Monday, May 07, 2012

How To Edit, Improve, Clarify, and Make A Compelling Case In Your Grant Proposal

Self editing a grant proposal especially when trying, for instance, to raise a $50,000 grant can be daunting.  Let's go through a few practice edits, here, to get your mind sharpened for the challenge.

Here are some tips to keep in mind.  To my point above, if you are the writer of the grant proposal always get someone else (who you know to be an avid reader and a good writer, themselves) to go over your final draft grant proposal to look for spelling errors, unclear phrasing, long sentences, and poor formatting (anything that is clumsy, or difficult to read easily and quickly).  Remember, the people who may give your nonprofit the grant have a lot of proposals to go through, including yours.  Each one must be read.  So, be sure yours provides them with all of the information they request and require in their giving guidelines.  Make sure your proposal is fairly easy to read quickly.  Most grant proposal readers at medium to larger foundations, anyway, have so many proposals to read, and decide upon, in a giving cycle that they literally scan the proposals (at least the first or second read through).  They don't have the time to read each and every word in every proposal they received.  So, when appropriate, don't write paragraphs but instead list out key information (especially any information that is actually a list of four or more things) in a bullet formatted list.  Don't do this for each paragraph, of course, but if there is some really compelling list that you feel shines for the organization (i.e. actually numbers of clients served, actual demographics of clients served, etc.) then select it, out of all of your listed information, to format into a bullet point list instead of putting it in a paragraph.

Succinct sentences provides the reader with less of your document to have to read.  It also makes room in the document, if you have a word count limit within which you must provide all the information they require in their giving or grant guidelines, and possibly additional information that you'd like to share with them.  If you want to squeeze more information in than you have already, but have already met their word count limit then you must make room without sacrificing information you provide in the document.  Finally, it is just easier (formatted for scanning or not) to read a well written document.  If a sentence is re-worked from a clumsy well intentioned but poorly written blathering to a clear, on point, and shortened phrase - you're getting the hang of this (and it's easier on the reader).  Remember, the reader in this hypothetical instance, will decide whether your nonprofit gets a $50,000 grant or not.  So, help them out!

Let's look at some phrasing that can easily be reduced into more cogent and succinct sentences.  We all do this and I still have to find my long or unclear phrasing and retool it.  It's something you get better at spotting and fixing, but it isn't really an error that you stop making (because a first draft shouldn't be perfect).

First draft versions of our examples:

1. The Jolly Joyful Jumpers (JJJ) has been a nonprofit for ten years.  In this time we and our board of directors have learned enough to run this organization really well.  The youth who come to JJJ's office after school tell us how much they enjoy their after school activities with us, their teachers notice improvements in their temperament and grades, they are not as fidgety in classes, and their parents share this with us.  We are helping kids to do better at school.

2. Jumpers for Just Healthy Food is a brand new program that we will begin next year, if you give us the grant.  We expect it will help poor children to learn how to eat healthier.  This will allow them to make healthy food choices now and for the rest of their lives.  We will provide no more than twenty youths with a thirty minute class on nutrition and healthy eating habits, just prior to snack time, each afternoon.  We think it will be effective.

3. Our budget for this new program will be $50,000.  We will spend most of the money on educational materials (i.e. workbooks, videos, and flashcards), and the rest will go to overhead costs like heating, rent, and electricity. 

4. All of our educators, for this program, have completed and passed background checks, have their professional teaching credentials, and have some background in nutrition.

When you read each of these examples (which are typical paragraphs that would include the kinds of information anyone would include in a grant proposal) you get the gist of what is meant by each one.  Also, some of these aren't extremely long sentences yet they could all use finessing.

First thing that you probably saw right away is that they each need information.  Not one of these paragraphs provided any actual collected or quantifiable data.  While all of these sentences may be truthful statements you can't just give a potential donor a qualifier or an adjective and expect them to feel informed, or believe you outright.  They shouldn't if they are donating money at all, and you should expect to be held accountable as a potential partner with them in your organization's efforts.  This is one of many instances where nonprofits must be both transparent and accountable for what they state and report of their work, finances, operations, and all.

Second, while each of these paragraphs seem sincere in their intent there is a lack of professionalism, maybe a lack of experience, and even possibly a lack of confidence coming from them.  Never think, when writing a grant proposal, 'oh...we're just a lowly nonprofit - they won't expect us to have all of our %^&) together'.  Yes, they should and hopefully will.  Have your #@*^ together, especially when soliciting any type of support from the community.  Your organization's name and good reputation is tied to each and every solicitation, so take the opportunity to make an impression.  Perhaps the potential donor does not give you the $50,000 grant that you requested, this time - but maybe when you submit another grant proposal in the next giving cycle (that their giving guidelines state is the soonest you may reapply, again, after being declined) they will remember your organization by the excellent impression you made in your first grant proposal and give your second request much more serious consideration.  Their are grant donors that, as a rule, only give grants to organizations that have applied to them at least once or twice before.  Yes, this is true.  So, even if you don't raise a grant today - you may be setting your organization up to indeed raise one the next time or the time after you apply again.  So, find a voice to portray your organization in a confident, professional, and talented light.  I know you know not to, but sometimes we may get tired, and tempted, but don't lie.  Instead find everything: you should be proud of the organization for, what its potential is to do good, and why your organization deserves a partner that can donate $50,000 (or whatever amount) that will enable your nonprofit to deliver its mission to the community.

Finally, let's imagine being the volunteer or employ at the foundation who must read your draft.  None of these example error paragraphs were a pleasure to read, easy to scan, or succinct.  Here's how we can get there.

A. Always go through your first or second draft and cross out all qualifiers or adjectives.  It's not that you shouldn't use these two types of words in the document but you should not rely on them to make a compelling case why your organization deserves (or better yet outshines other applicant organizations) to get the grant.  Making the case to a potential donor has nothing to do with adjectives, bleeding heart images or horror stories, or qualifiers (no matter how sincere or truthful they are).  Making the case is how you raise any donation and you make the case by providing facts (which include real, quantified, quantifiable data), being on point honestly and clearly, and painting a complete picture.

B. Always go through the rough drafts and without worrying about achieving a word count minimum yet (if the grant donor you're applying to has one - not all do), and simply look for: long sentences, paragraphs that really just state a list (and not a lot more in the information they relay), and anywhere where you repeat information or wrote two (or more) paragraphs that really speak to one point or could be combined and refined to fewer words or even sentences.  Mark those.  Worry about achieving a word count minimum when you get into a third (or more) draft (after you've gone through a couple of drafts because you'll remove a lot of unnecessary words and sentences through the edit process).

C. Take a look, again, at the grant donor's giving guidelines with fresh eyes (after having not thought about or read them for at least a few hours).  Re-read it.  Now, scan your draft grant proposal looking for what information you still need to provide, that they request or require, and also for what information they do not request but you have not yet noted that would help you make the case to get that grant.  Note what is still needing to be inserted into the proposal and plan where in the document you will put each item. 

After gathering: our organization's operational budget for next year, the program plan and budget for the program we are applying for the grant for, our employee or volunteer hiring guidelines, the most recent tabulated responses from our organization's program participants' program evaluations, previous year's tabulated service statistics, and gathering local recent demographic information from our local public library's reference desk we are full of actual real, demonstrable, recent, directly relevant data to help make the case why our organization would make an excellent partner for this donor to achieve their goals and our organization's mission's goal in the community.  We need to insert the appropriate data into the re-worked and better versions of examples 1. - 4., above, where each data point is pertinent and helpful information.  When doing so, do not over inform (do not provide many stats for one point or fact) but simply inform being clear with data and remaining on point when using it. 

Another suggestion (for example paragraphs 1 and 2) is that within a program's design (or description in a grant proposal) there should be an evaluation plan where feedback is gathered from the program's actual participants, tabulated, and used as constructive criticism is gathered (besides the mode through which participants' demographics are gathered) from the actual participants in order to discern what is working and what in the new program needs improvement.  That feedback, lesson learned, and improvement should be included in the grant proposal (if the program has operated a year or more).  If this is a new program, and never been conducted by your organization before, look for similar (sometimes called model programs) projects to the one you're starting and get their data (if you can) in order to be able to provide the reader with proof of concept.  Always make the case.  If  the program is brand new - express (in real current data) why the program is needed and that it is an as yet unmet need still existing in the community that no other organization, agency, or firm is addressing at all (as long as this is the case).  My point is make a compelling case expressing the real need and how your organization is qualified to successfully serve it, even if this is a start up program (i.e. your organization's excellent expertise on staff, its reputation and recent programmatic success in related projects, etc.).

After we have a trusted colleague go over perhaps our second or third draft, we have some errors they've marked and suggested changes they've noted to help us out, too.

Finally, we have printed out a draft version of the proposal, too, and marked up per the B. and C. directions, above.

Now, we are armed to bolster, inform, delete, re-format, re-word, combine, make more succinct, etc. each of our paragraphs, as appropriate.

Want to make sure you're getting my points?  Want to re-write of any one (or more) of the paragraphs numbered 1. through 4., above, here for other readers and I to comment on?  Do it!  It's a great way to get feedback for free.  Suggest how you would re-write any of the above example paragraphs (1. through 4.) by Commenting, below.  When doing so, feel free to make up data, service stats, demographics, budget, hiring requirements, etc. They were all fake hypothetical examples. 

Good luck!

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