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.

2014 Foundation Giving: A Cautious Comeback

Year-in-ReviewI  love the days immediately before the New Year begins. For me, they are filled with reflections of the joys and challenges of the prior 11.9 months and anticipation for what is to come. Anticipation is a good word as we stand on the verge of 2015, since we are ending a year in which foundation philanthropy seems to be solidifying a long-awaited comeback.

The conventional wisdom is that foundation giving will always remain strong as we head into a recession (after all, many give based on prior-year returns when the market was stronger) and will trail a recovery (alas, the same principal still at work but based on a weaker market). The Great Recession seemed to have challenged that rule significantly since not only were foundation boards trying to sustain their philanthropic mission (not to mention the minimum 5% distribution) but were at the same time trying to rebuild endowments. Talk about building the boat as you sail across an ocean!

And lets not forget the game change of the disappearing foundation. Atlantic Philanthropies is in its final spend-down phase having left an enormous legacy, a deep footprint on its way to leaving a significant void among the giants of the foundation world. To be sure, new “Atlantics” are abloom but perhaps being created with the same notion of spend and invest generously during the lifetime of the donor. I refer to this as “supernova philanthropy” — a magnificent burst of energy as a star explodes leaving behind a beautiful aura as a legacy for astronomers and star-gazers (like moi) to behold.

Which brings us to “The Cautious Comeback.” For your consideration:

* According to Giving USA 2014, foundation giving marked a 5.7% increase in 2013.

* The Foundation Center’s own “2014 Key Facts” report published in November 2014 predicts that when all is said and done, ” overall foundation giving will continue to grow a few points ahead of inflation in 2014.”

* The 2014 survey of 637 foundations by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations found that the median level of grants devoted to general operating support rose to 25 percent in 2014, up from 20 percent in 2011.

* Foundation Source, which consults to and helps family foundations manage their funds notes in its annual report that “the combination of a recovering stock market and additional contributions by their funders resulted in increased foundation endowments for a second straight year, in spite of charitable distributions that exceeded the 5% minimum by almost 50%.”

The conditions for a comeback have been created and creatively used by foundations to increase giving. Looking ahead, I see both opportunities and challenges:

Opportunity: General operating support grants are on the rise as many grantmakers seem to be willing to help charities maintain/sustain operating infrastructure costs. According to a colleague in foundation world, this may be because they have seen many grantees make efficient, wise and pragmatic management decisions during the recent financial crises and this has reduced the sense of risk in these types of grants.

Challenge: I see more foundations closing portfolios, preferring to continue to support long-time grantees. Finding new grant opportunities is becoming more difficult and time consuming, adding to the length of time it takes to build or expand a grant portfolio.

Opportunity and Challenge: From my own work as a consultant, I have seen how many foundations have emerged from the Great Recession with stronger, more-targeted philanthropic investment strategies. This will be boon to some and a barrier to others.

I close by wishing all of you every success in your grantseeking efforts in the year ahead. May 2015 bring the investments of others toward the good you bring to those who benefit from your mission, passion and good work.

Framing Your Proposal for Success

As a means of donor engagement, the grant proposal presents an interesting challenge for the fundraiser.  It is a two-dimensional medium — words or graphics on paper — leaving much to the imagination of the reader.  The choice of words and messages gain importance.  Brevity is key given that most experienced grant readers skim, cut-to-the-chase and then reread for depth.

Framing — choosing the right words, vision, messaging — becomes much more important.  Done well, framing helps you gain some distinct advantages with a grant reader.

Standing out from the crowd:  Your work is important.  The needs of your constituency and community are urgent.  So are those of a lot of other organizations and chances are that many of them have a proposal sitting on the same desk at the same time.  Finding your unique niche becomes key when the reader has to decide which programs and proposals will take priority for his/her foundation.

Defining your story:  Many grantmakers openly say that they consider themselves educated about our challenges and issue before our proposal arrives on their desk.  An important mission for your proposal is to define the distinct challenges your organization must address and the unique opportunities afforded to make a real difference.  One of my clients, a youth service agency in New York City, has done a superb job of capturing the attention of grantmakers by demonstrating that their services are in high demand because they get results.  Their grant proposals use results to frame an important message for funders — we have the ability to put your money to work now and get solid results.

Bringing the reader into your point of view:  Elizabeth Costas of the Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings Memorial Fund says:  “A compelling proposal tells me what you see when you go to work each day and brings me into your point of view.”  Providing the grantmaker with an engaging picture of your community can engage the reader and inspire them to learn more.

Defining your measures of success:  Most grantmakers have defined missions and desired outcomes for their philanthropy — and the measures of success to go along with them.  Sometimes those measures do not apply to our program.  Your proposal is an opportunity to frame how you define success and, hopefully, the funder will agree.  One of my clients approached a grantmaker heavily focused on college acceptance rates as a key measure of success.   The client’s program graduated fewer students but focused on college retention — the number of program graduates remaining in college after one year. remaining in college.  By leading with this number, the proposal communicated information that was interesting enough to engage the funder, leading to a conversation resulting in a grant.

Engagement is key and framing is a critical element.  I have posited a few ideas as to why.  What are your thoughts?  How have you used framing to create success for proposal?  Please add your comments and ideas.


All For a Song: Lessons from the World of Songwriting

Pain is pain, hunger is hunger, joy is joy and to call them anything other in the hopes of making your story seem to be more important may well be putting your reader on the outside rather than bringing him or her inside.  Great songwriters overcome this challenge and, from them, we can learn some valuable lessons about writing.

In some recent posts, I have explored the idea that when it comes to writing a proposal, fewer, well-chosen words can be the most powerful way to convey an idea or information.  Certainly, Tony Proscio touches upon this idea more than once in his treatise “In Other Words” (see my prior blog post about Mr. Proscio’s work) where jargon tends to obscure rather than clarify.  And certainly, repetition and long-winded narrative does too; writing this brings to mind Martin Teitel’s wonderful acronym that is banded about foundation halls — MEAGO, which stands for “my eyes are glazing over.”

As someone who has been writing proposals for 25 years, I have found new inspiration about the power of simple words chosen carefully from a surprising source: the realm of the singer-songwriter.  In a radio interview a few years back, songwriter Jeffrey Foucault said “I think my songs became more powerful once I learned how to pare down my lyrics and trust the listener to fill in the rest.”

Think about it, great songs rely on the imagination of the listener who, given just enough words and imagery, will come to his or her own conclusion as to how those words resonate with his or her life experience.  Here is a line from Foucault’s song “Northbound 35”: “You were as much in my hands as water, or darkness, or nothing can ever be held.”  No doubt he is carefully choosing images that any listener will understand.  We come into contact with water and darkness each and every day of our lives so these words need little, if any, explanation.   But the line is about so much more; when I hear it, I think of fleeting touches, evasion, loss, emptiness.

So, how to make the creative, highly personalized world of songwriting jibe with what can be the static, facts/outcome driven world of a grant proposal?  Here are the lessons I have learned:

Its okay to leave space on the page.  Ilene Mack, formerly of the William Randolph Hearst Foundation says “You don’t have to tell us everything.   We read a lot.  We know more than you think we do.  We can fill in the gaps.”

Tell stories that engage the listener.  One of the greatest storytelling songwriters working today is the talented Jason Isbell who writes about hardscrabble lives in the modern South.  His songs are powerful, expressive and incredibly plain spoken.  Charles Hamilton says “Foundations don’t give millions for research.  They give millions to save lives.” So, tell us about a life you are trying to save.

Use themes to inspire.   What makes a song memorable is its hook.  It can be a melodic idea.  Or a big, bombastic theme.  Rock superstars U2 are incredibly adept at writing inspiring stadium anthems, all based on pretty simple hooks backed by ringing guitars.  Center the message in your proposal around an inspirational idea.  A few that I pulled out of some recent work:

  • “We offer children from the city a life-changing summer experience”
  • “We are helping motivated high school students build a pathway to a college degree”
  • “When we strengthen a family, we nurture a child.”

Studying great songs gives us insights to great writing — taking complex and even painful themes and with simple, well-chosen words opening a window for a listener.  The same can be true for a grant proposal or a case statement or a mail appeal.  No doubt, we have great stories to tell.  Find our voice and sing them out loud.