Writing Knockout Proposals
By Joseph Barbato
Ours is the land of fundraising opportunity. Anyone, and everyone, can write a proposal. If you doubt it, visit a local foundation and behold the reviewers desk, if it hasnt buckled under already.
But precious few people can write a ‘knockout proposal, a document of such force it catapults the funder down the hall. I exaggerate but you get the point. To help you enhance your own proposals, here are three tips.
1. Avoid Pointy-Headed Prose
Your proposal may involve the vagaries of anything from the law to health to archeology to rocket science. Moreover, youre probably working with program officers who have a deep understanding of their fields.
Still, as a general rule, your proposal should be written in laymans language. That means plain English of the kind used in a well-written daily newspaper.
How would The New York Times describe your project? A Times writer would probably avoid jargon and explain complex concepts (without dumbing it down completely).
In a medical story, he would explain the meaning of the word aneurysm in the first reference. In describing a conservation project, he would define ‘bioreserve or avoid the term completely.
In other words, assume your reader is a well-educated individual without training in the field youre writing about. How would you describe the project to a bright neighbor or friend? Thats how technical you should get.
If you work in an institution brimming with jargon-jabbering experts, you may find those specialists dont want you to write in English. Theyll insist anything other than a precise technical term will be incorrect. Thats nonsense. Remind them that youre writing for non-experts.
Ah, but the foundation officer who will read my proposal is a health specialist, you say. He knows how the cardiovascular system works, so I can be technical in describing our new therapeutic approach.
Be careful! Other staff members at the foundation who dont know a ventricle from a ventilator may read your proposal. They shouldnt find it as challenging as Ulysses.
Consider attaching a technical summary of your project in an appendix. You can reference it in your text, and keep the specialists happy. When the money comes in, theyll be delighted that you insisted on communicating clearly with the funder.
2. Know What Funders Want
Now and then, someone will ask funders what they dislike in the hundreds of proposals they receive each year. The responses seldom vary. Most funders complain about long-winded, vague, poorly conceived submissions.
Their urgent advice: Communicate clearly what you want, who you are, and why we should support you. Be concise. Be sure your project fits the guidelines. Do your homework. Marshal your facts. Make perfect sense. Read what youve written several times. Show your draft to someone outside your field. Make sure youve thought out your budget and plans for future funding.
Several foundation heads responding to my own survey not long ago said the quality of proposals has been getting better in recent years. Maybe, given increasing competition, thats not so surprising. But it does make your work even harder, for only proposals of the highest quality are going to be seriously considered.
Time and again, funders emphasize three things: Guidelines. Guidelines. Guidelines. Like everyone else, these individuals maintain a discard pile. The proposals given serious consideration form a much smaller stack at the other end of the desk. What makes them special? Hard facts, a passionate belief in the project, and writing that is strong, clear, and easy to read.
Write that kind of proposal, send it to the right place, and you stand a good chance of winning support.
3. Provide the Right Level of Detail
Give your donor just enough detail on your program nothing more. Use your best judgment. When the guidelines say, ‘Give a brief description of how you will raise other funding for your project, you want to be brief. Generally speaking, less really is more.
A succinct, concrete, fact-filled description of your other fundraising plans is what the donor wants.
If you find yourself blathering on and on, offering vague promises of your intention to find other funding sources, and never nailing down a handful of strong possibilities, youd best work on your funding plans. Chances are, you dont have any. The funder, having aced the second grade, will notice.
Give your funder solid information. If you think a bit of detail will strengthen a section of your proposal, by all means write on. If you sense the funder might want more explanation, but you feel unsure, put the information in an appendix, which you can reference in the text.
Ive added several appendices to proposals many times. They lend credibility, theyre a convenient way to elaborate on a point in the text, and theyre out of the way for someone trying to give your proposal a quick read. But please be sure the appendices themselves are succinct.
If a program officer gives you a 15-page technical description, cut it down to 10 pages. If youre given staff resumes with page upon page of publication listings, consider dropping all but the most significant. Even in the appendix, you must maintain editorial standards.
The last thing you want to do is stymie the reader and interrupt the flow of your text with unwanted detail.
This article is excerpted from Joseph Barbatos book,
How to Write Knockout Proposals, published by Emerson & Church. For more information, visit www.emersonandchurch.com or call 508-359-0019.