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Frightening Proposals

October 31, 2009

(The following post was written by Stephen Sherman, reference librarian at the Foundation Center-Atlanta, and originally appeared on the Philanthropy Front and Center-Atlanta blog.)

Halloween-bat-moon-clipart1 Foundation staff review stacks upon stacks of grant proposals each year. From time to time, they may even see proposals that are downright scary. In the spirit of Halloween, here are three "monster" proposals that you should try to avoid.

Frankenstein's Monster

Sure -- it sounds easy enough. Everyone writes their respective sections of the proposal and then puts them together in one document and sends it to the funder. Too often, however, the result can be a loosely-stitched-together proposal that's confusing and full of inconsistencies and repetition. Reviewers can tell when a proposal has been patched together without substantial revision, and a narrative that is disorganized and incoherent is much less convincing than one with a consistent voice that flows smoothly from section to section.

While it's not uncommon for several different individuals in an organization to be involved in the proposal writing process, it is imperative that one person take the lead when it comes to editing and formatting the final document. This individual should review the proposal for accuracy, consistency, organization, and especially continuity. A well-edited proposal will flow naturally from section to section and convey the story of your organization and its programs with ease.

The Blob

It starts with an executive summary and a statement of need. Then the narrative hits the project description and continues to grow -- rapidly surpassing 3, 5, 10 pages -- until the proposal has become a bloated mass of paper and ink.

Brevity can be one of the most difficult traits to develop as a proposal writer. There is a compelling urge to include as much detail as possible when describing programs to prospective funders. However, this can cause a proposal to become lengthy and cumbersome for the reader. Besides, most applications now come with strict guidelines that limit sections of the proposal to certain page lengths. How can a proposal writer cope with these restrictions?

First, it's all about finding the right amount of detail to include. For example, if you are seeking funding for a tutoring program, the grantmaker probably doesn't need to be told how many desks are in each classroom. They might want to know, however, the number of volunteer tutors you plan to recruit and how. Other ways to keep your proposal concise include using simple, direct language and avoiding long, rambling sentences. Having an outline can also help you stay focused on the key points you want to get across to the reader in each section. Brevity doesn't just apply to the narrative, either, so remember to limit your attachments and supporting materials to those items that the funder specifically requests in their guidelines.

Night of the Living Dead

Who among us hasn't pulled an all-nighter? Whether it was cramming for that final exam in college or staying up to get that presentation ready for the big meeting, we've all been guilty of procrastination at some point in our lives. Still, this is no way to succeed in grantseeking.

What quality do reviewers look for most in a proposal? Clarity. This is something that you're not likely to achieve while hunched over your laptop at two o'clock in the morning. Moreover, the less time you leave to check through a proposal, the more likely it is the reviewer will find troubling mistakes in grammar and spelling that may contribute to a negative response. How do you fight the urge to put off finishing a proposal until just before the deadline?

Keeping an updated grants calendar with important submission deadlines and follow-up dates will help you stay on track with your proposals. Even better, creating self-imposed due dates for proposals well in advance of actual deadlines will ensure that you have plenty of time to revise and edit the document before sending it off. And on those occasions when you become aware of a new opportunity at the last minute, consider waiting until the next funding cycle to apply. Keep in mind: You only get one chance to make a first impression with a grantmaker. Don't let it be a frightening one!

Want some more tips on proposal writing? Check out these titles:

Grant Proposal Makeover: Transform Your Request from No to Yes
Cheryl A. Clarke and Susan P. Fox
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2007

The Foundation Center's Guide to Proposal Writing, 5th ed.
Jane C. Geever
New York: Foundation Center, 2007

-- Stephen Sherman

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