Part one of a three-part series on proposal writing. If there is a mythical “pot-of-gold” in the nonprofit world it is the foundation grant. Many start-ups – as well as established nonprofits – look to grants from foundations as a cure-all; the answer to all fundraising problems. You can spot this tendency when you hear phrases such as “Bill Gates has a foundation, let’s submit a proposal.”
We talked with professional proposal writer Marlene Lynn recently and asked her to share her expertise. Lynn has written proposals to corporations and foundations for the past 10 years; she works with her clients to manage grant funds received, and follow up with and report to funders. She is meticulous in her work, committed to her clients, and is an advocate of strategic proposal submission.
We started our conversation with a question about the three big “mistakes” nonprofits make when they begin writing to foundations for grant support. Here are her thoughts.
“No. 1 is poor planning. This results in nonprofits being caught in a cycle of chasing the money – reacting to unexpected funding opportunities and hustling to meet deadlines. I call this working hard, not smart. A proactive approach is to allocate resources to conduct comprehensive prospect research and use this information to create a grant action work plan. You could think of this as the grants portion of your agency’s development plan.
“Another mistake is writing a proposal for something that you cannot actually deliver, from program delivery to financial management of the grant funds. For example, when I am working with program staff to develop new objectives, they will commonly propose objectives they want to reach rather than objectives they are likely to reach. I advise proposing conservative objectives that can be reached, or better yet, exceeded.
“Lack of attention to detail can sink your proposal. For example, I have seen a well-prepared proposal discarded – not even read – because one form or signature was missing, or a staff person hit the “save” button instead of the “submit” button after completing an online proposal. I recommend having a second person check your work against the funder’s instructions.”
We agree. But what about the writing itself? We asked Lynn for her perspective on the elements of a well-written proposal.
“Get to the point early and make it interesting. Follow instructions. Make every word count. This often means getting rid of an adjective and changing the noun to say what you want. Picture your reader, facing a tower of proposals to review and getting tired or bored halfway through. Make it easy for them see the great work you are doing with succinct writing backed up with data. If you were to ask a stranger on the street to read your proposal would she understand it and find it compelling?”
Visit Lynn at https://sites.google.com/site/mlynnbaptista.
Mel and Pearl Shaw are the owners of Saad & Shaw. They provide fundraising counsel locally and nationwide. Visit them at www.saadandshaw.com or call (901) 522-8727.