Want to Write a Better Grant Proposal? Tap into Your Inner Artist

In the first week of the New Year, I have been thinking about writing.  I love to write.  I love the creative process of putting words on a screen or paper.  I love the struggle of choosing the best way to say the right thing to say and the satisfaction of crafting a well-turned phrase.  I don’t claim to accomplish these things every time I write, but I love the challenge of trying to do so.

Grant writing presents us with some interesting opportunities to tap into our creative sides. Online applications challenge us to reduce complex ideas to short phrases.  The idea of trying to make a proposal or a letter of inquiry stand out from the crowd tells us that we must choose powerful and evocative words to engage a reader.  For the most part, standard business writing will not help us to do this.  Yes, we ultimately may have to provide dense and detailed content to our grantor (particularly when the investment being requested is large and the risk is deemed great for the donor).   But first we must engage the reader.

Two sources of inspiration:

Poetry:  Poets will tell us that the core of the art form is the discipline of space.  I attended a poetry reading at a café once and remember asking one of the artists what she paid most attention to when writing.  Her fast and simple response was: “Space.   How much space can I leave to give the reader’s imagination an opportunity to finish the rest.”   In most cases, the prospective grantor is already familiar with the challenges or opportunities addressed in our proposal.  By focusing on our particular situation, we leave space for the reader to build context and keep the focus where we want it — on our community or constituency.

Songwriting:  Powerful songwriting uses word craft intertwined with music.  I once had the opportunity to spend an hour with one of my favorite songwriters, Peter Mulvey, talking about the craft of songwriting.  He said: “The fewer words you use, the greater the chance that someone will actually remember them.”   One of the reasons I actually love the challenge of an online application  is that I get a chance to choose the best 50, 100 or 200 words that will capture a reader’s imagination and inspire them to want to be part of our solution.

So, read the great poets.  Listen to the great songwriters.  Be in touch with the simple and powerful ideas that inspire your mission, your work and your dreams.  Choose your words and use them to invite others on the journey.






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.

Rebound? Giving USA Reports 5.7% Increase in Foundation Giving

Its high noon, Eastern Time, and am taking a look at the just-released information from Giving USA’s report on 2013 philanthropy. Two items jump out at me this time around.

•Foundation giving overall posted a 5.7% increase. This is better than the previous 2% to 3% gains which kept foundation philanthropy just about on an inflationary par. This likely reflects a good market earnings year for foundation portfolios coupled with the creation of some new foundations over the past year.

•Giving to foundations, adjusted for inflation, made up 11% of philanthropic giving. Very significant. Nonprofit Quarterly appears to have taken a closer look at this number at it appears to be weighted by mega-gifts to large foundation trusts from donors like Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg, Paul Allen, et. al. Potentially big and promising news for those charities operating in the spheres of interest and influence where those donors are making investments.

Read more from the Nonprofit Quarterly here

How do these numbers compare to your results?  Is foundation giving higher for your organization?  Please add your thoughts!


Impact Imminent: Wall Street Journal Reports Family Foundations Spending Down Faster


A recent study by the Bridgespan Group reveals that only 5% of the total assets of America’s largest 50 foundations were held by spend-downs, compared to 24% in 2010. This means that nearly one-quarter of the assets of the 50 largest foundations in the US will be spent within the lifetime of their founders/donors.

What is driving this change in philanthropic strategy?  A generation ago, foundations were seen as legacies by founders intended to perpetuate good and philanthropic intentions and, perhaps, to instill a philanthropic legacy among family heirs.  This may well be giving way to a new philosophy, embodied by next generation foundation philanthropists like Charles Feeney (Atlantic Philanthropies), Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates where the donor sees the Foundation as a strategic mechanism for meaningful philanthropy.  This is leading toward gifts — more accurately, philanthropic investments — that are likely to bring about more immediate and meaningful change.

Another reason for change is that the peer landscape has changed among the largest foundations.  One third of the largest foundations where founded within my working life time of 26 years.  Many were created as a by-product of new tax laws in the 1990s which encouraged young entrepreneurs to create foundations as a means to shelter income and lo and behold, many of those entrepreneurs have applied their acumen and aversion to risk to making a difference for the charitable sector.

We are now raising foundation money at a time where risk and reward are more prominent factors in giving and where a new generation of foundation donors are adopting strategic approaches to their philanthropy.  Read Veronica Dagher’s excellent Wall Street article here

Does opportunity abound or will these changes favor the few?  Is your charity seeing stronger and better results?  Please add your thougths!


Signs of the Times: Observations on The Foundation Center’s “Key Facts on US Foundations 2013”

Recently, The Foundation Center released its annual report on US Foundation giving trends, “Key Facts on US Foundations 2013.” Here, I will share some of my observations about the data and what it might mean for grantseekers in the year ahead.

  1. Foundation giving continues to flat-line.  While foundation giving experienced an uptick in 2012, that uptick managed to keep pace with inflation which means that foundation giving remains about level with 2007 — the last year before the recession.  While that is good news considering the significant portfolio losses experienced between 2009-2011, it indicates that most foundations are not revving up grantmaking as markets continue to recover.  This suggests to me that most are taking a more cautious and conservative approach to allocations, staying closer to the requisite 5% payout.
  2. Health and education continue to dominate giving.  The report reflects significant giving to these two sectors, an allocation that has remained steady and consistent for years, comparable to individual philanthropy.  Granted (no pun intended) that these two sectors are home to the largest grantseeking institutions (hospitals and higher education) so there is no surprise.  The surprise is saved for #3 below.
  3. Arts and culture are making a comeback.  This sector had a very strong showing for 2011.  Indeed, colleagues in the sector tell me that they managed to recapture foundation grants that were lost after the 2008 crash when many foundations decided to support essential human services (e.g. food banks, employment training/placement, emergency assistance).
  4. General operating support is on an upward trend.  General support grants made up 29% of total awards, according to the report — an increase of about 9% since 2008.  The recession sparked an industry-wide conversation about the need/efficacy of this type of support among charities and grantmakers alike and it appears foundations are continuing to respond positively.
  5. The 1%ers did well.  According to the report, 1% of grant recipients received 50% of all foundation dollars awarded.  Enough said.
  6. Are the Waltons the new Gates Family?  The Walton Family Foundation surpassed the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the top foundation donor in 2011.

The report states that “According to the Foundation Center’s annual “Foundation Giving Forecast Survey,” the outlook for 2013 is for continued modest growth overall. It may not be the boom years of the late 1990s or mid-2000s, but U.S. foundations continue to provide a stable source of support for new ideas and ongoing programs that improve lives around the world.”

Link here to download your copy of the report: http://foundationcenter.org/gainknowledge/research/nationaltrends.html

Council on Foundations-Commonfund Report 12% Earnings Growth in Foundations in 2012

A just-released joint study from the Council on Foundations-Commonfund Institute report a asset growth in 2012 of 12% amount a group of 140 surveyed foundations.  This is encouraging news — it represents a veritable “tidal shift” over the minus 0.7 returns reported in 2011 in a similar study.

Certainly, many of us have heard that grantmaker boards taken both a sharper eye and a sharper pencil to investment strategies since the Great Recession began.   And this news may bear out that changes in these strategies are paying dividends to the investors. The larger question is whether asset growth will add up to increased dividends to grantees.

One initial sign that growth in investment income may be pointing to some resurgence in foundation philanthropy is the reported 4.4% increase in 2012  foundation giving reported in Giving USA, this after three to four years of virtually no growth (in inflation-adjusted dollars) in such philanthropy.

Read more about the study here:  https://www.commonfund.org/InvestorResources/CommonfundNews/Documents/2012%20CCSF%20Press%20Release%20-%20FINAL.pdf

A spike in earnings or a sign of some positive lasting change?  And is this change you are seeing and feeling in your grantseeking efforts? Please add your thoughts below.

Sell the Party First: The Charity Will Follow

I had a very interesting conversation with a client today. A wealthy friend wants to hold a cocktail party as a cultivation event to benefit his favorite charity.  And, of course, he asked my thoughts about how to go about this.

I confess that I went into “auto-consultant” mode and started mapping out the usual M.O. — select the date, select the venue, invite people personally so they will say “yes”, so forth and so on.  But then a little voice in the back of my mind chimed in — “um, would YOU attend this party?  And if so, why?”

I stopped mid sentence and said to him, “You know, given that the folks being invited to the event don’t know anything about the charity, I think you have to sell the party first and then you can sell them the charity.”  Those readers who are far more adept that me at planning events –  that would be about 99.9% of you – already know this.  But I spend a lot of my time focusing on strategies of persuasion and invitation and precious little time thinking about the fun of simply engaging with others in a way that there is some residual benefits for others.

Back to my conversation with the client.  Our conversation turned to what kind of parties we like and that our friends seem to like most.  What kind of music is best. What kind of wine goes down with what slice of cheese . . . or brats on the grill in the backyard.  The upshot was to think about what kind of gathering would attract people, would make them feel most welcome and at ease, provide some fun (everyone brings a bottle of wine for a blind tasting and the winner gets a prize).  And all to benefit a charity that is doing some amazingly great things to help families and children.  

What we agreed is that if we find the right way to make people feel the most welcome, we are creating the most important ingredients of the personal invitation to give: comfort and permission.  The beauty of philanthropy is found both in your own heart and where more than one of us gather to offer the generosity of our spirit magic can occur.  

It was wonderful to revisit that idea this afternoon.  And even more, to pass it along through this simple post.

Cocktails on the veranda or brats in the backyard?  The club or the tailgate?  A quite afternoon in the sunshine or dancing until dawn?  How are you creatively building safe and generous space for your volunteers and donors?


Kudos to Foundation Center For Launching FDO Free

From our friends at the Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch comes exciting news:


The Foundation Center, the leading source of information about philanthropy worldwide, has launched Foundation Directory Online (FDO) Free, an online tool that dramatically expands public access to the Center’s authoritative collection of foundation information. At no cost, users can search the basic profiles and IRS Forms 990-PF of nearly 90,000 grantmakers, less than 7 percent of which have web sites of their own. This resource benefits the entire social sector by putting critical data at anyone’s fingertips. FDO Free is the newest member of the Center’s premier Foundation Directory Online suite of fundraising research tools, which provide even deeper access to a wealth of detailed, structured grantmaking information that successful grantseekers have relied upon for decades.

With FDO Free, users can search for grantmaking foundations and find their contact information, fields of interest, financial data, and program priorities. The Center has also released an FDO Free search “widget” that can be embedded on any web site to further widen access.

Unique to this new tool is how it enables users to search by keyword across the entire text of the IRS Forms 990-PF for all independent grantmaking foundations. “While the IRS may someday make foundations’ 990 returns available in machine-readable open format,” said Bradford K. Smith, the Foundation Center’s president, “‘someday’ isn’t soon enough for the millions of nonprofit organizations who are tackling the world’s most pressing problems. FDO Free makes it possible to search the raw data on the IRS forms today, alongside additional information that has been cleaned and organized by the Center’s professional staff.” Together, these produce a powerful fundraising tool that helps nonprofits find the grants they need and is completely accessible to social entrepreneurs, researchers, or anyone else who wants to know about how America’s foundations contribute to the public good.

Initiatives to expand the amount of free data and information the Foundation Center makes available are in keeping with its mission to strengthen the social sector by advancing knowledge about philanthropy in the U.S. and around the world. FDO Free also contributes to the goal of connecting nonprofits to the resources they need to thrive, part of the Foundation Center 2020 strategic plan.

FDO Free is available at http://fdo.foundationcenter.org.


Falling Forward: Grantseeking Questions for Autumn 2013


Summer is (almost) over and I am dusting the sand of my shoes and thinking about this autumn’s grantseeking.  Here are the questions foremost in my mind.

  1. Will foundation giving see an uptick in the last quarter of the year?  The conventional wisdom is that grantmakers will benchmark their allocations against an 18-month trailing average.  With some economic recovery over the past year (felt in some places more than others) will there be a rising tide to lift our boats?
  2. Will foundations “play it safe” and keep giving level?  I have heard several foundation leaders say that the big lesson from the Great Recession is to work contrary to #1 above and keep giving closer to the 5% minimum and use the good times to rebuild assets.  Now, we know the old axiom “if you know one grantmaker, you know one grantmaker” is true — everyone has their own approach.   The trends may be telling us that grantors may still be in a conservative mood when it comes to giving.
  3. Are more foundations beginning to implement “cycling”?  I myself see more foundations implementing cycles of giving — e.g. two years on, one year off.  This means that we may find ourselves working to replace grants, leaving our overall results fairly steady over last year.
  4. Will there be new “hot buttons” emerging in your industry sector?  For example, in the field of youth education and development, I saw more giving for college access and retention programming in Spring 2013 and I expect this may be a trend that will affect fundraising for many of my youth-serving clients this fall.  What are the trends in your sector?
  5. Will corporate philanthropy continue to flourish?  The irony of our recession is the rise of corporate giving (with the caveat that many corporations increase donations of products or services).   I myself am quite excited by some of the prospects for increased support and involvement with nonprofits and plan to follow this trend in the fall, particularly as we try to engage donors and prospects now for 2014 gift/volunteer allocations.

I hope the summer has refreshed and rejuvenated you, dear reader.  What is on your mind as we turn the corner into what I hope will be a season of promise?

5 Things You Can Do in Less Than a Minute Help Your Grant Proposal Succeed

Our grandmothers were right: little things mean a lot. Especially to someone who has to read a lot of little things . . . called “grant proposals.”  So, what can we do to make our document stand out?  Here are five things that we can do in less than a minute to make a difference.

  • Check the spelling of the recipient’s name . . . and the correct gender.  How many books on the topic of sales tell us that one’s name is the sweetest music we ever hear.  And when that tune gets mangled, we are oftentimes taken aback.  I have enough email and snail mail addressed to “Mr. Hick” to use as exhibit A.  And a few addressed to my fictitious alter-ego “Ms. Hick.”
  • Confirm the deadline date for the umpteenth time.  One minute after midnight doesn’t work with grantmakers who are overwhelmed by requests and need some ground rules to help cull the load of applications.  Mark the date in your calendar and then set your own deadline a few days earlier to make sure that you get that application out the door on time.
  • Decide to let go of the editor’s pencil.  This one is tough! I remember working with a client once who kept making edit after edit to a proposal.  At some point in the process, I told him that the proposal doesn’t mean anything until it is sitting on the grantmaker’s desk.  At some point, the rubber must meet the road and the paper must meet the desktop (real or virtual).
  • But not until you proofread the first page . . . again.  A misplaced comma or even an overlooked typo is not necessarily going to doom your proposal.  But given our ready access to spell-check, grammar-check, and online dictionaries and thesauruses there is really no excuse for sending a grantmaker a proposal with a lot of typographical or grammatical errors.  Even though you should proofread the document (or better, have someone else proofread it) before it is submitted, a final run through of page one is worth the 45 seconds it will likely take.  If an error is found there, it may well prompt the reader to pull out the red pencil for the remainder of the document.
  • Add up that budget one more time.  Proposals are, at their heart, about dollars and cents.  A survey of grantmakers by The Foundation Center found that six of ten grantmaking professionals turn to the budget before reading the rest of the proposal.  Their biggest frustration? When the math doesn’t add up.  Yes, Excel will total that column for you — provided you select the right range of cells to add up.  Review those numbers and keep in mind the carpenter’s adage: measure twice, cut once.

Proofreading.  Confirming deadlines.  Just plain letting go.  What other things can we do in less than a minute to help our proposals along?