Sunday, May 16, 2010

How to Write An Effective Grant Proposal Despite Strong Emotions

This is a case study about writing a strong and compelling grant proposal regarding, in a fair manner, but not overly stating emotion, to create an excellent grant application.  This is grant writing ala Red Riding Hood.  We too are aiming for porridge that is 'not too hot and not too cold'.  For example, people who begin nonprofits usually do so to meet some as yet unmet need in the community, that they feel very strongly about.  So, it's no surprise that it can be tough, sometimes, to sit down to make a good case for why your agency should receive a grant, with a lot of strong feelings existing as part of one's work.

It is a fact that while working in the nonprofit sector, emotion usually comes with the job.  Whether we're discussing a volunteer, a board member, a social worker, or even a grant writer, it is not a stretch to see how emotion can be a major part of one's work experience with a given nonprofit.  Typically, people who work with nonprofits (whether paid or not) care a great deal about their community, about the nonprofit's cause, or both.  While most nonprofit's causes may not be emotional for most of us, some of them probably are.  Why?  Nonprofits usually serve people or things that have not been receiving something that they've needed for their health, well being, safety, education, etc.  While not everything will give us pause, some issues or concerns do - and there's likely a nonprofit working in that field and maybe even one that you've donated to or volunteered with.  Nonprofits, as you know, provide everything from research, to arts, to free and safe rides to doctors appointments, to safe and clean shelter in domestic disputes.  The causes that nonprofits serve range from various different diseases, to clean air, to protection from cruelty, to music preservation, and on.  The communities served are any people, various specific religion's groups, wildlife, historic sites, etc. Once we think about the vast array of populations, causes, and services that nonprofits provide - it is easy to see how emotionality can creep into one's work with a given organization.

As grant writers, it is sometimes difficult to cope with emotions when sitting down to write something "technical" such as a grant proposal.  It isn't so much that I'm suggesting that everyone volunteering with or working for a nonprofit is a "bleeding heart".  What I am saying is that (and I've experienced this) it can be difficult to sit down to write a cogent, compelling, and on point grant proposal about something that elicits emotion (whether the emotion is coming from you or out of others).  This is also a consideration when thinking about who is going to read this grant proposal.

If you are the grant writer for a nonprofit that deals with child rape, animal cruelty, abused spouses, natural disasters and basic needs, or other traumas even if you have a handle on the content that will go into the grant proposal  documents, you are still striving to write content that will allow the reader to get a good picture of the nonprofit applying for the grant, the project that the grant will pay for, and what the grant will do in the community, without the reader being so pained, overwhelmed, or distracted by the emotionality of the population or cause that the organization serves that they miss the opportunity that giving to your organization is for them and the community.  One might think, 'O.K., well then that's simple.  I'll just avoid using any words or information that illicit emotions.'  It's not that simple by virtue of the information typically found in grant application documents.  But, yes, there is a happy medium that can be found.

It's not that we want to avoid emotionality altogether.  What we're trying to do is be certain that we are making a strong case for our organization receiving the grant without hammering some one's heartstrings so that they come away from the proposal too distracted from the strong compelling reasons we state in the proposal, demonstrating why they should give the grant to our agency.

Here's an example of where we grant writers can run into difficulties with emotionality when writing a grant proposal:

"...without your support thousands of local animals will die at the hands of mentally unstable, poorly coping, abusive people..."

or

"...if we do not receive this grant, it might be on your foundation that tens of local children will go without basic needs that fit such as under garments and also weather-appropriate such as parkas, hats, mittens, and warm socks and shoes; risking everything from ill health to frostbite..."

or

"...because we did not receive a grant from your organization the last time that we applied, we calculate that one hundred women suffering from breast cancer languished as the disease advanced because we could not, then, provide them with advanced technologies that we are again applying for, here..."

It is understandable that the volunteers and staff  working at a nonprofit might be frustrated when it doesn't get a grant that it applies for, or as it is difficult to watch the population that an organization exists to serve suffer, or even get overwhelmed by the repeated occurrence of witnessing the beneficiary population's suffering, over time.  This is called burn out and is frankly something that the nonprofit sector has not, as yet, been terribly pro-active in anticipating, dealing with, and effectively minimizing or even alleviating among the volunteers and staff within our often uniquely emotional work, in this sector.  In the link, in the previous sentence, and here I've discussed burn out and it's potential expense to a nonprofit and how it can be avoided to both minimize unnecessary additional organizational human resource management expenses, and also improve its own volunteers and employees work place experience thus retaining more effective and happier workers (also 'rescuing' its professional work place reputation).  Burn out doesn't just effect the work day experience, though.  It can also become a part of the office's culture or the volunteers' and employees' thinking regarding the nonprofit, its efforts, and the population it serves.  This is dangerous because as we can see in the hypothetical examples above, that kind of negativity or hopelessness can creep into even an organization's fundraising solicitations and that is not instilling confidence, demonstrating a nonprofit's capabilities, nor demonstrating its strong potential (which is the goal of all written fundraising content, in order to develop or renew donors' interest and confidence to give).

There's also...

"...so many battered women walk into our office with broken limbs, bruises, and children with other physical harm that you would want to locate their spouses and beat them up, yourself..."


or

"...our strong staff have gone through it so many times that it is difficult to imagine again being ready for the next earthquake replete with now parent-less children, hunger, diseases, and worse..."

or

"...the homeless are often even too dangerous for our own staff.  Last year we had one shelter worker who was physically attacked while on duty, leaving most of our staff afraid until some time passed..."

Yes, a lot of nonprofits' workers repeatedly see horrors over and over again.  Also, repeatedly witnessing atrocities can wear workers down.  Finally, yes, some nonprofits' work is dangerous but then again, if the nonprofit is set up to do that work...

Let's re-write all of the above sentences...


"...without your support thousands of local animals will die at the hands of mentally unstable, poorly coping, abusive people..."

...might be switched to: "...our nonprofit is the only organization, in Townville, assisting animals by providing safe clean shelter, age and health specific diet, regular veterinarian care, and proactive adoption services for local animals.  Our thirty years of successful animal care, rehabilitation, and safe adoptions have resulted in over three thousand assisted, treated, rehabilitated, and adopted cats, dogs, and other domestic animals.  With out capabilities, demonstrated by our nonprofit's longevity and successes in this community, we are sure you will feel confident awarding our organization the grant we are herein requesting..."  Instead of putting the animals' suffering on the potential donor (i.e. "without your support" animals will suffer), we are actually making a good case demonstrating why this nonprofit is actually the one to donate to if you care about local animal welfare.


"...if we do not receive this grant, it might be on your foundation that tens of local children will go without basic needs that fit such as under garments and also weather-appropriate such as parkas, hats, mittens, and warm socks and shoes; risking everything from ill health to frostbite..."

...might be switched to: "...our organization has adequately planned the proposed project, already begun fundraising last year for this project, and as a result has two major donors committed to supporting this project up to half of the total expenses of this project.  With your organization's additional contribution, we will have fully funded  two thirds of the total expenses.  The remaining one third will be paid for by already existing (and established) individual donor revenue that has now been allocated to this new project's budget.  Please see the enclosed project budget that details the specific budget income and expense math..."  This has more to do with the organization needing to understand that it is responsible for fully funding the new projects that it initiates.  Fundraising is not about simply conjuring up new projects and then crossing one's fingers and expecting anyone that the organization solicits for the new project to donate funds.


"...because we did not receive a grant from your organization the last time that we applied, we calculate that one hundred women suffering from breast cancer languished as the disease advanced because we could not, then, provide them with advanced technologies that we are again applying for, here..."

...might be switched to: "...after effectively assisting over five thousand women suffering from breast cancer, last year, by providing them with services ranging from shuttle services, to financial assistance for medication, to counseling, to hospice services.  We had a zero mortality rate, and in a client survey last year, eight-five percent of all respondents selected "My quality of life is better right now than it was when I began working with Cancer Kickers nonprofit.".  We are assisting local women suffering from breast cancer so that their lives are actually better."  We're providing compelling information (including a quantifiable fact (the recent client survey result)) that instills confidence in potential donors considering donating to this nonprofit, rather than just frankly, stating the obvious.

"...so many battered women walk into our office with broken limbs, bruises, and children with other physical harm that you would want to locate their spouses and beat them up, yourself..."

...might be switched to: "...our agency's success rate at getting both battered spouses and their children off the street, into safe housing, to needed medical care quickly, and rehabilitating them so that they can get their lives back and into good order, at 20% lower costs than two years ago, can be seen through this organization's service statistics (enclosed, herein, for your review)..."  Again, this provides hard quantifiable facts that makes the case demonstrating this organization's success rate and its efficiency, too, at providing its services.  Local peoples' needs are being met and also efficiently.

"...our strong staff have gone through it so many times that it is difficult to imagine again being ready for the next earthquake replete with now parent-less children, hunger, diseases, and worse..."

...might be switched to: "...at the next natural disaster we will have on hand supplies and well trained and supported staff there to assist anyone having basic needs from non-emergent medical needs; to basic food and water needs; to clean undergarments and shirts, jeans, and jackets; to locating loved ones.  Trauma is unfortunately not uncommon to our volunteer response teams, so we have implemented for the past ten years, a state of the art proactive program designed to anticipate, thoroughly deal with and support, and then reduce the trauma to our front line, the amazing volunteers that go into natural disaster sites and assists those in need."  In this situation, admittedly, I improved the organization's volunteer management by placing a long standing proactive program to treat and then diminish traumas to this agency's volunteers.  Obviously everyone only wants to tell the truth in their grant proposals, so I'm not suggesting that anyone lie.  What I am suggesting is that if your nonprofit's internal culture has been to lament the front line's traumas, why not instead, bit the problem in the bud and address serious repeated job stresses head on?


"...the homeless are often even too dangerous for our own staff.  Last year we had one shelter worker who was physically attacked while on duty, leaving most of our staff afraid until some time passed..."

...might be switched to: "...our staff only works directly with our clients after completing forty hours of volunteer education specific to working directly with the mentally ill; and then also only after working forty hours under the direct supervision of a professional mental health social worker who must, them self, have over ten professional years working directly with the homeless and mentally ill..." Again, I've embellished for the sake of making a point.  I've also, here, switched this nonprofit's operations or improved them.  This version of this organization trains its volunteers in preparation of giving them the education, experience, and tools that they will need to do their volunteer work safely and go home at night, after.  Clearly explaining why our volunteers will be better off in their volunteer work demonstrates how much this organization values having well trained, supported, and probably more effective volunteers.  It shows how seriously this organization takes its volunteers and their work, and gives insight to the level of professionalism and internal regard for volunteer work that it operates with.  All of this is very compelling when fundraising, like raising grants, too.

Of course emotions aren't "bad" or "wrong".  They are a part of most nonprofits' workers' realities.  They creep into all of the content that we write for our organizations, usually.  The key, though, is to make our cases in a compelling fashion rather than beating someone over the head with the pain that is often a part of these organizations' work.

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