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Frightening Proposals II

October 31, 2010

(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.)

It's Halloween again, and we couldn't help but reprise the theme from last year's post and bring you more frightening proposals. With a nod to some classic horror films, here are some habits that provoke dread and angst in the hearts of proposal reviewers.

The Fog (the virtue of clarity)
Fog_spooky In an attempt to impress a new potential funder with your educational expertise, you bring out your heftiest thesaurus and start stringing together words in your best academic tone. You cite DOE research on the merits of mainstreaming versus differentiated instruction and the impact of NCLB on the children of socioeconomically disadvantaged families. Your project proposes to engage the interdisciplinary learning styles of students by synthesizing holistic relationships among community stakeholders and promises to challenge students to expand their learning horizons through innovative programming. The result, unfortunately, is a frightful haze of jargon, acronyms, and vague terminology that obscures any real notion of what the project hopes to accomplish.

What's the most important characteristic that funders point to when describing a successful proposal? Clarity. After all, if a funder can't understand the goals or methods of the program, what incentive do they have to fund it? Suggestions for proposal writers:

  • Use acronyms sparingly, and if they are absolutely necessary, be sure to spell them out at least once.
  • Don't use a big word when a simpler one will do.
  • When the proposal is finished, give it to someone outside your organization to read and see if they can readily understand the project and its objectives.

The Invisible Man (keeping your budget consistent)
Your proposal narrative includes a detailed description of how you will hire four project managers to lead your vocational training program for young adults. Yet when the reviewer turns the page to examine your budget, it includes salaries for only three new staff members. So, where did that fourth project manager go? Will they work for free, or are they just invisible in the eyes of your accountant?

The budget can be the most important piece of your proposal. When reviewing proposals, many funders look to the budget first for a quick overview of the project. A poorly composed budget can be the reason many proposals go unfunded. More than anything else, the budget must be consistent with the proposal narrative. Any supplies, equipment, or, in this case, personnel costs must reflect the staffing and methods outlined in the project description. When a grantmaker sees clear inconsistencies or mathematical errors in a proposal budget, it raises questions about an organization's ability to properly manage funds. Other recommendations for budgets:

  • Keep a worksheet showing how all expenses were calculated with explanatory notes in case questions pop up from funders
  • Be as accurate as possible in projecting costs. Get actual quotes from vendors and always double-check your math.
  • Identify all expense items and then research specific costs for each line item. Don't forget to account for inflation and other annual increases when budgeting for multi-year projects.
  • Don't leave out in-kind contributions. Even if goods or services are donated, they still represent part of the overall costs of the program, and, on the revenue side, demonstrate community support for your program that will reflect well on the proposal.

Scream (following the rules to survive)
When Scream was released in 1996, it gave us three little rules to surviving a horror movie. Follow these rules, the characters were told, and you might just make it through the experience in one piece. But if you don't, you could find yourself in serious danger. The same principle applies to proposal writing. Okay, so you probably won't have a foundation's program officer putting on a scary mask and chasing you around your office if you stray a little from the application guidelines. But you may find that a grantmaker is less likely to fund your proposal if you fail to include key components or don't follow the proper procedures. Some tips:

  • Keep a print copy of the funder's guidelines and use it as a checklist when compiling your application materials. 
  • When in doubt, contact the funder and ask. If your nonprofit hasn't had an audit, for example, call the foundation and ask if you might substitute a copy of your most recent Form 990 or other financial statements.
  • Submit your proposal far enough ahead of time so that if you are missing a key document, you still have time to send it in before the deadline. 

The rules may seem tedious from the grantseeker's perspective, but these guidelines are meant to facilitate the grantmaking process and cut down on the amount of time foundation staff spend reviewing stacks of proposals. Follow the instructions and the reviewer will stay happy. Ignore the rules, and it will make the funder want to, well, you know...

Want to exorcise your proposal writing demons? Check out these titles in our library collection:

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

90 Days to Success in Grant Writing.
By Tim Kachinske and Judith Kachinske.
Boston: Course Technology PTR, 2009.

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

-- Stephan Sherman

And don't forget to check out the Developing Proposals area of our new GrantSpace site for additional resources, including podcasts, training, and sample documents. 

-- Stephen Sherman

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  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."

    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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