary?

6. Choose your words carefully. Every semester, I assign Tony Proscio’s wonderful essay “In Other Words” to my students. It is an incredibly thought-provoking work about how language is used among grantmakers and grantseekers and how content can get lost in jargon.

60% perspiration, 40% inspiration? Interpretation vs. information? How do you view the writing process? Continue the conversation below.