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Writing Knockout Proposals

October 2006

Excerpt from How to Write Knockout Proposals: What You Must Know (and Say) to Win Funding Every Time

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 reviewer's desk, if it hasn't 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.

Avoid Pointy-Headed Prose

Your proposal may involve the vagaries of anything from the law to health to archaeology to rocket science. Moreover, you're probably working with program officers who have a deep understanding of their fields.

Still, as a general rule, your proposal should be written in layman's 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 you're writing about. How would you describe the project to a bright neighbor or friend? That's how technical you should get.

If you work in an institution brimming with jargon-jabbering experts, you may find those specialists don't want you to write in English. They'll insist anything other than a precise technical term will be incorrect. That's nonsense. Remind them that you're 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 don't know a ventricle from a ventilator may read your proposal. They shouldn't 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, they'll be delighted that you insisted on communicating clearly with the funder.

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 you've written several times. Show your draft to someone outside your field. Make sure you've 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, that's 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.

Where the Devil Lurks

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, you'd best work on your funding plans. Chances are, you don't 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.

I've added several appendices to proposals many times. They lend credibility, they're a convenient way to elaborate on a point in the text, and they're 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 you're given staff résumés 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.

Joseph Barbato © 2004. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Joseph Barbato is the author or coauthor of several books, two of which were featured on the Today Show. The book from which this article is excerpted, How to Write Knockout Proposals: What You Must Know (and Say) to Win Funding Every Time,  won a coveted Starred Review from Publishers Weekly.