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WRITING MECHANICS: WHAT FUNDERS LOOK FOR IN GRANT PROPOSALS

January 10, 2019

THIS POST IS PART OF A SERIES ABOUT GRANT WRITING
DO’S AND DON’TS, STRAIGHT FROM FUNDERS!
CHECK BACK SOON FOR PARTS 2 AND 3

Translating your organization’s work into a comprehensive yet concise proposal is no easy task.

To make things easier, we have compiled a list of recommendations based on our staff’s interactions and surveys conducted with Foundation staff.  In this post, we share an insider’s scoop on tips and tricks to follow at every stage of the writing process from planning to proofreading.

Here are five strategies—straight from the nation’s leading funders—on how to write a grant proposal that stands out from the rest.

MAP IT OUT
  • Outline your responses. Preparation is the most important stage in grant writing. It puts you on the right track for a strong draft—and saves a LOT of time in the long-run. Before drafting, use a few bullet points to identify the topics you want to cover in each section.
  • Answer the question they’re asking—not the one you want them to ask. It’s simple enough, but funders frequently come across applications that do not answer the stipulated question, or attempt to use an answer that was tailored for a slightly different question. For example, a response to, “Describe the community need addressed by your program.” should only include the rationale behind your program—not the activities that are part of your program.
  • Answer ALL parts of a question. It’s not uncommon to find multiple questions nested within a single section. For example, “Describe the outcomes that will be measured for each of the goals outlined above and whether evaluations will be internal or external.” is posed as a single question—but really requires you to discuss both outcomes and evaluation methodology. Pay close attention to these sections in your outline to avoid overlooking nested questions in your draft.
DON’T TAKE SHORTCUTS
  • Write a unique answer for each section. Take advantage of the space you’re given to include as many details about your organization or project as possible. Using the same content to answer multiple questions signals to funders that you either didn’t understand the questions, or that your programs are not well-developed.   
  • Never use an old application. Write a fresh proposal when applying for renewed funding or when applying for a grant that you were previously denied. Funders want to see the growth and evolution of your organization. 
…BUT DON’T TAKE THE SCENIC ROUTE EITHER
  • Organize your thoughts: Each section of a response should serve a clear purpose. For example, if the first half of a paragraph is dedicated to describing the national scope of an issue, all information related to this topic should be included in that section—not scattered throughout the proposal.
  • Condense your language: Funders don’t like reading unnecessarily long proposals. Keep your writing concise by replacing long phrases with one or two powerful words. For example:
    • To measure the effectiveness of our program… à To evaluate our program…
    • Students who are considering enrollment can… à Prospective students can…
KEEP IT SIMPLE
  • Don’t overuse jargon. If you’re a nonprofit in the health sector and you’re writing to a small family foundation, phrases like “social determinants of health,” and “patient-centered outcomes” will likely fly over the funder’s head. Opt for simpler language. Or, simply limit your use of jargon and be sure to clearly define each term before introducing another.
  • Don’t overuse abbreviations/acronyms. Let’s say you are writing a grant for the hypothetical nonprofit Future Markets for Tomorrow (FMFT). The sentence “Partnering with the ACLU advances FMFT’s BAA program.” can be confusing—especially if the full-form of each acronym was introduced several pages earlier. The sentence is more reader-friendly when re-written as, “Partnering with the ACLU advances our budget analysis and advocacy initiatives.”
  • Never use the word funder. Grantmakers prefer to be referred to as partners, collaborators, allies, supporters, or investors. Referring to grantmakers as “funders” creates the impression that you see them as a piggy bank rather than a thought partner. 
REMEMBER THE LITTLE THINGS
  • Remember to delete all copy placeholders (i. “XXX”). Limit your use of copy placeholders to one or two types. (I generally use either square brackets or XXX in all my placeholders.) This allows me to easily use the Ctrl+F search feature when I’m reviewing the final draft to find any stray placeholders.
  • Never submit a proposal with another funder’s name in the copy. If you’re adapting language from one proposal to use in other funding applications, carefully proofread each application to ensure that you’re writing to the right organization. Using the same search tool can be helpful here to confirm that the old funder’s name is no longer in the application.
  • Never write to the wrong person. Check the funder’s website or IRS Form 990 to verify that you have the correct name and title of the person you’re writing to.
  • Clearly label your attachments. Funders prefer attachments to be labeled with both your organization’s name and the file type. (Example: United Way 2018 Audit).

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