Sunday, November 08, 2009

What Tone Should I Set In Our Grant Proposal?

There are finer aspects to writing a grant proposal that are often not so easy to teach, and not even so easy to ask about or find out how to do. There are technical aspects to writing a grant proposal such as being sure to include the usual sections (e.g. introduction, organization description, project description, beneficiary population description, etc.); but the finer question, once a grant writer gets writing a proposal, can become 'what tone should I set in the grant proposal's contents?'

The answer, as is often the case in grant writing, is 'it depends'. So, I'm going to walk you through what I can, in a blog post.

When a nonprofit's grant writer sits down to begin writing the proposal they are, undoubtedly, focused on how they can win the grant. There is sometimes an inclination, then, to make their organization sound, in the proposal, like one of many, let's say... grant-seeking-archetypes:

__ Needy and Deserving, Or Just Because We Are A Nonprofit
__ Admirable Bleeding Hearts
__ The Only Organization To Choose, Or Arrogant
__ The Next Organization In Line, Or Winner by Default
__ Politically the Best Choice
__ The Victim
__ Deserving by Proximity (e.g. having a 'big name' personality or historic figure who founded or works for the nonprofit)
__ The Reputable, Well Run, Possessing A Demonstrable Track Record of Success, A Talented/Experienced Team, Successful Results, Practitioners Of the Latest Professional Best Practices, Inclusive, Transparent, Etc. Organization

Guess which one is probably the better tone to set in a grant proposal? You've got to walk the talk that you assert about your nonprofit, in your grant proposal. Remember, only reflect, in the tone of the grant proposal content, the character of your organization that you could back up with documents and recent accomplishments: that you could prove. If you can truly reflect in its track record, financials, operational history, etc. what you have said about the organization, in the grant proposal - then you're stetting the correct tone.

The tone a grant writer selects to use in a grant proposal should also be: positive, honest, thorough, complete, hopeful, but also demonstrate how the organization operates through the facts it asserts about the organization, its history, its recent accomplishments, and its goals, and proposed project. The tone one sets in a grant proposal is an opportunity to convey to the reader (who works at the organization considering giving your agency a grant) its best foot forward and in the best light (in honesty) that is possible. It can challenge an organization to do this. For instance, some believe (wrongly) that if the truth about an organization seems contrary to its ability to raise a grant - then the organization should either not answer the challenging grant application question or it should lie in its response. Neither are correct. The better way to address a tough question is to 1) answer it and respond (never ignore or skip a grant application question or request for information); and 2) to tell the honest truth. Remember, you can always call a potential grant donor that your organization is applying to (if they allow phone calls) and explain the quandary and ask what they advise. Honestly, some of the best possible answers to a given grant proposal question can be recommended (and, in effect, given) by the grant donor agency's program manager, them self. For instance, if a grant proposal is being filled out and a question comes up like, 'have you conducted this proposed project before?' and the answer is 'yes' for our nonprofit, but it went horribly wrong and we wish to conduct the project, again, having made corrections to errors made that first time - and we're applying for the grant for this second go - it may seem that the better answer is to avoid answering the question, or to lie; it's the wrong way to go. In fact, a donor (such as a grant donor) who is given the truth and also informed about what lessons the agency learned, that the input for improvement came from the project's attendees (or beneficiaries, themselves), and that all necessary changes (or improvements) have been implemented (and that the attendees will be asked for input after the second run of this project (also called "evaluations")) - the donor is more likely to give. The donor, in the instance of truth, is being given the agency's experience, but the applicant nonprofit is also demonstrating that it values honesty (and reporting the truth to potential stakeholders such as donors), and anything that gives a potential donor confidence (such as the truth does) is some of the most powerful fundraising methodology that exists. If a potential donor discovers your agency's lie in a grant proposal they not only will not give your nonprofit a grant, today. You're risking them 'black listing' your nonprofit within their own organization for future reference ('do not give to this nonprofit as they lied in a grant application submitted to us in December 2009'); they are colleagues of others who work for other grant donors and these professionals do network and talk with one another. If word gets out in the grant donor community that your nonprofit lies in its proposals for funding - the damage to the agency could be catastrophic.

It may seem dangerous or contrary to instinct to tell the truth about your nonprofit's growing pains or lessons learned but there is not a single nonprofit that operates that has not learned through experience. There is no shame in this as long as the organization takes the lesson as an opportunity to grow the agency and improve its operations and goal setting. Sharing with potential stakeholders in your nonprofit, such as donors (e.g. grant donors, in this case), is really providing the grant donor with your agency's values (truth), professionalism (we aren't going to lie to stakeholders or potential stakeholders), and sense of self (we are not afraid to listen to our constituents, learn from our mistakes, and better ourselves by listening and implementing improvements). This is actually the more powerful way to manage and operate a nonprofit. What donor (or 'investor') wouldn't feel confident supporting an organization that admits its foibles, is aware of their likelihood, listens to benefit the population it is set up to serve, and makes appropriate improvements?

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